Category Archives: The Writing Life

Map Your World

The newspaper had stories on  The Cape Verde Islands. I couldn’t remember if the Seychelles are close to Cape Verde islands (they aren’t.)  The story didn’t have a map,  but it would have made for a clearer story if there had been one. A map adds context. But we are no longer used to maps. We rely on photos for emotional food, but we dieted away our spatial-relationship food.

We may not need paper maps as long as there is a GPS system to tell us how to get where we want to go. But don’t we need to know where we were and how we got here? If life is a journey, don’t we want a map of the trip?

My dirty secret is that I hate using GPS systems. They make me feel dizzy and disoriented. I have the same problem as digital clocks– I need to know where I’m not as well as where I am. I need to have a sense of connection, of space, of logic on the freeway as well as downtown. A few days ago a friend and I were driving to the airport. She had mistakenly programmed her GPS system for someplace else. And while we could both clearly see the airplanes landing a few miles away, she headed in the other direction because her GPS system told her to. I don’t own a GPS and don’t miss it, either.

My favorite three reasons to use lots of maps:

desert_portraits1. Maps help us figure out the world around us. Most people who don’t live in Arizona think the entire state is desert, with saguaro cactus and drifting sand, like the Sahara. (The Sahara doesn’t have saguaros, but that’s another blog.) When they hear it snows in Flagstaff and that the road to the Grand Canyon is closed due to snow starting in November, they think I’m making it up. A topographical map, showing elevations, helps explain why that is.

2. Maps help us figure out where to go next. This isn’t necessary about physical geography, this is also true in writing. I use a mind map to organize almost everything I write, and once I organize the studio, I can complete the map of where things are. This is a goofy map I’m making because the room is small and doubles as the guest room, so I often have to disappear things in a closet. Astrict rule of putting things in the same place every time and an Excel spread sheet (I can search for items in different ways) helps me locate gesso, spray bottles and sponge brushes once the guests are gone.

3. Maps help us know what’s beyond the horizon. We usually care about our houses and our back yards. It’s also important to know what’s in your back yard, what’s in the next state, the location of the nearest earthquake fault, water source, and windbreak.  A good map can do that, particularly if you add to it or draw it yourself.

Which reminds me. Draw your own maps. They don’t have to be elaborate or even exact. Drawing a map helps you think spatially, locally and globally. And that has to be a good thing.

-–Quinn McDonald draws her own maps of everything from city streets to location of bathrooms and water dispensers in places she teaches.

 

 

 

 

 

Creativity Prompts: July 19, 2014

On Saturdays, I’m posting some journaling prompts to get you to enjoy journal writing. My favorite way to handle these are to set a timer for three minutes, what+will+you+write+4read the question, and then write until the timer rings. I don’t go back and re-read while I’m writing, I don’t edit or listen to the inner critic. I just write. It’s freeing to not pick apart each sentence as you write it.

—You go see a doctor. What questions can you ask to make sure you get the best care, and not just a six-minute session and a prescription?

— Many birds are raised by their mothers alone. Write a letter from a father bird to his fledglings, explaining what they need to know and how to learn it. You can do this with different birds: hummingbirds and robins, for example.

—There are four-legged animals and two-legged animals, but no three-legged animals. Why did evolution favor even numbers–at least in legs?

—If you were handed a sealed envelope with the date, time and cause of your death inside, would you open it, even if there were nothing you could do to change your fate?

Have fun exploring your ideas and writing!

-–Quinn McDonald is a writer still in love with writing.

The art of Lorem Ipsum

Unless you are a typesetter or graphic designer, the phrase “lorem ipsum” is Greek to you. In fact, that’s what it’s called—greeking. Lorem Ipsum is placeholder type, used to fill in for real words in ad design, book layout, magazine dummies and new websites.

Lorem_Ipsum_by_NeoSHBecause it mimics the length of English words and sentences,  it looks genuine, but because it has no meaning and isn’t repetitive, it doesn’t call attention to itself as clients look at design.

It’s so popular in design that Apple.com has a widget that lets you generate your own Lorem Ipsum.  Never heard of it? Here’s the first paragraph:

Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit. Nullam vel turpis. Sed justo. Phasellus malesuada sem non sapien. Nunc feugiat nulla eu augue interdum vestibulum. Aliquam urna lorem, hendrerit vitae, fermentum ut, rutrum eu, massa. Maecenas nec sapien. Morbi ante ligula, dignissim vel, vulputate sed, ultrices vel, lorem. Nunc nulla nunc, tincidunt posuere, egestas eu, ultrices eget, diam. Nullam pharetra pretium mauris. Sed quam nibh, posuere eget, ultrices vitae, rhoncus ac, nisi.

