Growing Without Pushing

The biggest surprise over the last dozen years of owning my business is—just like real  life—you can’t force things to happen. For most of my adult, corporate life, I thought that’s how you got things done. Pushed against resistance till the resistance collapsed and you “won.” Negotiate hard until the opposition caved and I “won.” I sure wasted a lot of time doing that.

Battle-of-Vimeiro_edited-11

Not every skirmish needs to be turned into a war that must be won.

An example: I’m a good writer. Experienced, nuanced, clear. After decades of writing, I should be. I deserve to be paid for that ability and expertise. When a client says, “We’re not paying you what you asked for, we’re paying you half. We pay our other writers less, you shouldn’t be asking for that much,” I no longer force back by piling up my experience and subject knowledge. Nope.

Instead, I nod and say, “I understand your budget can’t stretch to cover my fee. I wish you every success on the job with another, less expensive writer. Thank you for considering me,” and head toward the door. Notice it’s a statement of fact, not anger or threat. I rarely make it to the door before I’m called back. “Maybe we can arrange something.” Good, let’s talk.

Another example: Occasionally, I’m asked to speak to new coaches on choosing a niche. I’m supposed to explain how I chose my niche, and how others can choose theirs. There is no secret. I didn’t sit down and think over what niche I would develop. It worked the other way around. I looked at the people around me, the ones naturally present already, and built by offering what they needed from what I could do.

It’s an easier life if you don’t  have to put your shoulders down and bull your way through. It’s far more rewarding to work with your natural gifts, with people who are already around you. By heightening talents you have in situations that present themselves, there is less damage to your spirit and more building of your strengths. Less grinding, more polishing. Less spinning, more weaving. It’s a good life.

–Quinn McDonald is a writer who teaches writing. She’s also a life– and creativity coach who helps people when they are stuck. She can’t help everyone, and doesn’t fight it.

Driving Ahead

Driving across the Navajo Nation. It’s early evening, and I’ve crossed the orange cliffs and am on the mesa with scrub brush and easy hills. Not a house in sight. Not a store, gas station, or even a fence to create boundaries. Not in the last 4o miles.

I’ve spent the last two weeks in big cities, on airplanes, flying over sparkling cities late at night. And now, this. Silence. Space. A big sky.

houston

Suddenly, on the right, a group of horses gallop across the landscape–running parallel with my car. Where did they come from? They are well kept and strong. Two paints, one gray, several browns and two gorgeous chestnuts with black tails and manes. They run parallel to my car, and I imagine that they are having fun, running because they can. It doesn’t matter where they wind up, it is all their space.

Night is coming on. It feels peaceful and easy to be here, heading to teach. I feel grounded when I teach writing. So personal, so connected to culture and history and your own spirit.  It’s like translating life into action.

Page_skyThe sun begins to set, and there is fire in the clouds. Part of this sun-struck cloud looks like the Phoenix–born from ashes to soar. Navajo Mountain appears on my right, and the sun sinks below the horizon. The echo of life stays with me as I roll deeper into the Navajo Nation.

-–Quinn McDonald is a creativity coach who teaches writing for businesses and personal growth.

Controlling the Tricky Muse

Cesar Millan may be the Dog Whisperer, but his method works well for the

From Laura Maris' Pampered Pups website.

From Laura Maris’ Pampered Pups website.

unruly, leash-tugging creative urge we call a Muse, as well. You know that creative Muse–the one you desperately want in your life, but that disappears around the corner and won’t come when called. When it does show up, it runs you ragged. You are off to buy materials and supplies, while your Muse stays at home, piling choices on your studio table, and running you ragged with ideas, projects and commitments that you can’t manage.

You are in charge of your own creative output.

The Dog Whisperer has a formula. If you’ve watched the show, you already know what it is. It’s on his website: “Through my fulfillment formula exercise, then discipline, and finally, affection.  As the human pack leader, you must set rules, boundaries, and limitations and always project a calm-assertive energy.”

0The “calm-assertive energy” comes first. It’s not about being a control freak, it’s knowing that you are the calm leader of your creative energy and your studio. If you are in control, the studio is not running you and you aren’t searching for pieces of a project. You aren’t forever using the excuse that you have a coupon and heading out to the craft store. You are centered and know your project.

