The Opposite of Artist’s Block


Most creative people eventually hit that edge-of-the-horizon feeling that you’ve come to the crumbly brink of your creative world. The next idea doesn’t show up on time. Missed the train. The next train doesn’t show up at all. The track rolls itself up and over the edge of the horizon, leaving you standing alone, squinting as the hot sun burns out the edge of the sky and drops below your line of vision, sending your last hope of creativity into the twilight shadows. Night descends and leaves you standing without a shadow to rely on.

If you have never experienced this feeling, you probably aren’t trying hard enough to push your creativity. And before you crack your knuckles to leave me a blistering reply that you always have ideas, stop. This is about you. This post is about having too many ideas, too much of an idea, an idea that rolls in like a giant wave, flattening you against the floor of your studio, pressing you down until bubbles float from your nose and you can’t inhale. That kind of creative overflow.


It doesn’t happen to me often, but when it does, it is overwhelming. I’ve been creative long enough to know that when the dark side of the world appears, it signals the long roll into dawn. But crushed with too many ideas, I feel afraid–I’ll lose the most important one, I’ll develop the wrong one, I won’t be able to figure out the process of this brilliant idea over here. Now what?

The simplest idea I came up with is to save as many of those ideas as possible, get them into some form you can understand, and save them. You can figure out process later. You can figure out sequencing later. What you need to do now, before your short-term memory sneaks out the back door, is get some of the ideas caught.

My two favorite ideas for capturing represent the high tech and low tech spectrum. Index cards, my long-time companions and art supply, are the low tech side. I write down the bare bones idea. Just enough to balance the memory on the tee, so I can whack it across the sand trap and out of danger. No big discussion, no marketing, no audience. Just the rough idea is plenty. If you can’t reconstruct it later, it may not have been as wonderful as you first imagined.

The second idea is a voice-recording app on your smart phone. The one you want to install is the one you know how to work. My first one was incredibly easy to use, but I couldn’t figure out how to play it back. You can imagine how that little fault messed with my mind. Occasionally I still believe the best ideas of my life are wrapped around the gizzards of my iPhone. The new one works better. A twitching needle shows I’m recording, and it plays back exactly what I said. Simple.

If I wake up at night with an idea storm, I grab the phone and mutter into it. One time I pushed the wrong buttons and made my brilliant idea my voice mail message. Oh, well. I have also sent myself emails and used the sticky-note feature on my phone.

Don’t edit. Don’t worry. In fact, I generally don’t read or sort the ideas for several days after a brainstorm. I’m too critical. Or too immediate. I toss the index cards into a box and let them dry out. I’ll take a nice patinaed idea over a damp one, any day.

What’s your storage/retrieval system when your ideas back up and pour over you?

Quinn McDonald is a creativity coach who helps people who are stuck and overwhelmed. She specializes in change and re-invention.

No Notes, No Practice, No Learning

Big sigh. Hang head.

Yet another client wants a four-hour class to cover what six years of grade school, two years of middle school, four years of high school and four years of college could not. Grammar, emails, writing for the Web–I’ve heard it for all of them. Time and content are truly related. You can’t become an expert in four hours.

Bart know practice. He does it at the start of every show.

“See one, do one, teach one,” is the new business mantra for learning. That means that after you see a procedure, you can do it correctly without practice,  and then are capable of teaching it. Business people must be a lot smarter than I am.

I teach business writing –how to write an email that gets read,  how to write a good PowerPoint (seriously, cut down on those bullets) and then deliver it, how to write and give a good speech with no PowerPoint at all, listening skills, negotiation skills, and dealing with difficult people.  But I can’t do it in four hours. When I suggest eight hours, the client, universally, suggests cutting the exercises. Exercises are the part of the class that help the participants learn the “how” and  figure out the “why.”

The other part of the mantra in business education is that no one should have to take notes. That’s what class materials are for. I’m always surprised when participants show up for a class with no paper, no pen, no laptop. Just a phone so they can text. I’m guessing those texts are not class related.  No class material can be so detailed that the topic can be learned by listening to an instructor and reading notes afterward. You have to practice to know how to do anything.

Here’s a giant secret: in the history of the universe, no one has learned anything well by hearing it once, not practicing it, and then claiming to be an expert at it. Practice takes time. A good class allows people to try out their own learning techniques and see what they understand, adjust it, try it again, ask questions, try it again, then find out what’s needed to make it stick, try it again and then practice on their own.

