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?

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?

heros

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

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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.

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.

e-ink writing 201: NST 1.2.1 rooted with usb host

May 31, 2015: I have updated the root + usb host enabling once again! Please visit my new blog site for the newer instructions and a few awesome app recommendations that I’ve missed all this time.


La Push's 2nd Beach all to ourselves as the sun sets.
La Push’s 2nd Beach all to ourselves as the sun sets.

With mysterious charging issues I decided to try upgrading my Nook Simple Touch (NST) to the latest OS (1.2.1) before rooting. Now there exists a graphical program to root the Nook, making it easier than ever to do. NookManager is loaded onto a microSD that the Nook (upgraded to 1.2.1) will boot from. A few straightforward prompts later and the Nook is rooted (with optional backing up, advised as always).

Steps to re-root:

  1. Restore Nook to factory settings, through Settings in the Nook OS, or using NookManager’s Restore (“Restore Factory.zip”).
  2. Boot with NookManager on microSD in the Nook.
  3. Optional: Backup.
  4. Root.
  5. Next: to get the keyboard working again. Connect via ADB as in my instructions in my first post (e-ink writing 101), to install USBMode 1.7 and Jota (this time I installed from the apk directly), and to push the modified uImage and uRamdisk binary files.

So far, the keyboard input to Jota is smooth. Saving is mysteriously only to microSD card, but that’s alright since I just repurposed the install card. The charging issues are at bay but possibly that’s because I threatened to replace my Nook with a new one.

Big tree in Hoh Rainforest.
Big tree in Hoh Rainforest.

Writing habits

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I’m done draft 2, aka, I can shower, finish taxes, pack for a meditation retreat.

There seem to be two prevalent stereotypes of the “writer”: one that seems to be based on merging the beats, the writers in Paris in Gertrude Stein’s circles and whatever the indie-cool is becoming these days; and the other, messier, smellier, in much need of reminding of the aspects of living (that is, all of them) they’ve forgotten while focussing on their writing.

Using camp nanowrimo’s 50k wordcount and a looming retreat from everything (including coffee, speech and dinner), I finished draft two of ‘With a Chance of Tomorrow’ (still a working title until I find something catchier). The last week was lacking in things like fresh air, lunch, reading, showering, but if I didn’t bend over suddenly I couldn’t smell myself and I got the last 25k done (the last 3k a few times even).

Now, I didn’t focus so much on writing that I didn’t have time for the basic luxuries. Nor really did I wake with such singular focus that I couldn’t see past my computer and coffee to the world beyond. Maybe it’s like the baseball players and their unshaven faces and stinky socks, but simple things like staying hydrated threatened telling the world that I did have time for it and it would suck me back to reality and gone would be the regular 5-10k days of productivity. Whatever the strategy, it seems to have worked well and I’m dazed to be back in the real world (just to leave it again!).

Taxes are done and I’m off to meditate for 10 days. Hopefully I don’t obsess over edits the whole time I’m there! See you on the other side.

Despondently looking to read

I’m falling out of love with YA fiction lately (temporarily I hope?) and in dire need of a good book to fall into. I just spent over an hour at the library today and left with a few non-fiction books to browse, but no fiction.

Am I taking this writing thing too seriously? Getting too snarky of my own process, my own “prose” then being hyper-critical of everything I read? I need some perspective.

In my feedly today, I found a post by Kristen Lamb1 discussing the three phases of becoming a writer (she says Master, but I’ll be stingy/self-critical/melodramatically despondent and say Writer to mean the same thing). My reading malaise places me slogging through phase two, likely near the beginning: “During the early parts of this phase, books likely will no longer be fun.”

In the outdoors, I’m something of a masochist. I love bushwhacking (think hiking, take away the trail, and add a 3d mesh of forest thicker than any jungle scene you’ve ever seen in the movies — bushwhacking with scratch, bruise and sometimes require cat-like weaving multiple meters off the ground — totally awesome). I should love this stage (love is a strong word… hate is too… I’m somewhere in stage 2 between the two?). At least it’s progress. My friend Dan tells me it takes ten thousand hours2 to become an expert at anything (apparently he was quoting Malcolm Gladwell); I’ve read it takes a million words of crap to write something beautiful. Currently, I’m still working on them. Hopefully, I can break for enjoyable reading before they’re through.

Thank you Kristen for your timely post.

1. In Kristen’s blog, she is generously offering a draw for a critique. An extra ballot is earned for mentioning her book, but I think, given the topic of the blog post, I can’t offer a fair referral or appraisal right now. I’ll have to check it out later.

