Category Archives: The Writing Life

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.

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

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.

Writing is Visual

You are reading a mystery book or a thriller, and can’t put it down. It’s late at night and you begin to wonder if you locked all the doors. What you are reading is coming off the page and making you feel creeped out. Your imagination has turned words into video. Reading is a visual experience.

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Maude White is a paper carver–a visual storyteller who tells her fine, complicated, detailed stories in paper. See her work at http://bravebirdpaperart.com/home1/

If you read a wonderful, fat book about a family, you don’t want the book to end. You love the characters, you feel you know them. You could describe them and entertain them. Words are not only visual, but story-telling is emotional–it triggers emotions of compassion, anger, community, fear, love, friendship.

Some writers can create such vivid images that our brain not only translates them into our lives, but we believe we have experienced the events. Our heart pounds, our eyes well up with tears. A good book is an emotional experience. A sensory experience. A visual experience.

In the long battle of design v. writing, I’ve always been on the side of writing. Yes, of course, because I’m a writer. But also because I know that your imagination is so much bigger and stronger than the image someone interprets for you.

Quinn McDonald is a writer and certified creativity coach

 

This Little Journal Stayed Home

On my last business trip, I had to hand-carry corrected workbooks. That shrank suitcase space, so I thought, “this time, I’ll leave the journal at home.” I don’t journal every day, so a two-day trip, well, I really wouldn’t need it anyway. The journal stayed in the studio.

Here’s what didn’t make it into my journal the day it happened:

  • The full eclipse, around 3:00 a.m.,  the kind where the moon is red.
  • I ate dinner overlooking an indoor ice rink and noticed that the youngest class fell as often as the older class, but the younger kids laughed when they fell and did deliberate pratfalls, bounding back up again. No fear, no shame, just ready for more fun. Something about being young that acknowledges the purpose of life is learning. By the time you are eight, you feel embarrassed not to know it all.
  • I missed writing down a dream because it evaporated when I woke up without a way to write it down.
Traveling instant art kit: Neocolor II, water brush, pencil, Pitt Pen, eraser. The bare necessities.

Traveling instant art kit: Neocolor II, water brush, pencil, Pitt Pen, eraser. The bare necessities.

Sure, I can write down the two events I remember, but it lacks the immediacy and insight of writing it down as soon as it happens. And the dream is gone.

What to do when there is really no room to take the journal? Here are four ideas:

1. Buy postcards at the airport when I arrive and tuck them into the folder that holds my schedule. There’s always room to take a few postcard stamps. Write down journal entries on the postcards and mail them at the hotel before I leave. Instant journal page!

2. Take photos of things I want to remember and print them out when I get home. Print it out to the size of the journal page, and write on it, or on the back and add it to the journal.

3. Take a few shipping tags to write on. Send them back as postcards (the larger ones) or tuck them into the journal when I get back. Or keep it simple and simply tuck blank index cards into my schedule.

4. Pick something else not to take. A journal is my idea bank, comfort source and being-bored preventer. And it doesn’t have an uncomfortable underwire. A woman’s got to have priorities.

—Quinn McDonald is leaving for Houston, and this time, her journal is coming along.

Listen to Your Journal

Note: Congratulations to Denise Huntington who won the book giveaway on my blog! Denise, send me your mailing address (to QuinnCreative [at] yahoo [dot] com) and Just My Typo will be on the way!  Many of you were generous and said April Lopez and her Dad should win the book. April, send me your mailing address and I’ll send you a book you and your Dad will enjoy!

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listen1Listening to your journal is a skill  often neglected by the very people who would benefit from it. We write a lot in our journals, but then we close the covers, put them on the shelf and forget about the wisdom we just wrote. We are used to writing, asking to be heard–praying for answers. But we often miss the answer when it shows up. And it will show up. That’s one of the benefits of  journaling.

For a while, all the writing is pouring out of you in an endless flow. One day, you will find yourself thinking about what you are writing–the words aren’t pouring out on their own. You are paying attention. And all of a sudden, you write something interesting. Profound. An answer to a question you had. You are now in a deep connection to your own wisdom or a wisdom of your Inner Hero.  You have tunneled deep enough to be away from the distraction, and you just dug up an important truth, courtesy of channeling your Inner Hero. Your Inner Hero gives you permission to dream up solutions.

