Tag Archives: advice

Turning to the light

celebrate-954787_1920“I learned something recently,” my friend Wendy said to me during her visit to Australia. “Some things are just big black piles of shit, and they’re everywhere, and sometimes there’s nothing you can do about that, so sometimes you just have to turn your back on it. You have to face the other way. Towards the light.”

We were talking about how much rage we both carry in us, about discrimination and harm in the world, in all its many forms. We’re both prone to shoutiness in this regard. (Actually, we’re as prone to joyful shoutiness as ragey shouting, and I’ll come back to that.)

Wendy is absolutely correct. Many of the things that reduce us to rage and despair and shouting are heaping mounds of stinking, fly-blown ordure. The comment trolls spitting venom online; misogynists making rape threats against women who dare to have a voice; bigots spewing venom about refugees and the queer community. Gunmen full of fear and hate. Hypocritical leaders who condemn the violence while encouraging discrimination through legislation and denial of human rights, thereby creating environments in which hate is allowed to flourish through tacit agreement that these or those human beings are only second class.

Wallowing in the mire

The trouble is (well, one of the troubles is) that too often, we get caught up with those mounds of excrescence. We go and read the comments; we share the awful and cruel things that someone just posted and point at it saying I CANNOT BELIEVE THIS CRETIN SAID THIS THING! We give oxygen to the haters and let everyone know what the haters said and how outraged we are by it.

Basically, we run up to the big smelly turd and look at it from every angle, sniffing in the toxic stinking stinkiness of it, complaining the whole time about how AWFUL it is – and offering other people a whiff of the proof that such ugliness exists in the world.

Shovelling shit

And okay, sometimes there’s a good point in paying attention to the pile of poo. Sometimes, knowing that it’s there, it’s possible to pick up a shovel and start mucking out that particular stall.

It’s good and right to fight against this stuff stinking up the world. To lobby politicians to change the law, to add your body and your voice to the protest marches and the gatherings in support of vulnerable people – often those buried under that awful shit. That kind of presence and activity is incredibly important. Representation is important.  Whether you’re fighting for your own rights, or are an ally of those struggling for them, it’s good to be seen to be out there. Refusing to be silent is powerful.

It’s true, too, that some people siding with the stink piles simply lack information. Maybe they’ve never been challenged. Maybe nobody has ever gone through the issue with them. They’ve been surrounded by the stink so long they don’t know it’s possible to live in fresh air. So sure – engage with them if you believe you can win an ally from it. If there are people who are willing to listen, be willing to talk, to converse – not to browbeat but to share ideas that may be new to them. That’s a noble undertaking too.

Cutting off the air

But sometimes, paying attention to the haters is just lavishing attention on garbage. When we acknowledge what they say by paying attention to it at all, we’re giving oxygen to outdated and vile viewpoints. We’re feeding the trolls.

And it’s exhausting. It’s disheartening at best, soul-crushing at worst, to expend energy on arguing against people who have no logic to stand on in the first place. They won’t be turned into allies. They’ll just enjoy watching your blood pressure rise, and the fury in your eyes turn to despair and hopelessness at the awfulness of the world.

Sometimes, I think we’re at risk of making those smelly mounds of ignorance, fear, hatred and viciousness bigger and more important than they should be.

Sometimes we should note that there’s a stink and instead of sticking our faces close to inhale it deep and then rage about the stench, we should turn our backs to it and face the other way. Maybe they’re only heard because of the shouty rage that is spreading word of the awful thing they said. Deprive them of oxygen and attention. Turn away.

But don’t turn off.

Don’t shout down – lift up

If you can turn your back on the smelly, time-consuming, attention-demanding turds, you’ll see other things. Not necessarily sparkly rainbows and ponies. Brightness is in the world too, of course, but that’s not what you look for.

What you look for is those who, like you, are half broken by the awfulness of that shit that’s everywhere in life. Look for anyone who needs the air that got taken up by the stink you’ve turned your back on, and give the air to them instead.

