Monthly Archives: January 2013

Scared of Fear

It’s easy to confuse anger with fear.  I was watching a movie tonight, and the bad guy was shown in towering rage, in full bad-guy mode. I looked at it more closely, because it wasn’t quite. . . right. Yes, I understand that movies are fiction, but they are designed to manipulate our emotions, so they have to have a basis of reality in them, otherwise we wouldn’t connect. I get that.

Here is what I noticed: the bad guys knew they were bad. They broadcast bad out RATTLESNAKEin front of them, and people shrank and ran in fear. But that isn’t what happens in real life. People who are villains in our life are not aware they are behaving badly. Nope. They are scared. And scared people behave like scared animals do–they hiss, bark, bay, turn sideways and puff themselves up to appear bigger and show their teeth.

Scared animals and scared people are both scary. I’m not messing with the neighbor’s pit bull when he is leaning against his leash, teeth bared. And when I see people behaving in loud, rude, angry ways, I avoid them, too. But they aren’t necessarily bad people, they are scared people. They don’t always know what the problem is, they most certainly don’t have a good solution, so their fear gives way to aggressive behavior.

32i-arched-back-catWhat to do in the face of anger? Most often we get scared, and scared people are scary. We return the hissing, claw-bearing and take it one step further because we are now more scared. You can see where this is going. Someone’s going to get hurt. Emotionally, if not physically.

The way to react in the face of anger and fear is calmly. If scared people are scary, calm people are calming. Keep your voice low, say something that acknowledges the other person’s reactions. Pretending not to notice will only make them escalate so you will notice. Acknowledging is not telling them they are right, but letting them know you see their anger. “I can see how angry you are, Bill.” Notice it’s just an acknowledgment. No fixing, no advice, no soothing. Just witnessing. Without someone to scare them, scary people often aren’t scared and not scary.

-–Quinn McDonald is a writer who knows scary people and scared people, too.

The Tricky Memory

My brothers and I had different mothers. Oh, she was the same DNA-donor, the same physical being. But because we were born years apart, and shattering experiences apart, she was a different emotional person. My two brothers’ mother was still soft and interested in her children, proud to be their mother. My mom was a very different person than the ones my brothers knew in childhood.

Image by Temari09, from Flickr, under a Creative Commons License.

Image by Temari09, from Flickr, under a Creative Commons License.

What is the story that goes into a memoir?  Several years ago, I took a memoir-writing course from Natalie Goldberg, the author of Writing Down the Bones  There were rules: we were to listen to any readings and not react. No applause, no critique, no comments at all. That allowed, Natalie said, for each person to be able to share without fear. And only one Q&A.

My question was about the validity of personal memory.  From Natalie’s teaching I gathered that we can own and explore only our memory, and that not objectively. People may disagree with your memory. My brothers certainly had, often describing a woman who was a stranger to my memory.

Book cover from A Million Little Pieces by James Frey.

Book cover from A Million Little Pieces by James Frey.

I have no desire to write a memoir, but I enjoy thinking about memory, its tricks and shapes. If I wrote the story, wouldn’t I fall under the same scrutiny as James Frey who wrote “a semi-fictional memoir” called A Million Little Pieces? His memory was disproved and he was disgraced, reduced and humiliated into being a couch-confessor on Oprah.  My writing is non-fiction. Memory may well be fictitious.

Years passed, and one of my brothers agreed that we were raised by different mothers in different times, although she was the same person. But I still chewed over the whole idea of how to defend memory, interpretation, and the flexibility of Truth. I fully understood the billboard I had seen in China that said, “We must separate Truth from Fact.” It made sense now.

Cover of Judy Collins' book "Sanity & Grace."

Cover of Judy Collins’ book “Sanity & Grace.”

A few weeks ago, I was reading Judy Collins memoir, Sweet Judy Blue Eyes, and smiled at her handling the memory question. Here is a woman who has known a lot of people, interacted with them professionally, socially, personally. She had a colorful, alcoholic,  sexual, artistic, creative, talented, big-ups-and-down life during which she fought for custody of her son, lost it, gained it and then lived through her son’s death. Now that had to have a lot of opportunity for interpretation from just about anyone she might have worked with, loved, shared a stage, a bed, a song, or a record label. How did she handle her memory? Here’s the quote from the book:

In all cases, it is my memory of an event that supersedes the memories of other participants who might have been at the same party. There are no accidents in memory, for memory has its own reasons and its own logic. What I remember is what happened to me as I best recall it.

–from the introduction to Judy Collins’ Sweet Judy Blue Eyes: My Life in Music.

