Category Archives: Coaching

Creative people get stuck. Coaches get them unstuck.

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.

 

 

10 Commonplace Journal Ideas

For more than a week, I’ve posted about journaling and Writing Yourself Whole. It’s not always easy to keep a journal, so why do it? Who cares? Who will ever look at all that writing? The answer is simple: this is your life. You are keeping track of it. Your journals are not for your children to admire, your friends to share, and strangers to copy.

A personal favorite: create a calendar page with interesting things you did. For blank days, erase the pencil lines (haven't done that yet). For others, ink them in.

A personal favorite: create a calendar page with interesting things you did. For blank days, erase the pencil lines (haven’t done that yet). Ink borders around others for variety. Notice the lack of “art appeal.” This is an idea book, not an art show to be shared.

The journal you keep is to document your life. To prove you were alive. To write history the way you experienced it. Many of us don’t watch news because we are overwhelmed. Our own lives overwhelm us. Journaling puts you in control. Write about what happened at work, how you reacted, what you really thought. Putting it down helps us look at our reactions, our emotions, at arm’s length.

What else can you put in a journal? I’m a big fan of a Commonplace Journal--a journal that connects closely to what happens to you every day. Here are some ideas of what to put in a journal that will make it interesting to you:

1. Weather. Rain, sunshine, wind changes how we see the world and how we feel about it. A bright crisp day brings on different thoughts than low clouds and rain. Write down the temperature, the kind of day it was, and how you felt.

2. Movies. Glue the ticket stub into your journal and write a few sentences about the content and your level of enjoyment. You can do the same for movies you watch at home. Was it a good plot? Were the characters believable? Did you like a character or hate another one?

3. Food. I’m not talking about a food diary. What did you eat that was

Pieces from a business trip to Dallas. The bag has "Inspiration" printed on it, and I've put fortunes from fortune cookies into it.  Also on the desk: a feather and a butterfly that ended his journey in my pool.

Pieces from a business trip to Dallas. The bag has “Inspiration” printed on it, and I’ve put fortunes from fortune cookies into it. Also on the desk: a feather and a butterfly that ended his journey in my pool.

delicious? Do you remember what you had for breakfast? Is food an enjoyable experiences or just something to get over with? What was your favorite snack today? What would you like to remember to cook more often?

4. Music. What did you listen to that made you feel like dancing or singing? Do you have a favorite singer or performer? If you could create a soundtrack to your life, what five songs would you include? Maybe you don’t listen to music or even like it much. What’s the background noise to your life?

5. What’s the cost? How much did you pay for a tank of gas? How much for milk? Eggs? Liptstick? The price of the small chunks of life rises and falls, but it also creates a sort of set point in your life.  Compare the price to a gallon of milk to a gallon of gas and think about what you get from each. As you get older, you will think things are different than they used to be. Now you’ll be able to check.

6. Titles. Create a whole page of titles you like. Book titles, song titles, the names of restaurants, hair salons, or any other name or title that makes you smile or think. You fill it as you go along. Keeping it all on one page gives you a fascinating look at your sense of humor.

7. Maps and diagrams. Where did you go? What route did you take? Do you always take the same road to work? To the store? What other route could you take, even if it is longer or slower? Is speed the most important part of travel? What does that mean about your sense of time or necessity?

8. Quotes. Not just famous quotes you come across, although that’s handy to write down. What people in your life said that made sense, was funny, was ridiculous. What you said in return. Keeping track of dialogue makes you a better listener, a smarter speaker, and a wiser soul.

9. What catches your eye? Ads, headlines, photos, good designs. Cut them out of magazines, or photograph them and print them out.  I photograph the wallpaper in hotels. I’m amazed at how many of them are interesting abstract designs.

10. Spend time in your journal. Look back over old journals. Has your taste changed? Your ideas? The music you like? Your life is a mosaic and you can decide on the shape and color you want it to take. Watching it change over time is part of growth.

Keeping a journal doesn’t require daily deep soul-searching. It’s a way to keep track of the tiny grit that you turn into the pearls of your life.

Here’s an article on the difference between a visual journal and a commonplace journal.

