Motorcycle Riding and Creativity

For long-time readers of the blog, you know that I believe Suzie Lightning taught me everything I know about creativity. (Yes, my motorcycle has a name, and it’s from a Warren Zevon song.) So we went off to Tucson this weekend, not on the interstate, but through the heart of the Sonoran Desert. There’s a stretch of about 70 miles where you see the San Tan mountains and then the Catalinas in Tucson,

Rear view mirror gives you a look at the future. From

but between the two points, all we saw were saguaro cactus, mesquite trees, and hawks wheeling in the deep blue bowl of sky as we crossed arroyos. Arroyos are dry river beds that fill up in minutes when it rains, and can lift a big car when only 8 inches deep in water.

The road is two-lane and largely deserted. I stick to the speed limit, because I’m sight-seeing and not in a hurry, and 65-75 is plenty fast for me. But cars appear behind me, fill my rear-view mirror, then explode past me.

When that happens, I back off the throttle, slow down, and move over. If you ride a bike, you know that you stay out of the grease-strip in the  middle of the road, and ride on either side of your lane—the first rider on the left, to protect the space, the second rider two seconds behind on the right, to fill the lane, and the third rider back on the left side.

When a car or pickup comes flying past, I move over in case they cut back too soon, and slow down to give them more space between us. My full-head helmet is expensive—it’s a “single-use helmet,” and I’m not eager to give it the single use I bought it for.

Watching a pickup truck cut back into the lane in front of me, I realized that that motion of slowing down and moving over is a creative tool, too. When I’m dealing with ideas that are approaching fast and need to pass, I let them go. I don’t try to speed up and catch them. Nor do I  try to stop them or teach them a lesson. Ideas are plentiful, and not all alike. The people who participate in my art classes (and some of my business classes, as well) are always worried that each idea may be their last. It’s unlikely. There are a lot of ideas, and a few really good ones. Like the cars that whiz past, I remember the interesting ones, the unusual ones, the ones that remind me of something useful. The rest I just watch as they vanish in the distance.

Seeing a lot of cars, like ideas, allows me to choose what I want to remember and use. And let go of what is commonplace, too fast, or not remarkable. It’s a good idea to let ideas go speeding past. It helps develop discernment.

–Quinn McDonald is a writer who teaches writing. Her book, Raw Art Journaling, will be available in July, 2011.

Having a Meeting with Stress and Fear

When you own your business, you have freedom to set your schedule and choose your clients. You also have freedom from a regular paycheck, group-reduced healthcare costs, and shoving the blame for bad decisions somewhere else. Not all freedoms are equal.

Fear, uncertainty and stress make for a bleak personal landscape.

In a down-turning economy, you would think that many companies would offer training to help their reduced workforce do the work of more people. You would think, but that is not happening. So this morning, I decided to have a meeting with my fear and uncertainty.

Looking at my schedule, I see it’s not as full as last quarter. I immediately feel fear, financial stress, and worry. That’s not surprising.  But those emotions doesn’t solve problems. So I sit down to a meeting with my fear and stress. This is actually a great form of  mediation–and meditation. Instead of pushing all thoughts out of my head, as many ways of meditation instruct, I invite fear, uncertainty, and stress in. I sit with them, and ask them what they have to contribute.

“If you don’t get work soon, you will lose the house,” Fear said, getting right to the biggest possible scary result.

“But you only know training and writing and journaling, and that isn’t being used in this economy,” said Uncertainty, “and you don’t know anything about medical jobs–the only ones that have been rising in this economy,” Uncertainty added, quoting facts to make sure I felt deep, proven uncertainty.

“You are too old to get back to school, and that would take too long to retrain you, so you better stop eating or driving, because you are in bad trouble,” Stress said.

“Thanks for letting me know, ” I said, “but once we’ve established all that, what comes next? You’ve told me what isn’t working, but what can I do that will work?”

Fear, Uncertainty and Stress were quiet. Fear spoke up first. “Well, if you don’t do something, you will be in big trouble.”

“OK,” I said, “But that’s the same thing you already said. I want to hear something I can do, undertake, think about.” Again, Fear, Uncertainty and Stress were quiet. They had not been quiet for a long time. Every time I sat down to meditate, they would clamor so loudly that I could feel every muscle tensing. I spent all my time chasing them out of my head.

