On insidious perfectionism


Gabriela from DIY MFA outlines five creativity myths:

  1. Creativity is an exclusive club, and you can’t be part of it.
  2. Creativity is innate–you either have it or you don’t.
  3. Creativity is driven by chaos, so there’s no way to control it.
  4. Creativity is all about getting that one “Big Idea.”
  5. Creativity is focusing on an idea until it’s perfect.

While I don’t think I’ve succumbed to any of these in particular, I have suffered through myriad guises of another:

  1. To discover the most original, insightful, worthwhile ideas, creativity is hard, torturous, debilitating even and, when it isn’t painful, the result is trifling, entertaining fluff.

The starving artist is a myth. Studies show this1 even if Hollywood doesn’t. Lose the plural on ideas and we have a rephrasing of myth #4. Consider it the work of genius (as in the reference in that footnote) and we’re back to myth #1. But taken at the level of minutia affecting every thought, word, or story told? The very act of imagining an idea is proven possible and thereby automatically disqualified of value. I exaggerate, and yet…

I was and always will be a physicist. It’s a way of thinking, of seeing the world, of being even. Physics is beautiful. Simple at its most powerful, elegant as best explained, and it’s written in the secrets of the universe. It’s hard. Most physicists could have studied anything they wanted and many leave physics to work in such far ranging fields as finance modelling and biology, or, for example, neuroscience. And yet, I don’t think it’s controversial to posit that many go into physics because it’s hard rather than despite it. There’s a natural tendency to ascribe value because of the difficulty2.

But how can we measure difficulty in a spontaneous act?

My latest novel-in-progress (NIP) is better described as several: I’ve discarded two (three?) drafts to begin anew. ‘The ideas are cliché’, ‘the characters are flat’, either (both) are ‘too simple’, ‘too complex’. And I want to change everything3.

To try and overcome this, I’ve developed a commitment list that’s slowly becoming an outline. The list compiles setting ideas, character traits, must-have scenes, everything I think of that I definitely want and I commit to them. Then I build on that with more specifics. Life is busy right now—professional development (learning data science) and a new relationship—but that’s good too: I let my subconscious shape new ideas and get used to them.



For the myriad other ideas I form two files: LIKE and WANT (I forget who recommended these!). Novel LIKEs are mostly quotations, references, other stories that acknowledge what I’m interested in most keenly in the world as it relates to this NIP. WANTs are all my ideas, crazy and cliché alike, descriptions, explanations of the world and story. With enough COMMITs, I’ll soon be ready to OUTLINE and DRAFT. All small steps toward NOVEL (probably broken into CHAPTERS!).

1. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has written extensively on creativity and ‘flow’ (I’m slowly working through his book Creativity that describes his study of creative geniuses of all trades—I highly recommend it, or, perhaps the salient points delivered via TED talk). In his studies, M. C. found that real creative geniuses most often led stable, happy lives.

2. And, I must have written (often) that I climb, but did I mention I’m afraid of heights?

3. Coincidentally the title of a book/movie I want to read by Naomi Kleins. Am I describing a symptom of the greater craving/fear of disaster/changes?

Origin Stories; mine and others’

Superheroes have gone mainstream (again). The golden age comics are being rebooted in movies (sometimes a few times!), new comics are creating new superheroes, and everyday heroes are being cast (and pressured!) as Super. What is our fascination with superheroes?


Over at DIY MFA, Gabriela has a short quiz to determine your storytelling superpower (mine is The Underdog); a podcast on How to be a Learning Superhero (Ep. 88) on the MFA/DIY approach; and, generally, her site is about how to teach ourselves to become (super!) writers.

In a MOOC on Superheroes on edX, I realized that most superheroes have a genesis story founded in tragedy (Superman is sent to Earth to evade destruction of his home planet, family and entire species; Spiderman becomes a hero after the death of his uncle; and, more recently, the Shadow Hero finally becomes the hero his Chinese-American mother pushes him to become when his cowardice gets his father killed). And, although this isn’t the direction expected from What is your origin story? for this week’s prompt, I’ll take it anyway.

After my PhD and postdoc in physics, I felt disillusioned of academia; my research was beginning to feel like a lie. I left, went off the map for a few years, struggled through several first drafts of my WIP, and ultimately returned to academia in neuroscience, started studying data science and continue to write more first drafts.

Before I get to the point, another tangent: most people aren’t artists, or writers, or musicians. They’re artist/writer/musician and something else (then something else a few years later). I’d take it further and say that we are many labels, too many labels to neatly package a person, artists among the worst.