You set the rules, boundaries and limitations for your studio. Here are some good ones to start with:

  • Know what your project is.
  • Know what your project is not. If you are going to create a journal page, don’t worry about creating the whole journal.
  • Leave the studio set up so you can begin. Nothing saps energy faster than having to spend an hour cleaning the studio and another finding what you want to work on.
  • Put extra materials away. It’s distracting to see unfinished project lying around.
  • Set a time to start and be there to start the project.
  • If you have an appointment, set a timer to remind you when to stop. You can’t work deeply if you keep having to check on the clock.
  • Keep a paper and pencil around to take notes as you work. Once you get to the studio, you will immediately think of “work” that needs to get done before you start. Stay in the studio, make a to-do list. The laundry will still be there when you leave.

The rest of Millan’s ideas work just as well: exercise, discipline, affection.

Exercise is a way to burn off tension in your body. It makes room for creative ideas. While you are exercising, a part of your brain is problem solving. That’s good for your brain and your body. Allow that to happen often, and you will approach a project with eagerness, without a lot of the adrenaline energy that’s exhausting.

Discipline is not punishment. Discipline allows space and time for deep, meaningful work. Discipline allows you to turn off the phone, shut the computer off and head for the studio. Discipline is a set time to work without guilt or fear. Discipline is consistency–knowing what is going to happen. It’s not a wild streak of cleaning the studio one day and spending three hours looking for just the right piece of paper. Discipline is an approach to creative time that includes knowing what will happen–you will work meaningfully, for a set amount of time, on a regular basis.

Affection is allowing yourself to feel good about yourself and your work. Affection is allowing yourself to try and fail, to try something different, to follow a thought or idea until it works or until you know why it doesn’t. Affection for yourself is allowing your growth at your own rate, not at your best friend’s rate. It’s taking the “just” out of your vocabulary, as in, “I just painted this scene.”

Just as Cesar Millan projects a calm, assertive pack-leader image to his dogs, you can project a calm, assertive creative leader image to your muse and your studio. You’ll be surprised at how well it works.

Quinn McDonald is a certified creativity coach who works with visual and performing  artists to help them find, manage and develop their creativity.

 

 

Gallery

Book Page Wreaths

This gallery contains 10 photos.

Book lovers, avert your eyes. I’m about to rip up books (again) and turn them into something else. But first, a note to all of us for whom books are sacred and for whom the thought of damaging one is … Continue reading

Gallery

Difference Between a Visual and Commonplace Journal

This gallery contains 7 photos.

There’s been some interest lately for the Commonplace Journal. Yes! Nothing against visual journals, I wrote two books about using visual journals, and I love them both. But after two books, I want to go back to the Commonplace Journal … Continue reading

Handmade Dreams

This is a re-run of an article I wrote several years ago. I’ve been having a lot of vivid dreams lately, and I remembered an older blog post. Thought you’d enjoy it again, too:

Dreams are important. They are more than just random processing of the day’s events. Sure,  some parts of dreams are recycled parts of experience. But dreams are also our very personal stories, given meaning by our deep personal connections.

In a dream, we recognize the yellow tricycle we passed on the sidewalk earlier in the day. That doesn’t strip it of meaning. To wrangle meaning out of dreams, we have to sit with the ideas our dreams give us and untangle the complicated links to ourselves.

Put down the book that “explains” dream images. You create the message and you can understand it. It’s yours to explore for meaning. A few nights ago I had a dream about a toaster cozy. Unlikely, yes. At first.

Sadly, this old-fashioned toaster cozy is no longer available on Etsy.

Sadly, this old-fashioned toaster cozy is no longer available on Etsy.

The Dream I was in a class of women, and we were all making kitchen-appliance cozies. You may remember those–covers for toasters, blenders, coffee grinders. Cozies were very popular in the 1950s and early 60s. I think the purpose was to

unify the look of the kitchen, although it’s possible women wanted to “hide” the machines that did the work for them while they wore pearls and shirtwaist dresses.  There was a lot of conflict in housewives’ minds about having “women’s work” made easier. It was more noble to do everything by hand, but a lot faster to use a machine to help.

In my dream, I was in a sewing class, learning to make a toaster cozy. The other  women in the class were making their cozies really fast, sewing machines humming. Most of the cozies in my dream were crayon-colored prints, with contrasting piping. (In my waking life I’m not attracted to crayon-colored prints and piping.) Some women were quilting theirs in traditional quilting patterns.

My toaster model was a vintage, rounded, 2-slicer with the big bakelite black handle. The instructor kept stopping by, fretting. I was making a cozy out of Tyvek,  the material FedEx envelopes are made from, and was adding a stuffed sculpture on top. The instructor was worried, and said, “This isn’t really the shape everyone is working with.” I nodded, but kept working.