By inviting them in, listening to them, and asking for specifics, they had exhausted their efforts in the shortest of time. So we sat there, in silence, until I said, “Well, I have two new ideas for journaling courses. And my book is coming out in July, so I have work to do to prepare demonstrations and classes for book signings.”

Fear, Uncertainty and Stress immediately began to talk over each other, bringing up reasons why those ideas wouldn’t work. Uncetainty was the Devil’s Advocate. Fear was the Nay-Sayer, and Stress asked for more ideas to present to the committee. I refused to argue, instead, faced each objection, thinking it through, weighing the logic, and answering it.

At the end of the hour of meditation, I had a plan for classes, demos, and several fresh ideas for promoting the book. I would discuss them with my Creativity Master Mind Group to find the strengths in each idea and discuss areas of uncertainty.

I felt happy and hopeful. Because I sat down with Fear, Uncertainty, and Stress and listened to them, I saw that they didn’t really have good ideas. They were disruptive and bothersome, but the more I chased them out of my meditation space, the more time and effort they used. Inviting them in and facing them reduced their importance and gave me enough space to come up with interesting, workable ideas. Arguing with them allowed me to overcome objections and refine the plan, to put a time limit on my efforts, and to create a schedule to the entire plan.

Meditation is not sitting in perfect inspiration. It’s work, and it doesn’t always demand an empty mind. Just a clear one.

Quinn McDonald owns QuinnCreative, a business that offers training in communications, including writing, public speaking, and turning horrible PowerPoint presentations into interesting, informative communication tools. Her book, Raw Art Journaling: Making Meaning, Making Art will be published in July of 2011.

Journal Page: Pear

Before I’ve unpacked my bag to teach journaling, the participants say, “I never know what to write in my journal. I’d like to keep a journal, but it would be blank. I don’t know what to say.” Let’s start with something easy. Here’s a recipe clipped from the newspaper. (A cultural artifact dating from the 17th to the early 21st century, printed on cheap paper and containing a condensed version of news, advertising and comics and angry letters to the editor delivered to your door for a reasonable price every day.)

Keep special or often-used recipes in your journal.

It’s Maya Angelou’s recipe for poached pears and is blissfully delicious. My recipe box is full. If I put this recipe on an index card and stick it in a recipe book, I’ll wind up paging through all 400 cookbooks looking for it. Yes, we have 400 cookbooks.

So I turned it into a journal page. I drew some brightly colored pears, so I can find the recipe when I flip through the journal, and left space for notes, ideas of recipes to serve it with, or notes of who shared this dish at my dinner table.

A journal is the GPS of your journey. Eat well along the way.

Quinn McDonald is a raw-art journaler. Her book, Raw Art Journaling: Making Meaning, Making Art, comes out in July, 2011, published by North Light Books.

Bye-Bye Handwriting

Cursive is going the way of long division. Arizona schools aren’t teaching handwriting anymore. Kids will still learn to print, but not handwrite.

Most schools already cut art and music, but handwriting was part of the basics, so I thought it would be spared. When I asked my friends about this, most of

Handwriting isn't an art, it's a necessity for brain function. Image credit below.

them just shrugged it off. “We really don’t need it anymore. We’re all keyboarding anyway.” Yes, I know. Keyboarding. Didn’t that used to be typing? Aren’t we really laptopping and texting? I digress.

When the school systems abandoned doing “math in your head” and took up calculators, I winced, too. One of the joys of doing math in your head is that you could estimate.

Last year at this time, when rain was pouring down, I could estimate that my pool would overflow, and I calculated that my bailing with a bucket would not prevent the overflow. I had about a half hour to decide what to do. No paper required.

Without a calculator, you could make change handily by “counting it back” to the client. Now, when I occasionally hand a scanner-operator a $20 bill , a dime and a nickle for $10.14 of groceries, the checker is confused. They give me back the change, saying “You gave me a 20.” When I smilingly say, “Yes, I did, but this way you can give me back a 10 and a penny,” they have to look at the screen to check my math.

Handwriting is useful in its own right. It helps develop small muscle control, exactly at the time when small muscle control is necessary. It helps develop the concept that practice is an important part of expertise, a inconvenient, but vital, fact of life that helps us build to the concept that the end doesn’t justify the means.