I assumed that it was scrambled text, with no meaning. But I was wrong. It has a proud history, about 500 years of it, and it is one of the few print facsimiles that made the leap into the digital world with no damage.

Sometime around 1500, a typesetter wanted to display different fonts, so he

And ad, greeked in with lorem ipsum.

And ad, greeked in with lorem ipsum.

made a sample book by scrambling some type from a text he had printed. The book was “The Extremes of Good and Evil,” by Cicero, who wrote the ethics treatise around 45 BCE. Lorem Ipsum, more precisely,  has a 2,000 year history.

Yes, Cicero was a Roman, and Lorem Ipsum is called “greeking,” but it was Cicero who introduced Greek philosophy to Roman culture, and then developed a Latin vocabulary for Greek philosophical terms. And Cicero wrote much of his work in Greek.

Who discovered the link between greeking and Cicero? It’s attributed to a Latin scholar— Richard McClintock, from Hampden-Sydney College in Virginia. He looked up keywords from the passage, and found a match in sections 1.10.32 and 1.10.33 of “de Finibus Bonorum et Malorum” (The Extremes of Good and Evil).  The first line,  “Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet..”, comes from a line in section 1.10.32.

Entranced yet? Wear your love of lorem ipsum on your sleeve. Well, at least on your arm.

Quinn McDonald remembers how to spec type, hot lead type, and paste-up nights at the newspaper. Now she’s a writer, who helps others remember and helps them forget.

Before You Commit

Some wisdom I’ve known for a long time: Pay very close attention to the way people treat you before they hire you, marry you, work with you, or take a class from you. Everyone’s behavior changes with familiarity, but if your future mate, work partner, client, or boss doesn’t treat you well before you agree to the commitment, it is going to go downhill after you commit.

The door closes from both sides--you can close it as well at the person on the other side.

The door closes from both sides–you can close it as well at the person on the other side.

Often, when we want the job, the guy (or girl), the friend, we deny our own wants and goals and give them up in order to get that short-term goal. “So what if this deal has some thorns?” we think. “Even roses have thorns,” we reason. “And I sure want that armload of roses to carry down the runway.” And then comes the job offer or the class or the friendship, and we are so blinded with the short-term victory, we miss the opportunity to ask ourselves if this behavior is really OK with us. Most often, it isn’t OK. And it’s not a runway, it’s a long hard road and the petals fall off the roses and we are carrying an armful of thorns.

But that short-term victory is huge and ego-inflating.  And right after that, when we want respect, it’s not there. We’ve signed the contract, accepted the lower pay, given up what we really wanted and it’s not going to come your way now. Negotiations are over. Work has started. You have settled for less than you wanted, and you will not get that upgrade. Why should they? You voluntarily gave up your values to get the short-term rush of pleasure. When it fades, the rest of the duration will look bleak.

You may have to open your own window to let a fresh breeze blow in.

You may have to open your own window to let a fresh breeze blow in.

Know your values and stick to them. Your values make up your character, your spine, your self-worth. Give it up to someone and they won’t give it back anytime soon.

Jim Rohn got it just right when he said: “If you don’t design your own life plan, chances are you’ll fall into someone else’s plan. And guess what they have planned for you? Not much.”

If you read the blog regularly, a few weeks ago I had a post that asked “Is it a book?” the answer is it will be a book, but it will be someone else’s book. Not mine. And now that I’ve looked over the values I cherish, I’m just fine with it. No hard feelings on my part, wishing the author much success. My inner critic is screaming at me, “You lost the opportunity to go with a huge publishing company! Are you nuts?” But away from the closing door, the Holder of Deep Values (one of my inner heroes) is opening the window and saying, “Be glad. You did not give up what is important to you, and that is always up to you to choose, decide and protect.”

-–Quinn McDonald is seeing a door close and is waiting for the window to open. She trusts the wisdom of the Holder of Deep Values.

 

 

Saturday Prompts

It’s time for a switch. After years of posting links to art and artists, this Saturday I’m posting journal prompts. A lot of art journals are being painted and a lot of journals being bound, but not a lot are being written in. No surprise. Writer’s block strikes a lot of people. Stare at a blank page (no matter how many colors or layers it has) and your mind goes smooth and blank.

PromptsHere are some prompts to get you started filling your journals. Set a timer for three minutes and choose one of the prompts below. Write without editing your own thoughts or censoring yourself. Write down what shows up.

