Category Archives: The Writing Life

When Your Journal Talks to You

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

someprayersFor 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 greater than yourself. You have tunneled deep enough to be away from the distraction, and you just dug up an important truth.

Truth is surprising. We recognize it and blink. Sometimes we wish it were something else. But the flash of recognition is the key. You will know. Maybe it’s not the answer you had hoped for, maybe it’s exactly what you need.

Your pen may race on, while your mind hangs on to 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.

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 keeps a journal and is surprised when it shows her something big.

The Past (Tense?) of The Word of the Year

Note: Congratulations to snicklefritzen43! She’s the winner of the Natalie Goldberg book. I hope your word of the year brighten with the book! Contact me at quinncreative [at] yahoo [dot] com with a mailing address and the book will be on the way!

Many of you have chosen your Word for 2015. Some of you are trying out the last cull from the ones you thought of. This is excellent work, thinking about the word or phrase that will serve you well for 2015. How it will fit you, how you will have to make room for it in your life.

2014-calendarBefore we leave 2014, let’s think about the year that is quickly coming to a close. What word would you use to describe 2014? Did the word you chose for 2014 match your experience?

Was it close? It doesn’t have to be, after all. You could have had a big intention word and constantly worked on it, while 2014 plotted against you.

Or maybe your word was not big enough and it was an easy word, but not a challenge. Not everything has to be a challenge. Some things can be a treat.

How would you describe 2014 if you thought of it in an overall sense? Was it a year that pushed you to grow? One that you negotiated with a bit of stress but made it through? I like to pit my chosen Word of 2014 against the word (phrase) I’d use to describe 2014 and see how thy line up. Then see if that balance is reflected in my Word for 2015.

Here’s my own example. I started 2014 with the word Scatter, with the Screen Shot 2014-12-14 at 2.22.31 PMintention of broadcasting ideas like seeds–in big, joyous arcs. Halfway through the year, I felt too scattered. I was doing too much, too little, not doing enough well enough and feeling confused. I switched the word to Distill, which I loved doing for the rest of the year.

The year 2014 had some tough challenges for me. There were a few big, crushing disappointments, and a few pleasant, unexpected developments. If I had to choose a phrase for 2014, I’d choose “Give up control.” Every time I try to control the future, the path is too narrow, too paved, too engineered. And every time I think I want that, I experience a big tear in my plans that shows just how foolish that idea is in my life.

Summary: My words for 2014 were both Scatter and Distill and the year was a year of Giving Up Control. The words were a good match for what I experienced, but it felt a bit removed from digging in.

Moving Ahead: My Word for 2015 is Heart.  Yes, I am the one who hates heart shapes, I have no talismans shaped as hearts (to my view), I don’t use them in my artwork. So why choose that word? Because I am working on a book, and I have slowly discovered that I need to write it with Heart, because that will make it come alive, while writing it with brain will just make it accurate. Because passing ideas through my heart will show me what my work really is, not what I think it should be. In a world where I give up control, when I do not compete, or become attached to winning, Heart will help me find balance at the point where I so often fail–going with what is soul-satifying instead of career building. Because soul-satifying will attract the participants who build career. And it’s time for the Tribe. You know, the one you are part of on this blog.

Quinn McDonald is a writer who keeps a Commonplace Journal.

Word of 2015: Ready? (and a Giveaway)

We are still weeks from the New Year. You are probably overwhelmed with cards and holiday planning. It’s about a week from the beginning of Hanukkah and two and a half weeks to Christmas. So why start thinking of the Word of the Year?

Words make the portrait. "Zappa" by konstantinek: http://bit.ly/1vDDdLq

Words make the portrait. “Zappa” by konstantinek.

Because you can’t come up with it overnight. It takes a bit of planning, thinking, and trying on a few to see how they fit before you choose the right one.

Here are some ways to start choosing words:

1. Write down words you like. You can like the sound or the meaning, or just feel attracted to the word. Write them down without numbering them, scattered across the page, not in any order: Torque, branch, flood, heart, live, thrive, shine. Any words that appeal to you. Do that for at least a day.

2. Around each word, write some words you associate with the word you wrote. Let’s use “torque” as an example. You might write “revolution,” “turn,” “twist.”