I don’t want my brain surgeon to be a “see it, do it, teach it” learner. In fact, I don’t want the bank teller, the mail delivery person, the bus driver,  fire fighter or the pot-hole fixer to be a “see it, do it, teach it,” learner, either.  (Although I think I’ve met the bank teller already.)

You need practice to learn something. You need practice over time. A hundred dives of the diving board in one day will not make you as good a diver as 10 dives of the diving board a day for 10 days.

There isn’t a workbook, textbook, or classroom handout that will give you skill without practice. And having someone come in for four hours and expect to train your group well enough so your group is skilled in something as difficult as listening, problem solving or giving presentations is unrealistic.

Sure, I know it’s money and time. But both of those are wasted if you don’t allow your participants to practice, and practice often.  “Practice makes perfect” was repeated by someone who didn’t bring a scribe and tablet to Periander’s class. The original quote, by Periander is, “Practice is everything.”

For my practice, Martha Graham said it best: “We learn by practice. Whether it means to learn to dance by practicing dancing or to learn to live by practicing living, the principles are the same. One becomes in some area an athlete of God.”

-Quinn McDonald is an instructor whose classes all contain exercises to practice each step along the way.

Brave Artist as Inspiration.

You know the feeling. You are working out an idea–on a book, a painting, a textile piece of creative work, and you begin to doubt yourself. “Who will ever think this is worthwhile?” you think. Maybe a friend or relative looks at your work and sighs. “Do you really think this is art?” they ask. And you begin to doubt yourself. Your work. Your life choices..

Haze, a sculpture by Tara Donovan. Made of plastic straws.

Most artists go through this, and many cave when faced with serious criticism or doubt. They move to something more acceptable. More popular. More understandable.

The artists who inspire me the most, who give me the biggest soul boost, are the ones who stick with their work and perfect it. They let the criticism and doubt stay with the person who feels it–while the artist sticks with the creative work.

Which is what I love about Tara Donovan. The art on this page is hers. She works in plastic straws, Styrofoam cups, and steel pins. She tended bar and waited tables for six years while working on her art. She heard people laugh and suggest “real” art work. Maybe event a “real” job. But she didn’t do that.

Tara Donovan's sculpture made of Styrofoam cups.

She graduated from the Corcoran School of Art in 1991, got a MFA from Virginia Commonwealth in 1999 and kept her day job till 2003, when she had her first solo show at the Ace Gallery. In 2008 she got a MacArthur Fellowship, often called a Genius Grant. And she still works with pins, straws and cups.

I find this dedication and constantly renewed creative energy incredibly inspiring. She knew what she wanted and she kept working at it. How many times do you think she heard jokes about tending bar and stealing straws? And she kept going.

It’s a good story to remember when you begin to question yourself.
See more of Tara’s work.

Quinn McDonald is a writer and creativity coach.

Journal Pages Unbound

Today, I was working on free-standing journal pages. I love the idea of combining fabric and drawing. A drawing of a cactus with a sheer fabric seemed intriguing.

Fabric journal pages open up a whole new genre of writing and drawing in your art journal. I’m creating free-standing or unbound pages–experimenting with creating unsequenced book pages. So far, I’m liking it a lot.

Yellow, orange and red polyester fabric.

My idea was to use fabric as a background. The way it turns out, it’s sewn on as a foreground and takes just a bit of planning.

The fabric is a sheer polyester in yellow, orange and red. I thought of sunsets and desert evenings when I purchased it. The woman behind the cutting counter looked at the sheer, bright fabric and at my request for a quarter yard and asked, politely but with great wariness, what I might be making with this. I’m sure she was terrified at what piece of clothing I might have in mind. “Art project,” I smiled. She broke into a big, relieved smile and then said, “It’s so much fun to play crafty games with the grandchildren for Easter isn’t it?” I smiled back. No sense to disturb her fantasy of happy Easter projects.

Layers, top to bottom: fabric, fusible webbing, watercolor paper. Cover with parchment before ironing.

First I drew a cactus on a piece of Strathmore pre-cut, cold-press watercolor paper. I added a scrap of landscape to anchor the image and explain the sunset colors. To give the cactus and landscape colors, I used Derwent Inktense and Caran D’Ache watercolor pencils.