1. Lots of schools require some sort of uniform. Would you like it if your workplace made you wear uniforms? Supposing you got to design the uniform. What would it look like?

2.You’ve been mugged. You aren’t hurt, but you are shaken up. There is a cell phone on the ground, but it’s not yours. What would you do with it?

3. Is intelligence inherited? Which of your parents (or siblings) was the smartest? What criteria did you use to get to your answer?

If you use any of the prompts and come up with an interesting train of thought, leave it in the comments.

Happy exploring!

—Quinn McDonald is a writer who is exploring the interior.

Walking in Water

Yes, “in water,” not “on water.” I have doggedly tried going to the gym to exercise, and I cannot make myself like it. I spend all winter walking three to five miles a day, in morning meditation, under a blue sky and lacy mesquite trees. A gym just does not replicate that. The inside of the gym feels competitive, emotionally heated and high-pitched in a cheat-death kind of way. I can’t make myself meditate there, not even on the treadmill.

moonWalking in the summer is draining.  Monsoon brings humidity, and I can’t bring myself to walk three miles, sweating before I get to the end of the block, the sun already cooking my skin in 90-degree dawn.

The answer is, as a smart friend pointed out, the pool. The moon slides a sheen across the surface of the pool and I step into the undisturbed water. Some mornings, the Huntsman spider jumps across the surface of the water ahead of me, dimpling the surface but not breaking it. She spends the night hunting mosquitoes and heads back to the filter for safety.

First come the meditation laps. The water is dark and comfortable. Unhook thoughts and drift, on my back. Planes head for Sky Harbor, turning on their lights as they head for the airport 30 miles away. Birds begin to stir in the trees, rattling the palms and chirping. The constellations fade and a chalcedony blue sky takes shape. We are closing in on dawn.

dawnAs the sky begins to glow like a furnace the day will become, I start my serious laps. Leg and arm exercises, using water for resistance. Walking, running in the water. Concentrating on form, pushing thoughts out of my mind. Just the water and muscles flexing through it. The sky turns orange and the top layer of the water begins to warm.

Forty-five minutes later, I pull out of the pool. The breeze dries and chills me, the sun dries and warms me. Opposites, pulling at me before 6 a.m. The day starts.

-Quinn McDonald swims through life.

Books for a Creative Life

wimd-34If you want to live a creative life, you’re going to need some help. Books are my first place to start. Here are some books I’m reading now that are a great help for your creativity.

Writing is My Drink by Theo Pauline Nestor. Simon and Schuster, 2013. Love this book that helps you discover who you are through writing. A good story by a woman who knew she was a writer, but just couldn’t write. Till she took some risks.  Each chapter has writing suggestions at the end.

Become a Life Change Artist by Fred Mandell, Ph.D. and Kathleen Jordan, bookPh.D. Penguin Group, 2010. These two Ph.D.s teach you seven creative skills to reinvent yourself at any stage in life. And they do it by breaking down how creative people do their work and then applying it to your life. The seven skills are:

  • Peparation
  • Seeing
  • Using Context
  • Embracing Uncertainty
  • Risk Taking
  • Collaboration
  • Discipline

Building Your Business the Right-Brain Way, by Jennifer Lee, New World Library, 2014.  OK, I haven’t read this one yet, but it’s on my desk. I love the idea that right-brain strengths can be applied to a traditionally left-brain activity–building a business.  Again, business is considered an art (good idea if you are an entrepreneur), and you need some of the same skills to be successful as left-brained people. You’ll learn about taking a stand and making an impact and attracting clients–the right ones.

The Right-Brain Business Plan by Jennifer Lee, New World Library, 2011. art-books-highlight-261x199This was Lee’s first book, and it shares a lot of design elements with the second book: tips, success stories, worksheets, and a friendly, approachable format.

I bought all these books in the paper-book format. I do love ebooks, but when I’m reading for research (and all of these books are for becoming a better coach), I like to take notes on paper. In this case, I’ve put those convenient #8 shipping tags in the books as bookmarks. I take notes on the tags, keep them together with colorful binder rings, and can flip through them to find the notes I need. And yes, I do color-code them.