Truth is surprising. We recognize it and blink. Sometimes we wish it were Quotation-Jonathan-Safran-Foer-music-love-listening-experience-Meetville-Quotes-59162something else. But the flash of recognition is the key. You will know. Maybe it’s not the answer you had hoped for, but maybe it’s exactly what you need.

Your pen may race on, while your mind chews on the answer. You may not want to listen, but you will. You will be drawn back to those words, that flash of recognition. It can be an answer, a key to an answer, or simply a truth you have not believed before. Because you could not.

And there it is, on the page in front of you. Underline it. Save it. You may have to finish your thought, your paragraph, your page, but the answer is right there.

You have created the start of a habit. A habit of writing and listening. And when you listen, you’ll find answers. You might have to write a long time to learn to trust yourself, but once you start to listen, you will hear your answers.

Quinn McDonald is a writer who has a lot to learn.

 

The Last Swim of Summer

One morning, the water begins to chill instead of cool. I swim a little harder, warming it and warming me.

The sun stays off the water longer, hiding behind the hedge, slowly edging up. Not like the August sun, brassily reflecting in the water long before I dropped into the deep end.

palm trees reflected in a swimming pool © Quinn McDonald, 2009

palm trees reflected in a swimming pool © Quinn McDonald, 2009

Not like the summer sun that crisped all skin not hiding under a least one foot of pool-blue water.

The September sun kept the water warm enough to trust.

Until the last week of September, when the wind turned. Days still hot, but the night air sucked the warm right off the water.

I went in one foot at a time, hoping each time it was not the last.

Like saying goodbye to a lover, I always hope there is one more day, one more weightless hanging between dawn and work. One more sliding through the water looking at a fierce blue sky.

This morning it was too cold to swim and I did anyway, lips as blue as the last

August sunrise in Phoenix.

Sunrise in Phoenix.

berries in the store. Looking up, wanting the sun to rise, I saw the first V of migrators arrive.

The pool rocked water up the stairs as I ran for my towel just as a tired duck took up the space I left in the water. We looked at each other, as we exchanged places and the seasons changed.

-Quinn McDonald won’t be in the pool anymore this year, but she can walk the sun up every day.

The Mistakes that Build Success

When I opened the book at the client location, I nearly fainted. The material in the box on p. 6 was completely garbled. No words, just a collection of letters and numbers. It’s a mistake clients get upset over. I hadn’t checked the books because the printer had printed them before, and done it correctly. And there were three other pages where the material in the sidebar was a graphic element, but didn’t make sense.

The ladder to success can often look like a bleak staircase.

The ladder to success can often look like a bleak staircase.

I saw my opportunity at this client slipping downhill, fast. Trying to make it a teachable moment, I pointed it out to the participants. I explained that no matter how often something seems routine, we don’t know what happens at the printer–new people, new software, new techniques. Every book delivery needs proofing.

There are two points to making a mistake work for you. The first is to admit it. The second it to fix it. Checking with the person who organizes the class, I made sure she could distribute to the whole class. She agreed that if I sent her the pdf of the book, she could distribute it.

I told the class they would receive a pdf of the book to use. A few members were disgruntled and said this kind of mistake shouldn’t happen, and they would note it on the evaluation. Even though the mistake was fixed, the emotional damage was done. I spoke to one participant in particular, and he said if he were my supervisor, he’d fire me for such a mistake. And he would complain to the training department. I’m sure he will.

Mistakes happen. They need to be taken in context. The Powerpoint I had with me showed the material correctly. There were four pages with mistakes on portions of the page. I’m not trivializing my error, but taken in context, it didn’t diminish the learning possible in the class.

I’m a big proponent of learning from mistakes, it’s unfortunately the way most of us learn best. We never think, “Wow, that presentation really went well. Was it because I practiced or because I decided not to use a PowerPoint or studied up on potential questions?” Nope. If we do well, we feel lucky. But we learn more from mistakes.

Those people who don’t make mistakes are people who aren’t trying hard enough. Or who hide their mistakes or blame them on others. And those people, in many corporations, and in the government, are often the people who rise to the top. Or maybe I should say “float” to the top. By dodging mistakes, they look blameless. Notice I said blameless, not faultless.

They dodge and weave the effects of their mistakes. Because they make lots of mistakes–everyone does–they learn how not to get caught. Then they believe the problem is getting caught, not making a mistake. Admitting the mistake would teach them something. Instead, they bury their learning experience. I’d respect someone who made a mistake and admitted it and knew how to fix it and prevent it.

