I have new science blog post up and ready over at fionamcmillan.com.
It’s a story about the unexpected consequences of losing your grip: when human ancestors began to walk upright, the infants slowly lost their ability to hold onto their mothers and this may have set us on the path toward language and bigger brains. I was fascinated by the hypothesis and I thought it would be a straightforward story to write, but the more I researched the more complex the story became. This was at once wonderful and frustrating. There was so much interesting science that it was difficult to include every angle without ending up with an unreadable deluge of facts. For all that I loved the topic, I almost gave up on the story several times; it was such hard work finding and holding onto the story arc. I guess you could say I lost my grip a bit.
I then remembered a wonderful piece of advice from science writer Carl Zimmer who wrote about his early days as a journalist, and how – at first – he’d try to painstakingly build these incredibly complex stories; each one like a ship in a bottle. But the problem with that approach is that there is often too much information to include and if you want to tell a good story, in addition to deciding what to put in, you also have to decide what to leave out. He explains in more detail here: “Don’t Make a Ship in a Bottle” by Carl Zimmer.
And so, I got back to work. It was a learning process, figuring out which research served the story and which didn’t. There were heaps of random facts that I’d stumbled across and just loved and wanted to share, but when these were included in the story they made it dense and difficult to follow. Sometimes, you just have to say ‘OK, that can be in a story, just not this story’.
It seemed to work.
I made it through, and here is the result:
Every now and then I put on a smelly coat. I don’t even realise I’m doing it at the time. You’d think I would – it reeks – but I don’t. I’m not the only one either. In fact, there’s a bit of a smelly coat epidemic going on. Most of us have one. Most of us have worn it. Some of you might be wearing it right now.
But if there’s something you want to do — that ever elusive thing — you’re going to have to ditch the coat. Yes, it’s a metaphor. A borrowed one at that. But stick with me on this, it gets pretty interesting.
I subscribe to a wonderful newsletter from Maggie Koerth-Baker. She’s a science journalist and author in the US, and is currently a Nieman-Berkman Fellow at Harvard University. During the fellowship she’s sending out regular updates of three amazing things she discovers on her journey. It’s called the Fellowship of Three Things, and it’s brilliant. The content and scope, well, it’s whatever takes her interest. “It might be a photograph and information about a museum object; a video of a laboratory tour; a short interview with a ground-breaking scholar; or a fact that will give you something new to think about.”
Koerth-Baker’s fellow Nieman-Berkman fellows are contributing as well and the result is a great read. So far they’ve talked about the history of colours, the hidden art in old books, and an astronomical computer made in 1540. I also learned about a 1690 publication on the virtues of chocolate, coffee and tea, and I think we can all agree they were onto something back then, yes?
The interestingness goes on. A fish may not need a bicycle, but in 1881 some fish in California needed a railroad. There was an article on the blood cells that help salamanders regrow their limbs, as well as some views on war and peace from the last surviving Nuremberg prosecutor.
Told you it was good.
This month, the newsletter rekindled a fire in my belly. Alicia Stewart contributed to that January 6th edition of the Fellowship of Three Things. She’s an editor at CNN.com and a Nieman-Berkman fellow where she is pursuing her interest in ‘true stories about identity, culture and spirit: who we are, what we do and why we do it.’
Among her selection of three interesting things was a compelling remark from filmmaker Ava DuVernay on how desperation to achieve can get in the way of real achievement.
It was an excerpt from a speech DuVernay gave at the 2013 Film Independent Forum.
Intrigued, I clicked the link to hear the rest. I will be ever grateful that I did.
DuVernay’s speech is one of the most inspiring talks I’ve heard in a long time and a fierce reminder that if you want to get somewhere in particular, if there’s anything you aspire to, something you want to do, then get started. And then keep going. DuVernay speaks from experience, and she is indeed a marvel.
