For as long as I can remember, I’ve wanted to be a novelist. Some of my earliest memories are of walking around my neighborhood, barefoot, narrating stories in my head.
I started writing my first manuscript at age 25. It was more or less a disaster and fortunately, no one read it except for one gatekeeper of the publishing industry who gave it a polite but resounding no. My second book was better, thank God. It placed as a finalist in an international manuscript competition and was starting to get some real interest from real literary agents.
For the first time in my life, the thing I’d wanted more than anything, the thing I’d wanted since I was 7 years old—to become a published author—was within my reach. But rather than feeling excited, I was terrified. I was so terrified, most nights I cried myself to sleep.
All I could think about was that if my book got published, I would have to market it. I’d have to go on a book tour, stand in front of people, and—horror of horrors—I would have to talk. I’d experienced anxiety my whole life, but this was something else. What had begun as a garden-variety fear of public speaking had morphed into a full-blown phobia.
I was a human juxtaposition. More than anything, I wanted to get my book published, go to book events, and speak articulately about my work. And also, more than anything, I wanted to melt into the floor and have no one look at me ever for the rest of my life, thank you very much.
I was so desperate, I fantasized about hiring an actress to impersonate me to publicly market my book so I wouldn’t have to.
In the year I spent avoiding anything that even resembled public speaking, my fear only got bigger and bigger and bigger. Soon, I was having upward of five panic attacks a day. The night my throat closed in anxiety as I ordered takeout food over the phone, I knew something had to change.
In the year I spent avoiding anything that even resembled public speaking, my fear only got bigger and bigger and bigger.
So I visited my first Toastmasters club. My body shook as I walked into the building where the club held its meetings, and yet, when I was called on to participate in Table Topics, I didn’t say no. I ignored the question and talked about how scared I was for a whopping 48 seconds. I relished the feeling of triumph when I sat down afterward. So, I went back the next week.
That was over two years ago. Today, I am a member of two Toastmasters clubs in Austin, Texas, have delivered over a dozen speeches, and have held every role on the meeting agenda many times over.
In the course of my journey, I started writing another book, this one inspired by my fear of public speaking. In Her Skin is about Meggie Meyer, an anxiety-ridden debut author who is so paralyzed by the thought of her own book tour, she hires a small-time actress to impersonate her during the two-week stint. For the first time since I’d started writing novels, this one didn’t get rejected. In Her Skin came out as an audiobook this past October, exclusively through Audible, the online audio-entertainment company.
Signing my first-ever book contract was both a dream come true and what I’d not so long ago considered a nightmare. There, written into section 2.3.2, were two obligatory days of media interviews. And yet, I didn’t cry myself to sleep thinking about them because I trusted in the confidence Toastmasters has given me. I trusted that when I stood up to deliver a toast at my book launch or when I leaned into the microphone during an interview, my training would kick in. And it did. I was able to speak confidently despite my pounding heart because that’s exactly what I’ve done every Tuesday and Thursday for the past two years.
No longer do my fears dictate what I do or how I do it. No longer am I the anxiety-ridden author who can write but can’t talk. I’m Alex Kiester, author and speaker.