Category Archives: The Writing Life

Starting Your Gratitude Journal

When I first wrote about gratitude journals, it was about my own experience, from grumpy doubter to believer. There’s considerable proof that saying “thank you,” and finding things to be grateful for reduces blood pressure, makes you feel better and actually can improve your mood.

Now that we are close to Thanksgiving, a time when people who are alone orCHR75reg2__06130_zoom overwhelmed may not feel so thankful, I thought it might be useful to spell out how to keep a gratitude journal. Of course, you can keep it any way that works, but working with a lot of coaching clients, I’ve found a few tips that really work well.

1. Keep it small and keep it with you. A small spiral-bound notebook is inexpensive and easy to carry with you. That makes it more likely you will have it with you when you need it. I like a 4-inch by 6-inch size.

2. Leave the first page blank. That way, you won’t feel so pressured to make it perfect. It doesn’t need to be perfect. It just needs to be there for you.

3. Write it down when it happens. In the beginning, when you feel more exhausted, angry or hurt than grateful, write down the slightest thing you feel grateful for. Write it down as soon as it happens. Noting your gratitude will help sharpen your senses to things that make you grateful, and make more events available to you.

4. Write every day. Look for anything that makes you feel better or grateful. Some days you may have to search really hard, and that’s OK. Comfortable shoes, someone holding a door open for you, a smile from a stranger can be a big event in a life gone awry. Look for them so you will experience them more often.

5. Look back over what you are grateful for. Many people find that they start out small, then realize there is more and more. If that happens, it’s, well, something to be grateful for.

6. Be the stranger to smile at someone. Wouldn’t it be nice to wind up in someone’s gratitude journal?

If you have good results, let me know. It can be a boost to others. We’re in some tough times right now, not through any fault of our own. It takes a little more effort to be cheerful and grateful, but it’s worth it.

Quinn McDonald is a writer and creativity coach who has learned to be grateful

 

After Class

What does an instructor do after a long day of teaching? Don’t know what every instructor does, and I’m pretty sure at least some of us head for bars. Now that I no longer drink, I’ve found other things to do. Last week I was in southeastern Arizona, in a high-desert town flanked by mountains on two sides and rolling hills into the New Mexico desert on a third.

cotton1What surprised me is the amount of cotton. Pima cotton, the beautiful, long-fiber cotton much sought after for the textile it produces, is named after both the Pima Indians who brought it from Peru and for Pima County, where a lot of it is grown.

November is cotton-picking season, and the ginning machines run long into the night, the fields lit by the headlights of the huge machines.

The machines munch up the cotton plants–dry and prickly, studded with longcotton2 shreds of cotton. And they bale them in huge round cylinders or neatly packed into tight units that fit into the containers moved by train.

There were fields of sorghum, which from a distance looks like corn, but with a fat seed head. Corn fields are being cut, and every field that is threshed leaves food for sandhill cranes, which are now arriving. They are a little late this year, but they are arriving in long strands of 50 or 60.  The cranes feed in threshed fields during the day and then group and settle near water as it gets dark. Protection in numbers.

cotton3Driving past the cotton fields, I felt I was driving into the past. The road I was on has been used for hundreds of years–for the mail stagecoach, for the Conestoga wagons, for gold-seekers, miners,  and army deserters who moved West to hide, to start over, to leave their past someplace along the trail.

Duncan is a small town that still has old street lights, the gas mantles replaced by bulbs. The shops were made of stones, two stories with wood roofs. I turned North, then East, and drove into the farmland beyond. I saw the first birds lift out of the field and head toward a riparian area of cottonwood trees.

This is not my photo, but it is sandhill cranes. The photo is © carol parafenko and you can see more of her photography at: http://carolparafenko.com/blog%202010%20fall.html

This is not my photo, but it is sandhill cranes. The photo is © carol parafenko and you can see more of her photography at: http://carolparafenko.com/blog%202010%20fall.html

In the next half hour, I saw four more small groups. And then the sun began to turn the sky salmon and pink, and the road turned West, and rose up 600 feet. The top of the crest showed  the mountains looming on the horizon and I saw the skein of birds, making that warbling, running-water sound that catches your breath and speeds up your heart. I pulled the car over, already in shadow, and looked up at the graceful, long-legged, long-winged birds find shelter for the night. I did not want to see  if my camera could catch the birds at sunset. I did not want to take my eyes off them. I listened and waited and they flew overhead, and they and I were the only thing from horizon to horizon.