She claims the memories as hers neatly, cleanly and without apology. She doesn’t make others wrong, and leaves room for others’ opinions. But not in her book.

And that’s the way to claim a memory that belongs to you.

—Quinn McDonald is not writing a memoir. She is interested in memories and emotions because the Inner Critic and Inner Heroes fight over the topic as she writes her book.   Image: Temari09

The Art of Visual Editing

She handed me her journal–pages splayed with additions, found items, inserts. “What do you think?” Such a hard question to be asked. In one way, it doesn’t matter what I think, if she is satisfied. If she likes her work, if she found meaning in the activity or the result, then my opinion has no importance.

Overstuffed sofa.

Overstuffed sofa.

In another way, I’d like to know why she’s asking the question. Is this the art journal equivalent of “Do these pants make my tuchus look fat?” Is she asking for praise in a hidden way? Is she looking for suggestions? Approval?

I turned the pages of the journal. I’d heard of the technique–do anything. Some pages were sewn chaotically, combining junk mail and lace, tulle and magazine pages. The bobbin thread had become confused with the different tension needed for the different papers, and there were big loops and knots of thread. One page had a piece of ruler glued to it, the next one an angel next to which was stamped the word: guardian angle. When I smiled at the typo, which seemed to make sense along with the ruler, I thought (to myself): What this needs is visual editing.

It’s fun to slap things together and see if it makes sense. Occasionally.

It’s also interesting to ask yourself what you are doing and are you presenting a message or searching for one.

Visual editing is much like word editing. It’s done in stages. First you look for

Overstuffed cheeks

Overstuffed cheeks

content, logic and flow. Does it make sense? Does it unfold logically?  Is it interesting?  Is the sequencing clear? Next you look for typos, meaning-gaffs (its for it’s, podium for lectern, disinterested instead of uninterested)* and then for punctuation errors. Next you make sure all headlines/subheadlines/sub-sub-heads are in the same font and style within each category, the page numbers appear in the center or on the edges, but not both, that photo captions are italic or bold but not mixed. Three passes and you’ve done some editing for clarity and understanding.

Visual editing works the same way.  Is the journal going to be shown to anyone or is it private? (Since she showed it to me, it became public.) Is there a theme to the overall journal? If so, is it obvious? If not, does it need an explanation? While turning a page and moving from front to back is the normal order of Western books, does this one create an order? If there are inclusions, attachments, found objects, how is space created for them?

Overstuffed shelves.

Overstuffed shelves.

There are guidelines for visual editing just as there are for word editing. To break the rules you have to understand them first. Yes, ee cummings and James Joyce broke the rules, but they first followed them, then knew why they wanted to break them. And some well-read people are still grumbling about that decision.

Personally, I’m not fond of splayed-out books that are sewn, spackled with gesso, layered randomly with paints and papers, and weighted down with found objects that don’t create a narrative that can be followed. But then again, I’m not the art police. If that makes meaning for you, it is your meaning. If you are satisfied, that is an important step for you.

In the end, instead of giving an opinion, I asked questions. “How did this book come together for you?” “What did you like best in making this book?” “What caused problems for you?” “How did you solve those problems?” “Will you keep this for yourself or will you give it away?” The answers told me a lot, including that my opinion was not required. So I kept it to myself. And we both parted with our perspectives intact.

*In case you were wondering about the differences:
its=possessive form of it. The book was blue; its cover was torn. It’s means “it is” or “it has.”
A podium is something you stand on to make yourself taller, such as a riser. A lectern is something you stand behind to give a speech or lecture.
Uninterested means “doesn’t care.” Disinterested means impartial.

Quinn McDonald understand visual editing, and knows that sometimes, no matter how much she loves that page, it doesn’t belong. Sigh. So she saves it for another time.

Gallery

Teaching Joys

This gallery contains 6 photos.

Teaching is a joy for the instructor, and, if all goes reasonably well,  teaching brings joy to participants. This week, there were two art teaching gigs–one in Anthem (AZ) at the regional library and one in Tucson, with an incredible … Continue reading

Frozen, then Alive

The freeze we had last week turned the tops of trees black, froze plants where the stood. This week, the roar of chain saws is as loud as after a Connecticut ice storm.

frozenflowerAnd it’s the wrong move. The leaves have died, but most trees are not dead. They are dormant, and while the top two feet are dead, cutting them off now, while it’s still January, will encourage them to start growing while it’s still too cold. Then the tree will suffer the damage, maybe die.

