Finding My Voice: How Writing Turned My Childhood Shyness Into a Gift (A Story for Kids and Grown-Ups)

When I was little, I was really, really shy. There’s a home movie of my fourth birthday party which shows me bursting into tears and running away when my mother brought out my cake. I couldn’t stand the attention. For many years, my dad had a framed picture of me on his nightstand. In it, I was just peeking out a little from behind his leg, holding onto him for dear life.

As I got older, I found it harder and harder to talk around groups of people. I mean, if I was really comfortable, like when I was with my family, friends or a couple classmates, I could be myself: outgoing, friendly and chatty. But in new situations or big groups? Forget it. I just couldn’t get any words out.

But that didn’t mean I wasn’t thinking. In fact, by not talking as much, I was able to look and learn, take things in, keep notes about everything in my head, sometimes even make myself chuckle. I often felt like I was on the outside looking in. Here’s a picture of me standing on the outside of a group of girls. And this was at my own birthday party!

It was really frustrating to me that I had all these thoughts and ideas yet I couldn’t find a way to share them with others. And then I discovered writing. I had always loved to read. I was the kid at summer camp who stayed inside and read a 300-page novel instead of playing dodgeball. I devoured books like candy. (Actually, I devoured a lot of candy, too.) When I got my first journal, I put my #2 pencil to the paper and it was like magic.

Words seem to flow out of me onto the page. Thoughts that had just swarmed around in my head came pouring out in an organized, coherent way. I couldn’t believe it! I couldn’t get enough. I could hear the melody behind the words.

In third grade, I wrote a short story about a set of twins who discovered a magic house and an essay in the style of author, Rudyard Kipling. My grandfather, a miniature book publisher and rabbi, published my stories as a gift for my 10th birthday. I thought it was the coolest thing to be able to hand out my little books to friends and family. I was hooked.

My shyness hadn’t really improved by the time high school rolled around (in fact 7th and 8th grade were the worst), but I was excited to start over at a new school. Then I got the terrible news: before classes started, I would have to go on a mandatory overnight trip to Frost Valley with the entire freshman class. Are you kidding me? I couldn’t think of anything worse! Could I get out of it? Nope. Luckily, tennis team tryouts had been the week before so at least I’d made a couple new friends.

As expected, the trip was pretty tough. I could barely speak for almost two days straight. In fact, during one of the last meals, I was sitting at a long table in the cafeteria when the teachers called for a moment of silence. Another girl sitting at the other end of my table called out, “This shouldn’t be hard for you; you never talk!” Everyone snickered. I wanted to disappear. Instead, I cried silently into my napkin. Here’s a picture of my group in Frost Valley. See, I’m not even in it! Those are just my shorts on the right.

Soon after I got to my new school, my family went through some difficult changes. To cope, I ate a lot to make myself feel better. I ended up gaining 20 pounds. And it didn’t make me feel any better. Plus, people were starting to treat me differently because of my weight. One afternoon, after a man on the street called me “big girl” as I walked by, I wrote a long, private essay to myself, a diary entry really, about how I felt. My mom found it, read it and told me that I should submit it to a magazine. She thought it would help a lot of other girls who felt the same way. So I did it. My mom can be pretty persuasive.

Shockingly, an editor at Seventeen magazine, a nationally published magazine for teenagers, loved it and agreed to publish it. She even paid me for it! I didn’t know you could get paid for writing articles! And it was a lot more than I got babysitting. I was asked to go down to the Seventeen office for a photo shoot where the team plucked my eyebrows for the first time (that hurt so much), plastered make-up on me, styled my hair and posed me holding a scale in disgust for the article. The article came out when I was 16 years old. (That’s when I learned that print media publishing is very slow.)

My essay was personal, a bit embarrassing and totally honest. People loved it. My editor at Seventeen told me they’d never gotten more fan mail ever than for my article. It was amazing.

