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.

Procrastinations (aka I’ve been busy!)

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It’s been a whopping month+ since I’ve blogged and I’m back to recount the multitude of diversions.

1) Vipassana retreat. I waffled over writing a post about my meditation retreat, before, during and after it was over, but finally, in all seriousness, a blog is no place to share that (for me anyway). For those interested, by all means look at dhamma.org  for locations and specifics about joining a retreat, or www.pariyatti.org/ for publications and lectures (many free) about it. 

2) Sewing! The photo montage is only a selection (maybe half) of my projects in May/June — forgive the poor photobooth quality. The missing ones are mostly missing buttons since I only got the crazy glue to fix the “automatic button hole foot” recently. More photos to come with buttons. Every one of the dresses/shirts above come from the “Built by Wendy Dresses” basic patterns with personalized modifications/embellishments. These showcase various projects from the book. I highly recommend them since the fitting is casual and loose and easy to adjust for a nice fit. I have a few jackets from her Jackets & Coats book to showcase after more buttoning. 

3) Road trip planning!!! In just over two weeks, my mom and I leave for a road trip tour of the National Parks in Colorado (en route) and Southern Utah covering in three glorious weeks: Great Sand Dunes NP, Black Canyon of Gunnison NP, Island in the Sky of Canyonlands NP, Arches NP, Needles District of Canyonlands NP, the Valley of the Gods, Natural Bridges NP, Monument Valley, Navajo NM, the Page end of the Grand Canyon (perhaps dipping into Antelope Canyon), the Grand Canyon NP North rim, Zion NP (oh how I love that place since climbing there last spring), Bryce Canyon NP, culminating in a multiple night leisurely exploration along Hole in the Rock Rd of Glen Canyon NP before driving up the Seattle. After much frustration faffing in google maps (it’s buggy after ~10 stops in map planning),  I discovered this wonderful road trip optimizer to plan our route. After inputting coordinates, it ordered our stops to minimize driving time, and spat the route out direct to google maps for saving/directions/etc (5698km in roughly 2 d, 22h, 31m).

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Besides that, lots of Heroes reruns (while sewing), reading (for fun, reviewing and my own novel too), and house renos still (deck work is more fun that installing toilets/cupboards/etc). Next step is packing for the road trip and my entire summer in the mountains. In just two weeks, my new home will be my roving tent, my mom’s hyundai (on loan all summer! have I mentioned how awesome my mom is lately? I will again, surely) and my hopefully-trusty wood-burning usb-powering Biolite stove keeping me writing. 

“Dreamland”, dreaming, and sleep

sleep dream sleep by mooray

I used to joke that if they made an olympic sport of sleeping I’d be a contestant. Regular nights of 9, 10, … 12 hrs are common. And then the dreams! I’d recount some now except I’d be divulging my deepest secrets and sellable plots (maybe not quite the deepest or the most sellable although I did dream the plot of “Nausicaa and the valley of the wind” before I ever saw it). Trust me that they’re entertaining and bizarre.  

Lately, however, with various sicknesses passing the two family households in St Louis, sleep has been hard won. Last week at the library, I found the non-fiction book “Dreamland: Adventures in the Strange Science of Sleep“. Less interested in how to sleep better and more just curious about sleep, this book suited me by delivering just that.

Before opening this book all I knew about sleep was a random amalgam of REM, Freud and Jung, naps of specific lengths, “sleep cycles”, a vague sense that invoking sleep in the learning process helped (in school I must have tested this, but didn’t counter-test by trying to learn without sleep except that one time with too much orange juice…), and a wariness of the grumpy sleep-deprived Lara.

This book begins with ancient ideas of Plato, a drastic change of dream interpretation introduced by Freud (that is, he began to interpret) then others. The first sleep lab opened in the 1950s, but not all the breakthroughs came from a lab. Before lightbulbs made artificial light safe and prevalent, sleep was split into first and second sleep with a couple of apparently extra awesome hours in the middle of the night (and the best to conceive in). That was discovered in retrospect by a historian of colonial and revolutionary America in completely unrelated research (he loved sleep — who doesn’t?).

The book goes through scientific studies on the detriments of a lack of “good” sleep including (among many others) hallucinations and paranoia after a couple of days and a higher incidence of cancer in overly lit areas. The book gives a scary survey of war accidents whose root cause is given as sleep deprivation. Luckily (?), the armies are learning to enforce sleeping minimums much like what is done for truckers on the highways (I hear).

I was most intrigued by details of studies on learning: after first exposure to the new subject/exercise/game, sleep on it, then try again and the learning will be far better than without the sleep (tired or not!).

These were just my favourites, but the book is full of other stories, science and speculation — a whole book worth in fact — all while being wonderful readable. On the cover comes a warning from Randi Hutter Epstein:

If you start at night, you’ll be up a long time, but at least you’ll know precisely how your sleeplessness altered your brain, body, and athletic prowess.

Review of Pivot Point

ImageFor my February book review of an author’s YA debut, I read Kasie West’s Pivot Point. [Yes, it came out only yesterday.]

I have to admit, it felt like cheating: the book was so wonderfully compelling that I stayed awake until 2 am (twice turning the light back on to read just a little longer) and rushed to finish between putting up sheets of drywall today (house renos). I’m wholeheartedly glad to review and recommend it now!

Addie is a teenager faced with her parents’ divorce and must choose which parent to live with. This is nothing new, but she has a special power: given a choice, she can foretell the future of the two paths that choice offers.

Without divulging more than the brief synopsis at Goodreads, I can say that the alternate paths of living with either  parent are so expertly interwoven that they alternately inform the other and add exquisite tension to both. We’re kept guessing which reality will be chosen: at first they compete for which is best but, with a reversal of fortunes, they manage to get ever worse until, surely, the other path must win.