Without writing, life feels random—it is random. Some people take up pottery. I write. I write to know myself, to know others. And I’ll keep pushing past the superficial chaos until I discern the patterns of the world. I may be writing a long time.

A word of the day before I close: generativity, from psychology, expresses a lifelong urge to pass along our genes and memes. I’ll skip the kids but I want to share the rest.

What do you want to share? Why?

Starting Over Again a Writer

IMG_9456 copy.jpg
Getting there slowly but surely.

Becoming who we are is slow and convoluted and the titles we give ourselves are at least somewhat arbitrary. I’m writing a novel (another though none are published). But am I a writer?

First a farm girl growing up a tom boy staring at the stars in frigid winter nights and scribbling words on paper in the rare lull mid-day; then a mathematician, then a physicist, undergrad, masters, then phd; next a postdoc and onto willful unemployment to take a crack at writing. After all that time of training in hard sciences and numbers, I left to write a novel.

Too much pressure, too much time, neither that I used wisely, and I was back in Vancouver looking for focus and fell into yet another chapter: half time neuroscience, peeking into data science, and back outside for climbing, skiing. Dating. (Focus I did not find).

Amid all of this, how do I become a writer? When do I earn that title?

This post exists because of  Gabriela Pereira whom I discovered (and eventually met—virtually) over three years ago via her site diymfa.com, an online writing resource and community. In the next few months until her book DIY MFA launches, I’m happy to join her Street Team and post some reflections about writing outside the school system, and writing and learning more generally.

This week’s question: Why DIY my MFA?

Apart from DIY being all the hipster rage out there, if there’s one thing I’ve learned from too much school, it’s how to learn.

I love school. As my grandmother once said: I’m still in school. But a big part of me thinks MFA programs are a sham; another (irrational!) part thinks I should just be able to write; but mostly I realize that to become a good writer,  I have to write.

And read (broadly). And, because I’m lucky, surround myself with other writers struggling along different arcs of the (learning) curve. And live: fill the well, pile onto the compost, keep a finger on the pulse of the world, of my world. This does slow me down, but it also keeps me sane.

Specifics: I’ve been tinkering in deliberate practice (those the 10000 hrs to become an expert, arguably irrelevant as a goal but the intentions are good), or flow as Mihaly puts it, reading on universal archetypes and mythology, the hero’s journey, and too too many ways to plan a novel (also known as procrastination): I’ll share in upcoming posts what I’ve liked best.

Who else is out there diy’ing? Let’s share notes!

Lara is moving blogs!

Cristobal Toral - colorful suitcases
Photo by Cristobal Toral.

I’m moving! Head over to www.lararthompson.com to find new content.

I haven’t been very active in the blogosphere the past year but I’m attempting a comeback with weekly posts. Bear with me as I personalize my wordpress theme (I’ll add advice as I discover it), the .org kind, not .com (if that doesn’t make sense, stay tuned).

This blog will be shutting down gradually but all the old posts (esp. the ever-popular nook-rooting posts — a v3.0 is due soon!) and comments will be ported over.

Sleeping bag physics, or how to prove you sleep cold, or how to sleep hot

Trying to sleep in. If it's cold, you can still sleep at a calorie deficit, burning more than normal, but only for so long before you'll wake up "hungry".
Trying to sleep in.

The numbers

The second thing you’ll notice when you’re searching for a sleeping bag is the temperature rating (the first thing might be the cool name, maybe a greek god or native spirit — like cars, don’t be swayed). Worst case: you can expect to survive at that temperature, but sleep will seem a far off thing like melting marshmallows. This is the survival rating. Better case: this is the so-called comfort rating and you’ll probably be able to sleep despite the cold feet. Clearly, there is a big difference between the two temperatures.

Best case: some companies give both numbers. Too often though, a number is thrown around without reference to where it stands on the survival/comfort spectrum and, never, for whom. I would expect (hope) the numbers are for the average male, maybe average female for the women’s bags; but who’s average? the outdoorsman? or, maybe pushing the survival end with a burly “hot” outdoorsman with ample “cold training” — I’ll explain “hot” and “cold trained” and it has nothing to do with melting “marshmallows” or potty training sled puppies.

