Adding “How” to “How-To”

“One Way or Another,” Julia Feldmeier’s article on negotiating that ran in the Washington Post on Sunday (7.29.07) had a sidebar on how to negotiate raises and benefits when you get hired. The article is well-researched and has some tips about negotiating prices at a flea market and a car dealership, but then it falls into a trap I see often in How-To articles. In the section on salary negotiation, Feldmeier gives advice, but doesn’t tell you how to follow up on it.

“Also investigate loopholes. If the company says it doesn’t pay anyone in your position more than $80,000, but you know that they’ve granted sizable signing bonuses, press them on that point.” How would you know they’ve granted sizable signing bonuses? How many companies at which you’ve interviewed was that information available? Is the average interviewee going to have personal knowledge of the information?

In another paragraph, the job applicant is cautioned against being the first to reveal a satisfactory salary. But what about those jobs on Monster and Craig’s List that say, “replies without salary requirement will be discarded without further notification”? No mention on how to handle that. Do you risk not mentioning your salary? Do you inflate your salary?

In the last several months, I’ve seen several articles that are short on the “how” in “how-to.” Just telling the reader that an action is necessary isn’t enough. You have to tell the reader how to take that action, particularly when it comes to research.

Saying “use the internet,” or “Google the company’s website” for information often sends the reader on a senseless churn for facts not available on a company’s website.

Writers have the responsibility to be clear. The least we can do is take our own advice and see what happens. I

ve read several articles recommending websites that no longer work. One was a salary-comparison site, and when I tried to use it, it contained nothing but pop-up ads, other links, and advice to ask your friends in the same field about their salaries, while sharing drinks.

How-to articles are popular, but yours won’t be if the “how” is missing. Give clear tips, include details that create the result in the advice you give, point to working websites, and use verbs that allow the reader to understand how to get the results you advise. Then you have a readable article.

–Quinn McDonald is a writer and certified creativity coach. See her work at (c) 2007 All rights reserved.

The Distracted Perfectionist

For the last two days, I’ve been writing about creativity as a daily practice. The first day was about the importance of a daily practice and the second was about setting a priority of daily practice–the possibility of choosing to do your daily practice rather than something else. What I focused on was housework.

The lure of housework is not obvious. It’s a good thing to have a clean house. But when we use chores (and it can be gardening, errands or other not-doing-creative-work), we diminish the time spent creatively.

clock and calendarThere is another, far worse, way to ruin a daily practice. It’s the very computers we use to do a lot of creating. Once you are writing, drawing, creating on your computer, you are one click away from choosing a more interesting diversion. Playing computer games. Shopping online. And if you are a perfectionist, you can pretend it’s a virtue.

Playing games is a “needed distraction,” shopping is “faster than going to the store.” True, but it also is “not getting creative work done.” Computer games are addictive. After all, I have a post on advancing through levels in Zuma. I thought it was a mindless distraction, until I got stuck in level 12. Last night, I spent two obsessive hours trying to beat a computer game instead of something creative.

I felt slightly dizzy and guilty. I love creative work and wanted to do it, but I grabbed at a distraction and lost the time. Sure, I can say a little distraction is good. Yes, I can enjoy a little mindless fun. But when mindless fun begins to eat into creative time, when your creativity isn’t getting fed, when what I choose to do isn’t helping my daily practice, I have to consider what I’m doing.

And I think what I’m doing is letting myself get hooked into playing Zuma or online distractions. In fact, if I’m really honest, and I add up the hours I’ve spent doing both the past week, it’s a big number. It’s big enough to make me think about addiction. That’s a scary word, but if I spent as much time drinking as I did playing Zuma or engaging in online distractions, I’d be a serious drunk.

As a recovering perfectionist, I’ve told myself I need some downtime to regenerate and playing is good for me. As a creative person, I know I’m wasting time to avoid solving a creative wall I’ve hit.

It’s hard to look at our down time without rationalization, but it’s a good exercise. Perfectionists, particularly, want to be good at everything. It’s easy for me to say that playing Zuma is a way to get good at something I have little experience with–computer games. It took me a while to recognize the rationalization–similar to “I need to be informed about pop culture, so I’m reading People and Us this week, and watching reality shows on TV.” It’s the same kind of resistance to overcoming a creative block by reaching for drivel. It doesn’t help but it fills time so I don’t have to think.

This week, no Zuma. Just to see how much I miss it. Because I’ve rationalized that it teaches me something (hand/eye coordination) and even I recognize that as crap.

What’s your favorite distraction? How much time is it eating out of your daily creative practice? I don’t think I’m the only one to use online distractions as a hiding place. See what’ s holding you back. Put it down and see what happens.