Only a few years ago she aspired to make films but didn’t know quite how to turn this dream into a reality. She couldn’t figure out why she couldn’t move forward. She couldn’t get into the training programs she longed to join. Through it all, she says “I wore my desperation like a coat.”
Skip forward to today.
DuVernay has now built an astounding body of work. In 2012 she became the first African-American woman to win the Best Director award at the Sundance Film Festival for Middle of Nowhere. She was also nominated for Best Director at this year’s Golden Globes for Selma — the first female African American to be nominated. Her film Selma was also nominated for Best Picture at both the Golden Globes and the Academy Awards. Of course, what she has accomplished with these highly significant films goes well and truly beyond award ceremonies.
Now people seek out DuVernay as a mentor and she is an adviser for some of the very same training programs she once couldn’t get into. [for more about her: avaduvernay.com]
What changed? She let go of her desperation when she realised how much it was holding her back.
“All of the time you’re spending trying to get someone to mentor you, trying to have a coffee, all of the things we try to do to move ahead in the industry is time that you’re not working on your screenplay, strengthening your character arcs, thinking about your rehearsal techniques, setting up a table reading to hear the words, thinking about symbolism in your production design, your color pallet. All the time you’re focusing on trying to grab — I need this! I need this! I don’t have this! — you’re being desperate and you’re not doing.
You have to be doing something.” “Desperation,” she explains, ”is not action. It’s not moving you forward, because all of the so-called action is hinging on someone doing something for you.”
It’s one thing to info gather, to ask for guidance. That’s fine. That’s wise. But when it becomes all you do. When your dreams become too dependent on what other people can do for you, then it’s a real problem, she says, because “the desperation, it reeks off of you… like a smelly coat.’
So how do you know if you’re wearing it? She offers a simple test:
“If you spend more time in the day thinking about what you don’t have, than working with what you have. Then you’re acting in a desperate manner and you’re not doing. Until I changed my mind about that, I was really stuck.”
Her advice for ditching the coat: action. “The feeling of yearning coupled with action is not desperation. It’s passion.”
You need to create something for other people to latch onto, to collaborate with, and get excited by. Build something for a mentor to connect with and care about. Start small if you need to, but start nonetheless. “No excuses.”
DuVernay’s advice can be applied to anything creative, anything where you have yearning but haven’t taken much action, or perhaps you’ve stalled and need a good reminder to keep going. Watch the whole thing, including her responses to the questions, as there are many words of wisdom there, too. Yes, its 42 minutes or so, but I genuinely found myself wishing it was longer.
I’d like to extend a big thank you to Ava DuVernay, Alicia Stewart and Maggie Koerth-Baker for the interestingness, the guidance, and the inspiration. I’m going to do my best to ditch the coat and get on with the work. I’m continuing a big project – oh yes, it hasn’t defeated me – but I need the fuel, the action, the surge that also comes from smaller projects. Some change, some action, and I’ll see where it takes me.
So here’s to 2015. Create something, build something, drive something forward. Make a film with a smart phone. Find poems. Make beautiful food. Bring people together. Weave short stories. Tell long ones. Write a song. Curate. Investigate. Explore. Whatever it is. Get started.
Farewell 2014! What a year you were. Many things happened of the writerly kind. I wrote a YA, a novella, finished an new urban fantasy I’d been kicking around for a while and then subbed Chaos Broken (Book 3 in the Chronicles of Applecross) to my publisher. The YA novel is in the publishing ether and for the novella, I’m thinking of venturing into the self-publishing world. Chaos Broken will be published in April 2015, when I shall put on my book promo underpants and shove it forth for everyone’s attention. Maybe even before, as those underpants sure look comfy.
Many other things happened int 2014 as well. I went on a writers retreat with my fellow Sisters of the Pen, and we did strange writer things and ate strange writer food.