They settled past me, along the Gila River in New Mexico, leaving me to drive back, smiling, into the dark. And that’s what I did after class one day last week.

Note: Congratulations to Carol Michaud, of Soul Stories by Carol, who is the winner of David Maisel’s Life Purpose Boot Camp. Drop me an email with your physical address, and I’ll send out the book!

—Quinn McDonald is a naturalist, writer, and creativity coach who will drive 87 miles to see a flock of migrating birds.

Creating Heart While Traveling

Being on the road is tough. Not whining, but opening the door of yet another anonymous hotel room, eating by yourself in another restaurant where the only thing on the menu that fits the diet and the budget is yet another Cesar Salad, and the reward after a day of teaching is driving two hours to the next venue–it makes you reach in deep and suck it up.

“Eating Bitter” is a Chinese expression of working hard for what you want, sucking it up and knowing that you chose this life and you are making meaning even if it is a lot more effort than you want.

One of the ways I get through the chore of eating bitter and find a bit of sweetness is creating routines–I make an effort to walk every morning, even if I am a thousand miles from home. When the world shrinks to classroom-restaurant-car, it’s important to have a camera. I photograph small moment that seem important and use them in my Commonplace Book. The photo is something that makes me smile, or that serves as a metaphor. I love doing this for many reasons–it connects me to a strange place and it is comforting to find some small shred of beauty in an everyday place.

From my most recent trip: photos and notes that I put in the Commonplace Book for further development.

cactus1Heart on a cactus. Look at that backlighting! Thorns make a halo. Combination of thorns and love.  Being tough can still work as soft. Being uncommon can attract the right thoughts.

cactusDamaged heart. Look at that texture! Damage is dramatic, but can be beautiful, if you look at it the right way. Even nature makes a collage of color and texture. A cactus will root months after the piece breaks off. Life after damage exists, can even thrive.

light1Love the texture on the mid-century lamp. It warms up the whole photo. The flatness of the photograph makes the cactus in the background look like it’s outside, but it is really painted on the window. Illusion of paint–make it work and you believe in it.

window1Even the very ordinary items in a hotel room can be given a new perspective. This is the bathroom window over the shower. The “grass” is a palm tree, and the light is from a passing car. The moment was fleeting, but perfect. Glad I was there to see it and catch it.

A lot of comfort on a trip is creating a piece of life that is comforting and interesting, no matter where you are.

–Quinn McDonald has made friends with the road.

 

 

Quotes for Writers

Every writer needs some encouragement, warmth and a reason to write. Here are some quotes, especially if you are involved in NaNoWriMo:

“May your coming year be filled with magic and dreams and good madness. I

Fencepost cactus flower photographed with iPhone, no flash. Illumination with flashlight. © Quinn McDonald 2014

Fencepost cactus flower photographed with iPhone, no flash. Illumination with flashlight. © Quinn McDonald 2014

hope you read some fine books and kiss someone who thinks you’re wonderful, and don’t forget to make some art — write or draw or build or sing or live as only you can. And I hope, somewhere in the next year, you surprise yourself.”
Neil Gaiman

“Either write something worth reading or do something worth writing.”
Benjamin Franklin

“You never have to change anything you got up in the middle of the night to write.”  ― Saul Bellow

“Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.”
Anton Chekhov

“The first draft of anything is shit.”   ― Ernest Hemingway

“Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?”
Mary Oliver

“To be nobody but
yourself in a world
which is doing its best day and night to make you like
everybody else means to fight the hardest battle
which any human being can fight and never stop fighting.”
E.E. Cummings

—Quinn McDonald is a writer and creativity coach.

 

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.

IMG_5581

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.