Next, I cut a piece of lightweight fusible webbing the size of the page, and a piece of the fabric just a bit bigger. I covered the entire work with a piece of cooking parchment, to prevent the iron from sticking to the melted webbing.

Edges finished with zig zag stitching.

After ironing the fabric to the postcard, I trimmed the fabric and using a sewing machine set on zig-zag, finished the edges of the page.

By placing the fabric carefully, you can create different lighting effects.

Different lighting effects using different areas of the fabric.

The back of the page is for writing. I don’t show those parts here because the writing is personal. Eventually, I’ll do some samples and show those, too.

Quinn McDonald is the author of Raw Art Journaling. She will teach these techniques in a class called Postcards from the Other Side of Your Brain at Valley Ridge Art Center on May 5-6, 2012. There are still places left if you’d like to join.

Do You Remember?

At a dinner party last night, I told the story about visual note-taking. Rather than write down lists on the board when I’m teaching (or use, shudder, PowerPoint), I draw images. They are not elaborate, but do suggest concepts—a light bulb for an idea, a phone for communication.

Old phones

I had drawn a traditional desk-top phone when someone in the class said, “What’s that?” The traditional phone is no longer a symbol of communication, unless you are in an antique store. I redrew the phone to a smart phone, skipping over several generations of receivers, cordless, and huge mobile phones.

Later in the class, someone asked what “bcc” in email stood for. “Blind carbon copy,” I said before I realized that carbon paper was an office supply even older than a rotary phone. So I explained that too.

And I realized that in my lifetime–which is not really that terribly long—what we think of as “normal” has changed considerably.  I remember. . .

. . . when young ladies wore girdles and stockings every day. To college classes. Pantyhose made our life so much lighter.

Smart phones are much easier to draw than old-fashioned phones.

. .  houses with one, centrally-located, black, table top phone. Everyone made and took calls at this one spot. There were built-in shelves or tables to use.

. . . party lines. More than one family used your line. You’d pick up the phone receiver and hear talking. You weren’t supposed to listen in. But you did.

. . . letting a phone ring 10 times and then hanging up. Pre-answering machine, which was also pre-voicemail. The answering machines were big, and had a cassette tape to record messages.

. . . milk trucks that would deliver milk in glass bottles to your front door. There were zinc boxes to put the bottles in so they wouldn’t freeze.

. . . the tops of the milk bottles had crimped paper caps with the name of the dairy on a disk on the top. The disks became collectables at some point.

Milk bottle tops.

. . . my father wearing the “latest” in men’s wear–nylon, drip-dry shirts. They felt slick and had a slight shine. I’m sure they didn’t breathe. For that matter I remember irons that just heated up–no steam.

. . .  driving to the county dump for big trash, and composting all the kitchen trash because there was no such thing as a garbage truck.

. . . long hot nights with a rotary fan moving air around the room. No air conditioning. The fan’s cord was thick and had a woven cloth covering.

Old-fashioned fan from

. . . ice boxes. No, really. Ice boxes. Big box on the front porch. Guy would come and drop 50-pounds of block ice into it, using huge tongs, and you would put food in to keep it from spoiling. OK, I barely remember it, but I remember the call, “Fifty POUNDS, please!”

. . . pulling into a gas station and having a guy (always male) come out, wearing a coverall uniform and a hat,  put gas in your car, wash your windshield and check your oil. You paid for gas, but not for the other work. And no tipping.

. . . after dinner, you washed the dishes by hand. One person would wash, using a tub of hot soapy water, rinse by dipping in a tub of clean, hot water. Another person would dry the dishes using linen towels with designs embroidered on them. Glasses, plates, knives and forks. You used different towels for different utensils. On good days, we would sing doing this. On bad days, we would bicker until one of my parents would say, sternly, “Don’t make me get up!” And we didn’t.

What do you remember from long ago and far away?

-Quinn McDonald also remember doing her homework in blue-black in with a fountain pen. Even math. And certainly diagramming sentences.

Spring is Busting Out in Phoenix

Say “Spring” in Phoenix and half the U.S. imagines blooming cactus. That’s it. Areas of the desert that have enough rain sprout Mexican Poppies.

