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Check That Progress

To-do lists are my saving grace. I love them. I keep them, work them, check them off and grin. Occasionally, I am guilty of putting things on my to-do list that I have already done, just so I can check it off and feel like I’ve started doing something.

strugglequoteThe trouble with that, of course, is you are never satisfied, always living in the next step, and striving ahead without a break. It’s exhausting. And I still love them.

Which is why I started a to-don’t list, often before I travel, so give myself permission to put some work on hold so I can actually live in the present and do the work at hand–traveling.

Now I’ve come up with something almost as fun as a to-do list: a “it’s done” list. Research shows that a real boost to meaningful work is keeping track of progress. What went right. What you did that was smart. What worked well. Most of us don’t do that. If things work out, we just keep going. There’s no learning in that.

True, I learn a lot by making mistakes. The reason? When things go right, I just workInProgress-150x150breeze ahead. When I stumble and fall, I have to figure out what went wrong, how it went wrong and how to notice it early enough next time not to do it again.

Imagine if you did that for getting it right. Progress is an important step in meaning-making. Knowing you have made progress and admitting it, even taking satisfaction in it, is another thing entirely. Give yourself a break. Allow yourself to keep track of what went right. Your good decisions. Your progress. See if more of them don’t start showing up.

—Quinn McDonald is moving forward on several projects.

 

 

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.

 

 

Not Hanging On So Hard

An article in The New York Times reports, “Most girls won’t admit this, but they’d rather you hit on their significant other than their best friend.” (New York Times, ST-2, October 26, 2014).  The article says the advice columnist Julie Klam says  (via the magazine Dame) “When she introduces two friends to each other who she thinks will bond, she says, ‘Now, you may not go off and be friends without me.’ And they laugh . . . and I say, ‘I’m not kidding. No shoppng trips or going out for a drink after work.’”

I read the story twice without believing it. And then I did. Of course, this is Screen-Shot-2013-03-26-at-12.41.36-PMfear-based thinking, which is driven by control. And if we lose control of our friends, no telling what will happen. We might be alone. Someone might have a better time than we are. Control is not the best foundation for friendship.

Friends come and go. Some last many years, some a few weeks. Friends are not obligated to check in with anyone to make sure they get approval of their lunch companions.

We don’t own our friends anymore than we own the trees in our yard. And that’s a great way to think of our friendship–like trees. Trees protect us from too much heat, and they require some care to thrive. They put down roots and allow us to stand on them to see the future. Trees change, and require work. So do friends. But we don’t own people anymore than we own the trees that other people see, enjoy and share the shade of.

Patrol your friends and you’ll spend your whole life watching for infractions, keeping spreadsheets on time spent and what it means. Friends don’t thrive all that well with rules, time-enforcing and feelings of ownership. They do better with understanding and introductions to other people in your life. Of course we all need to set boundaries, but a good friend will help you and understand you.

And that sounds like thriving all the way around.

—Quinn McDonald loves the trees in her yard as well as her friends, who have lots of other friends she doesn’t know. And that’s fine with her.

 

Gallery

Book Page Wreaths

This gallery contains 10 photos.

Book lovers, avert your eyes. I’m about to rip up books (again) and turn them into something else. But first, a note to all of us for whom books are sacred and for whom the thought of damaging one is … Continue reading

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

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

 

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.

 

 

Time Is On Your Side–If You Put it There

Freelancers know a lot about time. About not having enough of it. About deadlines. About approaching deadlines. (Sometimes about missed deadlines.)

unique-clock-1For some reason, I’ve fallen into bad time management habits, so I decided to figure out why.  The first business day in September seems like a good time to share it.

Nothing takes “only five minutes.”
My clients say it all the time, “How long could it take to write that headline? Can’t take more than five minutes?” “Answering an email takes just a minute. You can write five emails in five minutes.”

Nothing called “work” takes just five minutes. Even if you don’t count prep time. To answer an email, I have to read it carefully and figure out what the person wants. (Often it’s hidden in the middle of a paragraph, behind the background and details). Then I have to decide how to best answer it. Then write the email and store the draft while I answer others, then re-read it for dumb errors.

weirdClocks-9Lesson #1: Do not let the client push you into a time frame that doesn’t work.    Set a time frame that is reasonable for the speed at which you work. You may lose clients that way, but better to lose a client by smart time management than through stupid mistakes caused by rushing.

Stop believing the travel time on Google Maps. People who made the maps don’t dash back into the house because they forgot a folder or a water bottle. They don’t have the same traffic and road construction I do. They don’t go to the bathroom when they get to an appointment to make sure there isn’t something stuck in their teeth.

Lesson #2: Add at least 30 minutes to commuting time. This sounds like it will waste time, but it can be a big deal. One client location is 31 minutes away by Google Maps. I have never been able to make the trip in under 45 minutes. Doesn’t matter why–if I don’t want to be late, I have to leave more time for the longer drive.

webpark-clockWhat if I am too early? I bring a nonfiction book that I’m reading. Something I don’t mind if the client sees. Example: Wabi Sabi for Writers rather than The Joy Diet. Love Martha Beck, but I don’t want to explain it’s not really a diet book or discuss diets with my client. E-readers are excellent for reading without broadcasting the title.