–Quinn McDonald is a journaler and a creativity coach.

No Prince Charming

If you are a woman of a certain age, you were brought up on the idea that you must downplay your talents and wait to be discovered. No tall poppies. (Just heard that expression for the first time.) You took that belief into school, hoping

"Tall Poppies." Gelli plate collage. © Quinn McDonald

“Tall Poppies.” Gelli plate collage. © Quinn McDonald

your teacher would discover you. Mostly your teacher didn’t. She was busy paying attention to noisy, loud, and rambunctious kids.

Later on, you hoped the CEO would notice you and promote you. Nope, that didn’t happen either.

Maybe you hoped that the perfect man would come and wake you from your waiting coma with a kiss and a “happily ever after.” You would be taken care of, elevated onto a pedestal and thrive.

Yeah, that doesn’t happen either.  No one is going to discover you, they are waiting to be discovered by someone else. No one is going to sweep you off your feet, promote you, or make you feel special.

Not because you aren’t special. You may well be. But because everyone is busy with their own work.

52319518If you want to be noticed, promoted, honored, and loved, you are going to have to do the work yourself. The first step is being lovable, honorable, promotable. And also Remarkable and noticeable.

The second step is to admit to yourself that you are lovable, honorable, promotable, remarkable and noticeable. If you don’t believe it, no one else will.

The third thing is to decide what you want and go after it. No one brings you anything on a silver platter. Overnight success takes 10 years to happen.  Word of mouth will kick in about four years after mouths start to mention you.

When you are focused and working on something that excites you, you become exciting. Helping others helps widen your connections. Defining your own success helps you focus on your goal and drop the effort-drainers that don’t get you there. Speaking up helps you find heroes and role models.

Not everyone can be a rock star. But everyone can define personal success and work toward it. Working toward it brings it closer. Which is much better than waiting for someone else to notice what you need and then bring you the wrong thing.

—Quinn McDonald likes the idea of tall poppies.

 

 

 

Taking a Compliment

“What a nice blouse!”

“This old rag? I just wear it to clean house.”
screen-shot-2014-02-27-at-10-13-14If you are a woman, you are familiar with this. (Men take compliments more easily). But for women, a compliment has to be denied, shoved back, or minimized.

At an art show, I complimented an artist on her work. “It’s really easy,” she replied, “I just threw some paint on the canvas.” I’ll bet she didn’t, and once she diminished her own work, I found the price a bit high. After all, if she really “just threw paint” on the canvas, it took no planning or thought.

Of course she worked hard on the canvas. Of course she worried about it. But the 3632-What-Happens-When-A-Girl-Refuses-A-Compliment-Funny-SMS-Conversation-Picturesecond a compliment floats her way, she had to pretend to be someone with no talent, who happens to make a living painting. Why? Because it hurts to admit one has talent, skills, beauty, intelligence, or even good taste. If you own your attributes, you are responsible for them. All the time.

All that may seem like too much work. So we bat away compliments. We don’t want to own them. Most women have also been trained to be humble–particularly older women. We don’t want to seem “full of ourselves,” or risk a “swelled head.” So we deny, deny, deny.

Eventually we believe that we are talentless shlubs who can barely breathe and cross the street at the same time. That doesn’t serve anyone.

First, when you get a compliment, all you need to do is smile, and say, “Thank you!” It’s not hard to do this is you immediately think that you are making the person who paid you the complement happy.

Then, there’s a bit of work to do on yourself. Why don’t you want to be talented, smart, loving, or whatever you got a compliment for? What meaning do you attach to a compliment that makes you shrink from it? Pretend, for the next hour, the compliment is true. Just for an hour. Then you can give it up. If you still want to.

P.S. It helps to give a compliment if you make it about you instead.  “Seeing you in that blouse will make me happy all day,” is a compliment that’s hard to turn down.

I read a great quote  the other day. It wasn’t attributed, so I can’t send a compliment to anyone for writing it: “It took me a long time to discover who I was not, only then did I discover who I was.”