–Quinn McDonald is a writer, artist and creativity coach. See her work at  Image of building with clock and calendar: Alfred Molon, 2005.  (c) 2007 All rights reserved.

Daily Practice, Part II

You’ve heard it before. You are in a class and the instructor says, “All you need in ten minutes to do X right when you get up.” Nothing takes 10 minutes, least of all right when you get up. If you lined up all those 10 minutes for exercise, writing, spiritual practice, organizing or pet walking for every class you’ve taken, you’d have to start at 5 a.m. and stay up till midnight.

So how are you ever going to get a daily practice of writing, art, music, dance, meditation, anything—in and stay alive?

I have an alternative answer. All of us have the same amount of time in a day—24 hours. They aren’t making any more. So getting up earlier or staying up later is not the issue. You are booked. Your day is full. If you want to a daily practice, you have to choose.

dust bunniesChoose one thing over another. For most artists, everything else comes first. We got into that habit with the day job. Work came first, then kids, housecleaning, pets and art came dragging along late at night. No wonder it didn’t earn a living. You treated your art as it it were an afterthought.

Move art making as a daily practice to the top of the list. Fit in a day job, eating, and sleeping. Everything else drops down the list.

You not only don’t have to do all the housework yourself, sometimes it doesn’t get a priority at all. My house is hardly ever company ready. Cat hair swirls in the corners of the staircase. I don’t have dust bunnies, I have dust buffaloes. But I write, meditate and read every day. Because I changed priorities.

I used to do all my chores on time–vacuum, dust, clean bathrooms, empty dishwasher, do laundry. . .the list is impressive. At the end of the day, I was too tired to be creative. Then I gave myself permission to let the housekeeping slide. Not forever, but some cleaning doesn’t get done until it needs to. I use the time to focus on my art, write, or daydream. Daydreaming is important for creativity. (You can learn how, if you don’t know).

If you are a recovering perfectionist, the scenario of not-cleaning sounds awful. I challenge you to try it. The only rule is that you must use the time not-cleaning to be creative. Not-cleaning is your time, no fair using it to pay bills, drive the kids to soccer, or other chores. Not-cleaning is your creative time. Try it, and see if there isn’t room for not-cleaning in your life.

Not creating is specific to perfectionists. Read more.

–Quinn McDonald has a daily practice of writing, but she insists people call before they drop by. She is a certified creativity coach. See her work at Dust bunny image:

Daily Practice, Part I

Busy. Time crunch. Overbooked. We are all of these things, but there is something I’d like to suggest. About 8 months ago, I joined a group of people who write or create art every day. We post it, we encourage it, we support our efforts.

I decided to post to a blog every day. On days when I could think of nothing sensible, I wouldn’t post. Writing every day was a chore. But the more I did it, the better I got at generating ideas and putting them in writing.

calendar blocksMeditation works the same way. So does creating art. So does mindful parenting, dancing, creating and performing music. Few are born experts. The change is slow and incremental, and often not noticeable to those of us engaged in it. Much like going to the gym, we see the effort and not the results. And the effort is often why we quit, which stops the benefits at the same time.

But daily practice is worthwhile. It conditions the mind, spirit and body in good ways. It allows us to get better slowly. It allows us to think over small issues, solve little problems, and try out little ideas. When we get good at that, it grows into nuturing those small ideas and projects into big ones. When we run into big problems, we have the expertise on how to handle them.

A daily practice takes time and effort, but it’s worth it in the long run. Tomorrow, I’ll talk about making time for a daily practice.

–Quinn McDonald has several daily practices that she thinks of as “her life.” She leaves room for the unexpected, too. See her work at Image: (c) 2007 Quinn McDonald, all rights reserved.


Just when I think I’m not all that interested in poetry, I find something that is amazing, that makes me gasp with pleasure or pain, the way running too-hot water over a patch of poison ivy on your ankle will do. The best poems come alive with memories, right in front of your eyes. This is one of them.

Poem: “Starfish”
Eleanor Lerman, from Our Post-Soviet History Unfolds.

This is what life does. It lets you walk up to
the store to buy breakfast and the paper, on a
stiff knee. It lets you choose the way you have
your eggs, your coffee. Then it sits a fisherman
down beside you at the counter who says, Last night,
the channel was full of starfish. And you wonder,
is this a message, finally, or just another day?

Life lets you take the dog for a walk down to the
pond, where whole generations of biological
processes are boiling beneath the mud. Reeds
speak to you of the natural world: they whisper,
they sing. And herons pass by. Are you old
enough to appreciate the moment? Too old?
There is movement beneath the water, but it
may be nothing. There may be nothing going on.

