Live Life. By this I mean that the great authors that I know are the ones that allow themselves to go through the pain and joy that life always brings our way. I think that, perhaps, if we are to bring those experiences and emotions to others — which all great writing does, even the nonfiction — we must be able to feel them deeply inside of ourselves, understand them inside and out, almost roll around in them. And that means we have to be willing to go through those experiences with great bravery and vulnerability.
As part of my interview series on the five things you need to know to become a great author, I had the pleasure of interviewing Carmen Westbrook.
Carmen is the CEO and co-founder of Aina Giving, a socially responsible servant leadership development firm. As a diplomat, military spouse, six-year stay at home mom, marathoner, and entrepreneur, Carmen knows the ins and outs of leading a balanced, fulfilled life while also accomplishing the goals and dreams life has handed our way. Carmen is trained as a co-active leadership coach and developer, and has trained governments, international aid organizations, and mothers worldwide, and is currently planning to move to her fifth continent (Africa!) with her husband of 17 years, three wonderful children, and one fluffy dog.
Thank you so much for joining us! Can you share a story about what brought you to this particular career path?
There are so many stories that lead us to where we are — I actually feel that is one of the most important aspects of being an author, seeing stories as alive and moveable instead of set in stone. I have many different careers in my life — mother, author, wife, human, speaker, coach, and servant leader — and there are so many stories that live behind each of those.
For my author life, I think that one of the most important stories that pointed me hear was my early love of reading stories by women. From “My Antonia” to “Anne of Green Gables,” stories of women by women have been so impactful for me. And I remember when I was in elementary school beginning a “Story Club” — just like Anne — with my girlfriends. I still have some of those stories, and they were hilariously serious in their tackling of the issues that young women go through — friends, mystery, boys, school. I remember one of my friends, Cami, being a huge supporter of my stories, and us illustrating them for each other. Gloriously, I just learned the other day that my daughter has (without knowledge of this story of mine!) started a Story Club with one of her girlfriends from 6th Grade. I love seeing that string through life.
Can you share the most interesting story that occurred to you in the course of your career?
Oh my there are so many, I don’t think I can point to just one as the most interesting. Perhaps the one that fits in this moment the most is the story of my first flight to Kenya. I remember so vividly sitting on the plane, wondering what on Earth I was doing there, even writing those words out — What on Earth am I doing here?? I had pretty much no plan for what I was going to do while I was there, I just knew that I was being called to go and do some kind of leadership and empowerment work there. It was odd sitting on a plane, with almost no plan for the future, surrounded by people that seemed to know exactly where they were going and what they were going to do there. I think that is a beautiful analogy for much of my experiences as an author — I’m not sure where we are going, and I’m not sure what we’re going to do when we get there, but I do know that for some reason I just need to start writing, and the rest will sort itself out.
What was the biggest challenge you faced in your journey to becoming an author? How did you overcome it? Can you share a story about that that other aspiring writers can learn from?
I believe that, for me, the biggest issue was getting over sharing pieces of my soul with people. Any time I write, a part of me is being put out onto the page…and that’s a pretty vulnerable place to be. It was very hard for me to convince myself that it was a) acceptable to do so (I’m from Nebraska, we don’t do “vulnerable” and b) that it would be ok for my husband and children for me to allow our lives to become vulnerable in that way (hazards of living with a man that’s dedicated his life to defending people). It took me a really long time, and a lot of great coaching, to get over those two hurdles and just get on with it. And…I think it’s possible that some people reading this might have that same story, and some people will have their own hurdles to jump. I can’t really tell people how to do it, because it’s different for each one of us…and I can tell them that it’s turned out much, much better than I ever thought it would. For me, reaching out and getting help from champions and cheerleaders — some of whom I needed to pay, for there were a lot of naysayers in my own personal circles — was the best thing I ever did. There are people out there that will see your brilliance, I promise. We just sometimes need to go on a quest to find them.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
Oh, I started by blogging very, very serious material. And…well, I don’t know if it was a mistake. However, it was pretty hilarious in retrospect. I blogged about any social justice issue I could find, I remember crying at my computer and feeling very, very serious about the whole thing. And while the issues that I was writing about were (and are) really serious, it’s also not super helpful to spend every Thursday evening sobbing it out at the computer, convinced the world is going to end. It was a helpful way for me to begin to craft my voice, and then it also became a crutch because I didn’t have to push myself to be really out there (about 2 people — my mom included — read those blogs). If I could learn a lesson from that, it would be that it’s important to expand that repertoire and be able to write in any emotion, not just the indignant or righteous emotion. Still something I wrestle with ;).