My joy is seeing plants that come into Spring with a metaphor. Here’s what I mean:

Isn’t this the happiest blossom you’ve ever seen? Just bursting with energy. And yes, this delicate bloom is native to the Sonoran Desert.

Palo Verdes grow fast, so they are often trimmed hard in the fall. Palo Verdes have tiny leaves, and in the heat, they drop off. The tree had adapted with green branches and a green trunk–photosynthesis is not left to fickle leaves.

This pair is raising its arms to the sun, shaking fists at the sky that will fry those branches by late May.

Aloes are not indoor windowsill plants here. I have them as border plants. In late January, they send up straight spikes and in February the spikes bloom.

This spike got bent, but the blossom knows which way is up. I love this determination to find the sun.

The fig tree is deciduous—it looses its big, fuzzy leaves in November, and in March, the new leaves unfurl, one by one. The fig tree is about three weeks early this year.

I love watching the leaves peek out and then pop, as big as your hand, in a few weeks. I’m grateful for the shade in the summer, and more grateful for the figs that we eat in June.

–Quinn McDonald is a naturalist who never knew how much greenery thrives in the Sonoran Desert.

The Power of Distraction

Lately, I’ve been easily distracted. I have a lot on the to-do list, and I often start several projects and do them in turn. Sometimes this is fun, sometimes it wears me down faster than a piece of chalk in the rain.

Oh, look, a chicken! Is my way of acknowledging distractions.

When it’s fun, I zip from project to project, moving each one ahead until I get impatient, then move on to the next. I love working this way. My mind says fresh and the work gets done.

And then it doesn’t. Suddenly, the projects aren’t separate anymore. The part that comes next is difficult, or I don’t know how to do it. Leaping to another project feels like I’m abandoning the old one.

Before you wonder if I have adult ADD, I do not. I can work for hours in deep concentration. Sometimes, I like to plow through work, and hopping from job to job makes me feel like I’m getting something accomplished.

When I grind to a halt, I almost always feel overwhelmed. What to do next? What’s urgent? What’s easy? What stage is the laundry in? Do I need to run to the post office when it’s not busy?

I’ve found a question that helps me make the most of distraction. The question comes courtesy of Bonnie Barnard, who will look at me kindly and ask “Is this yours to do?” For someone like me, a recovering fixer, perfectionist and stayer-in-action, the question brings me to a complete stop. What work is mine to do? Notice that it doesn’t say “next’ or “now.” It asks a huge spiritual question of what I am destined to do.

Still, it’s a perfect question to ask when you are distracted or scattered, overwhelmed or just dragging. What is yours to do? For me, it makes the work of my hands and mind important again. Each movement needs to be deliberate, if this is my work to do. I need to do the work that is mine to do carefully.

“Overwhelmed” for me means I am repeating a list of items to do in my head, and they are out of order. Or confused. Or mixed by wrong categories–by time needed to completion instead of by materials.

By asking myself “What is mine to do?” I stop the senseless spinning, like a CD searching for a track, and get emotional traction. I can then more easily separate portions of the job that are waiting for others to contact me. And sometimes, I realize I’m trying too hard to control a project that is not mine to do.

Almost always, when I ask “What is mine to do?” I create a small hole in time as I sit still, or stretch and remember what I am here for. And then I know what is mine to do.

Quinn McDonald finds that a spiritual life can also be a practical life.



Where There’s a Will. . .There Are Relieved Relatives

Some months ago, I made a new will. The old one got left behind in the files of an attorney who died. His will stipulated that his office be packed up and closed, but not that his former clients know how to get their documents back. Put me in doubt about his ability to write a good will.

Old New England tombstones covered a lot of worry.

I’m not planning on dying anytime soon, which makes this the excellent time to write a will. On the other hand, none of us came to stay, so I might as well decide what I want to happen when I die. Note that I said “die” not pass away, pass on, pass, go Home, or other euphemisms. My body will die off. I don’t have a problem with that.

I am actually not afraid of death. I am terrified of becoming feeble and being at the mercy of medical care that is not aligned at all with the natural state of death. My insurance company decides who gets the transplants and who doesn’t, who lives and who dies. Oddly enough, the same company that doesn’t want to help you live well doesn’t want you to die, either.

