On insidious perfectionism

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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.

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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?

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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!

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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.

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.

The escape is real!

Matier as seen from the hut. The long snow ridge is roughly northward and a lovely hike (mostly) from the hut to the start of the gnarly rock bits -- highly recommended.
Matier as seen from the hut. The long snow ridge is roughly northward and a lovely hike (mostly) from the hut to the start of the gnarly rock bits — highly recommended.

Before heading out, admittedly, there was a lot of stress. How much food will I need? Can I carry it all? What about weather, animals, bugs, loneliness? And how much TP (=toilet paper) does a person need eating primarily a reconstituted diet (of goodness, thanks again mom!) and drinking oh so fresh water straight off the glacier? Well, I’m back to refill (mostly for lack of TP, aka, whatever I brought, the answer was more) in Pemberton.

It’s not stressful up there. There’s no alarm, just the sun streaking through the peaked windows at dawn and beckoning with the reflections off the glacier beyond. There’s a carefully trodden path to the outhouse, to the stream where I get my water (two streams and two muddy patches over to the coolest water straight from that same glacier above), that I’m taking in flip flops (somewhat flippantly, giddy but with no shortage of respect) at a fast clip to outrun the mosquitoes and biting black things (flies, no-see-ums, something like a midge…). Every second or third day, whenever I feel like it, I take a hike/scramble/climb to somewhere new (Vantage has a great ‘vantage’ of the northeast side of Matier; then the 2km long snowy arm of Matier reaching northward offered another day’s escape; next: Duke? Twin One lake?). 

There’s so much freedom in going it solo in the wilderness. The first few days were unreal. It truly hit me when I was hiking in past sunset and my nerves were tweaked against upcoming night but the forest glowed in this amazing light and the sun just never seemed to set. I felt confident finally and giddy with the freedom it delivered. 

For the writing, the biggest change has been the time and space to think. People are wonderful at letting me work when it looks like I’m actually working (aka, writing actively). But writing a novel, it turns out, required ample time just spaced out. For me, there can be no better place for that than staring down a glacier, familiar as an old friend and yet always mysterious.

A few more days of this, then a proper people-filled recharge in the city next week. Mountains to all!

Plans are meant to be changed

Great Sand Dunes NP, 2013. Looks like a painting but I assure that it’s real.

After a few days of intense research into a late spring tour of the SW National Parks, just two days into the road trip and the heat had us Canadians fleeing northward from the forest fires in Colorado and the intense heat of Utah. That brought us early in Seattle with time to tour the Olympics, the Cascades and surrounding area. 

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As planned.
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As executed (so far).

Local-ish coffee

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As a decently picky coffee snob, here’s my take of the small coffee roasters I’ve tried from my St Louis base. These are variously available from Whole Foods, Schnucks and Dierbergs (the last being my best recommendation for price and availability). Before I discuss the beans, remember that these are just my personal tastes that lean toward a medium roast with tasty acidic notes, good acidity that is — memories of fruits, berries, etc — not especially bitter, so-called chocolate flavours being good too. 

As much as I love coffee my caffeine tolerance is limited to one cup of caffeinated coffee at best so there’s a mix of decaf in here. My natural inclination is to dismiss them altogether for lacking flavour, smell certainly, but I’ve discovered a good decaf can more than compete with the caffeinated ones (shocking, I know). On to the coffees!

Culinaria: My personal favourite from around here is the Costa Rica medium roast, but the decaf Sumatra beans are among the best decaf beans available here. Culinaria coffee is roasted in St Louis and distributed by Schnucks.

Metropolis: I have to highlight their Xeno’s Decaf that makes me think exclamations like “I can’t believe it’s not …” caffeinated. Really, this decaf is amazing and brewed nearby in Chicago (where other great coffees come from, though don’t make our regular rotation). I’ve only tried their Redline Espresso which is pretty good, but I’ll be looking for a good medium roast to try from them before I go.

Papa Nicolas Coffee: We keep getting more of Papa Nicolas decaf not because it is especially phenomenal, but for the price (around half the cost of the others), it’s amazing value. This workhorse decaf is for the half-caf days (that unfortunately must happen sometimes) because it manages to cut the best caffeinated beans without changing their flavour much. Their special reserve peaks from the background: I don’t recommend.

Goshen Coffee Company: Roasted in nearby Edwardsville, IL, I’ve only tried their Moka Java Blend and it fulfills the promise of “classic full flavor with delicate chocolate notes” beautifully. This coffee probably comes in a close second among the caffeinated beans for me. I’d like to try their Old-School Tattoo which looks closer to my favourite medium roasts.

Kaldi’s Coffee: Roasting right here in St Louis, we’ve had their decaf Terra Linda shown here, and a caffeinated one I can’t recall. Nothing special here. Ditto for Kuva Coffee

Caribou is everywhere around here. Hailing from Minneapolis, MN, I can’t recommend them, especially given the premium coffee price attached. 

We’ve probably tried others, but they were forgettable. For the price (sub-$10) I definitely recommend the Culinaria’s Costa Rica: you can’t do much better for more. None of the coffees I’ve tried around here really compare to the beans I got based in Cambridge, MA (the local Barismo that introduced me to a whole different tier of good coffee, and the nearby Gimme! coffee in Ithica, NY — holy good coffee), but they come close enough. 

Happy coffeenation!

Thoughts about MIT and Boston

Waiting for 4th of July fireworks in the rain on the roof of the climbing building at MIT.
Waiting for 4th of July fireworks in the rain on the roof of the climbing building at MIT.

All the terrible news about Boston and now MIT hitting far too close to home killing a campus security guard that I took hiking on a winter school trip just a few months ago, makes me reminiscent about the good times there.

I miss Cambridge and MIT and all the friends I made in my two years there. They were my introduction to US living and one of the highest reputed Universities in the world. Cambridge is a beautiful town full of ivy covered stone masonry, winding roads that are a heartache to navigate even with GPS (but still oh so much easier than across the river in Boston!), and some of the friendliest people I’ve ever met. Random conversations on public transit were kind and insightful (in Van, mostly only the crazies talk) and I even made a good friend through a repeat ‘hey, that jacket’s from la cordee in Montreal!’ introduction before recognizing each other.

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White Mountains in the fall; an “easy” climb on Cannon.

I’m an outdoor fanatic and I got involved in MIT’s outdoor club, MITOC, and after I got used to the almost anal safeguarding and liability wavers (ah, the USA) compared to my old club, the VOC at UBC, I found a club with so much energy to teach and share, to spread the love of the outdoors and how to safe in them. Like a good west coasters, I mocked their so-called mountains but, honestly, the Whites are gorgeous. In the fall, the colours are astounding and the peaks, for the little that they rise above sea level, offer ruggedly rocky, exposed and weather beaten summits that’s hard to beat. And the rock climbing walls could be as epic as the best out West!

MIT was not the stuck up academia that I thought it would be. My group was composed of some famous physicists but they were down to earth and friendly. Our lunches were notorious for going on forever with joking and ridiculous tangents (that sometimes led to good ideas!). The campus was connected, physically, so one could literally walk from engineering, through physics, to chemistry, math, and architecture with a little zig zagging up and down the levels. 

Some people ask why I left physics, how I knew, what I had planned. In the back of my mind I always intended on leaving physics — I just had to get that phD first for some reason. I hadn’t intended on the postdoc but I’m so incredibly grateful I did it anyway. 

I’m sending positive thoughts and memories about MIT, Cambridge and it’s big friendly neighbour Boston to all. I hope we get through these rough times quickly.