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?
In terms of writing…I am currently developing and writing a workbook series for a course on leadership in parenting (my personal passion for the most important leadership role in life). Writing workbooks is a definite stretch for me, as it really demands bottom-lining; clearly, if you’ve read this article, you know that’s not my strong suit. Finding just the right combination of words to get the point across in the fewest number of words possible…it’s fascinating and very different. I’m currently channeling my inner Hemingway.
Can you share the most interesting story that you shared in your book?
For me, this is probably the story of my abortion. And that is a complicated affair. Being a catholic (we converted after having the abortion — and not for that reason), telling the story of how we aborted one of our daughters was really painful. And, for me at least, it was really necessary. It was hard to strike the balance between why that happened in our lives, inviting everyone to stay in the book and in the discussion (one of my biggest themes, empowering all the voices), and also telling my personal perspective on those events. I think that was one of those places where I felt I just had to allow that to be written, even when I didn’t necessarily really want to go there. And now that I have…I’m so glad I did. It’s an ongoing, unfolding story in my own life (aren’t they all?) and I’m so grateful that I have a part of that story written and documented as almost a piton in the mountainside of that discussion.
What is the main empowering lesson you want your readers to take away after finishing your book?
Failure is our greatest superpower.
Look — I bottom-lined it! Thank you, Ernest.
In all truth, I do empowerment programs and coaching around the world, and one of the things that I hear over and over is how I’ve done all of the things I continue to do. And I think that, for me, the answer to that is that I allowed myself to fail spectacularly and repeatedly in my life. And participated in the feelings of crap that comes along with failure, instead of running away from them. Because by participating in them, we are transformed in some way — and that, in my experience, is the huge gift of failure. So, my friends. Fail. Fail spectacularly and repeatedly. It’s mandatory for living life.
Based on your experience, what are the “5 Things You Need to Know to Become a Great Author”? Please share a story or example for each.
Live Life. By this I mean that the great authors that I know are the ones that allow themselves to go through the pain and joy that life always brings our way. I think that, perhaps, if we are to bring those experiences and emotions to others — which all great writing does, even the nonfiction — we must be able to feel them deeply inside of ourselves, understand them inside and out, almost roll around in them. And that means we have to be willing to go through those experiences with great bravery and vulnerability. For me, one of the stories that I have lived through around this is the story of being a military wife. This is something that I never, in a million years, set out to do. And as a hippie feminist, it’s an odd pairing. However, this is the love that life handed to me, and I have been so, so grateful to live through that with my amazing husband. And in that living, we have suffered and lived through five deployments and the loss of people we love. It has been very tempting to turn off the emotions around that, and just keep moving forward instead of living in it. And…when we take the time and the capacity to do so, we both find immense gifts that life is offering us on the other side.
Ponder Life. And by this I mean that authors need to also have the ability to almost step outside of their experiences and look in at them from an observer status. This, too, is mandatory if we are going to put ourselves into the shoes of guides for the exploration of different facets of life (as all authors do). If we want to guide, we must understand. And if we want to understand, we cannot just live through all of the experiences — we also have to have some capacity to step outside and observe what’s happening. Observation, almost as a scientist, gives us the ability to learn and keep moving forward. I learned this lesson from my parents, who are research chemistry professors. They taught me the value of being able to make observations, form hypotheses, and test them out. And then adjust and try again — all so needed for any good learning. We as authors are guides, and if we are to guide, we must first have learned some of the path.
