I Gave a Speech: A Brief History of Me

I recently joined Toastmasters, as they opened a chapter at work and encouraged us to join for a pretty decent discount. My ears perked up when I heard about it because I’ve been looking to sharpen my public speaking skills and just get used to the concept for when I finally get around to doing some readings. Our first meeting was last month, and I decided to participate but not speak. Once I had a sense of the format, I jumped right in, volunteering to speak. Yesterday I finally gave my first speech and thought I’d share it with you.

You can click here to listen to an audio version; the text of this speech is below. Apologies for any issues with the sound levels. I need to get that reverb under control.

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Good afternoon everybody. I’m excited to get the chance to speak to you and share some of my experiences outside of work, since I apparently come across as a quiet guy while I’m here. Don’t let appearances fool you, though! Ask my wife, family, and friends. They’ll let you know all about how much I can talk. I just have a pretty strong wall between my personal and professional life that probably needs to come down a bit, and this is my way of doing it.

Obviously, we’re still on icebreakers, which means that I’m required to talk about myself – yay. Even when I am being my chipper, talkative self, talking about my own life is something of a problem because I’m just not sure that my life is all that interesting, or whether someone would care. This forces me to make that assumption and figure out what matters most.

Now, I joined this group for two reasons. One, of course, was to enhance my skills and improve myself for new career challenges here at work. The second reason is a little more personal. Some of you might know that I published my first novel last fall, with another on the way in the next couple of months on top of some anthology appearances later in the year. With my second career growing, I’m starting to see an increased risk of public speaking. Terrifying, I know, but I’m embracing it.

Communication in general has interested me from a very young age, because my head has always been crammed with strange ideas and, for lack of a better word, visions. I was always a daydreamer, but the whole thing started to really take shape in early 1987, when I was a comic-book-obsessed 11-year-old. I realized that I had my own stories to tell, ones that were original but drew from the comics that I loved so much. What better way to get started than creating my own comics? There was just one catch: my drawing hand was – and is – steady as a pencil in a blender.

But I had all these stories! What to do? Well, I also loved novels, so why not try to turn my comics into novels? From there, the rest becomes pretty obvious: other ideas, ones that didn’t have anything to do with comic books, started pouring out, and before I knew it, I had my first novel, at right around age 12. It had something to do with an underground movement in a world where the Confederacy won the Civil War, but the notebooks that I used are long lost, so I couldn’t tell you more than that.

Once that was done, I kept right on scribbling, even during class. Thankfully, one of my English teachers took an interest in those stories, and after reading one encouraged me to make a go of it. She gave me special permission to take some liberties with assignments, turning them into narratives rather than just essays. In retrospect that seems crazy, but it’s the kind of mentoring a budding writer needs. The teachers in the English department nurtured me all the way through high school, so that when I graduated, I felt those teachers standing behind me as I moved into the wider literary world.

That wasn’t a small thing. Thanks to them, I felt that I could achieve what I wanted with my writing if I just kept at it, and the process became more than just a dream: it became a refuge. No matter how difficult my life became over the following years (and it became very difficult), the process stayed with me. A tough day at work? Come home and work on the latest manuscript. Lose a family member? Let those emotions out on the page rather than bottling them up. Something deep inside drove me – and drives me still – to write these things down. Just about any writer worth their salt will tell you that they feel the same way. There’s something more that drives us to do these things, and I’m not sure I could explain it to you any better than I could explain it to myself.

Of course, I’ve had my ups and downs. There have been years of not writing a single word outside of a professional context, and times when my imagination flowed over. You know what I’ve learned? That stuff they tell you about waiting for the muse? Don’t believe it. The real grease to getting things going is just writing. Like a wise teacher once told me, you have to embrace the idea that you’ll suck. Once I told myself that it was truly okay to be wretched, I started writing on a regular basis and haven’t looked back.

My biggest career problem has been lack of focus. You hear lack of focus, and I’m sure some of you think of procrastination. You know, the thing that destroys most writers. Yeah, there’s been some of that. Okay, a lot of it. A lot of really intense procrastination. Like, “hey, I know I just cleaned the bathroom yesterday but wouldn’t it be a great idea to clean it today? Who needs to work on my draft? Not this guy!” Still, though, that’s not what I mean when I say that I had a lack of focus.

I mean that I had no idea what genre I wanted to write.

I’ve written in a lot of genres, including mainstream literary fiction, horror, sci-fi, dark fantasy, and mystery. This happened because I read a lot of different genres, and so a lot appeal to me. It’s great to read such a variety of things – writers have to do it to stay sharp – but it presented a dilemma: what was the right genre for me? I had no idea how to narrow it down, so I eventually got tired of trying to “find myself” and lay low for quite some time.

