Author Polly Morland on What It Takes to Be Brave
In 1942, a group of stage-frightened musicians created "The Society of Timid Souls" to help them learn how to be brave on stage. More than half a century later, author and documentarian Polly Morland rediscovered the Society, and its efforts on behalf of the timid set her off on a quest of her own: to talk to as many courageous people as she could across the world. A hundred interviews later her book, "The Society of Timid Souls, or How to Be Brave," was born. She spoke with Bookish about the inspiration behind the book, the courageous people she met, and what it means to be brave in an increasingly scary world.
Bookish: Which came first--did you want to write a book about courage, or did you find the Society of Timid Souls and the book flowed from there?
Polly Morland: I was always tremendously easily frightened by stuff--the dread ran through my childhood, university, my early working life. Even when I ended up [working] in TV, and was in war zones a couple of times, all the while I was in a state of abject terror, and could never quite get to the bottom of it. Then, about three and a half years ago, my father was dying, but I had no sense whether or not it frightened him. At the same time, men were going off to a new and terrifying kind of war in Afghanistan. I started to wonder: What are the connections between an old man not knowing how long he had to live and these young men walking towards danger?
Then, [I discovered] the Society of Timid Souls and it was a lightbulb moment for me. From there I started to research the broadest range of stories about people who are called "brave." But it's avowedly not a book about "heroes." It's about the moment of transformation, from timid to brave soul.
Bookish: So, do you think your father was particularly brave?
PM: I found the Society of Timid Souls right at the end of his life, and then most of the interviews for the book were during the two years after his death, so he's a very big figure in this book, even if he's largely invisible. He was a very small, very plucky man, who utterly took control of his life. He overcome a difficult childhood and a poor background [to become a professional classical musician], and he very much stands for a life bravely lived, in a non-dramatic way at least.
Bookish: How do regular people learn to overcome timidity?
PM: I thought at the outset that maybe brave people were a different breed, that maybe male courage is different from female, maybe there's an old form or a youthful form? What I found, instead, [are] remarkable similarities between all forms of courage. And even if you are small and timid and frail, there are ways of making yourself a little bit braver. They can be acquired and learned.
Bookish: In the book, you tell the story of Bernard Lafayette, a leading civil rights figure who, in 1960, after an all-night sit-in at a cafeteria in Nashville, was attacked by cab drivers. After being kicked repeatedly, Lafayette, a staunch adherent of non-violence, merely "brushed a shoe print off [his] face," as an act of defiance. Is this kind of "performance" of courage one of the things to learn?
PM: Something comes before the performance, and that something is stories. As an example, there are formal stories in military training about communality and loyalty. You are physically drilled, of course, but you are also taught to think reflexively as a group. In essence, you get the script from which you can then act out those stories of heroism. You construct a narrative as to why you're doing something. The power of those stories to steel a human being is extraordinary.
Bookish: So, is this book a handbook to be braver?
PM: I would love it if the book changed how people looked at the world and their own fears, but it's not a self-help book. I hope [through these stories] it might help people to reach a little beyond their comfort zone. But courage is a human quality, not a superhuman quality. If everyone was a tiny bit braver, then our society would be the better for it.
Bookish: Has the book changed how you're raising your kids?
PM: You want to give your child confidence to face the world. The whole point is to teach them to go to nursery [school] on their own, or to sleep in their cot on their own. It's about little bits of courage. There's a career criminal I interview in the book, known as "Razor." He talks about not sneaking around the back--instead, he would do his bad deeds by "[going] in the front door." I'd love to teach my children to go up to the front door.
Bookish: If I ever get to introduce you to people, I'll say "This is Polly Morland, she wrote a self-help book about heroes to teach her kids how to be criminals."
PM: I'll make sure I'm wearing my pointiest shoes to kick you in the shins.
Polly Morland is an award-winning British documentarian. She has directed and produced for the BBC, Channel 4 and the Discovery Channel. She lives in Wales with her husband and three sons. "The Society of Timid Souls" is her first book.