Decide if any of those words are interesting for you. Let’s say you like the idea of “turn.” So write a few phrases with the word you like. “Turn around,” or “turn your head,” or even “do a good turn,” and “a turn for the better.” Keep working on word groups and phrases for a day or so.

3. Try out a few words and see if they fit. Do any phrases strike you as important, even if you don’t know why? Do they feel like words you’d love to use a lot? Words that call to you require a fitting session. Write the word on a piece of paper and carry it around for a day. Every time you touch the paper, think if the word fits you.

4. Narrow your words down. Choose a few–no more than three.  Work from there. Talk to your friends about what they think when they hear the word. You might get new ideas. Type it into Google and see what happens.

5. Sleep on it. Put the piece of paper with the word written on it under your pillow. Any interesting dreams? Any ideas or association within an hour of waking up?

The final word has to be rich and deep–something you can chew on for weeks51wed0j1hTL and months.

The Giveaway. Leave your thoughts and ideas in the comments, along with the word, when you choose it. You have some time–but not enough to put it off.  On December 15th, I’ll choose one of the comments to win Wild Mind–Living The Writer’s Life a book by writer and writing teacher Natalie Goldberg.

The book is a great addition to your head and heart–how to balance daily responsibility with a commitment to write, coming to terms with success and failure, and how to find time to write.

—Quinn McDonald is choosing her word for next year.

You Might Be a Writer If . . .

Think you are a writer? Maybe so, maybe not. But you may be a writer if . . .

. . . you go on your morning walk and discover this on someone’s lawn:

santahowitzerand your first thought is “where is that ‘Keep Christ in Christmas’ sign when you really need one?”

—and your second thought is, “Is he going to run over that collapsed snowman and blame it on Santa?”

—and your third thought is “What’s that brown thing? Is that a wiener dog implicated in this tableau?”

You walk on and find this:

santaAnd your first thought is: “Good use of a Santa that can’t be inflated anymore!”

–and your second thought is: “Did that other Santa on the right fall off the roof earlier? Is he dead or does he just have the wind knocked out of him?  And if I give mouth-to-mouth, how long will it take me to inflate him?”

Being a writer is not easy. You will find yourself incredibly sensitive, even emotional, at odd moments. Simultaneously, you will have to have a very tough skin, because everyone you meet has advice for a writer, most of it negative.

You have to be curious about the world. You can’t be curious if you don’t know about the world. Which means you have to experience it, get involved, and yes, watch the news. No hiding from the magnificent, roiling combination of environmental, human, and geographical conflagration we partake in. You can’t grow an imagination on a steady diet of popular culture and celebrity. You’ll wind up writing lame fan fiction like Fifty Shades of Navy.

If you just thought, “Who cares if she can write, that lady is rolling in dough and sold her movie rights for millions!” you can’t be a writer. Writers care about content more than anything. Good content.

You might be a writer if you have a constant trickle of ideas as long as you don’t have a way to take notes. The instant you open your app or pull out paper, the great idea vanishes like steam over a subway grate.

You might be a writer if you narrate your life, and while you are at it, you constantly improve or change what’s happening, to make it “read” better.

And if you don’t want to be a writer, but keep running into them, here are five things never to say to a writer:

1. “So you write? Would you have written anything I’d read?”
For the love of sweet Mother of Pearl, how should I know what you read? Cereal boxes? Sales flyers?

2. Books are so expensive! Can you give me five for my friends? Oh, and sign them, would you? That way I won’t have to come to the book signing.
Yes. No. And no again. Buy the books, that’s how a writer earns a living.

3. So do you just sit there and wait until ideas show up?
No, you live a complicated life with many twists and turns and spend a lifetime taking notes. For every forty-four pounds of journaling, you’ll find half an ounce of good ideas. You think this is a bargain.

4. I’ve always wanted to write a book.
Great. Get busy. Books don’t write themselves.

5. Are your books just your life, but only better?
My life is like a book plot like a letter is like a sentence. It’s all raw material, but it’s not in the right order. That’s what a writer does. Put thoughts and ideas into the right order.

–Quinn McDonald is a writer and creativity coach.

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