by Jerry Waxler
Jamie Blyth was one of the 25 hot bachelors competing on the Reality Television show, the Bachelorette. While all the contestants were anxious to win the girl, Jamie faced an additional challenge. He had been fighting for years to overcome frightening bouts of anxiety. Appearing on the show was his way of proving to himself he could stare into the jaws of his worst fears and survive. Even though he didn’t win the contest, he did succeed in appearing in embarrassing situations on national television. Oprah Winfry saw his victory as an inspiring example of overcoming seemingly insurmountable obstacles. She invited him onto her show where he shared his story with millions of viewers.
Just a few years earlier, Jamie was so terrified to talk to girls, his heart raced and he couldn’t breathe. He thought he was going to die. First, he tried the obvious defense. He stopped dating, and became increasingly isolated and lonely, a common problem for people with social phobia. He took a job as a sales person and to his horror felt the same anxiety flooding him during important sales calls. Unwilling to give in to these limitations, he kept looking for solutions. Finally, with therapy, self-help books, and relentless effort he reduced his anxiety enough to confront his two worst fears in one crazy act – selling himself to a girl, in front of a national audience.
With co-author Jenna Glatzer he shared the details of his story in “Fear is no longer my reality,” a combination memoir and self-help book. The book is a wonderful resource for anyone suffering from social anxiety. It also contains interesting lessons for memoir writers.
A growing interest in the inner workings of other people
Many people think that Reality Television is a sign the world is falling apart. I have a different perspective. I think shows about real people indicate the world is falling together. We’re getting more interested in each other. This is an exciting development for memoir writers. In these more curious times, people are more likely than ever to want to know what goes on in your mind, what choices you have made, hardships you have suffered and overcome. But are you ready to satisfy their curiosity?
To write your memoir, you sit alone, turning inward, coaxing memories from your mind out your fingers and onto a page, where they sit silently, patiently, waiting for readers. Finding readers requires action. You must leave your desks and reach out to the public. This intimidates most writers, who don’t feel comfortable persuading anyone of anything. We ask ourselves, “Why should they be interested in me? Who are they anyway? And why should I care what they think?”
The commonly quoted statistic is that more people are afraid of public speaking than of dying. (A good joke about this is that most people at a funeral would rather be in the casket than giving the eulogy.) Public speaking is only one manifestation of a broader problem. People are nervous about exposing themselves to strangers. For example, we fear that by talking about ourselves online we are opening ourselves to danger. Such misgivings about your relationship to the public can stifle your writing. Why bother to write what you’re unwilling to share?
Fear of the public certainly contains valid concerns, which the anxious mind then amplifies into predictions of catastrophe. Once formed, such predictions are hard to ignore. Following this line of thinking to its logical conclusion, you would naturally want to stay as isolated as possible. And that becomes a pattern which increases loneliness and reduces options. To tell people your story, take a page from Jamie Blyth’s book. He learned to fight back against these energy-draining thoughts and emotions, and thereby expanded his options in the world.
While I’ve read a number of self-help books about social anxiety, “Fear Is No Longer My Reality” by Jamie Blyth and Jenna Glatzer is the first memoir I’ve read on the subject. It lets me feel Jamie’s frustration and panic, and then lets me share his efforts to move beyond these limitations.
Things to learn from the style of the book
Jamie’s story was co-written by Jenna Glatzer, a founder of the online writing community AbsoluteWrite.com. It turns out that ghost written memoirs are fairly common, since many people would like to have their story told, without necessarily going through the skill building required to write it themselves. I belong to an organization dedicated to this craft, the Association of Personal Historians, and understanding how someone can help someone else tell their story is one of the things about memoirs that I continue to research.
From the structure of the book, I learned several nonfiction techniques. For example, Jenna included interviews with Jamie’s friends and coworkers, as well as interview snips from experts on social anxiety.
Jenna Glatzer’s other book on Social Anxiety
To learn more about social anxiety, I looked up Jenna Glatzer’s other book on this subject, co-written with psychologist Paul Foxman. “Conquering Panic and Anxiety Disorders: Success Stories, Strategies, and Other Good News.” It’s a compilation of first-person stories about facing and overcoming social anxiety. Reading this series of two or three page accounts of individual battles with social anxiety gave me an overview of the way this fear of the public can affect a variety of people, and also gave me an example of an anthology approach, another format that can work well for some types of lifestory telling.
Jenna herself has suffered from this debilitating anxiety, which makes her an expert in her own right, struggling along with the people she is writing about. By writing these two books about social anxiety she followed the classic advice, “write what you know”, turning a problem into an opportunity, thinking about the problem in far greater detail and more personally than most people who are not similarly obsessed with the issues. Her personal experience increases the level of intimacy and personal connection between the author and the reader, making the book more valuable as a resource to someone who wants to push through fear of the public, and open themselves up to the risks and the pleasures of people seeking to know each other in new, more imaginative, and more intimate ways than ever before.
I couldn’t find any books specifically oriented to helping writers overcome social anxiety, and so I added a chapter on this subject to my self-help book for writers, Four Elements for Writers, by Jerry Waxler, M.S. available from my website.
I am one of the many people who have been through Toastmasters, International, an almost magical program which allowed me to work through my fears of public speaking in a safe environment, complete with gentle helpful tips from peers, and a method that worked for tens of thousands of people.
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