The instructor, who in my dream was a home ec teacher, asked to see it on the toaster, but I shook my head. I didn’t speak, just kept working. Finally, when other women were putting their neat, tidy, perfectly sewn toaster cozies over their toasters, I put mine on the toaster–it used the toaster as a base, and the whole cozy was about two feet high.

On the top of the cozy was a tiger, rearing up on two hind feet, claws out, snarling. The teacher was horrified and asked me why I did that. I said, “Because I needed to.”

The interpretation: Here is what I knew but didn’t say to the teacher–the toaster was fear and the cozy was anger,  a reaction to fear. I was covering fear with a show of anger. Tyvek can’t be torn or ripped. It would stand up to a lot of angry treatment.

I did not feel a need to explain myself to someone who didn’t understand me. That’s a great feeling, to stand up for yourself without explanation.

Showing strength and anger keeps people from seeing we are just a toaster. Because being a toaster is not enough, in our heads. And yet, we buy toasters just for that ability–to toast bread.

The question: How do you need to appear in the world to keep your balance underneath? How do you stand up for yourself?

–Quinn McDonald is a writer and a certified creativity coach.

Airport Art When You Are on the Run

Lately, I’ve been up in the air. A lot. Dallas. Denver. Houston. Change flights in Chicago (note to self: never do that again. Ever.)

Photo: Joel Kramer

Photo: Joel Kramer

There is amazing art in many airports. And then there is just weird art in some airports. Phoenix has a suspended bi-plane that looks like it might be crashing in Terminal 3. The plane is a SPAD XIII, one of the most successful fighting planes of World War I.

Above it is a stained glass window designed by Ken Toney. I thought it was related to Frank Lloyd Wright (whose winter home was in the area), but no. The colors reminded Toney of the Southwest.

Dallas-Fort Worth airport (which is a nightmare of navigation problems) has an ice castle in it. Well, it’s a sculpture of an ice mountain castle.

1917pwqgkq5upjpgI’m not sure, but I think Dallas has no mountains. Still, it’s fun to walk by it–or in my case, run by it.

Atlanta has a sculpture of a flying ear of corn. I haven’t been in Atlanta lately, so I borrowed this from the Gizmodo site. It’s too good not to share.

19190mkf0d9qajpgThe sculpture, part of the vegetable series by Craig Nutt, includes an air traffic control tower that’s a carrot. Sometimes an ear of corn is just an ear of corn.

Travel between the B and C Concourses at Chicago and you will be in a light show.  Luckily, you can hang onto the rail of the moving sidewalk while you gawk.

1917tw7zkp9lqjpg“Sky’s the Limit” has more than 450 neon tubes and there’s music playing. It’s overwhelming, but so is the Chicago airport.

Denver airport has a huge blue sculpture of a mustang in front. Not to put too

Photo: Len Borden

Photo: Len Borden

fine a point on it, but it is anatomically correct. Which I almost didn’t notice because the beast has glowing red eyes, too. Dubbed “Blucifer” by the locals, there are many dramatic photos of the beast. One of the best is here, complete with dramatic weather in the background.

A lot of scary stories surround “Blue Mustang”, too. The sculptor, Louis Jimenez, was killed when a section of the sculpture fell on him, severing an artery.

When I travel, I love to see the local art, especially if it’s in the airport. I don’t know how the art is selected, but you know that people argue over how to represent their city. Sometimes art wins. Sometimes the committee does.

And then, I’m happy to come home to some simply gorgeous gifts of nature. The clouds on the evening I came home:

Photo: Quinn McDonald

Photo: Quinn McDonald

And a cactus in bloom–more so this year than any I can remember in the last few years.

cactusflower

Quinn McDonald travels a lot. She is glad to see the world and always happy to come back home to the desert.

Anonymous Doesn’t Count

The age of anonymity is upon us. We lurk on the internet; we can be anybody or nobody. But the anonymity of the internet is not about privacy, it’s about cruelty.

Without having to identify ourselves, we can become emotional snipers. Under the guise of privacy, we become cruel, even vicious. If you have never experienced this, read any Yahoo “news” account, then read the comments. They vary from mildly hurtful to hate speech.

Anon-cruel

“Because none of us are are cruel as all of us.”

