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July 21, 2016

Caroline Paul on living and writing about a life of adventures

Caroline Paul always knew that she never wanted to have a ”brief case and an office” type of job.


Caroline Paul grew up in New England, a rural part of Connecticut, and she was born with a love for the outdoors and adventure. While growing up she put up forts, she went biking and skateboarding in the surrounding areas, and she built a milk carton pirate ship.

She always knew that she never wanted to have a ”brief case and an office” type of job. She attended Stanford University, where she studied Communications. ”I was sort of floundering in my 20s, as one does, or at least as some people do, and I didn’t know what I wanted to be”, she once said. She was thinking about becoming a journalist or a documentary filmmaker, something that would allow her to work in the outdoors. Until then, she’d been a white water rafter, she had mountain biked through Bolivia, she tried to break the Guinness World Record for crawling at 15, and she had flown Cessna airplanes at 18.

While Caroline was interning as a news reporter for KPFA, a public radio station in Berkley, many stories about the racism and sexism in the San Francisco fire department were coming across her desk. So she set out to write about it as an undercover journalist. She took the test, she passed it, and that became the story she not only wanted to write about, but that she wanted to live. In 1989 she became the 15th woman firefighter out of a crew of 1,500 men. She recalls her experience for the Good Life Project podcast: ”When I became a firefighter there was such a growing experience for me emotionally. Because of many things, but one aspect was learning at once to be compassionate and productive.”

A knee injury put an end to her 13 year career as a firefighter, so she returned to what she knew best: writing. She joined The Grotto, a writers’ community in San Francisco where people share a space, but also ideas and energy.  She attributes her later success as a writer to The Grotto’s collaborative culture and group power.

Since then she has written several books: Fighting Fire, East Wind, Rain, and Lost Cat, A True Story of Love, Desperation and GPS Technology. Her latest book is called The Gutsy Girl: Escapades for Your Life of Epic Adventure, a collection of stories and ”derring-dos” that aim to instill bravery and resilience in young girls.

In an op-ed for the New York Times she writes: ”When girls become women, this fear manifests as deference and timid decision making. We try to counter this conditioning by urging ourselves to “lean in.” Books on female empowerment proliferate on our shelves. I admire what these writers are trying to do — but they come far too late.”

Here are some of the lessons Caroline learned while leading a life of epic adventures:

• On overcoming fear. ”I look at all the emotions I’m feeling. There’s anticipation, exhilaration, focus, confidence, fun, and… fear. And then I take fear and say: How much priority am I going to give this? I really want to do this. And then I put it where it belongs”, she tells Tim Ferriss, author of The 4-Hour Workweek, while she recalls summing up the courage to climb the Golden Gate Bridge.

• Also asked by Tim Ferriss what books she would give every Stanford graduate, she recommends Things They Carried by Tim O’Brian, The Dog Stars by Peter Heller.

• On writing. ”Be starry eyed. Throw bejeweled and overwrought sentences on the page (but edit them out later.) Write your heart out. Start from there, and you’ll persevere, because that spark remains lit, from book to book to book, a righteousness that ignores all stats and factoids about publishing and insists I have something to say, and I’m going to write it down.” In this guest post, Caroline shares her experience while writing her first three books.

• What is a good life? ”To live a good life is to live a life that is true to what you want. I don’t think that that’s earthshaking. But I think knowing what you want is really hard. So, you need to be taking time to figure that out.”

Register here for the 6th edition of The Power of Storytelling to find out more about Caroline.