Thursday, April 12, 2018

Bonny McClain - Humble, Terrific, Radiant

By Cheryl Oreglia

My author du jour is Bonny McClain. She hosts a wildly successful blog called Data & Donuts. I met Bonny at the first ever OnBeing Gathering, Krista Tippett’s invitational conference, held at the beautiful 1440 Multiversity Campus. An encounter with Bonny is simply an extraordinary encounter, she is the epitome of Critical Yeast (a term coined at the conference), as she commonly “rises up” to protect the needs of the most vulnerable in our society.  

I sat down next to Bonny at breakfast on a whim, she is statuesque, bright eyed, with dark curly hair. Immediately I noticed (appreciated) her accepting, engaging, and warm nature. In fact the Chaplin sitting next to me whispered, “I am thrilled she is not an introvert,” we both smiled, and rested in Bonny’s unique charm. If you haven’t stopped by her amazing blog - Data & Donuts - your depriving yourself of a unique treat. 
“I organically feel like critical yeast and knowing there are like-minded people feeling deeply, and meaningfully, and desperately trying to make a difference is basically the world to me,” in reference to the OnBeing Gathering 2018.
When asked about significant childhood influences Bonny responds, I was always an avid reader, my earliest memories include Pippi Longstocking. (Maybe where she got her sense of adventure?) I grew up happy in spite of a tumultuous home life with an alcoholic dad. When I was working as a temp in a financial services company in San Francisco, early 90’s, I was invited to a cocktail party. Discussion about the crisis in Bosnia became my Tara (Gone with the Wind). I quietly vowed ‘to never read fiction again’, I felt dumb and uninformed, from that day forward I read to learn…

On becoming a writer Bonny says, “I was writing my thesis - wait for it - Constraints of Landscape Pattern and Fish Mobility on Ecological Genetics of Lake Trout (Salvelinus Namaycush) and Arctic Char (Salvelinus Alpinus), and figured I nailed it. I won a 5th grade English award so was pretty chuffed, when my advisor edited out all the flowery prose and carefully selected adjectives and adverbs I was shocked but intrigued. Apparently, science writing was a thing onto itself and I sucked at it.” 

But this is not the case with Bonny today, “I enjoyed the writing that followed even more than when the subzero fridge went on the fritz in the middle of the night and I needed to rescue DNA samples. Okay, maybe that was too easy. I enjoyed writing more than the strange fruit fly mutants that hitchhiked home in my long curly hair only to be liberated in the hallways of our house. I definitely enjoyed it more than bench science, so following graduation - I wrote.” 

Bonny was a medical writer for many years. She notes, “as an employee of academia, industry, agencies, medical education companies and even a freelancer in health economics, policy, and clinical medicine (Cheryl inserts, don’t let this scare you off, she is actually quite normal) I wrote whatever I was asked. Until I got curious. I started looking at the data and asking questions. Initially brushed aside with ‘oh that is too technical, don’t worry about it’ I saw disparities and myopia in the important data and what was being written or reported. I write about healthcare from the intersection of health policy, health economics, and clinical medicine for the data curious.” 

There is no way around it - Bonny is a science freak (I mean that in the best way). She says, “my first opportunity as a full-fledged medical writer was writing about HIV and Aids research. The geographic gods smiled on me as I was in close proximity to groundbreaking research at Chapel Hill - opportunities at Gene Therapy Center followed - I was hooked.” 

Bonny’s audience is unique, largely CEO, healthcare, and writers/journalist following on LI - as a percentage of the whole (and me). She would like to see her audience “as anyone with a curiosity around how the sausage is made in healthcare”. 

Her goal is to ask better questions and question established answers (what a rebel). She says, “I first heard this when the BMJ (British Medical Journal) convened a bunch of journalists together to figure out how we can best make a difference...I think of it like telling important stories about data - and looking at the data that drives stories in healthcare.” Bonny is a data visualization expert first but writing is how she communicates and tells the story, she says, “data needs a voice.” 