It would be an excellent idea if corporations encouraged mistake-learning early, and promoted people who solved their own problems and had the integrity to admit mistakes and the problem-solving ability to prevent them from happening again. That’s someone to admire and promote.

Quinn McDonald is a trainer, writer and mistake maker. She lives with all of it.

Life in Small Details

Maira Kalman’s vision of the world is by turns, quirky, wonderful, intriguing and 24671359absurd. Her 2007 book, The Principles of Uncertainty is her diary of one year in her life. It covers the absurdity of life– p. 122 reads, “Which leads me to my candy collection. The JEWEL of the collection is the CRATCH bar, purchased in Cuba. It sounds like a disease more than a candy trat, and I like to imagine the naming session.”

There are several pages of her collections–egg slicers, suitcases, sponges. She draws them all. The book is really an art journal-each page a full color illustration of some aspect of the day. Some of the pages relate to each other, others do not. Kalman is interested in whether or not people know who they are, an always interesting question.

© Maira Kalman

© Maira Kalman

The simplicity of this post and the depth of what it did and didn’t say, is fascinating.

Go to Google Images and type in her name, you will find dozens of Kalman’s illustrations. The book is both an inspiration and a journal prompt all its own. It’s an autobiography and a diary. Kalman may be the best emotional multi-tasker I know. And a mental magpie, collecting ideas and emotions at random.

kalman-coffee1

© Maria Kalman

What I love most about the book is that she was not afraid to write and illustrate an odd, fascinating, philosophical, funny book that doesn’t fit into a common genre, and, I imagine, defended it to an editor or agent. Still, quirky and odd, the book is 63,500 on the amazon.com list. (The hour I checked.) Compared say, to Kitty Kelly’s book on Oprah, which is 96,100 and two years younger. Or Stephen King’s Carrie, which is ranked at 61,380, and a perennial best-seller.

Why, that gives hope to all of us journalers of details.

Quinn McDonald loves to take a peek at other people’s lives.

Beyond Art Journaling

Nothing against art journaling. I still love it. But I need a break from it. So many people have piled on so many products, paints, stamps, stencils, embossers, hole-punchers that I got dizzy and had to sit down.

A page of William Blake's Commonplace Journal

A page of William Blake’s Commonplace Journal

I’m back to using my Commonplace Journal. The one that holds all the facts, ideas, quotes that pile up in my days. It’s so comfortable, like a pair of shoes that are soft and still can be worn to a teaching gig. My Commonplace Journal doesn’t demand painted pages, drying time, or planning. It holds whatever shows up. For me, that includes meaning-making.

Two deep loves for journaling (for me) is watching time pass on a big scale and nature. This time of year (fall for the Northern hemisphere) the days begin to get noticeably shorter. For Arizona, it is a huge relief, as the sun simply doesn’t pack the punch to crisp your skin in five minutes. The pool starts to get cool again. By the end of September, you will need hot water when you shower (in summer, the water comes hot out of the cold water tap.

Because my memory is keyed to weather, its hard for me to remember what happens when. It was easier on the East Coast–my memories were tied to cool weather or a coat I had on. Or mud season and black flies. But here, there is a giant blue bowl of sky above us 322 days a year, so I have to keep track of what happened, and when.

Calendar at the beginning of the month, pencil boxes still in place. Not much filled in.

Calendar at the beginning of the month, pencil boxes still in place. Not much filled in.

In the Commonplace Journal, I draw a rough outline for the month on a page that starts the month. I use a pencil to do this. Then I use a pen and box in days in which something is caught. On the first and last days of the month, I notice the length of the day.  In September, the day of the Harvest (full) Moon, the autumnal equinox, and the progress of my plants. Maybe I add sketches, maybe not. Depends on what happens.

At the end of the month, I add color (if I want) and erase the lines on days that I didn’t fill in.

Feb. 2010, complete with what i noticed around the yard.

Feb. 2010, complete with what i noticed around the yard.

Keeping this calendar doesn’t replace writing, I do that, too. But it shows at a glance what happened outside for that month. It’s great for gardeners, nature lovers, and hikers.

You can, of course, track anything. Birthdays, school milestones, heights of your kids, grandkids or how long you walked the dog.

Calendars keep track of items we want to remember but not use up brain power remembering. A simple, hand-drawn calendar is an excellent journal page.

-Quinn McDonald keeps journaling in ways that make meaning, whatever they are.