In my first memory of shyness, I’m four years old and bolting across the street from my friend Bonnie’s house back to mine—never mind that I’m not allowed to cross the street by myself. What had just happened was that Bonnie’s father had come home from work and poked his head into the playroom, where we were kneeling on the floor making a town out of wooden blocks. “Hi, there, girls!” he said, smiling a friendly daddy smile.
I looked up and saw a tall man in a topcoat and go-to-work hat, a man I’d never seen before except from far away, when he was mowing his front lawn or bending over his flower garden. In half a second, I’d shot out of the room, banged through Bonnie’s front door and raced across the street as fast as my skinny legs could take me.
My instinct to hide in the presence of new people—to either go still as a statue or make a run for it—dogged me throughout childhood and followed me, in a more covert form, into young adulthood. I was able to make friends and get jobs, thanks to a lucky knack for faking confidence until I actually felt some. But secretly, first encounters filled me with terror. I couldn’t imagine anyone wanting to talk to me, and the prospect of rejection felt unbearable. My social modus operandi was simple: when possible, say no. And very often I did, missing chance after chance to meet new and potentially like-minded people, and to get ahead in my work.
Work. It was important to me. I wanted to be a writer, badly.…