Now, here’s a question for you: If you were to take a week-long creativity course, one that focuses on writing, but not on one style or genre of writing, what would you want included? List as many items as you want. Some ideas to get you started:

  • Comments can include topics you want covered (memoir, poetry, fiction, non-fiction)
  • How you want to spend the day (traditional teaching lessons, writing and reading your work, critique,)
  • How important it is to write in class and get personal feedback
  • How much you want to read your own work or hear the work of others
  • Special topics you want covered (why write a book? Collaborative writing)

And yeah, I’m creating a class. Might as well get feedback from the smartest people I know. My idea right now is that the class will have an online component and an in-person component. You can form community and start working on a project online, then meet for the in-person class. You can also experience each part separately. Don’t ask me how I will do this yet. I’m just thinking.

—Quinn McDonald is creating a new kind of class.

 

 

Copyright Protection or Nothing New in the World

When it comes down to teaching your art, you find yourself in one of two worlds: the kind where you protect your copyright avidly, not handing out how-to sheets for fear of having them stolen or shrugging it off and saying, “everything is derivative anyway. I got my ideas from someplace else, too.”

Those ideas lie at opposite ends of the spectrum, and I’d like to introduce a third idea, maybe a fourth.

First, let me admit I’ve lived at both ends of the spectrum. I was not happy when a fellow artist came into my booth, years ago, took photos of my work, claiming it was because she “loved my display,” then rolled out a line of stunningly similar artwork the next season, priced just below mine.

Nor was I happy when I was in a class on a topic I’d taught often, and was hoping to get out of a rut, and was handed a how-to sheet that looked stunningly familiar. It was familiar, in fact, it was my handout, complete with copyright on the bottom line, photocopied for the entire class.

At some point I decided that everything I taught, every article I published should be something I had already taught to exhaustion, or I was ready to give up. But part of the fun of teaching is getting inspired by students. Would I have to give it up?

Now, I am careful to copyright my work. I send it to the copyright office once a quarter, with payment. That allows me to sue for damages for violators. But I also don’t want to be the copyright police. And I want to promote innovation and creativity. If I do not want anyone to know what I’m working on, I don’t post it anyplace. Or talk about it.

People will always explore, and people will always use what they find. Gracious people ask, kind people give credit. But if you teach, no one can teach the way you do. Your personality combined with your skill and talent make your class. And people will come to your class because you are welcoming and a good teacher. No one can take that from you.

-Quinn McDonald teaches what she knows.

 

Left-Hand, Right Brain

George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton and  Barak Obama have something in common. And they share the trait with Alexander the Great, Helen Keller, Napoleon Bonaparte, Paul Klee and Whoopie Goldberg. All are left-handed.  About 10 percent of the general population is, give or take 3 percent, depending on the study you check.

Most of us left-handers have some degree of ambidexterity, and some people (full disclosure: I’m one of these) write right-handed. Our group is generally a bit older, and would have been left-handed writers, but were changed in school.

Two custom-made left-hand pendants Here’s a tip to tell if you are classified as left-handed: what hand do you brush your teeth with? How about comb your hair? (That was for men, for women, the question is more often, “What hand holds the hair dryer?) Other, more private functions, can also determine if you are left- or right-handed.

What made you left handed? It happened in the womb. LRRTM1 is the gene thought to be responsible, but there is even more involved. According to neurologist Norman Geschwind (for whom the theory is named), some women have higher testosterone levels in the womb, whether or not they have girls or boys. (Want to check if your mom did? Look at your second toe, the one next to the big toe. If it is equal in length (or longer) than the big toe, your mom had higher testosterone levels while she was pregnant, and you are probably left-handed.

How does that work? According to Geschwind’s research, the testosterone levels suppress the growth of the left side of the brain, and the ambitious neurons go over to the right brain and do their growing over there. The more developed right side of the brain, which controls language skills, also controls hand-preference.

The dominant right side can also make you susceptible to dyslexia, stuttering, and some auto-immune diseases. Before I go on, please note that not all of these will happen to you, and you can be firmly right-handed and have that longer toe. These are based on huge samples across demographic lines.

Left-handers are generally more adaptable, because they have to get used to living in a right-handed world. Problem-solving skills are higher among creative people than the general population, and it might come from trying to figure things out.

A few companies have created tools for left-handers. For years, scissors that violinclaimed to be for left-handers, simply reversed the grips, making left-handers “cut blind”, in other words, the part of the scissors that did the work was still on the original side, and you couldn’t see the part you were cutting. Friskars actually reverses the blade, and I’m grateful to them for thinking this through. Here’s the link for purchasing the scissors.

If you are left-handed, there are resources for you. If you are a right-handed parent of a left-handed child, there are also resources for you.

–Quinn McDonald is left-handed and writes right-handed. Determined nuns were stronger than her persistence. However, she writes left-handed when she uses a whiteboard or a flip chart.

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.