The Seventeen experience changed my life. It made me realize that all that time I’d spent being shy and watching rather than speaking was worth something. I could articulate myself on paper so clearly because I’d spent so long thinking about everything. And I seemed to have a gift for writing really, really quickly and pretty effortlessly. I ended up writing more at college, editing a book while I was there, interning at a magazine, writing for my business school newspaper and then writing for many national magazines like Redbook, Marie Claire, Shape and Self. I even wrote a couple books, one of which, a fitness/fashion book was published and sold in bookstores. (Hopefully another one will be soon, too. Anyone know a great literary agent?! Editor? No?)

The best part of writing for me was knowing that I was helping people. I was helping them feel less alone because they knew they weren’t the only ones feeling something. That they could relate. They could connect. Sometimes I made people laugh. Sometimes I made them cry. I wrote about everything from how sad I was that my local food store closed and I couldn’t get my favorite corn muffins to showing up at a wedding wearing the same dress as all the bridesmaids. Things that had made me laugh. Made me think. Made me feel.

Lately, I’ve been doing a lot of writing online for different websites and posting them all on my website, zibbyowens.com.(You can sign up for my newsletter to get updates!)

This is pretty new territory for me. I’m still trying to figure out the best way to get my content out to the right people and how to survive Facebook.

As a mother of four, I’m doing a lot of parenting writing these days. I’m trying to turn the everyday dramas into funny, relatable pieces, letting moms all over the country know that we’re all in it together.

I published an article called “A Mother’s Right to Sanity: Starting the Movement to Just Be a Mom and Not a Family Management Exec,” on a site called Huff Post. The editors decided to feature it prominently. Within a week, thousands of people had read it! It was one of the top trending articles on the entire site. Comments and likes poured in. I couldn’t believe it.

My favorite comment came from a fellow school mom. She said, “Thanks for sharing! I’ll be honest, I opened this thinking, ‘hmmm…our experiences could not be more different, I probably won’t be able to relate too much.’ By the end I was thinking, ‘OMG…this really is my life. What’s wrong with us???’ The irony is, I’m only reading this because I’m checking my email making sure I didn’t forget a school thing, party or play date. Stop the hamster wheel, I wanna get off!”

Somehow, as I’ve gotten older and gotten lots more practice, my shyness has slowly slipped away, almost without my noticing. I can walk into a room of strangers now and actually have a normal conversation. I’m myself around almost everyone. People I meet don’t even know that I used to be so shy. I’m proud of that but I’m also proud of how much I continue to learn when I just stay quiet and listen. In this way, I’m grateful to writing for allowing me to find my listening ears and my speaking voice. And I’m grateful to everyone who reads an article of mine and tells me afterwards that it helped them in some way. Nothing makes me happier.

So, for all of you out there just getting started, I would encourage you to start keeping a journal now. Write down what you see, what you think, what you feel. Funny ideas and daydreams. Read as much as you can. Analyze what works and what doesn’t. Think about what you love to read and channel that into what you love to write. Open your hearts. Write clearly and bravely. You don’t need a giant vocabulary or flowery language. You just need a #2 pencil and a piece of paper. Or, you know, a state-of-the-art laptop and mad typing skills.

Also, in your wanderings, if you see a shy girl or boy (or grown-up!) standing on the outside of the group or clinging to the wall in fear, reach out to them. Ask them a question. Pull them in, gently. They have just as many unique thoughts and feelings as you do — maybe more! They might just need a little help getting them out. And you can be the one to help them. Imagine the amazing personalities you’ll discover that you might not have known before.

For those of you out there who are shy like I was, I hope my story will help you see that you’re not alone. And it will get easier. There are many paths to getting those thoughts out of your head. You just have to decide which one to take. Writing helped me find my voice. How will you find yours?

By the way, remember that mean girl from Frost Valley? Yeah, she left my school after just one year while I stayed, made tons of great friends, co-captained three sports teams, was photo editor of the yearbook, wrote for a national magazine and ended up writing this article about it. Moment-of-silence-dinner girl, eat your heart out.