Raise your shouty voice to say: I belong here too! Raise it to say: I deserve my space and I’m taking it back!

Raise your shouty voice to say: I hear you! I’m your ally – how can I help? I will fight for your rights too, because human rights are everybody’s business.

Spend your energies on listening and learning. Get behind projects and ideas and voices that counter the vile stenches, and lift them up.

Shovel the shit away when you can; but don’t roll around in it. Don’t stick your face in the fumes and make your eyes water with it. Don’t try to shout down the ugly voices who just love to shout back and never learn a damned thing, because they revel in the pain they cause.

Use your passionate voice to lift others who need lifting. Use whatever you have to encourage, affirm, support, and give and give and give to those who need encouragement, affirmation, and support. Help the ones who need lifting to be heard and seen above the miasma of the stink-makers.

Shouting joyfully

Wendy and I have taken to reminding each other of this choice we’re making. When we’re full of rage and distress and despair that there’s so much hate, we remind each other to turn our backs on it, and to try in whatever way we can to give something to the love, to face the light

To listen and to learn. To steal our oxygen back and breathe it – and sometimes shout it joyfully – into something that grows.


Image: Celestial by johnhain
CC0 Public Domain  

Writers' Insecurity? Stake that vampire in its cold, dead heart!

Copyright: Novic / 123RF Stock Photo
Copyright: Novic / 123RF Stock Photo

No doubt the topic of writerly insecurity has been covered before. And it will be again. And we will probably all quote Neil Gaiman’s story about calling his agent to say how awful his latest book was.

But the thing is, this writerly insecurity is a persistent infection. It’s a nasty little bastard that makes life hard. So we need to innoculate ourselves frequently. It’s not a waste of time to repeat the story. It’s a damned survival skill.

I read that story of Gaiman’s years ago, and it was a kind of lifeline to me. The news that Neil Gaiman experienced the same doubts that I did was a revelation. The fact that his writerly insecurities happened so often that he talked about hating every single word as simply a regular phase of writing made me feel so much better as a writer.

I mean, if Mr-Hugo-Nebula-Carnegie Winner feels that way too, then it’s obvious that I’m not alone, and that all writers must get attacked by the same collywobbles in much the same way.

Furthermore, that means that the voice in your head telling you that what you’re doing is rubbish is not necessarily telling you the truth, and that the little bastard is certainly not your friend.

Obviously, it never hurts to assess what you’re working on, and to work on it till your fingers bleed and your eyeballs dry out from staring, to ensure you are doing the best work you know how. But if you are working like a Trojan already, then chances are that the snide little voice in your head is what one playwright called a ‘Vampire of Doubt’.

In the musical [Title of Show] there is a whole song and dance sequence about the self-doubt that creeps in. With wit and nifty harmonies, the song Die, Vampire, Die identifies that voice of doubt and disparagement that whispers in your ear to “give up, you’re no good, blah blah blah” and gives some quite good advice about it.

(Here it is – with a language warning!)

 By the way, one of my favourite bits of the lyric, which is a spoken section, is:

“Why is it that if some dude walked up to me on the subway platform and said these things, I’d think he was a mentally ill asshole, but if the vampire inside my head says it, It’s the voice of reason.”

We are always all too ready to accept our vampire of doubt as the Voice of Truth. And it’s not.

Of course, writers need to develop a rational and balanced sense of our work, to know when it’s not coming together as planned, when to do better. But we need to learn to separate the rational practice of improving as writers from the simple fear that we’re not good enough.

If you want to improve as a writer, then write more. Write differently, experiment, play around with ideas, push yourself, ask for external feedback, collaborate.

Start, continue, finish – then start again.

But don’t let the vampire of doubt make you stop.

Stake that bloodsucking bastard right in the heart and keep on writing.

Six lessons I learned from Chef Ramsay

In the last two weeks I’ve seen far too many back-to-back episodes of Gordon Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares. The damned things are addictive.