And then life suggests that you remember the
years you ran around, the years you developed
a shocking lifestyle, advocated careless abandon,
owned a chilly heart. Upon reflection, you are
genuinely surprised to find how quiet you have
become. And then life lets you go home to think
about all this. Which you do, for quite a long time.
Later, you wake up beside your old love, the one
who never had any conditions, the one who waited
you out. This is life’s way of letting you know that
you are lucky. (It won’t give you smart or brave,
so you’ll have to settle for lucky.) Because you
were born at a good time. Because you were able
to listen when people spoke to you. Because you
stopped when you should have and started again.
So life lets you have a sandwich, and pie for your
late night dessert. (Pie for the dog, as well.) And
then life sends you back to bed, to dreamland,
while outside, the starfish drift through the channel,
with smiles on their starry faces as they head
out to deep water, to the far and boundless sea.

— Quinn McDonald is a writer and creativity coach. See her work at

What to do With Your Blog

Note: if  you want to start a blog,  you may enjoy, “8 Blog Tips for Beginners,” posted earlier in this blog.

Clients keep telling me they don’t know what blogs are for, “except advertising, and keeping up with celebrities.” Actually, I hadn’t thought of those two uses.

Here’s what blogs are good for:

1. A new, improved website. If you have a static website, a page or so just to have a presence on the internet, great. You don’t need a blog. But if your material changes often, a blog site is better than a website. Particularly if you aren’t a web programmer. A blog is more easily searched and sends out keywords to search engines better than most sites.

2. A daily writing practice. If you are a writer, you need to practice. Every day. A blog is perfect for that. You can commit to a certain amount of words or a certain topic, then tag topics and add to it daily. Password protect it if you don’t feel like sharing it with the world.

3. To get your ideas into the world. Despite the fact that I just said you could password protect your blog, I wouldn’t post any ideas on my blog I wouldn’t want to have read to a jury. There is a deadly irony that the people who wish their blogs would be published don’t always get an audience, but blogs are out there, and should be treated as public.

4. To develop ideas. Daily writing is a way to brainstorm with yourself. Join a community of like-minded bloggers, and you can brainstorm with others. One idea bouncing of a dozen people leads to many more good ideas.

5. A different way to think. Read other people’s blogs. See if you agree with them. Maybe you like a part of another blog, or none of it. Think it over. What is it you can agree with? What do you not agree with? Reading and thinknig are always good ways to spend time.

(c) Quinn McDonald is a trainer, writer and artist. See her work at 2007 All rights reserved.

Raven ATCs

As part of an Artist Trading Card (ATC) challenge, we were asked to create four cards on the theme of ‘raven.’ I wanted to combine words with images, as words are part of my life. I also wanted to avoid literal interpretations or illustrations of ravens. Using mythology and dreams seemed a good way to create individual art pieces. The one on the lower left reads, “memory of a raven.”

raven ATCs

–Quinn McDonald is an artist and writer, and teaches writing and journaling. (c) QuinnCreative 2007. All rights reserved.

Glue Tips

Whether you use PVA glue, acrylic medium, or methyl cellulose, wet glues have their own problems and their own great uses.

I always wanted to use glue sticks, but I just don’t have luck with them. They aren’t precise enough, and for some reason, they don’t hold well over time. If they work for you, great.

So, here’s what I’ve found out about using wet glues.
Buy them in big bottles and transfer them to smaller squeeze bottles. Label them by writing on a piece of tape and putting the tape on the bottle. Wipe the rim of the big bottle carefully with a wet cloth so you can open it again.methyl cellulose

Invest in parchment paper. The kind cooks use in the kitchen. Not waxed paper, not plastic wrap, or freezer paper. Not parchment from an art store. Kitchen parchment paper. I bought a giant stack and use it in pieces about 5 inches x 8 inches, or, if I am working on larger pieces, enough to leave a one-inch margin around the piece I’m working on. I tear up an entire stack, and work on top of the stack. More on that in a minute.

The trouble with glue is. . .well, it’s wet and sticks to everything. Including your clothes and skin. Wear an apron, and have a wet cloth handy. Once most glue gets on your clothing, you’ve got a piece of work clothing. If you jump up and wet down the clothing right away, you might save it, but it’s a hell of a way to spend an afternoon. Wipe your hands on the wet cloth frequently. Pulling glue off your skin is painful, wrecks a manicure, and may not come off in one piece. Walking around looking like a leprosy victim is not priceless, it’s creepy.

acrylic mediumPVA, acrylic mediums, and methyl cellulose can be thinned with water. I use distilled water in a spray bottle. Rather than thinning the whole bottle, I thin small amounts–about as much as I’ll use in 10 minutes.