Let Go. Ohhhh, this is such a hard one (still) for me. Letting go, and knowing when to let go, are really advanced skillsets, and what we need if we are going to write new stories. I remember learning this so vividly in my coach training, when they had us write the story of our life…and I realized that the story I had written up until that point was not the story that I wanted to tell. Through that process, I realized that I needed to say goodbye to quite a few things — goodbye to being a full-time stay-at-home mom, goodbye to wanting so desperately to take my close friends on this journey with me, goodbye to making sure everyone was content and comfortable. Those were very, very hard things for me to say goodbye to, and mandatory for the next chapter. The interesting and fun thing, for me, is that those doors aren’t shut and locked behind me…I always leave them open a crack, in case the others want to follow me through.
Find Outside Help. Finding a crew around you that will lift you up, encourage you, and show you your own majesty is something that I believe has become more and more crucial in the past century. Our structures of family and community have largely broken down, which is amazing because it gives us the ability to break out of given roles and forge our own identity, and can also be pretty tough if we don’t have a support crew around us. And by support crew, I mean people that are there to encourage and propel you in the growth that you feel is calling to you, not the people that are going to hold you back and tell you to stay put and be content. Go find those people out there that will champion your brilliance, challenge you to reach even farther, give you feedback on what is working and having a great impact, and basically cheer on everything that is fantastic about you. And if you can’t find those people, find a coach. Getting a coach was one of the best things I ever did, and eventually moved me to get my own coaching certification and surround myself with the coaching community. It’s a fantastic place to be, when we find those helpers all around us.
Find Inside Help. And ohhhh, this is my favorite. Because outside help is fantastic…and inside help is who we are. We have to work to find those inside voices that will also champion our own greatness, because in the end, we are the only ones that know what we are being called to write. Spend time getting to know these inside voices. Sometimes they’re crackers and not super helpful, and sometimes they are the love of our lives. It’s simply our job to find them and see what power it is that they are trying to give to us.
What is the one habit you believe contributed the most to you becoming a great writer? (i.e. perseverance, discipline, play, craft study) Can you share a story or example?
Read books that are calling to you, no matter what. I went through a massive romance-novel reading phase (love you, Lisa Kleypas!) while I was writing Becoming Superwoman 1.0. I had no idea why, I was slightly embarrassed by it (airplane flights were a particular problem, with close seatmates…) and I think it was essential to my book turning out the way it did. It seemed that the book needed to be saturated with love, and that the spirit of those novels helped me to embody that while I was writing. And those novels by Kleypas, in particular, are rife with deep nature inspiration, and that seemed to be an important aspect of my novel as well. So…read the books that are calling to you, and allow that spirit to embody you while you are writing. And that doesn’t mean that we simply write what they wrote or allow their voice to eclipse our own. It just means that the emotions they evoke can live in us, as well, when we are writing. Kind of like having a best friend sitting next to you feeding you tea while you write.
Which literature do you draw inspiration from? Why?
Well, I pretty much just listen to what I’m being called towards and read that. Currently I’m reading quite a bit from mystics and saints, as well as authors discussing the broken international aid situation in the world. What does that mean? Still not 100% sure on that…and I’ll let you know when I find out. I think reading the lives of amazing people throughout the ages helps us to embody that spirit as well — the spirit of people that have stepped outside of the boundaries and lived life on their terms…leaving a trail behind. I think the best authors are those with a lantern and roughly-drawn map, that invite us into the adventure as well…and the people that have lived that are probably the best ones at sharing that spirit with us authors.
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
If I could start one thing, it would be to honor and pay mothers for the incredibly valuable service that they give to humanity. We so devalue the mother job, and we have so forgotten that without mothers, our species would literally not continue. Mothers are the peacemakers of our time, in that they sacrifice their own wants (who really actually wants elephant belly in this world? NO ONE) and desires for the sake of society. We have to start valuing the incredible service that mothers have given throughout the ages, and stop punishing them for “gaps in their resume” (no stay-at-home mom ever would call those years a gap in experience). I’d like to see mothers get the payment, gratitude, and respect for what they do.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
They can find and join us in our mission to empower women in vulnerable communities at superwomanclub.com. My work in that field really inspired and led to my first book, Becoming Superwoman 1.0. And they can follow our empowerment work on social media in our for-profit company on Instagram, LinkedIn, and Facebook @ainagiving. I’m also a really big fan of starting conversations and sharing my own inspiration and hope, which I do on my own personal Facebook and LinkedIn profiles (Carmen Westbrook).
Thank you so much for this. This was very inspiring!