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The paradoxical life of the shy artist

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IN THE early 1900s, a young woman named Agatha Miller had a dream of becoming a concert pianist. The only obstacle in her way was her crippling stage fright. Haunted by nightmares of the piano turning into a church organ or its keys sticking together, her anxiety made her ill and she could not perform. She chose another vocation and, under her married name, Agatha Christie became the world’s best-selling novelist. Yet her “miserable, horrible, inevitable shyness” continued to plague her throughout her life. She refused to speak in public, found conversation awkward and parties hell, but her artistic pursuits drew her into the limelight. This is the contradictory and fraught world of the shy artist. And in an age of 24-hour media and celebrity, it is an increasingly hostile one.

Shyness and creativity often go hand in hand. The brooding musician, reclusive writer and antisocial genius are stereotypical creative types. There is inevitably a common connection between the deep feeling and introspection that leads to great art and the sensitivity that manifests itself as social anxiety. In “Shrinking Violets”, Joe Moran’s field guide to shyness, he talks about the refuge that the shy find in the arts. Creating and performing can act as compensation for not being able to communicate in other ways. Some, like Lady Gaga or David Bowie, have used performance as a kind of protection, inventing bold, flamboyant alter-egos. Both have described themselves as being painfully shy in their youths. There are many who talk of acting as an escape from shyness; some feel more comfortable performing than having everyday interactions. Mr Moran points to the existence of the German word Maskenfreiheit: “the freedom that comes from wearing masks”.

In previous generations it was easier to keep a public persona and a private life separate. But today, thanks to the internet, celebrity cultureand social media, the shy artist has less private space to withdraw to. To feed the ever-hungry media beast, there are unprecedented invasions of privacy: topless photos taken using drones and personal photos being downloaded from the cloud. Unwanted attention aside, there is so much “noise” out there that to be heard as an artist, there is a greater need for self-promotion.

This is true even in writing, traditionally the least performative of the arts. You can no longer just write—the writer has to be part of the product, talking at book fairs and smiling from book jackets. A website offering marketing tips for introverts has emerged as a sanctuary for the publicity-shy writer. There is even a section “For Those We Lose Along The Way”, for writers who have been so scarred by their forays into the world of publishing that they give up completely. It is an conundrum that has come to the fore with the “unmasking” of Elena Ferrante—a woman who said in an interview that she wanted “to liberate [herself] from the anxiety of notoriety” in order to write her best and most honest work. The investigative journalist who did the unmasking felt that the fact she gave interviews (through her publishers), and put allegedly autobiographical details in a recently released collection, meant that her identity was a matter of public interest.

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