Nanowrimo and social anxiety

As I’ve discussed in many past posts, I’m a pretty anxious person about things that don’t really matter at all, but oddly chill about big issues that affect not only me but society at large. This anxiety leaks into my social life in ways both big and small.

While a lot of my social life revolves around NaNoWriMo, it wasn’t always that way. I grew up as a socially awkward kid who was known at school for being smart but never popular, and didn’t have see too many friends outside of the confines of the school day. Outside of informal get-togethers with the friends I had roped into doing NaNo, I didn’t go to a single NaNoWriMo event until going to college in a large city–to be specific, a large city that I had chosen specifically because of its active NaNo region and the existence of a creative writing major that I would never end up pursuing. (Priorities, you know.)

I started attending write-ins and events in college, often at the coffee shop down the street from my alma mater. That was over ten years ago, and the only other students at those write-ins were other people I dragged along. Even though most of the attendees were adults, we still got along well, and many of us are still in touch to this day.

After finishing college, I stayed in the area, with one year moving back in with my parents. Unemployment and graduating in the worst of that great recession are the pits, yo. Eventually I moved back to this NaNo region, and it’s the same region I’m part of now (and even MLed for a year). That’s where my social life and NaNoWriMo started becoming more and more synonymous. More and more of us started hanging out in the then-new regional chat room, and a few of us stayed in the chat room after NaNo ended. This led to get-togethers outside of November, many of them having more to do with food and games than writing. Over time, the people attending many of these events (a lot of them at my house) grew closer, which became evident during events.

Just as with the NaNo forums, I was fortunate to be there when the group was young and not yet as established as it is now. This put me in a position to contribute to the underlying culture of this community and help build the group into a community I wanted myself and others to be welcome in. Did I succeed? I’m still not sure.

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One of my major sources of anxiety is trying to fit into an established social group. The group can be for anything–board games, events, writers, even approaching a person(s) at an event and saying hi. If everyone else already knows each other and I’m the one new person, I find myself worrying about fitting in and saying something dumb and not sitting there sounding dumb when everyone else is talking and trying to befriend some of the people in the existing group and making myself appear as positive and wonderful as I see myself on my best days.

Surely I’m not the only person who feels this way at events that often include established social groups. Things like NaNo, for instance. Reaching out is hard, whether you’re the new person or an established member who has trouble reaching out to others. Even more fun, it’s not immediately obvious which people are feeling awkward or anxious when they’re the new person in a group, or who needs that extra nudge to feel welcome.

As one of those people who is bad at reaching out to new folks while also struggling with approaching the existing people, making new people feel welcome at events is hard. There’s a certain comfort zone associated with staying close to existing known people, yet events like NaNo attract lots of new people every year. Which is great! But it’s also easy to stay with those known people at the expense of introducing yourself to new people. Or if you’re the new person, it’s easy to stay off to the side by yourself and think everyone hates you when really, many of us are a bunch of awkward nerds who did the same thing in the past. And once you feel unwelcome at an event, it’s easy to think this is how everyone acts all the time and therefore never return. I’ve seen several people at NaNo events only once, and despite my trying to reach out to them (an effort in itself), they’ve never come back–at least to events I attend.

These exact circumstances that make large events like kickoff and TGIO super-awkward for awkward people are the same circumstances that make write-ins an ideal social situation, at least in my experience. At write-ins, it’s perfectly okay and even encouraged to ignore everyone while tapping away on your project. You can even go off to a corner by yourself and write if everyone else around you is talking. In fact, if you do so, you’ll probably be viewed as one of the more productive people there. All this social anxiety is one of the reasons I’m no longer an ML. Having to be socially “on” all the time during a write-in was too exhausting when all I wanted to do was ignore everyone and write. Hosting write-ins as a regular participant and not an ML means that I can still look around for people who look lost, but there’s no pressure to be the one in charge, making it perfectly fine to lose myself in the words.

So here’s a question: how do we make NaNoWriMo communities even more welcoming to those who aren’t super willing to jump into an established social group when some of us have the same quirks? From local in-person events to the forums (including the private ML forums), jumping in can be intimidating while existing members suck at reaching out. What can we do to make sure everyone who wants to play a part in the thriving NaNo community can do so?

This is something I’ve been struggling with for years. I don’t have any good answers to this question in part because I’m a tragic noob when it comes to social situations. What about you?

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