I also went on my first marathon Hen’s Night, involving…
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Here it is, Fiona 🙂
It’s been far too long since I posted anything on this blog. Been a very demanding year on far too many fronts. But here is a little something I wrote around 1am the other night. I think I need to keep on reading this, reminding myself over and over of the ‘practice’ of what i’m spontaneously calling ‘radical acceptance’. Which is what life/love is and does, really, left to its own devices. Deep gratitude goes to my friends Isaac and Meike http://www.isaacshapiro.org/, for the support to see all this a little more clearly over the past 10 years or so. ❤
Love it. Love this life. Love the worries, love the pain, love the resistance – so futile – love the love.
Love the shove, the strife, the living of this life … the struggle, the struggle, the struggle … the float … the resilience
The picked scabs…
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A winter warmer book pack giveaway – just comment to enter!
Now that the chilly brrr weather is finally upon us, it’s the season of coats, doonas and hot drinks. If you’re down south, maybe you’re already cracking ice off the windscreen. And if you’re up north, well, maybe you finally put on a t-shirt instead of a singlet!!
Regardless of where you are in our great land, to celebrate the appearance of winter, perfect season for reading in your long socks, dressing gown, or snuggie**, I am giving away a winter warmer reader’s gift pack, including:
- Personalised signed copy of both Ryders Ridge and Iron Junction
- Chocolates to nom nom while reading
- Tea mug to hold hot beverages (perfect for melting chocolates in mouth into saucy heaven). To set the mood for your rural reading adventure, mug is carefully selected to be at home either in a station kitchen or crib room, aka “trendy industrial chic”***
- Tasty tea to brew…
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Woo ho! So, it’s release day for Chaos Bound, book 2 in my urban fantasy series, Chronicles from the Applecross. Yays! Chaos 3 is underway, with the tentative title of: Chaos…Baby? Okay, maybe not.
Official blurb for Chaos Bound below…
Lora Blackgoat — mercenary and smuggler — has only just recovered from the last threat on her life and hasn’t even begun to sort out the mess of having both a nephilim warrior and a reborn hellspawn as potential lovers. Work should be a refuge, but a job finding missing persons puts her in the crosshairs of a violent gang and a merchant with a taste for blood sport.
Reluctantly, Lora turns to the two men in her life for help. Roman — the nephilim — professes to be her soul mate and turns to her when he feels the darkness of nephilim madness descending. But though Lora is drawn to Roman, it is Seth, ex-lover and reborn hellspawn, who Lora must ultimately ask to protect those she loves. Can she trust Seth to save Roman and her adoptive family, or will this be a fatal mistake?
My first poem in a loooong time … a bit rough, fresh-hewn
Home Is A Place You Can’t Escape From
You wake in your soft bed
To find a weight, a presence
On your brow
You ask it its name
You try to find its story
It gives you clouds
That are treetops
And there are rooted, downward
Strokes that are trunks, swaying
In a silent wind
But they are also puppet strings
And so you are pulled from
Your soft bed
And into your shoes
And the outside
You walk hard and fast
Shed your wool
You aren’t exactly angry
And you’re beyond frustration
You chant your attempts
All that you wish away
And it’s a struggle
You surrender to
Reaching the corner
On the hill
The trees breathe darkly
You recognise them – treetops, trunks
A yellow ribbon flutters
from a branch
And the world is suddenly
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I haven’t posted anything in ages. It’s been a strange couple of months. There have been changes within and without. The inner changes are I think due to the fact that I am fast approaching the age of 40. A process of reassessment and taking stock has been taking place, without me actually going out and looking for that to happen. It’s kind of been foisted upon me, and it’s been raw and sore at times. And will continue to be for some time to come, methinks.
Anyway, so I haven’t felt I’ve had much worthy to share in the midst of all this messy rawness. Mindfulness has often felt desperately clung to and not very adequately achieved … if mindfulness is indeed something ‘achievable’.