Handwriting is slightly faster than printing for most people who know how to write well, and it separates words to make reading easier. Printing often lacks good letterspacing, making reading harder.

Learning handwriting encourages a practice in patience and persistence, both important skills necessary in life. With so many kinds and teens afflicted with attention deficit disorder of some kind, who are all becoming adults and entering the work force, it might be useful to know that doing something more than once improves the end result and that learning takes times and effort.

Handwriting creates a different effect in the brain than keyboarding. Handwriting, according to Virginia Berninger, an educational psychologist at the University of Washington, illustrated that sequential finger movements activated massive regions involved in thinking, language and working memory—the system for temporarily storing and managing information.

Handwriting helps in graphic learning–in recognizing shapes, meaning, and the sequencing of learning. As someone who keeps a journal, I know the difference in handwriting and keyboarding. Handwriting lights up the left side of the brain, helping make strong connections to right and left brain in art journaling. Writing is slower than keyboarding, making writing a mindful activity, a chance to pause and think. Are we really ready to lose those advantages to a keyboard?

–Quinn McDonald is a writer and raw art journaler. She teaches writing as a communication tool, and as an cultural artifact. Her book, Raw Art Journaling will be published in July by North Light Books.


Stop Forcing It

The biggest surprise over the last eight years of owning my business is—just like real  life—you can’t force things to happen. For most of my adult, corporate life, I thought that’s how you got things done. Pushed against resistance till the risistance gave up and you “won.” Negotiate is a tough way until the opposition caved and I “won.” I sure wasted a lot of time doing that.

Not every skirmish needs to be turned into a battle.

An example: I’m a good writer. Experienced, nuanced, clear. After 30 years of writing, I should be. I deserve to be paid for that ability and expertise. When a client says, “We’re not paying you what you asked for, we’re paying you half. We pay our other writers less, you shouldn’t be asking for that much,” I no longer attack back by piling up my experience and subject knowledge. Nope. I nod, and say, “I understand your budget can’t stretch to cover my fee. I wish you every success on the job with another, less expensive writer. Thank you for considering me,” and leave. Notice it’s a statement of fact, not anger. I rarely make it to the door before I’m called back. “Maybe we can arrange something.” Good, let’s talk.

Another example: In a few weeks, I’m speaking to a group of coaches on choosing a niche. I’m supposed to explain how I choose this niche, and how others can choose theirs. There is no secret. I didn’t sit down and think over what niche I would develop. It worked the other way around. I looked at the people around me, the ones naturally present already, and built by offering what they needed from what I could do.

It’s an easier life if you not have to put your shoulders down and bull your way through. It’s far more rewarding to work with your natural gifts, with people who are already around you. By heightening talents you have in situations that present themselves, there is less damage to your spirit and more building of your strengths. Less grinding, more polishing. Less spinning, more weaving. It’s a good life.

–Quinn McDonald is a writer who teaches communication. She’s also a life– and creativity coach who helps people when they are stuck. She can’t help everyone, and doesn’t fight it.

Email Lament (Apologies to J. Kilmer)

I think that I shall never see
an email answered thoroughly.

Replies that answer questions asked
instead of adding to my task.

Concise with information needed
Instead of three-times asked and pleaded

And then forgotten with a Huh?
A smiley face, a shrug, a “Doh!”

I hunger for a sentence rich
with information, scratch my itch!

It isn’t hard, first read, then write
Answer the question, end the plight!

–Quinn McDonald is a freelance writer, workshop leader and creativity coach who wishes for emails that answer what was asked, preferably the first time, although the second time will do.

The Word Whore*

If you are a freelancer writer, you know what you’re good for–you get the jobs the in-house writers can’t manage, don’t want, or that take up too much corporate time. You don’t get to share the sheet cake when the job is done, but you get a check–the equivalent of leaving money on the nightstand.

"Streetwalker" from gatesofvienna

Now, I ask, is this a bad thing? It depends on your perspective. If you long to be the word-wife with a house and white-picket office, a flower-box window view, and 2.5 weeks of vacation a year, then freelancing simply is not for you.