The best thing to do, according to the arborist I spoke to, is to simply let it go till early March. The leaves will turn black, fall off, and it will look ugly, but when trimmed in March, the tree will recover. Maybe not as lush, but it will take a cycle of a year for the damage to heal. Heal. Yes, even trees.

Waiting. Healing. We don’t like to look at damage, so we cut, remove, throw out. And cause more damage.

I’ve done that with my work. Hating to look at a piece I didn’t get right, I will tear it out of the journal and threw it out. Fast, so no one could notice. So fast, that I couldn’t sit with the discomfort of figuring out what I’d done that didn’t work and learn from it. So fast that the fault line would grow and I’d make more mistakes.

Had I left it, learned from it, accepted that I’d messed up (again!), I could have accepted it slowly, become OK with it slowly, and then covered it with paint or gesso and remembered and grown around it.

-–Quinn McDonald is a writer and art journaler.

The Book and Mise en Place

It seems pretty easy–the photo shoot is coming up, so I have to ship everything I need to the publisher so I can draw, collage, sew, paint and write my way through a week of photos for the book.

misenplaceIt gets complicated fast. First you decide which projects your are going to show step-by-step, (which you do from an approved outline),  then you make a list of everything you need for those projects, cross out the duplicates, and start packing.  That part is still fairly simple. I learned the process from my husband, who is a chef, and who uses the term “Mise en place,” a lot. It’s French for “things in place” or “get your $h!| together.” Which is what I had to do.

It gets complicated because I am teaching a class at the Anthem (AZ) library tomorrow night. Friday, I am driving down to Tucson to teach Monsoon Papers, which is a project in the book. So there are some items I will have to

  • repurchase
  • take on the plane with me
  • pack and send quickly next week

Since the materials cover a lot of ground–fabric, ink, paint, brushes, thread, iron, watercolor pencils, and about 20 more pounds of things, you don’t just plop them in a box. First I made a giant pile on the floor. Then I sorted them into projects and packed them by project. The ink went into a separate box-within-a-box, lined with paper towels and wrapped in plastic.

When the box was taped shut, I looked around a studio that looked like the vandals (and the Visigoths) had been through it. I won’t be able to do art for another week. It was the first time in a long time I realized how much I shape by identity with my art, and by extension, the tools that make me real.

—Quinn McDonald is writing a book. The writing part is almost over.

 

Time to Clean Up

Not my office, honest. i got this from author2author.com

Not my office, honest. i got this from author2author.com

Some days you are the pigeon. Some days you are the statue. And some days you have to clean your desk, table, or studio space. You just have to. Either that or plow it under and call one of those reality shows where Donald Trump shows up with 50 cat carriers and has a desperate housewife fire you and send you to rehab. I’m sorry, I don’t watch TV, so it all sounds alike to me.  For me, it was another part of my Word of the Year: Let it Go.

Here are some tough love tips for cleaning that worked for me today.

1. Don’t look back. I tried being serious about saving all those articles I’ll read someday. Then I realized that if I really had wanted to read them, I would have. In the time that I’ve collected the articles, I’ve read four books. So I’m not really motivated to read the articles. Toss them.

This is a perfectionism stumble. “If I were a really good X, I would read, file, remember, sketch, write, use this article, image, scrap of ephemera.” Deep breath. It’s a perfectionist thing. Toss it.

Yes, you will probably need it within 10 minutes of the trash truck vanishing down the street with it. Toss it anyway.

2. You won’t buy it anyway. Catalogs marked with turned-down page corners for storage, filing, clothing items. Largely waiting for a windfall. When windfall comes, will need something else. Toss catalogs.

3. Compare and act. Two of the items I wanted in the winter catalog are now on half-price sale. Pick up phone and order. Done. Move on.

4. Even if you teach, throw it out. I have a huge stack of magazines, catalogs, flyers that are “perfect” for that collage class that I’m not teaching this month. Or next. More stuff will accumulate. Toss it out.

5. Start where you are. Don’t try to catch up. More paper is mistakenly saved because you are scared to throw it out, for fear of forgetting, falling behind or forgetting. Unless it bank or tax stuff, make NOW your starting point. Easier and saves the nerves.

Quinn McDonald wishes she would clean up more often. The desk has a nice wood grain she rarely sees.

Perfectionist Practices

In creating samples for the book, I do the art first, then write about it. So the first page I do is an experiment. I riff on an idea, create a few takes, and then finally have a specific idea.

leaning-stack-of-papers-and-filesI did the riffing earlier this year, getting to the point where I knew the sections of the book and roughly what the artwork would look like. So all I had to do was make the final piece. And how hard can it be to do a card if I already have the idea and several samples?