Work (financial survival) and parenting have been taking up much of my attention, and sometimes I have felt quite distant from my home and the non-human beings around me … cut off, disconnected. I noticed this on my return from a flight to Melbourne to visit my sister and attend a Fairy Tales conference … and wondered whether the flight was what did it (superstitiously enough) … weeks and months have gone past and still my sense of at-homeness has not fully returned to me, my sense of grounded connection.
A few weeks ago I had one moment of choiceless connection and relationship. I was lighting the fire and I heard a desperate quacking coming from the creek. It took me a while of hearing it before I really listened beyond it being mere background birdnoise and heard the desperation in that voice. It prompted me to go outside and listen harder. That’s when I heard other voices, tiny, peeping voices, just as desperate as the louder quack. Quietly, quickly, I made my way down the bank to the creek’s edge and upstream a little way I spied five or six tiny, and I mean TINY baby ducklings … they looked freshly hatched. All striped and fluffy and being buffeted by the unseasonally strong stream (we’ve had another wet winter … and don’t get me started on THAT!). God, the motherly pang that kicked in my breast at the sight. The mother was nowhere to be seen or heard and I began to feel their desperation also. Maybe she was hurt, why were they separated from one another, what had happened? Was there a wild dog or cat nearby? I crossed the creek and got my sneakers wet in the process (was just about to head to exercise class) to see if I could spot the mother. Blundering like a great big troll, super-aware of how frightening I must’ve been to the ducklings but feeling I must try to do something anyway. Then all of a sudden there was a startled flapping and the mother emerged, doing that thing that mother ducks do – they act wounded so as to attract predatory attention to themselves and away from their babies. And I realised I was the predator, in her mind, and then I felt like even more of a great big noisy scary troll. But at least I was reassured that she was still there, and fine. I kind of knew she wasn’t really wounded. I just knew, and I quickly removed myself so they could reunite. But overall what I was left with was that sense of being seen as the predator, of not being seen as being friendly, connected in a good way. This sense of disconnect has been hanging around for weeks, as I said.
This morning I went to a breakfast at our local hall to celebrate the achievements of the Landcare group and their project on Branch Creek. My dear friend Emma has been instrumental and indefatigable in this work. Such an inspiring, deeply connected woman. I went to celebrate her as much as to celebrate their achievements. But celebrating connection and achievement when you yourself feel in the midst of disconnect and non-achievement, is a pretty tough gig. When someone asked me how I was, I honestly answered ‘Vulnerable, like most human beings’. I didn’t last there long, ended up walking home alone with the dogs, trying to honour my vulnerability, feeling fed up with my disconnect and aloneness, but not knowing how to bust out, whilst still honouring this truth of vulnerability and rawness.
On my return to the gate of home, I suddenly heard voices. Voices I’ve been hearing for days but haven’t really tuned into. Too busy, too caught up in my frustration and disconnect and aloneness and general busyness of life, getting by. I realised though, then, on hearing them, how quiet the walk had been and how noisy with life it was here, at my very own door. What a racket was being made and it was time I found out who was making it. Quietly I made my way down the side-path and squatted at the edge of the stand of bamboo, where the voices were coming from. There were at least three distinct voices, coming from different spots. And then I saw her, right in front of me, perched on a black, rotting, fallen piece of bamboo. Her throat was a beautiful rusty red, her wings a brindle of black and dusky browns and they shook as she shrugged her shoulders and belted out her piping song, that was being answered so fiercely by the others nearby.
She was a Logrunner. And for a moment I didn’t feel so disconnected. For a moment, I felt welcomed home, despite my largeness and human trollishness. For a moment, I simply marvelled at her beauty and boldness, making herself so heard, despite her smallness and vulnerability.
I know that there is a power in vulnerability, that is the message I’m starting to hear. It’s early days, early moments yet, but I am starting to listen beyond it being my own inner background noise, my own fierce, desperate inner voice, crying out and wanting to be heard, not ignored. I am starting to listen, I am trying.
More on Logrunners: http://www.birdsinbackyards.net/species/Orthonyx-temminckii