P.S. For language lovers. “Compliment” (with an i) means a kind expression or praise. You can remember that it’s spelled with an “i” because it’s nice to receive one and nice also has an i in it.

Complement (with an e) is something that fills up or completes something else. “The book cover art was a perfect complement to the chilling story inside.” It means to complete.

--Quinn McDonald has some problems with complements herself. That’s why she writes about it.

Cutting Short Studio Time

Yesterday, I mentioned having a ritual to get you into the studio. Today we are going to take a look at why we leave the studio before we are done–emotionally or physically.

20130303-211539Whether you write or draw, paint or sew, at some point you put down your work and leave the studio. That instant is significant in your creative building. What happens in your head and heart just as you leave the studio defines how easy it is to come back and work again.

If you have trouble returning regularly, and you think of the studio fondly while you are in a meeting or watching soccer practice,  you have a priority conflict. But if you find yourself doing laundry, dusting or making the bed, it’s not a priority problem, you are putting off going to the studio.

There are many reasons we put off going back in. The first thing my coaching

Fully realized dustbunnies.

Fully realized dust bunnies.

clients usually mention is fear of failure. But I don’t think so. I think we fear success. If we do something wonderful in the studio, we are responsible for it. We have to own our own creativity, our creation and the power of being a creator. Better to search for dust bunnies than be powerful. Owning our own power is often hard, even if we want to be famous or recognized. Because once we have created something, there is responsibility in creating more. Doing it again. Competing to outdo ourselves.  Explaining success. Easier just to let it slide.

Sometimes we leave the studio right before a breakthrough, before that Aha! Moment changes our lives. It is so much easier to cut short the revelation, the hard truth, the secret we hide. Ah, but what we resist, persists. And then refusing to return seems like a good idea. We need to “take a break,” or we need to “work it out.” Take your break in the studio. Work out your truth in the studio. Because no place else is your studio–the space dedicated to your own creation, your own growth. That’s where the magic happens–right after the sweat and fear. Stay. Wait for the magic. Give it a chance.

Tomorrow: Tips for returning to the studio with anticipation.

-Quinn McDonald has experience studio reluctance. That’s the only time her house is clean.

Dust bunny image: http://rubyreusable.com/artblog/?cat=110
Comfort zone image: http://www.proteinandpumps.com/breaking-out-of-my-comfort-zone/

 

Rituals Work

If you work in an office, you have a morning routine. Whether you get up and shower or get up and exercise, have breakfast and then shower, you do the same thing every morning. You probably have your moves timed down to the exact second, either by a clock or your TV.  You get out of the house and to the office on time.

children-3Creating a ritual for art is exactly the same thing as a routine for work. A ritual legitimizes your effort, eliminates distractions and assigns a top priority to your artwork. As long as your artwork doesn’t have a priority higher than the laundry or watching TV, it won’t get done. And you strengthen the priority every day of your life, by repeating what you did before.

Your art work is powerful, but not powerful enough to overcome your resistance and drag you into your studio. You have to do the work. And that means shifting priorities. To art. Why is that worth it? Because art makes meaning in your life. It helps you understand yourself, your world, your journey. It’s also sometimes uncomfortable  to face the meaning you make in art, so it’s easy to shove it aside. The art you make is not always the way it’s portrayed on Facebook, elegant and surrounded by a glowing light. Art can be messy, painful and revealing–of thoughts you wanted to bury.

The ritual doesn’t have to be complex. Decide ahead of time when you will do art.Green-Art-Studios-Weaving-Studio-537x368 Choose a whole hour. Set a timer to ring 10 minutes before you want to go to the studio to give yourself time to quit what you are doing. Make a cup of coffee or tea, grab the cup and head to the studio. No excuses.

Once you start your new habit, it will first get much harder to meet your ritual. The phone will ring, the kids will demand your attention, a crisis will erupt. Keep to your schedule. In about a week, it will suddenly get easier.

Your morning routine works because your job brings in money and you have given it permission to take over your life. Give your art a chance, too. It brings meaning to your life. And as my mantra says, “you don’t find meaning in life, you make meaning in your life.” Give meaning a chance.