Who can resist the pull of The Dilemma of the Failing Restaurant, the arrival of The Expert and the inevitable Confrontation as a restauteur discovers just how bad everything is? Not me.

There is the whole dynamic of Bad Gordon/Good Gordon as he at first condemns and then encourages the owners, chefs and staff. There is the journey from Dilemma to Conflict to Epiphany and Redemption.

I love the short, downwardly inflected ‘Wow’ that is Ramsay-speak for ‘I am appalled’ and the heart-cry of ‘Oh My God!’ he expresses at the walk-in, which is Ramsay-speak for ‘How is no-one yet dead of food poisoning? HOW?’

Yes, the show has an easily surmised ‘story arc’, and clearly the episodes are edited for effect: but it’s cracking good television!

For all the high drama, the crafting of footage for narrative and effect and the sheer voyeuristic glee of it all, I’ve come away from Kitchen Nightmares with several important lessons.

1. Pretending there is nothing wrong until the problem goes away has never solved a problem.

2. Stop panicking and step back. When your project isn’t working and you don’t know why, going heads-down, tail-up in a panicked frenzy, doing the same stuff you’ve been doing all along may be a natural instinct, but it’s what got you in this mess in the first place. Make time to stand back and reassess.

3. The phrase “I don’t know how” is not always  a weakness. It’s okay to ask for help from people who have more experience or a different perspective. New viewpoints are valuable, and you may discover something about yourself or what you do. You may in fact learn a new skill!

4. Listen when you ask an expert for advice. There is no point in asking for expert advice and then telling the expert you don’t think they know what they’re talking about, just because you a) don’t like the advice, b) don’t like the expert’s tone and/or c) don’t like the expert.

5. Trust your team. You need to lead and make the final decisions, but you should gather all the facts first. Listen to the expertise you have in your partners and colleagues. You’ll go further rowing in the same direction. (Jean-Luc Picard provides a good example of this as well.)

6. For god’s sake, clean out your fridge on a regular basis before you kill someone.

All this came to a head recently when I realise I needed to find (and please excuse me for the dry business talk) a marketing and engagement strategy for the Kitty and Cadaver multimedia project.

I was getting increasingly anxious about not knowing how best to bring in readers and encourage interaction, but felt so frantically busy with writing the book sufficiently ahead, and getting other parts of the project moving, that I couldn’t stop to find out how. And I didn’t know where to start. And I couldn’t make time to start. And, and, and…

Cue spiking stress levels.

Cue my team, my partner, my colleague, my resident expert, my husband, who had great ideas (and with me hyperventilating in the corner, plenty of incentive to get me to stop and deep breathe long enough to listen to them).

We’ve just returned from a brainstorming weekend in Warburton, and I am now armed with two pages of (excuse me, more office-speak) action items. I have many more pages of detailed notes and a commitment to put aside three hours a week from the writing to work on them.

I have a plan! I feel confident, and supported, and I know there will be a lot of work ahead, but at least I have a roadmap now.

So many thanks to Tim Richards, my wise and helpful guide. And thank you Gordon Ramsay for reminding me to both ask for help and to listen and act on it when it was given.

And for reminding me to clean out the fridge. Because. Wow.

Love is an action

Candle image from Wikipedia Commons; picture by Richard W.M. Jones

I think of myself as a sort of realistic optimist. I mean, I’m not a complete Pollyanna, thinking that everything will be just fine if you just think positively about it for long enough. Life is complex, pain is real and bad people do exist, after all. But I do think that most people are fairly decent, and that good exists in the world along with the bad.

However, I do think that, collectively and individually, the best ‘good’ happens when we do something to make it happen. We have a lot of entropy to fight against and, to paraphrase the quote, the only thing needed for evil to flourish is for good people to do nothing.

I saw a few things recently that got me thinking about this idea – of ‘good’ being the outcome of active choices.