When I hand out evaluation blanks in my writing classes, the question always floats up, “Do we have to sign our name?” Well, why not? Have a complaint? Let me know and sign your name. Tell me your truth. Write in a conversational tone. Tell me what didn’t work for you. I can’t be the perfect instructor for everyone, and I’m always interested in hearing an opinion that helps improve the class. I’ve learned from many an eval.

I have no power of reprisal in your company. I am an outsider, a freelancer.

A signed comment makes you an adult with a comment worth reading. When I hear, “We can’t be honest unless it’s anonymous,” I wonder what kind of honesty requires anonymity. What kind of remark would you not say to my face but would be happy to repeat behind my back? Nothing helpful.

I’ve written my share of complaint letters, and I’ve signed every one of them. Adding my name made me careful of grammar, clarity, and asking for what I want. More often than not, I get what I asked for. Without a name, how will the person know how to respond, or to whom?

Be proud of your opinions. They are your experiences. They are your truth. But the word whispered behind the hand, the emotional sniper with venom and anger–that’s not something I’m going to care about or do anything about.

Take a stand for your own character. You’ll be surprised at how good it feels.

—Quinn McDonald can offer more help if she knows who to offer it to.

Wabi-Sabi and Your Journal

Wabi sabi is a Japanese esthetic most often associated with the history of the tea ceremony and a philosophy that not only accepts imperfection, but finds wonder in it.

Wabi sabi is exactly what your journal needs. Wabi sabi  honors the beauty of the impermanent or incomplete. Leave a page blank because you don’t know what comes next. Just like real life.

"When the Japanese mend broken objects they aggrandize the damage by filling the cracks with gold. They believe that when something's suffered damage and has history it becomes more beautiful"- Billie Mobayed. Image and quote from http://freyahmfashion.blogspot.com

“When the Japanese mend broken objects they aggrandize the damage by filling the cracks with gold. They believe that when something’s suffered damage and has history it becomes more beautiful”- Billie Mobayed. Image and quote from http://freyahmfashion.blogspot.com

Wabi sabi is a profound appreciation for things modest and humble. Write exactly what you feel, be who you are in your journal. It will take your zero draft–those words not even worthy of being a first draft–without complaining.

As an aesthetic, wabi sabi honors things imperfect and impermanent. Get better in time and with practice. Give yourself time. Practice. Honor your journal by loving words.

Wabi sabi is also about connecting. With nature, with other people. We can write by ourselves in the dark, but we long to be heard. Journals listen, but they don’t tell. It may be time to consider telling others what you are writing about. That’s called publishing. Not ready to publish? OK. Just keep writing.

Wabi sabi is about treasuring your ability to connect what you experience and living to tell about it on a blank page.  If you are a writer. If you are a potter, you will tell about your experience through your hands and the clay. With fiber if you are a weaver.

Wabi sabi writing is the hardest work you’ll ever do and the most rewarding. If you’ve never kept a journal, it’s time.

Quinn McDonald keeps a commonplace journal. It just helped her realize that saving money by staying in an inexpensive hotel wastes time by contributing a bad night’s sleep and creating a lot more work functioning the next day.

Organization and Control

As a working mother in my 30s and 40s, I was sure control was the key to success. I ran my life with lists and schedules. This worked well at work, except for days when the schedule called for leaving work promptly. In those days, much of the political part of work took place in bars and restaurants after work and for moms with children, the glass ceiling often looked more like the carved wood door to the club bar door.

todolistI stayed ahead with strict schedules–often I’d sit with my to-do list for the day, the week, and each project. What I missed by socializing after work, I made up for by working once my son was asleep. My work was always on time or ahead of schedule. I was dependable and it had to stand in for social.

It worked most of the time. When something unexpected came up, I would make a list for it, ignore it, deny it, or rarely, work around it. I often went to work sick. I truly believed that the cure-all tool was organization.

The trouble with organization, of course, is that it doesn’t allow for life to happen. It does allow for good problem solving, a regularly planned process and a good idea of what was going to happen in the future.

As I got older, I realized that we are less in control than we think. We are not in control of the weather, of when or how our family members will die, when or if we will get the flu, or be broadsided by a driver who is on the phone and runs the red light.

There is a difference between control and organization. Organization works with what you have. Control tries to place (or nudge, or force) people, plans, processes into step with where you are at the moment. With varying results.

Control often runs off the tracks due to no ones fault. Instead of trying to force events by sheer will, see what happens if you look at the event in the light of “what works best here?” or “What can I do that works with what I have?”

--Quinn McDonald is beginning to enjoy the accidental and the flawed. It’s the gift of emotional wabi-sabi.