—Quinn McDonald has her own ritual for getting to the studio. Some days it’s still uncomfortable.

Alone Is Not a Four-Letter Word

Neither literally  nor figuratively. “Alone” is an experience fast disappearing from our culture.  For an entire generation who grew up in sports teams, group after-school activities, study clubs, and went from that to living in college dorms, parties and more sports teams, there is a big surprise. When you have graduated, when you are done with work, you’ll find yourself alone. I know that people now have roommates instead of a studio apartment, I know that work is now a 24/7 activity, largely to avoid being alone, but sooner or later, you will find yourself alone.

One of my friends is terrified of being alone. She will do almost everything to avoid that evening spent alone. Call friends, spend four hours on Facebook, go on a date with someone she doesn’t like. All this because it’s better than being alone.

For some of us, alone is a time to recharge and regroup. After I’ve taught for eight hours, I need to spend time alone. But I’m in the vast minority.

Food52Whether it’s divorce, or death,  a fight, or just life, at some point you will be alone. And you can love it. You don’t have to live in dread or fear, being alone can be a delicious break from having people crowded around you, talking all the time.

Some early steps to comfort yourself when you are alone:

1. What do you like to do? Read? Cook? Hike? You can do almost anything alone that you used to do with friends. Except this time you can do it your way. An activity really can be all about you. You can hike at your pace, turn on your music, cook what you like. Take a deep breath and think–do you remember your preferences? Or are they blurred by what all your friends told you was right?

2. Quit looking at the clock. Instead, choose an activity and plan how to savor it. Decide which book to read. Spend some time choosing it. Decide where you want to read it. Outside? Inside on the couch, stretched out? Decide what is best for you. Then do it. Read till you are tired. Fall asleep. Wake up and keep reading. What did you like about the book? What didn’t you like?

3. Decide what you will eat. No more junk, on the run. Choose something you like that’s good for you. Make a grocery list. Go buy groceries. Cook it thoughtfully. Set the table. Sit at a table with candlelight. Play music if you like. You choose. The joy of preparing food and choosing what will nourish you deliberately is a deeply refreshing experience.

Those three are enough for now. Life alone is not something to be rushed, or avoided. There is much to learn when the journey has only your footprints along the path.

Note: When I searched for photos for this blog, all I could find was people alone, crying at dinner, or eating out of cans. Not even Google sees the joy of alone-ness.

–Quinn McDonald loves people, but she also loves being alone. Particularly after spending 12 hours on airplanes with 560 strangers this week.

In the Middle of Turmoil

My coaching client sighs. “I think I need to take a break from coaching. I’m so stressed at work and at home, I feel like I’m swimming in a riptide. Once I’m back safely on shore, I can have more ground under my feet and continue.”

I never force anyone to continue coaching, but when I hear this, I am hearing a need for coaching, not a break from it. I feel like saying, “There is no shore; your whole life is a river.” (I realize I shifted the metaphor from ocean to river.)

rapids_mountain_river__images_desktop_wallpaper-widePart of the need to “feel ground under your feet” is the word we use to describe someone stable and balanced: grounded.

We associate balance with control. With knowing what will happen next. But that’s largely an illusion driven by hope. We are always in the middle of something–a project, a crisis, a celebration, a decision, a career, an identity. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t plan, but it does mean that plans change, shift and become impossible without much warning.

Life is a river, and we are always floating, swimming, paddling. There is not a time when everything is suddenly perfect and the world stops so we can enjoy floating blissfully.

whirlpool-1-300x224Grabbing enjoyment when you recognize it is a skill that coaching teaches you. So is adapting to a fast-paced life and dealing with change without falling apart.

Coaching works in the middle of turmoil–because it mixes support with accountability, and courage with action. Coaching works best when the client is open to life and change, but it can help people adjust when the world is not stable under their feet. If it’s stable now, don’t expect it to stay that way. You won’t be surprised when change shoots under your feet.

-Quinn McDonald has had her share of change.

 

Procrastinating on Your Way to Your Dream

Yesterday I talked about re-examining the rules you make. To see if they still work. To see if you have outgrown them. Rules we make for ourselves are one way we stall on our way to reaching our dream.