If you  are the tough writer with a heart of gold,  if you don’t mind getting last-minute calls when you’re desperately needed, but not loved, then freelancing is the life for you.  The voice at the other end of the phone pleads for your time because he’s spent the night on the couch in the office, after the angry words in staff meeting. Or the phone rings because  the regular writer has a headache. You get work because its tedious or other writers have refused.  If this seems part of your working life, you are ready to strut on the street with the other freelancers, showing your stuff.  You will never be invited to the holiday party, and you won’t be publicly recognized in meetings.  You have to be able to take that. It’s a good life, though.

Like the original working woman, your power is behind the scenes. You are called on to perform the work that is too dirty or too hard for in-house writers. But you get paid well (only if you set the price firmly ahead of time) and get respect (only if you don’t let the client treat you like, umm, you know. . .)

If you are very good, you can become a word mistress. Everyone knows who you are, you get smiled at when you visit, but people don’t know exactly how to treat you in the office. They might defer to you in public, but they talk about you behind your back. You don’t get benefits, but you earn enough to buy them for yourself. In your client’s conference room, however, you do your work well and are appreciated while the door is closed. Back in the outside world, you are talent for sale.

You won’t get a lot of proud recognition, and if you start to look needy, you’ll get dropped. Each client wants to think you work for them alone and are always available just for them. Don’t parade one client’s writing adventures in front of another, but do let them benefit from the vast experience you have, how nimble you are, how you can switch positions within the company. You may have to wear a mask or costume–be a marketer one day, a bean-counter the next, a tech expert the day after. But versatility is valued.

The word whore can occasionally become the word wife–by getting a corporate job. Yes, it gives you a certain security, maybe benefits, but in your heart you know sooner or later the corporation will turn you out for a trophy writer, a younger, cheaper version without the experience, but with a generous capacity for swilling Kool-Aid.

So choose your game wisely and with truth in your heart. You’ll be happy in your chosen profession.

* Whore is an ancient original of the word ‘ho. Whore, however, has a great deal more dignity and colorful history. Never call a freelancer a word ‘ho. It’s insulting.

–Quinn McDonald is a freelance writer, creativity coach and trainer in the field of business communication. See her work at (c) 2008, 2011 All rights reserved.

Eraser Power!

Pen and ink is a great medium. I love the precision of fine lines, of cross-hatching for shading. In a journal, pen and ink looks both artistic and scholarly. Pen and ink with watercolor pencil washes make me squee.

My favorite eraser, available at most art supply stores.

I’ve worked with pen and ink, but not the way most people do. I draw in pencil first. Yep, I do. Because I need to erase a lot. Most pen and ink classes I’ve taken talk about using just the barest hints and suggestions of lines. In my way of thinking, if you are using just the necessary lines that create an image (and the human eye can recognize an image if only 30 percent of it is there) I’ll need a pencil, because I’m going to sketch in big outlines first, and that’s not always what stays when I ink over the pencil.

Pencils are wonderful because they erase. And I love erasers. I’m not a natural illustrator, so I have to try something, erase it, fix it, change it, re-do it. So my must-have, go-to tool is an eraser.

Eraser as pun. Image from Eraser from Tersumus, about $8.00

When I teach, I see people frown and say, “I made a mistake,” which baffles me. Of course you make mistakes, art is about trying things over and over until you get to what you want. That’s not a mistake, it’s working toward an goal. It’s creation. I could insert my rant about scrapbooking kits here, that never allow you to make mistakes, just assemble pages, but I won’t. Even though I want to. No, I am staying on topic: erasers.

When I draw vines that wrap around a pole, I need an eraser. I draw the pole first, the vine next and I need to erase the intersection where they cross. I need an eraser for packages with twine, boxes in general, anything with perspectives or that overlaps. Erasers are a tool that help you get to the final image. We are ingrained to think erasers fix the bad stuff we do. Pfui. Erasers help us complete the work we start, to capture the image we want.

Erasers: Pink pearl and beige Art Gum on top, gray kneaded eraser on bottom.

Knowing about erasers means choosing the one that works for your art. I’m a fan of white plastic erasers that don’t chew up the page and erase cleanly. I love kneaded erasers because they keep my hands busy and pick up large areas of graphite really well. I also hate them because you can’t put them near anything plastic, or the eraser will melt the plastic. No idea why. I love electric erasers that work on detail and are charming for reductive drawings.