One is a post that I saw on a social media site. The original post was a note that said: They say you die twice. One time when you stop breathing and a second time, a bit later on, when somebody says your name for the last time.

The comments were filled with anxiety and distress about being lost to time, but I don’t think memory and identity need to be the same thing. I think you can have an influence in the world long after your name is forgotten.

Despite my blog joking about how my name might live on in history, I honestly think that my name is unimportant compared to the effect I might have on the people I love and the world in which I live. All of us may go on in the world in ways we never anticipated.

After you’re dead, you may not have a name, but a kind word you had for someone, a selfless deed you performed, a word of encouragement you gave or the grace you had to truly listen to someone… those actions in turn can inspire kindness, good deeds, encouragement and grace in others, and so those good things are handed on and on and on. Maybe someone in your nameless future will be stronger and happier because once, even once, you took the time to care, and that act was paid forward.

The second instance was a friend’s Facebook update stating that she was tired of feeling depressed, angry, disenfranchised and essentially powerless in the face of persistent inequalities and injustices in Australian politics, society, and the world in general. She decided that she would try to focus more on the principle of ‘be the change you want to see in the world’.

The truth is that if we decide it’s all too hard and too horrible and irredeemably awful, and turn our backs, nothing will change.

It’s only when we become engaged that we have a hope of influencing things. Maybe as an individual you can’t change the big picture – but we can act within our spheres of influence, and that can become collective. We can be advocates for the issues that matter to us and encourage others to participate in making a noise – and if we keep it up, making a change as well.

Hell, we can just engage with the people around us to be open, encouraging and supportive. Maybe we can’t change the whole world, but we can make one person’s world better than it was yesterday. We can make the time to listen, to say a kind word, do a good deed, make one choice to be the kind of person we want to see.

After all, love is not just something we feel. It’s not just a state. It’s a verb, it’s something we do as well as feel, or it should be.

And thinking about all of these things, I ended up writing something. Well, a song, to be exact.

For context about the song: in the last year I’ve been playing around with writing lyrics. I’m working on a multimedia project which involves a story about a rock band saving the world from monsters, and as a natural progression, I’ve been writing the material that they’ll sing in the book. However, I last played piano regularly around 30 years ago, so I essentially don’t play an instrument. I’m no great shakes as a singer either, but I come up with melodies so that the lyrics work as lyrics and not as a poem (they are two quite different disciplines).

For the book project, I’ve been working with my niece, Jessica Harris, since she is a proper musician, to turn lyrics into songs. This one, however, is all my own work. The melody is pretty simple

Which is all by way of saying, I wrote a song about choosing to be actively engaged in the world, even though it can be downright painful at times, and I’ve written a melody for it, which may be a bit simplistic because I’m not a proper musician. But for what it’s worth, here it is.

If you’re game, here’s an MP3 of me singing this, a-capella.


They say love is hearts and honey
It’s what we feel
We gaze at each other and we sigh
At the altar of Eros, oh we kneel

But love is not a state we are in
Love is not a wailing violin
Love is an action, it is a force
Love is a battlecry
Shout it until you’re hoarse

This is the world I love
I will fight for it
For wisdom and kindness
I will fight for it
Open my arms to the blood and the pain
And I will do it again and again and again

You cannot fight darkness with darkness, only light
The other side of fear is love and the end of night
For every act that is cruel, there is one that is kind
For everyone lost, there is someone to find
For every dark deed, there is one of grace
For the hope of all this, I will take my place

This is the world I love
I will fight for it
Compassion and courage
I will fight for it
And open my arms to the blood and the pain
Open my heart again and again and again

Love is an action, it is a force
Love is a battlecry
Shout it until you’re hoarse

You cannot fight darkness with darkness, only light
The other side of fear is love and the end of night
For every dark deed, there is one of grace
For the hope of all this, I will take my place
Love is an action, it is a force
Love is a battlecry
Shout it until you’re hoarse