2. Corrected. Dan (and Malcolm Gladwell) say 10000 hrs to become an expert.

e-ink writing 101

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I’m parring down my outdoor essentials for a wild idyllic summer of writing, climbing, living! in the BC Coastal mountains, my favourite mountains of the world. I may love (obsessively) my notebooks and pens (extra fine, 0.18/0.28mm!), and all of my mind mulling, brainstorming, dredging from the deep couldn’t happen without them, but, frankly, my handwriting sucks. My hands cramp up after squeezing just a page of writing through my death grip on a pen. The bulk of my composing is best typed right directly. My macbook, beautiful as she is, is a power hungry beast that’s more a weighty liability than writing tool in the mountains. 

I recently bought an e-ink reader, a Nook Simple Touch, because of its crazy low power consumption and, a Nook specifically, because underneath its B&N facade lies a familiar Android just waiting to be freed. For the little energy that it does use, I have a wood-burning usb-powering BioLite CampStove.  

As of this week, I can now type on my rooted Nook with a usb keyboard. The process was not hard in retrospect but decoding the oodles of forum pages and ignoring the many other tantalizing mods took many non-writing hours. In case it benefits anyone, here are my detailed notes to rooting and installing the driver and app to set up the Nook with a usb keyboard.

Creating your own e-ink writer

You will need

  • one Nook Simple Touch (the colour Nook has a different process) whose warranty you’re willing to void
  • a 128 MB or larger micro SD card, suggested class 6 or higher (the speed rating), that you can completely erase
  • a means to read/write to the micro SD card directly (not via the connection with the Nook)
  • a USB keyboard, preferably one without lights to draw more power
  • an OTG adapter, USB male microB/female A — to adapt the larger USB cord from the keyboard into the little USB port on the Nook — I used this one
  • ADB software on your computer — only need platform-tools folder within SDK, can install manually without entire SDK.
  • various files: Nook OS 1.1, TouchNooter, two binaries, uImage and uRamdisk, and an app USBMode 1.7.

Procedure with links to details

Please read through everything, including links to more detailed instructions, before beginning. You should be comfortable with Terminal (in linux/mac os x) or command window (in windows). My intent was to share the process and links that are otherwise scattered across the interwebs. Good luck!

  • Backup if desired (only need noogie.img and follow steps 1-8). Alternatively, you can always reset to factory settings to revert to the B&N unrooted state (it will update to the latest OS automatically).
  • Reset your Nook to factory settings. Method 1 should suffice unless you’re restarting from a rooted Nook (I need the tedious manual reset to roll back to an old OS version). This is necessary because the rooting is most stable for a slightly older Nook OS version. Log into B&N if you want their market enabled — apparently you won’t be able to after rooting.
  • Update the Nook to version 1.1 (current is 1.2.1). Simply place the Nook OS 1.1 zip file in the root folder of your Nook through a USB connection to your computer.
  • Backup your Nook again if desired — to a different backup file! (to save the previous two steps should the rooting and/or patches not succeed).
  • Root your Nook with TouchNooter 2-1-31. This comes with a minimal app set: Gmail, access to Google Play, etc. The link provides many details.
  • Connect with ADB via USB cable (two lines of code, first may wrap to next line):

    $ mkdir -p ~/.android && echo 0x2080 > ~/.android/adb_usb.ini && adb
    $ kill-server && adb devices

    You should see your Nook serial number and device.

  • Patch the two binaries, uImage and uRamdisk in the USB host pack (in the boot folder) that 1) allow ADB wireless communication (this is how you modify the OS and apps on your Nook from your computer) and 2) enable USB hosting (allows the Nook to talk to your USB keyboard). Install USBMode 1.7 app to toggle USB hosting via ADB. The $ denotes a prompt in the terminal on your computer; # denotes the prompt within the adb shell:
      $ adb shell
      # mount -o rw,remount rootfs /
      # mkdir /boot
      # mount -t vfat /dev/block/mmcblk0p1 /boot
      # exit
      $ adb push uImage /boot/
      $ adb push uRamdisk /boot/
      $ adb install UsbMode-1.7.apk
      $ adb reboot

    • Wait one day for Google Market to work (mysteriously required).
    • Install your favourite Android text editor — I use Jota (the plus version isn’t compatible) — and webrowser (the one included with rooting doesn’t really work) — I use Opera Mobile. The easiest is to push them onto your Nook (mine is called simply “phone” in Play) from your computer.
    • Enjoy!

    I may look into rooting etc from the latest Nook OS (1.2.1) but this version seems to work stably. Til then, this setup works just fine for me.