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!


A screen shot of my personal timeline.   

This evening, I planned to work on my outline, so, of course, as procrastination, I explored options of visualizing timelines. There’s software to do just that for writers, such as, for example, Aeon Timeline (not just plotting events but drawing causal links and character participation). I was hoping there were horizontal bar graphs in the Google Docs spreadsheets or something as simple (and free). There is an Excel template out there, but I don’t use it. 

Then I found MIT’s open source Timeline project (among other Simile widgets) that plots event points and durations as bars, but, more incredibly, allows scrolling forward and back in time. Above, I show merely a screen shot of my timeline, so you can’t see the full functionality and miss the simultaneous scrolling of two time panes (but you can on the MIT site).

Admittedly, there’s a small learning curve. If I procrastinate long enough on this project, I may code a (local) html interface, or, even better, find someone who’s already done so.

Debusinessing the business cards

My job ends one month into the New Year. Rather than put my crisp stack of business cards to use and look for its successor, I’ve found another use for them: mini index cards.

Business card holder

Over the years, my handwriting has shrunk to match the diminishing Japanese pen tips that I obsess over. I can’t claim the excuse I once heard from a Romanian who, as a student, developed tiny handwriting to save paper, but I can claim a super human nearsightedness so strong I can focus on the eyes of a guy as I kiss him.

Writing vs pen; then and now

I’ve newly christened my former business cards as scene cards to help outline my current novel. My nanowrimo draft served as a fun introduction to my plot and characters, including new ones I didn’t know I would have, with many (most) scenes skipped and the ones recorded mostly skippable. After dreamstorming1 a few sprawling pages of possibilities, I pick my favorites to form a deck of scene cards. Next, playing around with the arrangement, I form a scene-by-scene outline that I’ll use to get to the second draft.

Feeling like a proper madman with all these cards tacked crookedly on the last bare wall of my bedroom, I have timelines intersecting and diverging for my three main characters. Slowly, each card is filling with my scrawled tiny pen scratchings. Photo to come.

1. The scene cards I read in Robert Olen Butler’s From where you dream. Although sometimes his approach frustrates me with the reek of mumbo jumbo, overall, I appreciate his points.