Can Courage Be Taught?

While I’m off at a conference, I’d like to share this article from my archives.


Even with my limited military experience, I know the value of training, like breaking down a weapon and putting it back together, over and over. Take care of your weapon and it will take care of you, kind of thing. Various forms of combat training, mock emergency exercises, gas mask drills—all done with the goal of solidifying the important things in the brain so when the need arises, the body reacts with little or no hesitation.

I used to volunteer with a white-water rafting company. I trained with the rest of the staff before rafting season, and during the season we trained groups of clients in river safety before each trip. Weekend after weekend, and year after year, it all got drilled into my brain. And when I actually fell out of a raft one day and found myself trapped underneath it, spinning in the current at the base of a waterfall, my body did what my brain had been trained for—and I did exactly what was necessary to escape, without panic.

Knowing the value of training is also the reason I always read through the emergency procedure literature on an airplane before takeoff and watch the flight attendant demonstrate getting out of a seatbelt and putting on an oxygen mask. I look at the pictures and go through the steps in my mind, imagining myself opening those emergency doors and escaping. I want my mind to be ready, just in case, so my body responds accordingly.

The armed forces, police, firefighters, and emergency/rescue workers train hard, and sometimes for years, in order to respond correctly in the face of danger or disaster. When asked about their bravery, many of these people will tell you they are just doing their jobs the way they were trained to do them. I can see this might be true the first time a person is tested, but what about after that?

It takes real bravery to face an enemy more than once, whether the enemy is found in nature or a fellow human. Doing so could be grounded in training, as well as camaraderie—watching somebody else’s back, not wanting to let your buddy down. It could also be the result of truly knowing what the right thing is, and doing it. Otherwise, ordinary people wouldn’t rush into burning buildings to save strangers.

But where do the roots of such bravery come from? Maybe from parents or others whom children admire, teaching them by their words and actions to love their country, respect life, do the right thing, and make a difference. These are the children who grow up to choose vocations that take them into danger or who dedicate their lives to helping others. Or who simply live ordinary lives with grace and conviction (which ultimately leads to a better world).

We may not be able to teach bravery, but perhaps we can plant the seeds of courage.

Where do you think courage comes from?

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You Always Have Choices

If you don’t know you have choices or don’t believe you have choices, you don’t. ~ Lundin, Paul, Christensen

On Acting Fearless

Seth Godin is the author of 18 bestselling books that have been translated into more than 35 languages. He’s also the founder of squidoo.com and The Domino Project. I’ve been following his blog for several years, and I appreciate his insight into business, marketing, and leadership and his passion for trying to change things, especially how our thoughts and actions affect others. The following article was posted on his website in June 2013.


Fearlessness is not the same as the absence of fear
by Seth Godin

“Face the Monster” by Frits Ahlefeldt on PublicDomainPictures.netThe fearless person is well aware of the fear she faces. The fear, though, becomes a compass, not a barrier. It becomes a way to know what to do next, not an evil demon to be extinguished.

When we deny our fear, we make it stronger.

When we reassure the voice in our head by rationally reminding it of everything that will go right, we actually reinforce it.

Pushing back on fear doesn’t make us brave and it doesn’t make us fearless. Acknowledging fear and moving on is a very different approach, one that permits it to exist without strengthening it.

Life without fear doesn’t last very long—you’ll be run over by a bus (or a boss) before you know it. The fearless person, on the other hand, sees the world as it is (fear included) and then makes smart (and brave) decisions.

Write a Memoir like a Novel Using Ten Fiction Techniques

Here is an updated summary of my series “Writing a Memoir like a Novel” that includes four new articles.


MemoirLikeNovel5BMy ongoing blogpost series “Writing a Memoir like a Novel” covers what I know about writing fiction as it applies to memoir. Before taking on the project that became This New Mountain, I hadn’t tried memoir, but I had completed dozens of short stories and several novels and novellas. It’s no surprise my approach to AJ Jackson’s true story (of a feisty private investigator and grandmother) includes the same elements that make up my works of fiction.

