Author Archives: Fiona McMillan
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.