Time moves at different rates. Some days I can race through work, other days I have to drag and kick myself through the same work. I don’t know why it is, but on dragging days, time needs to be adjusted–it will take longer to do ordinary tasks.

Lesson #3: Stop over-scheduling yourself. You can’t keep up the pace. Leave a half day every week to catch up. I don’t book coaching or training clients on Fridays. I’m never bored on Fridays, and frequently finishing projects that got delayed, needed more research, got pushed aside. And if the week has gone well, and I have to find a coaching slot, Friday can work for that, too.

-Quinn McDonald still thinks time moves differently on different days, but at least she knows what time it is.

Fordite and Smoke

“You can have any color you want, as long as it’s black.” Henry Ford is supposed to have said that about the Model T. And until 1908 it was true.  The first cars were all black. It was inexpensive and most machinery was black or gray, why not cars? Henry Ford then developed a paint that dried fast. It, too, was black. But in 1908, red and green became available. After that, colors became the norm.

Fordite ready for jewelry.

Fordite ready for jewelry.

Fast forward into the 1900′s. Cars were painted in special rooms that were dust free and allowed for spray painting. The walls became layered with paint. When the paint got too thick, it was broken off in chunks.

Some brilliant person saw the value in this old paint. It was hard and layered. It was waterproof and tough. It looked like agate. It became used in design and jewelry and was known as Detroit Agate or Fordite.

721cfd82201eb03e28e95c45387dc718Today it is used in making carvings, rings, pendants, fountain pen barrels, containers and design objects. It isn’t as hard as carved stone, and is prone to scratches, but it is hard enough to be beautiful.

*   *   *  *
Smoke is ephemeral–it doesn’t last and you can’t hold it. Unless you photograph it, like Thomas Herbrich. This German photographer took 100,000 photos of smoke before he saw beautiful patterns that he could publish.

smoke1821Our brains want to see patterns and order, and Herbrich kept refining his skills until these amazing photographs emerged and made sense.

You can see all of the exhibition photos for the exhibition Smoke here. SMOKE_1909_HD

—Quinn McDonald has a weakness for the clever and ingenious.

 

Five Ways to Stay Organized

It’s Monday, and organizational skills might be running thin.  If you are at work, you may envy the CEO or agency head for their organizational skills. (And the help they have.) Even without administrative assistants, you can use the ideas and organize your day. Maybe even your week. Here are some tips.

1. Write everything down on one to-do list. Not one for personal items and one for work, but just one list. And while you are at it, write down all your fears and worries as well. The more you separate work, worries, events, appointments, the more your brain has to scramble to sort and repeat it. It’s called a rehearsal loop. (Daniel J. Levitin describes the neuroscience in his book.) That repetition makes the worries and work seem like its more and worse.  You don’t need the stress.

This mess is great for a dropcloth, but not so much for your head.

This mess is great for a dropcloth, but not so much for your head.

2. Once it’s on a list, divide it into four categories. I got this great idea from Getting Things Done by David Allen:

  • Do it
  • Delegate it
  • Defer it
  • Drop it

Now take those items and sort them using the Eisenhower method. Yep, that long-ago President. He  is supposed to have said, “What is important is seldom urgent and what is urgent is seldom important.”  How do you divide urgent and important? Here’s the chart Eisenhower used:

Eisenhower-urgent-important3. Don’t read emails first. I know, that is not at all what you have been trained to do. When you read emails, you begin to answer them. It’s like opening your front door and having random people come in and ask for help. You wouldn’t dream of doing that. So don’t start the day with other people’s work. For the first hour at work, pay attention to your own work.

Using the chart above, and do two items from the “urgent and important” box and some action to move one “important but urgent” item one step ahead.

Bonus tip: Break down the whole chunk of work into smaller segments you can do in 20 minutes. That’s what goes down on your to-do list. If you see, “Write presentation for convention,” you will not know where to start. If you see, “brainstorm three ideas for presentation,” you will tackle it.

4. Send some emails. Your inbox is filled with what other people consider urgent but not important. Don’t fall for it. Fill up someone else’s inbox with what you consider urgent but not important. This doesn’t have to mean a direct report. Someone who is better at that task that you will do nicely. And say “please” early on.

If your boss has trained you to be available and ready to jump at the slightest notice, just open the boss’s emails and put them in one of those four categories.

Do not allow your boss to plan your day for you. You won’t have a decently planned day, and you won’t do enough for the boss anyway. Otherwise, your life will turn into this quote. (One of my favorites.)

d02bd27c2f315917f42326435dd12f805. Use your phone as a timer and reminder. Set your timer so you won’t be late for meetings and appointments. Use the same timer to divide your time so you can move several projects ahead. Think of it as a circuit workout at the gym–two minutes on 10 different machines builds better muscles and burns more fat. And fat-burning mode is great for Monday morning work.

Trying to work on one thing for a whole day will just turn you into someone who cleans their desk, makes four pots of coffee and stirs the office gossip pot. One of the best way to avoid getting caught up in office politics is to be busy getting your own work done. And you’ll feel virtuous.

There. Now you’ve done something worthwhile on Monday morning. And I have to get to work.

—Quinn McDonald makes her to-do list every night before she goes to bed. That keeps her worries written down so she can sleep well at night.