If you’d like your memoir to have the depth and flow of a novel, try the techniques fiction writers pull out of their bag of tricks. The following are summaries of the ten articles in the series so far—clicking on the headings will take you to the original full-length posts.

Women Wearing Colorful Bathing CapsCharacters
The people who inhabit memoirs are real, with flaws and quirks already built in, but applying fiction techniques can add fullness to these “built-in” characters. Physical description doesn’t tell us who a person is. We understand others by their actions and the choices they make. Weave in details a little at a time to reveal the characters as the story unfolds. By sharing the story behind the story, the reader gains an understanding of the why of things. To get the reader emotionally involved, reveal the familiar—those common things we all relate to. Other details, such as relationships, ambition, and personal flaws, add layers and reveal character.

Hook1A Compelling Opening
Memoir readers don’t expect action-packed openings, but the first few pages should still compel them to continue on and immerse themselves in the story. A good opening will include: a character we “know” and understand; a situation that presents tension; an indication of the larger story problem or conflict; and, the general tone of the story (such as light-hearted or serious).

bull's eyeDialogue
Dialogue can reveal motives, character, conflict, setting, and important information, and can create tension, suspense, and movement through scenes. While staying true to your memory, produce realistic dialogue by following certain conventions: use contractions; don’t overuse names; avoid niceties and information dumps; use dialect and vernacular sparingly; beware exclamation points (!!!); structure paragraphs and use tags/beats to make it clear who is speaking.

Sketch Of Woman CryingEvoking Emotions
Expressing emotions effectively in your memoir will touch the hearts of readers and help ensure they engage in the journey you’ve promised them. But evoking the emotion is not the same as telling it (“Jimmy slammed the door” vs. “Jimmy was angry”). Evoke emotions without telling by using physical actions/reactions, perception reflected in setting, through dialogue, writing the hard stuff, and including truth in the writing. Why are your stories worth remembering and retelling? Grab hold of their importance and write from that place of truth. Evoke time and place and relationships with honest emotion.

3D Man on Green Arrow3Pacing
Pacing is essentially the speed at which prose flows, evidenced by the reader’s engagement. A well-told story carries a reader through a character’s life using varied pacing. Move quicker through those parts that don’t directly impact the main storyline or conflict, and where summary is sufficient. Slow down the pace during portions of a story that are more intense physically and/or emotionally. To help control pacing, vary sentence/paragraph structure and rhythm, and the way a scene or chapter begins and ends. Writing with an awareness of what you’re trying to accomplish in a particular scene or chapter will keep the story flowing unhindered in the right direction.

ID-100174671Passive/Active Voice
The presence of “to be” verbs in your writing—such as is, am, are, was, were, has, have, had, be, to be, and been—doesn’t always indicate passive construction, but might signal places where writing can be strengthened. It’s not possible, or suggested, to rid your manuscripts of all “to be” verbs or to be rigid in using only active construction. Be aware of your own personal inclinations in the use of “to be” verbs, and make conscious choices to create stronger, more active writing.

Looking BackPoint of View
Take readers to a place where they feel what you felt without telling them how to feel. Write an “eye memoir” versus an “I memoir.”1 Step back from who you are now as the writer and return to the perspective of who you were during the period of your memoir. In the end, your story is less about what happened and more about the importance of your journey, what you brought into it, and how the journey changed you.

ID-100201658Scene Structure
The larger story arc of a novel or memoir is made up of dozens of smaller beginning-middle-end story arcs strung together in scenes. A scene presents a character or characters doing something within a particular setting, and uses dialogue, action, and narrative to advance the plot, reveal personalities and motives, impart necessary information, or tie into the theme in some way. A scene should have a purpose for being, and not just for window dressing. Evaluate your scenes using Jami Gold’s checklist Elements of a Good Scene.