Use the parchment paper as a glue palette. I squeeze a puddle of glue about the size of a quarter on a small piece of parchment. To thin it, I spray distilled water on it. I quit using tap water when I sprayed the water into the glue and a week later, there was mold on the glue. I quit using boiled water when I lived in hard water areas and the minerals in the water streaked the medium and showed when it dried. Distilled water avoids all sorts of problems.

images6.jpegDon’t scrimp on parchment. I use a 1-inch brush to cover a large area, and run the brush over the edges to get a good seal or to serve as a base coat on paper. I do one side, and pick up the parchment and move it aside. Most paper won’t stick to parchment and you can let it dry. Do NOT try to pick up the paper and use the parchment again. Wait till both are dry. You can re-use the parchment then. But while it’s wet, you will just transfer glue to the wrong wide, smear your work or mess up your surface. I’ve read the tip about using a phone book, but phone book ink smears and transfers, and it’s not what I want.

Most lighter papers will curl if you apply glue to one side. Particularly if the grain is running long. Use acrylic medium on one side, let it dry, then flatten it with your hands and coat the other side. After that, you can use watercolors, acrylics, and more glue and the paper won’t curl and ruin your project.

Acrylic mediums can be used as a base coat, a top coat, an isolator (coat the piece to be glued down on both sides, let it dry, then glue down), and a glue. You can coat isolated areas in matte and others in gloss for wonderful effects. If you want a gloss finish, don’t apply gloss over matte. You can apply matte over gloss to take the shine down.

If you are a collage artist, and have windows in the image, coat the glass part of the window image with gloss medium, then use matte or satin on the back for glue. The glass in the windows will shine, giving it a real effect.

–Quinn McDonald is an artist and writer. See her work at (c) 2007. All rights reserved. Images: parchment paper, Glues,

“No” Comes First

This past week I was in Chicago, speaking at a conference. I also got to see the Museum of Contemporary Art, at the edge of Northwestern University. There is an installation piece in the courtyard–a car and camper, seemingly popping out of the plaza from Europe (as witnessed by the car and trailer’s license plates). In the short time I watched it, small children and adults alike walked around it, laughed, asked where it came from. Engaging art, making sense of the museum’s logo: Fear No Art.

Chicago Contemporary Art Museum carInside, I overheard a bit of conversation that fascinated me. A younger woman was explaining to her older companion that a friend of hers thought it would be better if our ears were porcelain– that we would treat them more carefully.

“No,” the older woman said, “it would make ears fragile.” In fact, she was agreeing with the younger woman, but she started with “no.” I found that interesting, and began to listen in on other conversations.

I heard it quite often. “No,” we say, and then refine the statement. “No,” we say, and then add details. “No,” we say, and then add an example. In every case, the person could have said, “Yes,” but chose to say “No” instead.

Why would we do that? What makes us so negative? After listening for the word all weekend at cafes, the museum, stores, in a line at the airport, and the Metro, it seems to be a way to transfer the meaning of the conversation from the other person back to the one who wants to speak. “No” is a good conversation stopper.

It also seems to signal a way to introduce another person’s experience. But I wonder what it does to the ability to listen. How much do we care if the first thing we hear is “No”? How much do we want to listen in the face of this negativity? How much do we want to agree with another’s point of view if the first thing we hear is “No.”?

Listen for “No” for a few days. Listen in your own conversation, and in the replies of others. See if “Yes” wouldn’t reach a bigger audience.

–Quinn McDonald is a creativity coach, writing and journaling trainer, and artist. See her work at (c) 2007, Quinn McDonald. All rights reserved. Image: CAM of Chicago.

Learn by Going

I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.
I feel my fate in what I cannot fear.
I learn by going where I have to go.

We think by feeling. What is there to know?
I hear my being dance from ear to ear.
I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.
And learn by going where I have to go.

—–from “The Waking” by Theodore Roethke

japanese gardenRoethke’s poem is powerful and still. What does he mean with “I learn by going where I have to go”? Does he mean that his learning occurs when he goes where he must go to learn? That the teacher appears when the student is ready?

Does he mean that the only way for him to learn is to go through an experience and grasp it?

Both meaning work. We can’t ask Roethke anymore, he died of a heart attack while swimming in 1963. The pool he was swimming in was filled in and turned into a Japanese garden at Bloedel Reserve in Washington state. The image is from the Reserve’s website.

—Quinn McDonald is a writer, artist and creativity coach. See her work at (c) 2007 All rights reserved.