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?

Starting Over Again a Writer

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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.

Writing on a Mac


For drafting a novel, you’d think finding a free little text editor would be a cinch. Unfortunately, there seem to glitches to all of them. Between file size limits, unstable behaviour, and missing word counts or basic formatting, there doesn’t seem to be a perfect (free!) text editor out there. Yes I’m being picky: I want smart quotes, word counts and italics and I don’t want the program to start crashing when my file gets to near novel lengths. Here are the text apps I’ve tried.

  • Textedit Maximum file size? I wasn’t even a third finished my draft and the program stopped autosaving. At least it warned me.

  • Textwrangler This simple text editor is a staple on my laptop, but it’s better at parsing code than composing in.

  • Celtx This is a powerful little app for formatting and organization. It separates chapters and stores index cards by project. Also intended for scriptwriter, the formatting is truly superb. Unfortunately, to show a word count one must awkwardly select the text and right click (the word count shows at the bottom of the drop down menu). I’m compusively motivated by an increasing word count so seeing it live is important (chipping away at my first million).

  • Ommwriter Beautiful backgrounds and sounds, chimes for each keypress, this little app feels like a trip to a yoga studio. Unfortunately it’s full screen and plaintext only. Sometimes, text just has to emphasized.

  • Bean Bean is quite the ideal little app (word count, full screen, customizable views) except that the screen freaks out (all squiggly lines and dots) like it’s about the crash every once in a while. Scary. 

  • Texts This program is a little different. It’s a markup text, that is, it saves in plain text but embeds style tags and can output to a variety of formats including rtf and html. As opposed to other markup editors though, the style tags are hidden and the view is formatted output. Very nifty. There’s a live word counter in the upper right hand corner so it seems ideal. Unfortunately, it uses the Mac’s overly aggressive autocorrect and a partially finished word can morph into something unintentional and a change undone is liable to remade the next time the space bar is hit. When all you want to do is blaze ahead with a semblance of the intended word (and no, not a word vaguely spelled correctly but with a wholly different meaning), stopping and correcting the autocorrect all the time is more infuriating than autocorrect on a smartphone. It can’t be turned off within the app, but at least I can disable autocorrect Mac-wide (drastic, but works). Other text editors seem to manage to reign in the Mac’s autocorrect making it usable.

I’m still using Texts with my OS-wide autocorrect disabled.

Anyone else on a Mac working with similar text files have other suggestions?