Polly Morland on Writing The Society of Timid Souls, or How to Be Brave

A journey into the modern life of an ancient virtue ­– bravery – and a quest to understand who might possess it.

The Society of Timid Souls by Polly MorlandWith The Society of Timid Souls, or How To Be Brave, documentary filmmaker Polly Morland sets out to investigate bravery, a quality that she has always felt she lacked. The book takes inspiration from a vividly eccentric, and radical, self-help group for stage-frightened performers in 1940s Manhattan, which coincided with the terrifying height of World War II and was called The Society of Timid Souls. Seventy years later, as anxiety about everything from terrorism to economic meltdown continues, Morland argues that courage has become a virtue in crisis. We are, she says, all Timid Souls now.

By Polly Morland

I have been collecting stories all my working life. As a documentary maker, it is what I do. And above all, it’s what I love. I couldn’t imagine a life that didn’t include these encounters with people way beyond and apart from my own circle of friends and colleagues.There’s such infinite music in real people’s accounts of their own experiences, their thoughts and motivations. There is humor, pathos, wisdom and surprise.

It’s a strangely democratic process too. It matters not one jot whether your subject is formally articulate and well-educated. Some kid on a favela street corner can be as fascinating and insightful as a Harvard professor. All that matters is their story and creating the circumstances whereby they can share it with you.

This is the particular thrill of the documentary discipline: we who do this are afforded—not always, but often enough—a very special kind of access to our subjects. Because, yes, we ask questions, but mostly we listen and we look. You might suppose that this curious one-sideness, with its formal grammar of interviews and observation, might inhibit or skew the encounter. But time and again I find that it has magically worked in the very opposite way. There’s a licence to ask questions so personal and profound to an individual’s idea of who they are and why they do what they do, that they are often beyond anything I might have asked my partner or my mother or my best friend. And I am frequently aware that my interviewees have said things to me that they have never quite articulated to anyone else.

My latest project has reinforced my faith in what this kind of work can uncover. I’ve been using the documentary method to explore a much-loved, much-touted and yet elusive human quality: bravery. It’s a quality I’ve always felt I lacked and one that I became determined to understand beyond the heroic cliché. I wanted to discover what courage really means in an age of anxiety. And I wanted to understand how and why people do courageous things, right across the spectrum from battlefield to hospital ward, bullring to suburban street.

So I went about it the only way I know how. Off I set and over the next two years, I encountered some truly amazing people: soldiers, conscientious objectors, bullfighters, fire-fighters, freedom fighters, terminal cancer patients, labouring mothers, surfers, climbers, a tightrope walker, a bank robber, an opera singer, the guy who confronted a suicide bomber on the London Underground, the woman who carried out a caesarean section on herself.

And what they did is talk. They talked about fear. They talked about family. They talked about love and time and change. They talked about hope and about anger, about desperation and about friendship. They talked about death and they talked about life.

The mystery of courage has long preoccupied bigger brains than mine. Philosophers have interrogated it as a virtue, psychologists as a behaviour or a trait. Great writers have pondered its oscillations, artists sculpted its rippling muscles or noble visage, while neuroscientists sought to locate its position in the gray mush of the brain.

My project is, by comparison, a humble one. I have little methodology other than to listen to what people tell me and to look for patterns of idea or emotion within it. It may not be a grand approach, nor an infallible one, but it’s mine and I’m proud of it. And on this occasion, it has revealed more than I could ever have imagined about how to be brave.

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