The materials

Next thing to notice is the material of the sleeping bag, inside and out. I’m a diehard down lover (of the bird variety) because the insulation per weight is incredible and it compresses to itty bittiness. Fast and light gets tossed around a lot. This is as far as I’ll go down that slippery slope. The alternative to down is a variety of synthetic fills. These are almost always heavier and degrade faster. BUT, unlike down that squashes down like a poor kitten sodden in the gutter, synthetic fills retain some of their insulation when wet. I’ve tested this. Really, a wet down bag will suck the heat out of you, literally (to work on evaporating all that water), but a wet synthetic bag will cozy up warm and as soft as wet nylon can ever be.

On the outside, there’s a hierarchy of shell fabrics, just like in shell jackets, from simple nylon up to Gore produced (and competition) levels of waterproof-breathable fabrics. Since there’s a lot more fabric than a jacket, weight accumulates faster, so you probably won’t find fancy three (and four?) ply fabrics (more layers to control the one-way moisture flow: you want water to go against the thermal graduate from your hot body to the cold outside).

In the night, we sweat; under duress, we might sweat a lot. Remember those down bags? You need to get that moisture out before it dampens your insulation. In a tent, there might be condensation on the walls (hot, moist air meets cold outside): open the tent flaps high to let the hottest (moistest) air out. If it’s raining outside, pressure against the tent will undo whatever waterproofness it promised (nothing is truly waterproof — apply enough pressure/time and water will pass though). If it’s feeling crowded, or I’m on a slope, I’ll put my waterproof jacket over my feet (this probably doesn’t help, but it makes me feel better at night).

As a brief aside, you may hear suggestions of putting your wet clothes in the sleeping bag with you to dry off. The extra heat from your body (if you have any to offer) will evaporate that wetness and a good bag will pass that through to the tent. Do not attempt this if you’re tired and cold. It’ll just make you colder, wetter, and probably won’t work anyway. The most I’ll take into my bag at night are damp socks and liner mitts. For the rest, when you stop to make camp, layer up. This is good advice regardless. Stay warm and keep moving. In between layers — usually just after my thinnest insulation layer (a thin fleece) — plaster any damp clothing you aren’t already wearing, usually just the spare liner mitts for me.

To wear or not to wear clothing inside your sleeping bag

Far too often, I hear recommendations against wearing clothing in the sleeping bag. “They’re designed to be slept in naked.” In all the literature I searched, experiments involving people or dummies always involved some clothing. Don’t wear something that will block heat and moisture flow, but extra insulation is still extra insulation.

Men vs women: more than just size and shape

Not only is the average man larger and heavier than the average woman (meaning more heat production which goes with volume, but also faster heat loss which goes with area), but we physiologically manage our heat compromises differently. Women are far faster to sacrifice the extremities to keep the core warm (cold feet sound familiar?). Men, even accounting for higher metabolisms given their size, continue to metabolize higher relatively when they sleep. How often you expose yourself to cold, awake and sleeping, can increase your tolerance to sleeping cold and raise your sleeping metabolism (so does eating a chocolate bar in the middle of night, teeth be damned). This is cold training. Don’t ask about the nearly naked peddling rectal temperature experiments — the Norwegians are nuts.

Here’s a little math. The insulation, I, of a sleeping bag is measure of the steady state (no net heat flow) temperature gradient it can maintain over a certain volume divided by the heat source within the bag (you): I ∝ Δ T A / W.

Insulation increases with the loft of the bag (notice how a good winter bag looks like there’s already somebody inside of it when it’s laid out). Ideally, the (outer) area is minimized around the person while maintaining a continuous hefty loft of insulation around them: get the right size of bag.

A “hot” man metabolizes 50% more heat than a “cold” one and 33% more heat than a “hot” woman; a “hot” woman metabolizes 30% more heat than a “cold” woman and 10% more heat than a “cold” man. All these percentages translate proportionally to tolerable temperature ranges. An at-home sleeping skin temperature is around 30°C; a tolerably colder one is 25°C. A summer sleeping bag rated to freezing for a “hot” man will only give the equivalent insulation at 15°C for a “cold” woman (where “cold” could just mean small).

Men or women specific bags never fit me right: there’s always too much room around the core. To fill that space, I stuff every over down insulated item I carried (usually just a down jacket, but sometimes two of them). For truly excessive space and the remarkably strong, two sleeping bags, one inside the other, can work; note, there’s no point in two bags if the fit is tight enough to squeeze away the loft that either would deliver on its own.