Turns out, plenty hard. Because in my head, this next one had to be perfect. And once it had to be perfect, it never was. Card after card didn’t turn out, looked lame, wasn’t what I meant, had unflattering colors. I made mistakes, and when I started over, I made different mistakes.

And time after time, I realized that the card I made when I was just riffing was the card that worked best. The cards in the first group were made with full interest and no fear. There wasn’t any pressure to perform or have it be perfect for the book. It was great the way it was.

That was a big lesson I needed to learn again: when you are playing, you do your best work. When you are working, you are tense and there are too many people watching  and speaking–at least in my head. My crew consisted of imaginary critics: future readers of the book,  my mother, a caricature of my editor (who is incredibly nice in real life) and Sister Michael Augustine, who was responsible for my learning how to write right-handed in 7th grade. Oh, my inner critic was there too, with the family.

Your best creative work is done in play. Who knew?

–Quinn McDonald is writing a book on inner heroes and inner critics.

Speaking Up For Your Own Sake

This is a bit tricky to write. But for many of us, it’s hard to speak up for ourselves. We are good at protecting our children, defending our animals, supporting the family. But when it comes time to speak up for ourselves, we fall silent.

There are many times we don’t stand up for ourselves–to carve out time for creativity, to speak up to ask for what we need, and to take a stand in a wobbly family situation. After speaking with my coaching clients, I have volumes of examples of how we turn over control to others.

imagesThis is about something much simpler–speaking up about the food we eat. A few days ago, I posted a comment on Facebook about not wanting to eat sugar anymore. Or sugar substitutes. I’m redefining my relationship with food, and while the decision is hard, I need to do it.

Most of the comments I got on Facebook were from the people I call “fixers,”–those who give advice without being asked to give any. And my email box filled up with them, too. “Drink a tablespoon of cider vinegar twice a day and you will lose weight,” one person said. I had said nothing about losing weight. “It’s not the sugar,” another person wrote, “it’s gluten. Stay away from it.” I don’t have a sensitivity to gluten, indeed, I love my carbs. Perhaps too much so. So that’s not helpful advice.

Sugar_071111_99029641The instructions went on and on, mostly from women “fixers”–people who give unasked for and unwanted advice. Some asked if I were alcoholic (no, although I no longer drink–because alcohol converts to sugar), others asked if I were an addict (Sugar? Yes. Drugs? No). I was told to go to Overeaters Anonymous, to speak to a bariatric surgeon, to fast two days a week, to eat a Paleo Diet, to become vegan, to eat a raw diet. I received stories of how much weight people had lost. Not a single one of these people knew any details about my decisions or held a medical degree, but they felt perfectly comfortable giving me advice i had not asked for.

I didn’t respond to any of them, because fixers make terrible pen pals. They just want to fix you in ways they feel comfortable with.

What made my eyebrows go up were the emails that told me to lie about why I couldn’t eat sugar–because amping up your desire to change to a medical emergency makes your struggle more believable and worthy of attention. And people will not go along with your desire to change unless you persuade them that you are sick.

big-dessert-636-378x414I was surprised. OK, I was shocked.  Until that moment, I thought that my desire to change was reason enough to not eat sugar. But it is not. The first conflict started when I turned down dessert in a restaurant. My lunch partner frowned and said, “You always eat dessert. What’s wrong?”

“Nothing is wrong. I am re-defining my relationship with sugar, and I am not eating dessert anymore,” I replied. This is actually all anyone needs to know. I do not need to cite my diabetic parents (one of whom died from complications of diabetes),  my weight, my energy level. In a world where privacy is suspect, I was expected to not just explain my decision, but also explain it to a friend’s  satisfaction, or have it rejected.

“If you don’t eat dessert, I can’t,” she said, pouting prettily.

“Of course you can,” I said, “I don’t mind and that is your decision.”

“No, I can’t eat all by myself. Let’s split a dessert,” she suggested

“It sounds yummy, but I’m not good with half a dessert. I’ll want more. I’ll eat yours,” I smiled, trying humor.

“OK, than we’ll each order one!” she crowed, having “won” the conversation. Before I could protest, she ordered two desserts. When mine was put in front of me, my mouth watered. I really wanted to eat it. I do love dessert. But I knew that if I ate it, the battle would start all over again.

In fact, as I stared at the dessert, I felt betrayed. Why do I have to eat dessert to images-2please the person across the table? I thought of pouring hot sauce on it to remove the temptation, but that would not be “nice” on my part. I wondered if I would have to eat the dessert for friendship’s sake, in order not to make my lunch companion feel bad about herself. This was getting very complex quickly.