Eraser get round and you need an edge? Slice the round part off with a craft knife and you have a new edge. They are inexpensive enough to have several and they offer what I most want, as a non-illustrator: Hope.

-Quinn McDonald is a writer and creativity coach. Her book Raw Art Journaling: Making Meaning, Making Art will be published by North Light Books in July of 2011.

Journal Pages That Button Up

Lots of people in my journaling classes worry about keeping secrets in their journals. There are all sorts of replies–but the bottom line is that if you don’t feel safe in your own journal, you can’t feel safe anywhere. In my book, I have a whole chapter on how to journal your secrets–from hiding to codes. This afternoon I had another idea.

Starting with the idea “button your mouth,” I played around with the idea of buttoning up your journal pages. This is a journal made from an old book cover from which I removed the page block and sewed in signatures made of different kind of paper. I also went over the embossing with a gold pen and bound the edges with copper tape used by stained glass artists.

Button strip on right page.

First I prepped the two pages I wanted to close–the two pages that faced each other and the other side of the top page. I sewed three small mother-of-pearl buttons on a ribbon. Sewing them on a ribbon gives them a firmer hold than if I had sewn them on the page itself. The ribbon also gives them some flexibility. That keeps the buttoned on page more secure.

The brown piece in the middle is a short stub made from an original page of the book.

Next, I glued the ribbon onto the right hand page to allow the overleaf to have holes in it and button. I pressed a bone folder hard over the buttons, outlining the buttons on the page.

Overleaf with buttonholes cut and decorated.

Then I cut vertical ovals in the gold page–not just slits, like you would to make a buttonhole in cloth. The holes need to be a bit bigger than a cloth buttonhole.

Buttoned up and secure!

After you’ve sized and cut the holes, see if the button passes through. If it does, decorate the edges of the holes so they aren’t noticeable as holes once they are buttoned.

Then, write what you need to write and button up!

–Quinn McDonald is a raw-art journaler and creativity coach. She teaches what she knows.

Word of the Year, Week 2

No, I won’t do this every week of the year. (Here’s last week’s post.)  But your emails and comments let me know this is still a topic that people are exploring. (The original pick-your-word-post.)

I’m changing my word. You can, too. Sometimes that word we choose in a wistful, sentimental, misty-eyed moment at the end of the year doesn’t fit when the bright sun comes up in the New Year. That’s what happened to me.  I had chosen “wonder”–as both a noun and a verb, as in “I wonder what will happen if I mix this and that?” and “I looked at the orange tree with wonder.”

A great reminder about watching yourself. From my friend Liz Crain.

If your word isn’t working, or it’s not as inspiring as you thought, or the events of the first two weeks made you change your mind, please do so.

My new word for the year is “step up.” Technically, it’s two words. No one is counting. There are no rules (despite the email one person sent me.)

I need to step up more. To speak what I think. To live my values. Not to be quiet and turn my head when someone says something hateful, mean or combative. Martin Luther King said, “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”

I’m not talking about picking a fight with people  with whom I don’t agree. That’s not it.  But I do mean speaking up when someone says something gossipy or harmful in my presence. I think we’ve gone long enough not wanting to confront or correct others. I am a huge First Amendment believer, but if they have the right to speak, I have the right to speak back. Politely, but in a stepping-up kind of way.

Another example of stepping up is to be the voice of my book. In July, the book will come out. People are asking me about it, and I’m downplaying it. Because, honestly, that’s what women of a certain age, who were raised to be humble and meek were taught. I wrote that book for people who are scared, who think they aren’t enough, who are daring to keep a journal to find themselves in their journey. Those thoughts are important. Those people are worthwhile. It’s time to stand up for the book, not to act embarrassed that I wrote a book. Last week I caught myself mumbling, “Oh, it’s just about art.” What?  “Just”? Those lessons from the past don’t serve me anymore.

Nothing wrong with “wonder,” but it’s time to stand up.

In the comments below, let me know if you changed your word or how it’s showing up in your life.

-Quinn McDonald is a writer and artist, whose book “Raw Art Journaling: Making Meaning, Making Art,” is coming out in July.