If your dream is still dancing beyond your fingertips, if you have stalled on the way to getting your dream, maybe it’s time to take ask if you are procrastinating.  If you are a perfectionist, you are probably a procrastinator.  It’s keeping you from getting to your dream. Because you want the dream to be perfect before the new, perfect you seizes that perfect dream. Oh, and at the perfect time, too.  Psssst. . . that’s never going to happen.

So put some traction in your action and grab that imperfect dream, because, after all, it is your dream and doesn’t have to be perfect.

Stop planning, stop talking to people about planning, and take one step toward your dream. Most of us spend too much time making up plans, planning for what could go wrong and then watching as problems surface and things do go wrong. Of course they do, when we keep looking for things to go wrong, we’ll find enough to barricade the dream. Time to take a lyric from Jackson Browne: “Better bring your own redemption when you come/ To the barricades of heaven where I’m from.”

Listen to your heart.

Listen to your heart.

Here’s the biggest thing I learned while I was re-creating my relationship with food: logic is wonderful. If you live in your head, logic sounds like real life. But until you bring emotion into it, you won’t act. Logic lays out the plan, but emotion fuels the action.

The worst emotion you can bring in is fear. It might be an emotion you know well, but it’s not inspiring. Bring in doing a small thing right. Bring in making small steps. Bring in congratulating yourself over small things. Look back and see how far you’ve come. Toward that beat up, crumpled, beloved dream that you are now clutching to your heart.

Update on Is It A Book: I’ve turned in a table of contents, I’ve turned in my sample pages. Right now the acquisitions editor is on vacation. It may be next week till the negotiations are done. I’m grateful to have a smart agent.

–Quinn McDonald is practicing patience as she waits. She horrible at it.

 

 

The Power of Blank Space

White space. If it’s not in your life you will feel crowded, hemmed in. What is white space? If you’ve ever planned design work, you consider both the space where there are words and images (message space) and the space that is empty–called “white space.”

White space is important. Too much copy and illustration, and the busy page exhausts you. You can’t read any of it. Too little white space and you feel lost and disconnected, not sure you understand what you are looking at.

If you know this already, you might explore “passive white space”–margins and spaces between paragraphs, and “active” white space, the space purposely designed to give your eyes and mind a rest.

whitespaceexample_no2-1If you are interested in how to use white space in design, read Larisa Thomason’s excellent article “The Use of White Space.” The image on the left is from that article.

So yesterday, when I was having a  terrible, no-good, horrible, really bad day (Judith Viorst knows about those days). I felt jammed up by 6 a.m., when I had a competitive assignment to hand in before I left for a teaching assignment.

I made some choices that changed the day. Here’s how I did it:

1. I stopped doing my work. Put the phone down, signed out of email. I needed to distance myself and my frustration.

2. I took a break. I got a glass of ice coffee, looked out the window  and did some deep breathing

3. I re-set priorities. This is the hard part. I had to call clients, work on projects, solve some problems. But I knew if I forced myself ahead with the considerable self-discipline I am capable of, I would do more damage than good. I’d make mistakes because I was frustrated; I’d miss correcting those mistakes because I was rushed. I’d create more mistakes and less forward motion.

4. I added white space to my day. I cut out some items I thought I had to do. I added a few administrative tasks that were more noodly, didn’t require a lot of brain power, but needed to be done. I added a half-hour of reading a magazine between tasks. Another spot of white space. I ran some errands. At the end of the day, I had accomplished some necessary items, hadn’t ruined client relationships and felt less harassed and frustrated.  I need to be clear here: I chose not to do some important things because the risk of doing them and failing was more probable than being able to push through them successfully. Yes, I put off the thing that has to be done, in order to save it. It is a hard decision to make, and exactly why adding white space is a life saver.

I now have a name for deliberately putting off work because I am emotionally incapable of doing it. This is very different from avoiding work, creating excuses, or not meeting a deadline because you didn’t get up early enough. You know the difference. My day was saved and ended well because I added emotional white space.

—Quinn McDonald  occasionally has to fight to nurture her ability to get work done.