ForestPathSetting
Creating memorable settings—without unnecessary detail—strengthens the writing and draws the reader into the story. Present the setting through the eyes of your character (you or the subject of the memoir). Determine why a particular place is important to the character and how she feels about it. Use historical research to take you beyond the limits of your own memory. Make your story immediate and real to the reader by using just enough sensory detail.

PuzzleButton2Story Arc
A story arc moves a character from one situation to another, one state of being to another. Without this structure and focus, the memoir becomes a disconnected, chaotic jumble. Knowing and understanding your story arc—the beginning-middle-end structure—keeps the writer focused on what the memoir is about and acts as a guide to know what to include and what to leave out, as well as what needs detailing and what can be touched on through summary.

1Alane Salierno Mason, Writers Digest Magazine, July 2002, “In Memoir, It’s the Eye that Counts”


Image “Sketch Of Woman Crying” courtesy of luigi diamanti at FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Image “3d Man On Green Arrow” courtesy of David Castillo Dominici / FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Image “Digital Equalizer” courtesy of panupong1982 / FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Image “Hands With Cubes A B C” courtesy of luigi diamanti / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Just One Small Change at a Time

Even the biggest changes begin with small ones.
~ Julia Cameron

Change Your Perspective to Change the World

Here’s an updated version of a Live More, Fear Less post from my archives.


Keyhole_and_LadderThere are so many things to worry about in this life: the state of the world with its pollution, wars, natural disasters, famine. There’s human trafficking, drug cartels, economic collapse. Some mothers watch their children waste away through starvation. Some fathers are beaten and killed for their faith or beliefs. Closer to home are the very real problems of putting food on the table, juggling bills, trying to keep a job, and deciding between paying the rent or going to the doctor. And then there are more personal worries like living alone or being lonely, growing old, and being forgotten.

It’s easy to worry, and it’s something I’m very good at because I’ve had lots of practice. When I feel myself slipping into that place where I need to print business cards that say “Cate Macabe, Professional Worrier,” I stop and try to put things in perspective.

If I’m living in a car or a bombed-out building, do I worry about how fat I look in my jeans? While I’m sitting by my child’s hospital bed, do I care that my gray roots are showing? What is the fear of growing old compared to the fear of having nothing to feed my children? How does the fear of crowds or heights or giving an oral presentation compare to facing the devastation of a hurricane or a flood?

When I received the news that a friend of mine lost her teenage daughter to the hands of a murderer, the first thing I did was cry, and then I wailed. I was devastated for my friend, the heartbreak she felt, the horror of the crime. And I cried out for her daughter. There was so much she didn’t get to do. She was too young to be taken from this life. The next thing I did was look at my own teenage daughter and my life with her. Did all my rules, and nagging, and too-high expectations create the relationship I wanted? Did I want to push her away or look at each day with her as a gift to cherish? I decided, on the day I got my friend’s tragic news, what was truly important and began making choices accordingly.

Don’t wait for a disaster to give you a new perspective. Decide now what is most important and take practical steps to follow through.

If living longer and enjoying your family as you age is what you worry about – walk a little everyday, make better food choices, exercise your mind. Is getting a job or holding on to one a concern? Update your skills, work for a temporary agency, volunteer in your field of interest.

Doing something for someone else can shift our focus and also change how we look at our own lives. Visit an elderly neighbor, hold the hand of someone who’s grieving, watch a busy Mom’s kids to give her some alone time, send thank-you cards and letters to soldiers serving overseas (especially in combat zones).

Today, this minute, we can’t help a starving child or love an orphan on the other side of the world, but we can contribute money or time to organizations that can. And if we have the heart for it, we can foster or adopt and change the life of such a child.

Unless we do something with our worry, it becomes a waste of our time and energy because it’s really only a useless exercise of the mind. Don’t let the worries of life get you down for long. Take one step back if you have to, then two steps forward and keep looking ahead.

What do you do to stop worry from getting out of hand?