Sleeping side by side shares heat, even if it’s not close enough to compress loft. If you squeeze tightly, the inside temperatures will try to equilibrate — so your tent partner can share some of his/her hotness.

An aside up Mt Rainier

The route leading out of Ingraman flats.
The route leading out of Ingraman flats.

Last weekend I met up with some fellow MITOCers (the MIT outdoor club) to climb Rainier. I didn’t do as well as I should have mostly because of my bad habits of not drink enough water on a climb (that led to 18.5 hrs climbing up, down, and packing out to the cars on <0.5L water — not smart I know). But the sights were phenomenal and the company divine. I look forward to more trips with this group in years to come.

Next “stop”: writing in the Gulf Islands! And I do mean writing now that the worst of the structural editing is done.

Life is an Adventure

Whether it’s three parts internal and seven outward or vice versa or all or none of one or the other, when we truly live our lives, it’s a total adventure. 

Taken during my stay up Cerise creek.

I was watching a climbing video (we climbers do that a lot), a different style of climb however involving the solo bike crossing of Kyrgyzstan to attempt first ascents of many of its peaks.  Watch it if you have time and consider his challenge upon reaching the end of the road. I couldn’t help comparing what I’m doing with what he did (somewhat like comparing my physics self to Feynman or Einstein, but I’ll do it anyway). Writing is hard and scary, not only because it doesn’t pay (yet), but the process itself has to be more honest than I may possibly be capable of, and even if I try and struggle and suffer, I may still fall short and fail. Choosing to take this challenge against a backdrop of mountains may be because they’re a familiar setting for challenge and inspiration to me (not to mention a fairly universal symbol of them too). Are our inner adventures so different from the outer ones? Don’t they ultimately reduce to the same thing anyway?

Hut life

A duffy lake rd hut that will remain nameless to aid its needed anonymity due to a dubious legal status.
A duffy lake rd hut that will remain nameless to aid its needed anonymity due to a dubious legal status.

After another week in the backcountry, I’m starting to settle into the day-to-day of writing in a mountain hut. First, leaving the city is exhilarating (as much so as coming back to it and hot showers, or more). The roads are familiar: the logging roads peeling off into one valley after another recall memories of their twists and turns and the peaks they promised. By nearly forgotten dreams of summits not yet reached call out after more than two years away and two more years of lazy cragging. The trailheads are dubious pullouts that look far more promising during the weekend (and during the ski season) full of cars. The approaches range from open logging road + well maintained trail (eg. to Keith’s hut) to a mild bush whack up an overgrown logging road (not sure I’m willing to strike out on into full on bush whacking for rumours of a hut).

The huts are amazing. Log + plywood buildings, insulated and cozy, with a wood stove for heating in the winters, an elevated level for sleeping, and this place even had a two-sleeping-padded ski couch (see the ski tips peeking out of left of the couch). At the very least, when using a mountain hut, leave it as you found it — no, always aim for better1.

Morning: wake as far after dawn as manageable given the lack of curtains (far better than a tent!); brew coffee2, breakfast; think/stare into space and take the odd notes, reading when frustrated/bored (good nook). Lunch (bread, butter, peanut butter is roughly equal portions), more of the same; soak dinner of dehydrated goodies so cooking is faster. Cook dinner, burn paper waste, eat, read, think, read, etc, until nightfall or earlier. Sleep — oh wondrous sleep and dreams! Seriously: averaging 10-12 hrs up there must be good for creativity.

After another weekend in the city, it’s back to the backcountry on Monday!

1. The horror of molding dishes and heaps of semi-decomposed TP didn’t last around the last hut I visited. I’m extra glad to be using a wood burning stove to burn through the evidence.

2. Habit has become be taking fatty greek yoghourt to finish after the hike in, leaving a pot to steep coffee in; then, using a homemade ‘sock’ cotton filter, pour/filter and presto! coffee. Said yoghourt pot doubles as a garbage receptacle for the hike out.

Friendly tree

I’ve developed a habit of personifying houses, first in Vancouver then again in Cambridge, and then trees, and, passing them, they would irrationally cheer me, like seeing an old friend, even if I did pass them twice daily on my commute. It became a game of looking for them only on the days I especially “needed it”, and, when that didn’t come often enough, on the days that still felt special.

Top, Van cheering house; bottom, Cambridge house.

On the hikes up Cerise Creek last week, I made friends with this tall leaning tree alongside the logging road section of the trail. No cheering necessary for me of late, but he does widen my smile as I pass.

He’s crooked but smiling.