Most of the characters are well done, although the antagonists are rather stereotypical and a sudden reversal in one of the bad guys to tattle on another seems a little contrived for a last second deus ex machina.

The world is interesting: a small subset of the population has harnessed the last 90% of their brainpower to develop paranormal mental abilities. The protagonist can foresee the outcome of any choice; her best friend can erase memories. Her parents have the most unfortunate abilities a teenager could desire: one can discern lies and the other can persuade someone of anything. I look forward to the next book and hope to see more of the love interest with a normal (I won’t say more — but look forward to meeting him!).

Who would I recommend this to? Well, really, anyone! But, actually, maybe not a few friends that have shown despicable tastes in YA fiction and cannot be saved. Other than them, anyone.

Addendum:

The honeymoon has worn off a little and I should add a couple more quibbles.

I would have appreciated a second sleepless night had the novel been another half as long again if she’d been brave to play more with manipulating the future (after hinting that she might since Addie does after all  foresee it). Instead, Addie just chooses the lesser evil and lives with it.

Given the great prejudices the “paras” have of “norms” I find it in retrospect surprising that Addie has so little trouble accepting them. I guess that’s just her incredible character… but still, some readjustment might have been more realistic.

‘Twas brillig but… [Splintered in review]


my winter wonderland from Saturday in the White Mountains

Despite my high hopes based on the cool cover and the enticing synopsis, I was greatly disappointed in Splintered. The opening scene is promising — Alyssa is morbidly describing her hatred and killing of talking bugs — but the story goes rapidly downhill from there. 

My expectations build with an action-less intro scene, some long backstory, a recurring dream sequence (waaay too long before anything happens in this book, but that’s another problem): after the long setup of this loner teenager, hiding her insanities of hearing talking bugs, teased and presumably friendless, she goes to an unrealistically awesome skate park alone, crashes to be picked up embarassingly by a hot staffer… who is a best friend/neighbour since childhood? Where did that come from? A few scenes later suddenly she has two bff’s.

This is a very jarring introduction of characters that shouldn’t exist according the opening pages. That she’s crushing on the hot bf is no surprise. More confusing still were the descriptions of his way too frequent caresses: all hot and steamy one second, cool just friends the next.

By that point, I could no longer trust the author. Rather than evoke the fantastical deranged falling down the rabbit hole and emerging wonderland, descriptions were self contradictory and the similes impossible. For instance, just how can fiber-optics be “a soft velveteen fuzz”? When she should be pulling me into the story, her narrative clumsiness kept shoving me back onto the page. 

The main character is pushed around by the unfolding action around her, is constantly protected by her hot bf, and hardly ever (once?) does she so much as make a decision, let alone show real bravery in the entire book. 

When it nearly seems reasonable that the “girl gets the boy”, with a wish the MC redoes the entire adventure to save the boy. For convenience in “getting the boy” at the end of the novel, the author skips ahead to the same conclusions despite removing the shared adventure that got them there.

As a killing blow (for me), the author misuses words and makes up new ones in what I can only assume was mimicry of the jabberwocky poem gone wrong. 

I can’t recommend this book. And frankly, I’m discouraged by the strong favourable reviews on Goodreads. I’ll be reading the entire Kirkus review and not trusting them excerpted only. Hopefully, my February review won’t be nearly as disparaging. 

How do you choose your next read?

I’m not particularly faithful to any genre, be it fantasy, comedy, or sci-fi, although I do have a penchant for young adult and dystopic futures. After a short series of books that demanded that I read them1, I asked myself what they had in common… really. Although all four were young adult, one was a dystopic future, another a fantasy, another a sci-fi and, finally, a present day romantic/comedy/thriller. In common however, all four featured a surprising MC2: a philosophic zombie, a crazy descendent of Alice in Wonderland, a cyborg Cinderella, and a part-Asian, ass-kicking, funny/quirky teenage girl. Coincidentally, YA and dystopic futures nearly always feature a quirky/strong MC.

In retrospect, it shouldn’t be surprising that these ‘surprising’ characters are such a draw. What makes compelling fiction after all? Surprising details, surprising plot developments (not, jerky, what the … developments, but insightful, oh, right/wow! ones), surprising stories that reveal something, well, surprising.

For such an obvious insight, it has considerably helped my story planning and, indeed, has incited a merger of two MC’s (rather, one was dropped and the other took up the extra action!) — no longer will they be splitting the glory of the storyline. 

This may just be a passing phase for my browsing tastes, but I’d wager not.

Please share what moves you to pick a book from the many, many others. 

1. Recent finds: Warm Bodies, Splintered, Cinder and Maid for Me. Of those I’ve finished so far, Cinder was the only one to sustain that initial hook to the finish (I can’t wait for the sequel!). Warm Bodies was superbly written and the zombie narrator was philosophically hilarious, but the ending didn’t deliver. Maid for Me was super fun but not so well written in my opinion. Look for a more thorough review of Splintered after I finish reading it.
2. Main character

Debut Author’s of 2013 Review Challenge


This year I’ve formalized my reading addiction1 of young adult fiction and signed up for the 2013 Debut Author Challenge hosted at  hobbitsies. The goal is to read and review a newly released book by a first time young adult author per month (potentially not an altogether new author, but new to young adult books at least). I’m beginning with the eerie looking retelling of Alice in Wonderland by A. G. Howard, Splintered. Check back for my review soon!

1. Already this year I’ve consumed Cinder [brilliant! I want the sequel NOW], Warm Bodies [great but, what happened to the climax? Seems it was just summarized?? I want to see the movie] and Maid for Me [fun, cute, great character and plot but just not so well written].