Thursday, January 22, 2015

What? I have to PUBLIC?

Learn from yesterday, live for today, hope for tomorrow. The
important thing is to not stop questioning. ~ Albert Einstein

I'm going to address the topic of fear in this post, but I chose the Einstein quote because it speaks to hope – for me, a hope of overcoming fears.

Like most authors, when I first thought about writing a book, it was all about (you guessed it) writing the book! I didn't consider what would happen if and when it ever got published. I never thought about actually having to TELL PEOPLE about the book (especially since that first one was a bit kinky...and I usually come across as more of a motherly/grandmotherly type).

And I certainly never considered I'd have to speak about it, IN PUBLIC.

Ever since I had to give a contemporaneous speech in 10th grade English class (where I stood, completely brain-frozen for a solid two or three minutes, in front of about 25 15-year-olds who would later have to grade me), I've had a terrible fear of public speaking. Just the thought of speaking in front of people, no matter the group's size, would cause sleeplessness for as much as two weeks in advance. Once I went into a full-blown panic attack reading aloud in a small group setting. (And that was a church group! Not exactly a hostile audience.)

So deep was my fear, for most of my life I've avoided any activity that had even the potential of forcing me into the spotlight. (That included shout-outs at Weight Watchers meetings where I would beg the leader to please NOT call my name.)

Yet here I am, a dozen or so years after starting that first book, doing public readings, sitting on and moderating author panels, and for the first time this week, doing a radio interview.

Leah St. James moderates panel of romance authors at the
2014 Fall for the Book Festival at George Mason University,
Fairfax, Va.
So how did I make this transformation?

I can thank God, writing, and a guy named Paul McKenna. I'd seen him on either Oprah or Dr. Oz talking about a method that teaches to people to beat food cravings. Since craving food is another of my lifelong challenges, I tuned in. 

McKenna demonstrated a simple technique of tapping on various parts of your body to turn off the craving switch. It was mentioned at some point it could be used to turn off other obsessive-type thoughts as well. (I think it's based on theories of acupuncture, but I'm not sure.)

Interesting, I thought, then filed it away in some part of my brain.

Fast forward a couple months. I had entered a juried short story contest at my local library and received the wonderful news that my story won second place! I received a cash prize, a nice certificate and...the best part...the request that I read my story at a reception of library patrons. It was to be a nice event, with free refreshments and everything. I remember reading the letter and focusing on that phrase—READ YOUR STORY AT A RECEPTION...READ YOUR STORY AT A RECEPTION...READ.... 

I remember feeling physically ill for a moment, sharing my fears with my husband and him saying, "Leah, this is wonderful recognition. I'm so proud of you. You need to go." So I told myself I would go. I told myself I would be fine.

Unfortunately, my confidence didn't last long. By the time the big evening arrived, I was nearly paralyzed. I entered the building and headed for the ladies' room, prepared to lock myself in a stall to figure out my next move. But someone had beat me to it. She was young—one of the winners of the teen division—and she was sobbing, saying that she was too afraid to read her story in public.

One of the library staffers was trying to console her, telling her she'd be fine, but she wasn't buying it. She was young and beautiful – cheerleader/prom queen beautiful – and obviously could write, so she should have been proud to read. But the fear of public speaking isn't rational. It's emotional.  Your body reacts with that same fight-or-flight shot of adrenaline as if you were running from an ax-wielding 7-foot monster, no matter how much you try to rationalize away your fears.

Feeling awful for the poor kid, I slipped from the room, then realized that could have been me back in high school (except for prom-queen looks :-)). I felt so foolish that I hadn't matured since those awful 10th-grade moments. Certainly by now, after all the living I'd done, I should be able to compose myself and do a simple reading. 

I sat down in the first row (so I couldn't see how many people were coming in behind me) and started to panic. My breathing accelerated. So did my heart rate. Pretty soon all I could hear was a rushing in my ears. Then I started to pray.

That's when a solution hit me. Do the tapping thing. If it works to divert your mind from a craving, maybe it will work for this.

I started tapping away at my forehead, chin, shoulder blade, back of my hand. Eyes down and left. Eyes down and right, etc. And miracle of miracles, within seconds my speeding heart sank from my throat and my breathing calmed. When it was my turn, I was nervous but not panicked, and read the story in a reasonably confident manner. Afterward, a young girl from the audience came up to me and told me how much she enjoyed the story, and that she, too, wants to be a writer. (Big grin.)

Since then, when I'm appearing in public and those tell-tale symptoms of fear start up, I begin tapping. (It is a of God's gifts, I'm convinced.) 

If you'd like to hear evidence, check out the WRSP radio interview I did for the Author's Talk Show a few weeks ago. It "premiered" the other night. You can hear me breathing, heavily, for the first couple of minutes. Then I started tapping, and the miracle kicked in. (Although my family now calls me "Mother Vader." No sympathy. :-))

So if you fear public speaking, or any other "irrational" fear, check out the tapping thing! It works for me.


Leah St. James writes stories of mystery and romance, good and evil and the redeeming power of love. Learn more at


Margo Hoornstra said...

Great stuff, Leah. You must be my, to paraphrase, 'sister from another mother'. Except for the tapping thing, which I intend to use, your story could be mine. For a few years, I judged a writing contest at our local school system. All grades, even the teachers. One time, they asked me to be the keynote. O.M.G! Many people I'd known most of my life, basically a gentle group, but O.M.G! I got through it, but next time - I'm tapping!

Jannine Gallant said...

Really interesting story, Leah. I'm not nervous speaking in public (at least not REALLY nervous) but I could feel your anxiety in the retelling. Have to know--did that poor HS girl manage to read her story?

Alicia Dean said...

Great post! I was mesmerized and could totally feel your terror. I get nervous speaking in public, but definitely not that kind of crippling fear. I can't listen to your radio show right now, at the day job, but will do so asap. Congrats! (I must try that tapping thing)

Diane Burton said...

For the 1st 10 years of my adult life I taught elementary school. Then years later I was a substitute teacher. So talking in front of a group was pretty easy for me. As I've aged though my brain doesn't always connect with my mouth. I know the word I want yet often can't think of the right word. Talking in front of a group freaks me out now for fear I'll stumble over words. So, Leah, I can understand how you feel. Mother Vader, huh? LOL

Leah St. James said...

Hi. Margo. Then you understand that terrible panic. You can't breathe. Your voice is all shaky. It's awful. Thank you for commiserating with me!

Leah St. James said...

Jannine - The young girl did not read the story. The library staffer read for her. I don't think she even stayed for the program. I think about her and hope she's doing well, and still writing.

Leah St. James said...

Thank you, Ally. "Crippling" is the perfect word to describe it. I'm just glad I found this solution!

Leah St. James said...

Oh, Diane, that's a shame! That's what happened to me in 10th grade. Nothing would come out of my mouth. I stood there like a store-front dummy! I don't blame you for avoiding it.