WHEN you’re good enough with words to make a living from your endeavours, it often comes as a surprise to people when you impart your fear of speaking. I’ve been asked many times over the years to do a debate, live radio, a speech, or TV punditry, and I’ve run screaming from the opportunity.

Fear of imperfection, mixed with a hefty dose of impostor syndrome, is a cocktail that doesn’t exactly loosen the tongue. When you are known for your ability to sit at a keyboard and peck out an article in a couple of hours, such a phobia seems massively incongruent. Nonsensical, even.

It feels like a huge admission not just of personal failure, but of a crucial deficit in the necessary supplies of a communicator’s arsenal. Today, when writers are so often asked to be talkers, admission would have felt like opening myself to the possibility of career suicide.

Loading article content

But it wasn’t always this way.

As a child I loved nothing more than to converse. Particularly with grown-ups, though stuffed toys often sufficed. I have no shame in admitting my grandfather was my best friend, and I eschewed time with other children to spend my days with him. He spoke to me as adults spoke to each other, initiating me into that special place people reach when they’re free to say whatever they want, without judgment, where silence is valued and there’s no anxiety over running out of things to say. And so I never really developed the ability to talk small, and came to fear it.

How is it that two people can talk without really talking? It always mystified me. And so you don’t say much, and when you do, you go “big”, and then you develop a reputation for being intense. Being the person who wants to talk about politics or King Lear, or how Seamus Heaney’s Blackberry Picking made you cry for a week. On paper you had all the ingredients of a brilliant conversation, yet to put them out into the world untested, undrafted, is not exactly a recipe for social success. So I never developed social talking. I gave teachers the impression of confidence because I could discuss ideas and concepts – but all the time I was incubating a growing unease with social situations. When I tried to talk about TV, or the weather, I’d overanalyse the details. The words would back up and get stuck, making it out of my brain in fits and starts, with all the grace of an ostrich on skates. God bless the internet, though. It introduced me to the perfect way for intense young people to connect with other intense young people and have those intense conversations no-one else wants to have.

It was a means of clawing at a social itch that had been building and building for years. It gave me the opportunity to get better at words and deep discussions. I felt like I’d hit the jackpot. Everything is done via email or text – I don’t even have to talk to the cashier at the checkout anymore. Finally, a victory for the socially avoidant, a means of navigating the world without looking rude or disinterested.

But all of this changed recently. I’m no longer content to communicate by text alone. I’d had a growing sense that something was missing for while, but it was only really thrown into sharp relief when I took a lengthy break from social media. I’ve come to recognise it as a desire for conversational intimacy.

I’m convinced part of me has been atrophying because I have avoided these often impromptu conversations. Imperfect conversations, with the potential to make us seem stupid, are ones we have to have, and technology is facilitating an avoidance in all of us, as we chat less and less face-to-face. The phobia of small talk, of talking on the phone, is becoming a social contagion.

I recently read about Andy Warhol’s fear of talking in Olivia Laing’s book The Lonely City. Here was a man who obsessively documented the glitches, nuances and failings of human speech. The unfinished sentences, the malapropisms, the mangled imager and unrelated tangents.

He was a man who found beauty and value in this improvised dance of human tongues, so much so that he went everywhere with his tape recorder, yet he was utterly paralysed by the thought of going off script. He was terrified of getting his words mixed up. Of appearing unpolished.

But so many of us are more Pollock than Warhol. Instead of fastening ourselves to a rigid process of production, we throw out words without knowing where they’ll go, and find joy in the process. I wanted some of that for myself.

So that was my New Year’s resolution – to stop being the woman who stares at her phone in horror when someone calls. I’ve resolved to pick up the phone and call my partner, mother, sister or friend and just connect. To find joy in talking unmoored, in having a conversation with no destination in mind. And it has been wonderful.

This week I spent 10 hours in a car with someone I didn’t know terribly well. We swam lengths and breadths through the human existence; through a mutual love of dogs; a tour of Scotland in whisky notes; our desert island discs.

The discussions had no purpose other than to pass a journey. I stepped out of the car renewed.

Conversation is not a science. I’ve been looking too long for an exact formula for success. A process with steps to follow, a framework for these component parts. Of course, conversation isn’t the science. As Warhol knew, it was an art. And as with all great works of art it contains a multitude of imperfections imperceptible to the consumer unless scrutinised piece by piece. And it’s these imperfections, these brushstrokes, bumps and ghost lines that make it undeniably human, and undeniably beautiful.

Isn’t the weather nice today?

Let’s hope it stays.