In the end, I said I was not that hungry and took the dessert in a to-go box. And paid for it, despite the fact I had not wanted it.

images-1And that’s the kind of speaking up I mean. I’ve repeated variations of this scene over and over since October 3, when I ate my last gratuitous carb. I should not have to explain or defend my decisions. I should not have to answer questions about my weight, perceived addictions, or goals. My decisions are mine and I have good reasons. I don’t want to argue diets and green smoothies, or the evils of gluten, which I have nothing against and which does not upset my intestinal tract at all.

But sugar alcohols do. And I don’t need to be told that Stevia is “natural” (so is poison ivy and curare, neither of which I want to eat), or agave syrup. One more time, eating sweet things makes me think I am hungry, makes me crave sugar, and I am redefining my relationship with food. That’s it. Other than that, instead of diet advice, a bit of empathy would be welcome. But empathy is hard to come by. Because, as a stranger in the gym told me, “being overweight was a choice you made, so don’t expect anyone to feel sorry for you.” That’s pretty harsh, as a lot of overweight is not one choice, but many made while trying to please others before yourself. (To say nothing of hormonal or genetic reasons).

Most of all, I am disturbed that people who do have allergies to food, real allergies, are being diminished and made suspect by those who have control issues and need to pretend to be sick to have their way.

It’s really hard to speak up for yourself when the reply is based on shame, guilt, or reproach. I’ve been asked how much weight I’ve lost (if I give a reply, the other person will immediately tell me she has lost more by doing it her way), and told I should keep a food diary, weigh my food, weigh myself every day, once a week or not at all.

Oh, yeah, and if you go to the gym, you’ll gain weight, because muscles weigh more than fat. I didn’t ask. All I want is respect for my dietary decisions. I don’t need your approval for my decision, or your agreement, just respect. Because standing up for myself is a worthy action.

-–Quinn McDonald is working on a book about the inner critic, who seems to have become ventriloquists on October 3. She knows that several people who are fixers will leave comments. And she won’t answer them. Can’t.

Writing Through Revelations, Visions and Dreams

Stella Pope Duarte‘s new book, Writing through Revelations, Visions, and Dreams, the memoir of a writers’s soul, is an intriguing book. Stella does much more than tell stories from her own life, she invites us to wake up and pay attention to the signs in our lives.

Book_Cover__FinalDreams may well be prophecies, but “To become reality a prophecy needs the cooperation from the one who received the message,” she writes.

She struggled for weeks to understand the dream she had about her father, who said to her, “It’s right there, mija, in front of you, what you have to do next.” What was she supposed to see? Why wouldn’t her father tell her? But she didn’t let it go or forget it. She stayed aware, waiting for more information. She didn’t run to look up what the dream meant in a dream book, because only the dreamer can untangle the meanings of dreams. She continued to question the dream until she was in a bookstore, and a book fell off the shelf at her feet. It was a book abou a  South African woman of mixed race and the love and hate she experienced. It dawned on Stella that this woman’s values were similar to her own, even if they lived thousands of miles apart. “She wrote what she knew,” and at that moment, Stella understood that it was the hallmark of every writer, and she could no longer distance herself from her own past.

In her talk at Changing Hands Bookstore on Thursday night, Stella told us sheStella finally discovered that her father had foretold her becoming a writer. As a family therapist and a college professor, she had thought her career was in place, but her life of writing hadn’t begun. (Stella won the National Book Award for If I Die in Juárez in 2009)

Stella tells rapid-fire stories about growing up in Phoenix’s poorest barrio and living with domestic violence for years. She is brutally honest about this time in her life and what she learned from it. She shows the following slide:

angelStellaIt says, “If you come to terms with the dark parts of who you are,  you won’t have to marry them.” It was a profound moment. We are so attracted to what we are not, and feel it missing in our lives. It seems tempting and exotic, and yet, once we marry it, it becomes the foreign irritant in our lives that we struggle to change. We all know about the futility of changing other people, but that is the dance we do–we see the dark other parts of ourselves in a lover, we want it manifested, and when it does, we want to distance ourselves from it. You can’t do both, at least not at the same time.

The book is a combination of memoir, self-help for writers, and a comfort for those of us who have dreams that confuse and inspire us. The slim, 162-page volume is a quick read and an interesting view into the heart of a writer.

--Quinn McDonald couldn’t stay home and write; she had to go hear Stella Pope Duarte speak. And she’s glad she did.