At some point, though, as I came to realize how important it is to own your identity in your life, I also saw that you have to do the same thing with writing. Sometimes that means doing something different at the risk of what might seem like security, but that’s the way it goes. I decided to try to create my own genre, one that synthesized those influences into something unique. When I have to describe it, I currently tell people that my writing is either horror or dark fantasy, which is horror with a fantasy twist, but the truth is that it’s entirely its own thing – and I’m comfortable with that. I just a need a name and description for it!

Of course, I knew that this decision likely meant that traditional publishing would remain a closed door, as the only writers getting deals in New York these days are safe bets that are easy to market. Thankfully, the effects that are making publishers so skittish are the same ones that an author can take advantage of to bring his or her stories to the market in their own way, so I thought independent publishing might be in the cards.

Still, I tried the traditional approach. I polished my novel to a shine and sent it to agents, but they told me what I already knew: good stuff, but they had no idea how to market it. That’s when I knew I had to go the independent publishing route, and really, it’s not so bad. Does it mean I’ll ever be a bestselling author? Probably not. I don’t rule out selling a steady amount in the near future, but I doubt that it will ever be enough to become a full-time writer.

I’ve struggled with the idea that I might never be a bestseller from time to time, but of late I’ve come to accept it. The trade-offs are worth it. I get to pick my covers. I say when the story is done. I don’t have to change things to make the story more marketable if I don’t want to. I also get a bigger cut of the profit, which is pretty nice. Of course, the downside is that I have to hire editors and artists and do all the marketing myself, but once you develop some working relationships, even that’s not so bad.

The challenges associated with independent publishing keep me on my toes and force me to network in ways that I might not pursue were I publishing with, say, Random House, and I have no question that I’ve grown as an author and a person because of it. I mean, look at me, I chose to speak to you guys today. That would have been unthinkable even a couple of years ago. I don’t think anything that spurs you to be a better person can be entirely bad, and because of that I just can’t resent the journey, no matter where it takes me next, whether that’s returning to my roots in comics or going back to literary fiction.

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13 Comments

  1. Jonathan,
    You brought back memories of my icebreaker – which took a year and two club memberships to pull off. With very little effort, I can still hear my knees knocking. And with even less effort I can recall the day they stopped knocking and I fell in love with “public speaking.”
    Now I’m almost seventy years old and a writer more than a speaker, yet I know that everything I write, I write because I learned to speak.
    Thanks for sharing this great post.
    Good fortune in all you do – especially writing and speaking.
    Yours to count on,
    Bert

    • Jonathan D Allen

      Hi Bert! Wow, would love to read that story someday. Sounds terrifying and like the start of something great. I think I had something of an advantage, as I’ve loved public speaking for awhile but just never had a good venue in which to pursue it. I’m especially fascinated to see the changes that it can make to your writing.

      Thanks for sharing that – it’s always good to hear from someone who walked the same road. Have a great one!

  2. Nice, Jonathan. And you have a great speaking voice. Were you nervous?

    • Jonathan D Allen

      Thank you! And yes, extremely nervous. I’m still working on turning the whole fight or flight thing to my advantage. Toastmasters teaches that, but this is only my second month, so I’m still a baby speaker.

  3. I’m so excited for you for doing this! I hope you’ll keep giving updates about it–I’ve often considered Toastmasters. It seems like such a valuable skill to learn/re-learn/work on. And you sound great.

    • Jonathan D Allen

      Thanks Grace! Well hopefully when you come back they hire you full-time and you can join us. I’d love to hear what you have to say. Imagining some of what you bring to your blog in that format seems pretty great.

  4. That’a a heck of a fine first presentation. Having coached people in public speaking, I have seen the nature of the terror most experience. So hats off to you. For my husband (up above in your comments) and I, speaking is synonymous with story telling, so indeed writing serves it and it serves writing.

    • Jonathan D Allen

      Thank you! You make a great point that I hadn’t considered. I love the oral storytelling tradition, both from receiving and telling standpoints. That would explain why I enjoy public speaking so much. Something to chew on.

  5. Who told you my bathroom cleaning procrastination ploy!?!? 😉 Thanks for posting the audio – it is really nice to have a voice to put with the, um, voice of your writing! What did you use to make the recording?

    • Jonathan D Allen

      Hah, well honestly my cleaning ploy is more a matter of doing a complete sweep of the living room and kitchen but that didn’t flow off the tongue quite so well. I know what you mean! Your video did the same for me.

      I used Audacity – are you familiar with it? It’s a really great free audio editing suite. It’s nice enough that I use it even though I own a legit copy of Sony’s audio editing software. It’s also handy for recording vinyl records.

  6. I used to cringe in my Public Speaking class in college, and later when I had to do presentations for builders and realtors. You did awesome for the firs time. Sounds levels were no big deal. I’m almost jealous.

  7. About that bathroom… 🙂

    Great job! I would be so terrified I’m not sure I could do more than squeak.

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