I don’t consider myself a particularly brave person. At least, not compared to some others in my life. My husband, for example, is the physical embodiment of bravery. As a firefighter/paramedic, he willing walks into burning buildings to put out fires, steps onto busy, snow-covered highways to extract crash victims from their cars, and even sometimes shocks a person suffering a heart attack with those defibrillator thingys you see on TV. My brother-in-law serves in the army and has spent time overseas in countries where being American is like wearing a bulls-eye painted on your back or head or any other vulnerable body part.
And then there’s my horse trainer, who fearlessly jumps obstacles as big as this one (and bigger).
(Photo used by permission from Lori Miller)
In these examples, the people performing these courageous acts are doing so by choice. My husband and brother-in-law signed up for their respective jobs, and my trainer surely makes the choice to point her horses at such obstacles and send them over it.
Not so much me. I do jump horses, but only over obstacles I could probably hurdle on my own, and even then my heart rate often hits my maximum target (thank you for that, AppleWatch). In my day job, the scariest thing I face is active shooter training, and in my writing job the most nerve-wracking moments involve public speaking—neither of which scare me very much. At least, not anymore.
Not that I haven’t, at times, performed acts of bravery. But most of these were completely accidental. Especially when I was younger. Inside of me resides two version of myself. One is rebellious, headstrong, and rash. This Mindee has a tendency to leap without looking and to sign up for things without thinking about what all it will really entail. The second Mindee is shy, worrisome, and prone to imaginative fancy. This Me will overthink decisions. She will hesitate and rationalize every possible reason for avoiding danger. She will also see the worst possible (and oftentimes highly unlikely) outcomes. This is the version of myself, who when walking down the stairs with some breakable object in my hands, will envision what might happen if I tripped. Impalement, of course. What other outcome could there be?
But despite their differences, the two Mindees compliment one another in a dysfunctional sort of way. First Me starts the trouble and Second Me gets us through it safely. The best example of this was when I decided to enlist in the army at seventeen. First Me thought it would be fun and exciting. Second Me had doubts. But First Me is clever and quickly banished those doubts—“We’ll get money for college,” First Me said. “We’ll get to see new sights and learn to be physically tough like all those book heroines we so admire.” And, most importantly of all, First Me kept reminding us how our boyfriend at the time had already enlisted. “What better reason could there be than that?”
Yes, First Me is clever, but she can also be really dumb.
Unfortunately, at seventeen, Second Me was also pretty dumb and equally boy crazy, and so I signed up. At the time, the Army had a delayed entry program in place that allowed kids to attend basic training during the summer between their junior and senior year. Once through training, the teen would return home to finish out senior year, and then start their career in the Army right after graduation. This is what I did. And that’s when all the trouble and accidental bravery started.
For my first courageous act, I had to board a plane by myself to Fort Lost-in-the-Woods, Misery. Ahem, I mean Ft. Leonard Wood, Missouri. That might not sound like a big of a deal to you, but I’d never flown before, and I’d definitely never traveled alone. I was only seventeen, remember. Too young to get into a dance club or buy tobacco products or even have a diploma on my wall. I got through it though, Second Me sucking it up and putting a brave face on it while inside I envisioned one hundred and ninety-six ways I might die while the plane took off, traveled the short distance from Ohio to Missouri, and landed again.
Once arriving at boot camp, I went through in-processing, a torturous couple of days that involved getting fitted for my combat boots and uniforms, discarding my contacts for BCGs (birth control glasses, so called for good reason – see below), battling with homesickness, and enduring the vaccination process.
By vaccinations I mean shots. A lot of them.
The Army personal queued us recruits up in a long assembly line and marched us through a series of vaccination stations. With our sleeves rolled up, we would stop and get a shot in the left arm—pop, was the sound it made, like a toy gun. Then we stepped forward and get one in the right, and so on—pop, pop, pop. There were four-hundred and thirty-nine in all. Okay, that might be an exaggeration, but that’s how many it felt like by the end of it. Especially after that last one. It might’ve been a tetanus shot, although I can’t be certain. But what I do know for sure was that this was the only one we got in the butt. And boy did it hurt—for days afterwards. One of my fellow inmates, ahem, I mean enlistees, had a severe reaction to her shot and got sent home.
She might’ve been the lucky one.
Once basic training really got started, it was moment after moment of bravery, the culmination of which was, for me, the gas chamber. Yes, that’s right. I had to willingly and knowingly enter a sealed building to get gassed. To make matters worse, we had to do it to ourselves. We went in with our gas masks on and waited while our drill sergeants shut and locked the door. Then we were ordered to remove our masks, count to ten, and then put them back on. One of my fellow inmates, I mean enlistees, was so frightened at the idea of removing her mask that she made her own exit. Literally. She barreled her way past the drill sergeants and through the door like an NFL lineman.
The rest of us stayed and endured. Ten seconds had never been so long. It was awful—and messy—mucous and tears galore. But I endured it. I was brave. But not by choice.
I think that’s true of many of us. We’re able to be brave when put in a situation that calls for courage, but how many of us walk into those situations by our own volition? Not me. That was, not until I made the decision to write for publication. Since then I’ve learned to be brave by choice, over and over again.
Writing is an act of bravery. From the moment we put down the first word, we have to silence the voice of doubt in our head saying this isn’t good, no one will read it, no one will publish it. “Turn back, turn back,” the voice says, like one of the talking stone heads in the Labyrinth movie.
Many of us do turn back, never getting past that opening scene or chapter. But some of us choose to be brave—we push forward, and we write the book.
But the need for courage doesn’t stop there. Once finished, we have to let others read what we’ve written. We have to face rejection, compliments, and worst of all—indifference. We have to listen with an open mind to what our critique partners and beta readers say, and then we have to go back into the book again and face all the doubts waiting there.
Then later, once the book is as done as we can make it, we send it out into the world to total strangers. To agents, who are like Heimdall of Asgard, towering and magnanimous gatekeepers to the elusive world of publishing. With one email these agents can either open the rainbow bridge and let us pass, or they can stab us with their enchanted swords. For that’s what every rejection feels like. Being stabbed.
But what is courage without the risk of pain?
Not that it ends there. For those of us fortunate enough to sign with an agent, we have to repeat the submission process with editors. In this business there are many requirements to be brave, so many chances to get stabbed. Over and over again we do it. We choose to keep trying. We choose to be brave despite knowing the risks we will face and the pain we will endure.
And it’s only getting harder. These days, in the midst of our political and social upheaval, the act of writing requires more courage than ever. The voice of doubt has added to his vocabulary. Now he not only warns us that the writing isn’t good, but also that we’re getting it wrong or we’re telling a story we shouldn’t, one that doesn’t belong to us. We might misrepresent, he warns. We might offend. There are no safe guards. There are no clear rules and guidelines for writing and publishing. It’s like we’re driving an all-terrain vehicle through a fog-enshrouded landscape full of trees, ditches, steeps hills, and drop-offs. If we’re lucky, we spot them in time, but too often we don’t. The only safe path is to quit.
But we don’t. We choose to be brave and to continue on.
Why? Because the world needs stories. Someone, somewhere, needs your story. So often bravery is an act of saving lives, like my husband when he marches into a burning building. Writing is an act of saving hearts, minds, of nurturing spirits. It’s about creating characters that readers can identify with, can see themselves in. Characters both wise and foolish, cowardly and brave, white and black and everything in between. Don’t let fear and doubt stop you. Make the choice to be brave. Make the choice to write.
It’s worth it.