Her writing and editing materials are arranged neatly downstairs on a desk at one of those places where people who work alone but who probably shouldn’t work alone all the time — usually freelancers and contractors — can check out desk space, have a sense of community without having to know anyone on the daily, and get all the awkward kitchen cleanup issues people have in traditional offices. In other words, this place is perfect for an introvert. And, along with being one herself, Sophia Dembling just happens to be an expert on the subject.
Dembling, a New York transplant who anticipated a short adventure south in 1982 but is fortunately still here, got her start in front of the eyes of Texas not behind a typewriter, but in paste-up graphics in marketing and page design for The Dallas Morning News. Sure, she’d kept a journal (and yes, she’s reread them several times, wincing, laughing and sighing as one might expect from rehashed adolescence and 20-somethings, but each time learning a great deal about herself), but hadn’t really written professionally until given an opportunity to step away from the paste and write for the paper.
In just a few minutes of recounting her early journalistic days, the names of other women — like Trina Stovall, Sharon Grigsby and Nancy Kruh — flow with gratitude. “There were so many women who took care of me,” Dembling says. Grigsby knew she had a voice and showed her how to use it; Kruh gave her the “nuts and bolts” and more.
Dembling worked contract for the Today section of the DMN for a while, then covered the country music beat, and was the assistant travel editor for four years before committing to freelance work.
Her humor, adventurous spirit and independent voice were evident in her first published offering, The Yankee Chick’s Survival Guide to Texas, which is still in print and still sells. Its origins were simple: a writing conference, an acquisitions editor who liked the pitch and an advance small enough to take away the “What if I fuck this up?!” pressure. Personal experience undoubtedly had a lot to do with the book’s laid-back success, but Dembling says, with a half-laugh, “I wrote 10,000 words and thought that was all I had to say. And then I started researching.”
The same sort of idea boulder began rolling when Dembling pitched an idea for a blog to Psychology Today about introversion. But first she had to discover she was an introvert.
She estimates that while attending University of Texas at Dallas around 2006, she heard the term and “it rang a bell.” She ended up reading Introvert Power by Laurie Helgoe, PhD. “I wasn’t just realizing I was an introvert, but how much of my life it affected,” Dembling says. “There were times when I literally had tears in my eyes. Tears of relief.”
It was personal discovery right down to the simplest things. “I’m not a terrible a person because I don’t like the telephone!” she says. “That doesn’t mean I don’t like the person on the other end of the telephone.” The book helped her realize there were things about her that were different from other, more outgoing people, but that there was nothing wrong with her.
One’s introversion is a powerful identification to make, and Dembling has since been a mentor, a tour guide and a catalyst for change for others making their own discovery. In September 2009, she started The Introvert’s Corner on Psychology Today. She writes topic-based posts, but receives a lot of comments, email and Facebook messages suggesting new topics, asking for advice and giving feedback. She also writes a more traditional advice column focused on relationships called the Social Introvert on Susan Cain’s Quiet Revolution.
Actually, Cain’s book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking is a tricky point. It blew sky high and turned into a New York Times Bestseller, TED Talks and talk show appearances right as Dembling’s The Introvert’s Way: Living a Quiet Life in a Noisy World was going to print.
For a writer, that situation must be traumatic and upsetting, but Dembling took it thoughtfully. She points out that the two books are vastly different in style and serve different purposes. And she’s right. From a reader’s standpoint, The Introvert’s Way is less scientific, favoring the funny, anecdotal and well, helpful: There are tips and tricks for interactions, taking time and reenergizing. “I’ve tried to be pragmatic as I was writing,” she says. And her tendency to assist has clearly lent itself to joining forces with Cain.
The introvert movement is big enough to need the both of them. But wait. Is it a movement?
“Absolutely it’s a movement. And it’s huge. You know it’s a movement because there’s pushback,” Dembling explains. “There are angry extrovert essays.”
This year, Dembling released Introverts in Love: The Quiet Way to Happily Ever After (with a recommendation from Cain on the cover, no less) and has plans for yet another book with a more focused angle on introversion, because she admits she’s reaching a saturation point on the top-level discussions, and the ubiquitous links to “15 Things Introverts Do.”
“Right now, even I’m sick of the introvert power, and I’m ready to take the conversation somewhere else ... to take it to more depth.” She laments that a carefully worded Facebook post on a specific topic is often ignored in favor of a trending meme, but it goes with the internet territory and she knows where she can focus and be heard. And regardless of her frustrations as a writer, she’s grateful she can still provide that a-ha moment for readers. “I’ve been immersed in this since 2009 ... but to someone discovering it? They’re realizing they can take control over it.”
Dembling spends her weeks writing (she’s also working on a novel) and editing for the most part, but in addition to helping her introverted audiences, she’s also a mentor for Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts. Dembling calls the volunteering “introvert-related,” explaining that she wanted a way to give back, but she knows she’s better one on one, and that she’d never back out on a teenager. The venue was also appealing. “I went to a similar high school,” she says. “Being creative I can relate to. I can be out there, but still sort of protect myself from the crazy extrovert world.”
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Dembling’s interactions with her student — her last one graduated and she will have a new one this year — were less about introversion specifically and more about being a general non-parent sounding board.
With a sudden spark and sitting up a little straighter she says, “I got to tell [my student] what feminism is. I used the word with her and she didn’t know it, so I got to explain to her. And she is a feminist.” With pride, she continues, “She didn’t understand the sisterhood she had already surrounding her ... It’s incredibly gratifying to put that stuff in front of a student.”
Whether Dembling is educating introverts on how to make it through a party or helping a student realize her creative vision is a feminist one, there’s a distinct parallel to how she’s benefitting her two audiences with tools for self-discovery.
Follow Sophia Dembling on Twitter (@SophiaDembling), or on Facebook.
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