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Susan Cain, Chief Introvert, Ventures Into the Sublime

“I am probably the world’s greatest confessor for introverts,” she admits. “I’ll be at a business conference, and all these very high-powered-seeming people will come and tell me about their real selves and want to talk in a deep way…. People feel that they have permission to open up right away, and that’s the kind of conversation I’ve loved my whole life.” Sounds like heavy stuff, I offer in an attempt to see if Cain will break out of her earnestness and give me at least one good, cynical eyeroll about the possibility of being too into one’s feelings. But she’s unflappable. “Far from finding those subjects or emotional reactions that you described as ‘too heavy,’ I really love them,” she tells me. “That’s where I like to go.”

Which brings us to Cain’s new book, Bittersweet: How Sorrow and Longing Make Us Whole, wherein she finally pivots away from the Quiet franchise and championing the overlooked introvert in favor of championing, well, overlooked feelings. Much like her first book, Bittersweet is a mix of psychology, historic references, and interviews deployed to consider how a healthy dose of melancholy—think of that moody weird alive feeling you get when you’re listening to sad music—can inform our experiences of connection, grief, and mortality. Just as Cain argued in Quiet that society is too extrovert-centric, in Bittersweet, she argues against our unrelenting obsession with “normative sunshine.” (To get the tl;dr, there is, of course, an accompanying TED Talk.) Think chicken soup for the sad girl soul; it’s less a practical handguide on, say, how to retain your introverted employees, and more a meditation on what C.S. Lewis called “that unnameable something, desire for which pierces us like a rapier at the smell of bonfire, the sound of wild ducks flying overhead, the title of The Well at the World’s End, the opening lines of ‘Kubla Khan,’ the morning cobwebs in late summer, or the noise of falling waves.” When Cain cites Lewis to me, the Pisces souls inside us both swoon.

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The overlap between introverts and the type who’d read a book about existential longing isn’t exactly zero, but Cain prefers to consider the thematic parallels between her books in terms in near-Marvel hero terms: “Just as Quiet was exploring a cultural bias that made half the population invisible…Bittersweet is doing something similar, showing that we have a culture that is afraid of sorrow and longing, and therefore unable to draw on its powers,” she tells me, and I have a brief vision of the soft-spoken Cain as a caped defender of the meek and romantically moody. The difference, too, lies in the by-introvert, for-introvert perspective of Quiet versus the universal experience of “bittersweetness” brought on by pain, tragedy, and grief.

On this, Cain also uses the new book to peel back the curtain on her personal life more fully than before: It isn’t until halfway through that her tumultuous relationship with her late mother comes to the forefront as an example of grief’s transformative potential. The result is rather meta; in writing a treatise about pain and its creative offerings, Cain tells me she was able to move herself through a healing process too. “This idea people have about writing being ‘cathartic,’ I always thought of as one of those things that sound nice,” Cain laughs. “But it’s really true.” Her resulting edicts might read a little woo-woo for more jaded tastes; it’s a little Aristophanes’s theory on love plus The Artist’s Way. There’s some Sheila Heti–esque nondenominational belief in life’s second draft thrown in for good measure: “Whatever pain you can’t get rid of, make it your creative offering. Follow your longing where it’s telling you to go; there’s something deep in what awaits when you come out the other side.” (My favorite line: “We were in a hockey stadium, but it was Eden we wanted.”)