Bonny shows up. She writes everyday. She reads voraciously. It’s important to Bonny to be authentic and earn the trust of her readers. She shares everything for free and only charges when clients “need to scale beyond their abilities.” She has press credentials and tries to be the “ears” on the ground for her network. She travels so they don’t have to. (Track Bonny down when she dips into your area, she’s always happy to meet for coffee and donuts!)

Bonny likes interesting people (perhaps that’s why she bought me a glass of wine). She says “if they happen to write - and most do - all the better.” She has a page on her blog called “for writers only” full of engaging and practical information. Check it out after you finish this article - clearly.

I’m a little jealous that Bonny is able to read three books a week, “the paper kind, not e-books. Electronic devices are for looking at what your friends ate for lunch - not learning. Lol.” Reading and writing on a feedback loop interspersed with podcasts help to strengthen and stretch her skills. “Mo’ curiosity, mo’ better writing,” I quote.

When asked about writing rituals Bonny responds, “ I head out for 1.5 to 2.5 hour runs several times a week (over achiever much - just saying). I queue up podcasts and let the system thinking begin. My apple watch (and Siri) allows me to send thoughts to Notes in Apple so all my insights are waiting for me back at the office. I love to write in my office. Obviously, I need to adapt for the road so that is where I need to be mindful of what I can’t live without - and pack it up. Usually a microphone, audio recorder, laptop, and iPAD (works as second monitor).” She’s totally killing it.

One of my favorite things about Bonny is our mutual love for Seth Godin, if you know him, you love him (even though he did not agree to an interview - I’m the forgiving type). “Seth Godin is my spirit animal. He takes the form of the little duck I gifted him at OnBeing Gathering. I hear his voice when I am tempted to measure value based on clicks, likes, follows, whatever. Over the year I have gained focus and direction as to my purpose. It isn’t for everyone and now I can say - well, I didn’t make it for you. It’s more fun out here on the edges need to race to the bottom or toward mediocrity (a Sethotomy).” Bonny does use social media as a distribution channel. Her RSS feeds have surpassed any of the social media platforms but she enjoys the engagement and has been able to meet “far-flung like-minded folks.” 

Bonny seeks “active engagement and dialogue extending beyond just my brain.” Most recently she has been reading a book by self-described renegade economist Kate Raworth, Doughnut Economics - 7 Ways to Think Like a 21st Century Economist,” and this has been her talisman (I just finished Charlotte’s Web - in fact humble, terrific, and radiant would be good words to describe Bonny McClain - spoiler alert - the spider dies!)

When asked to consider how the OnBeing Gathering changed, illuminated, embodied, directed, or oriented her work towards civil conversations, Bonny said, “I write against the prevailing ideology in healthcare. If I were a tattooing type I would have 3 - It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it - Upton Sinclair." She believes this is what fails the patient at the point of care as well as the healthcare provider. (That is a rather long quote? Along the arm? Down the leg? As a belt? I’m curious?)

Her second tattoo would definitely be an anklet “Forgiveness is the scent the violet imparts to the heel that crushes it.”

Her final tattoo I see in elegant print along the backbone, “There will come a day I won’t be able to do this. Today is not that day…”

Follow Bonny on Twitter.

If you were the tattooing type what would your image contain? 

Me? "Everything is copy" - Nora Ephron (at the base of my backbone)

I'm Living in the Gap, enjoying a Donut with Bonny, drop in anytime. 


Carrie Beckort said...

Great interview! Thanks for stopping by, Bonny. I know exactly what you mean about the difference between technical and 'pleasure' writing. I started in the technical world and had to learn loosen up a bit in my fictional writing :) I do have a tattoo - a dolphin. I plan to get another some day - a butterfly with the words 'I am enough' somehow worked in.

Cheryl Oreglia said...

Thank you Carrie. I didn't know you started out in the technical world of writing! Interesting, I wonder if that early training informs your writing today? I don't have a tattoo, I'm intrigued by the concept, but haven't stumbled on a image or saying the spans my whole life? Not sure that is possible as I seem to waver in and out of stages, places, knowledge. Thank Carrie for joining me in the comments!

Kit said...


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