Image “Keyhole And Ladder” courtesy of Master isolated images / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Remember the Why in the What

Never forget why you’re really doing what you’re doing. ~ Derek Sivers

Writing the Memoir: Making Family Legends Fit (or Not)

nasa-1_245Much of what we believe as factual history has come to us in some form of written account, often multiple accounts that make up a body of truth. According to Webster’s New World Dictionary, a legend is “a story handed down for generations among a people and popularly believed to have a historical basis, although not verifiable.”

Although legend and history might share common ground, they are two different things and should be dealt with accordingly to ensure the integrity of a work of creative nonfiction (see my post “Keeping the ‘Non’ in Creative Nonfiction“). But should writers leave legends out of their memoirs because they can’t be verified? Are there good reasons to include a legend in a memoir?

It would certainly be easy enough to begin such a tale with something like, “I grew up hearing stories of how Uncle Fred was abducted by aliens….” Deciding how to present the story is probably the easy part. Deciding if you should write it to begin with, might be more difficult.

One way to determine whether to include a family legend in a memoir is to put it to the same test you might use when deciding to include any other memories.

  • What does it contribute to the chapter, the theme, the overall story?
  • Does it really belong or do I just want it to belong (perhaps for entertainment value or sentimental reasons)?

Your decision would also depend on your goals for the memoir – a collection of family stories meant only for the eyes of friends and family, or a memoir for public consumption?

I dealt with many family legends when I set out to write This New Mountain, the memoir of private detective and repo-mama AJ Jackson. Two in particular involved important women in AJ’s family history.

The first legend says AJ’s grandmother, Inza Annie, survived the massacre of the Bigfoot Band of Sioux Indians at Wounded Knee, South Dakota in the winter of 1890. In that historic (and horrific) event, ninety Sioux warriors died and hundreds of women and children were hunted down and killed by a U.S. Army detachment. There was no way to verify Inza Annie’s story, but in 1902 she filed her marriage with the Five Civilized Tribes (the wedding having taken place in 1895). This legal document gives proof of AJ’s grandmother’s Sioux heritage and connection to the Bigfoot Band. I thought the marriage filing gave enough credence to Inza Annie’s story of surviving the Massacre at Wounded Knee that I included it in the memoir.

The second legend connects AJ’s mother to the space race. The story goes that while AJ’s father worked as a contractor for scientists at Sandia Base (later renamed Kirtland Air Force Base) in Albuquerque, he won the bid on a contract to produce new suits for the monkeys who were going into space. A way had to be found to stop the clever creatures from unzipping the old suits and climbing out of them. AJ’s father handed the project to his wife who adapted a child’s pajama pattern to make a new piece of clothing out of mesh material that fit over the original monkey suits. I couldn’t present the story as truth because there’s no evidence to support it from letters, diary entries, newspaper clippings, photos, etc. In my research I did find that a chimpanzee named Ham was brought to Holloman Air Force Base, New Mexico in 1959 for training (and was the first chimp to make it into space in 1961). AJ was 15 years old in 1959, but her memory of her mother sewing the suits is sketchy. I could have presented the story as a harmless legend, but in the end I decided not to include it for a few reasons: 1) I couldn’t find a natural way to work it in; 2) I had other great examples of her mother’s ingenuity that did work; and 3) This New Mountain is not her mother’s biography, it’s a memoir about AJ’s life as a private investigator. The legend of the monkey suits just didn’t fit in the book.

Memoirists can’t expect to include every story from their pasts into a single memoir (no matter how much they love each one), any more than novelists should try to cram in every bit of character back story. Writers pick and choose the most important bits, whether it’s to make a setting come to life or complete the picture of a beloved, and ingenious, mother.

Does your family have stories – maybe a little on the crazy side – that have been told and retold at every family gathering to the point they’ve become legends?

Your Mission on Earth

MissionOnEarth400

Here is the test to find whether your mission on earth is finished:
If you’re alive, it isn’t. ~ Richard Bach

Be You

Be yourself. Everyone else is taken. ~ Oscar Wilde