So I created a document that spells out the conditions under which I want to be allowed to die. At some point, not determined by age alone, my body will reach the tipping point of interconnected biological collapse. Nature designs us to disintegrate, and I would like to have that happen without violent, invasive procedures performed by people who are hired not to think but to act, and in their lawyer’s best behalf, not mine. I want someone to make the same merciful decisions I made for a number of cats and dogs in my care.

My mother chose the path of natural death and it was one of the few things we agreed on. Well into her 90s, her mind gone and her body failing, those wishes were ignored. She had a Do Not Resuscitate Order which was ignored half a dozen times. By the time she was allowed to die, she had had her ribs broken from EMTs who didn’t check for med-alert bracelets. They thought of themselves as heroes. I did not.

My will covers what I want to happen to my body when it’s dead. (I’ve never been a fan of formaldehyde, and if people knew that embalming includes sewing your mouth shut through your nose and placing your organs in a plastic bag at your feet, they may choose a way to ensure that dust-to-dust actually happens.

Most of all, writing a will made me aware that I have work to do. Right now. I am not afraid to die, but I am afraid of not living fully. I don’t have a bucket list–it seems like a sad list of odd self-indulgence mixed with a weird competitive spirit of end of life achievement. I’m sticking to my to-do list. There are more interesting things I still have to do.

–Quinn McDonald plans on a few more accomplishments before she dies.

How to say “No” And Keep Your Client

Yesterday, I posted five situations in which you’d have to tell a client “No.” In the comments, Nancy said that she uses qualifiers with clients, and Pete noted that he often passed work on to other freelancers. This made him a problem solver and generous both, and brought him more clients. Dawn said she asked for more time and when the client was in a tight spot, often got the time she asked for.

The miller's daughter could spin stray into gold, but only with the magical help of Rumpelstiltskin.

Today, I’d like to offer three ways to say “No” without feeling like you are deserting your client. Even more important, this “No” will leave you feeling like you’ve done your best without succumbing to the people-pleasing trap that loads up your desk with Rumpelstiltskin-like impossible tasks.

1. Say “No,” followed by something you can do. This may be part of the job or the whole job in your time limit. You could say, “The Acme project needs to be done by tomorrow? I’m sorry, I can’t take it on as an overnight job, but I can take it on and finish it in 10 days. Would that work for you?  This is a mix of Nancy and Dawn’s suggestion, and it works well. You offer to help, but not in the way that makes you feel pressured or manipulated.

Don't get buried by taking on too much. "the Awakening" a statue once buried at Hains Point, D.C. and now in Oxon Hill, MD.

2. Say “No” to the job, but offer to do something that fits into your schedule or budget. “Marge, I really can’t take on the whole Acme project, but I can take on the other project that’s piling up on your desk. Would that help you?” Many clients that are trying to put out one fire don’t notice the second smouldering on their desk. I you listen carefully to your clients, you can hear both what is urgent and what is important to them.

3. Say “No,” but offer to help find someone else to do the job. This is Pete’s idea with a twist. You can offer to manage the job and sub-contract it out to a freelancer you know and can work with. This allows you to keep the job in your view and have someone else work on it. As a project manager, you will not be doing the process work for free.

You can also introduce your client to a freelance colleague and let them work directly. This depends entirely on your level of trust with your colleague.

You can see that each of these techniques has three steps:

  • Be plain and clear about saying “Yes” or “No”
  • Say what you are willing to do, and name the timeline that you can work with.
  • Offer to manage the solution in a way that works for you (take on another project or suggest someone else)

You’ll feel better about being clear and feel relieved not to take on a project out of guilt. Offering what you can do instead of what you can’t puts you in a position of strength, and that’s a good place to be with any client.

Quinn McDonald’s left brain develops, writes and teaches training programs in writing and communicating.

Saying “No” to a Freelance Job

The value of "no" from

If you are a freelancer–writer, designer, event manager–you have had to say “no” to a client. It’s hard, particularly if you like the client, need the work, or find the work interesting. If you feel yourself overworked, exhausted, or frustrated, here are some times you have to say “no.”

1. There isn’t enough money for you to make a profit. Your time is worth money. In America, time is money. If you take a job that doesn’t pay you what you are worth, you will have trouble making the mortgage on time and paying the bills. “Some money is better than no money,” is an excuse I hear all the time. It may not be. If you are working on a job that underpays, you are missing the chance to bid on the jobs that pay well. Jobs that underpay keep you working longer hours every day. Cure: don’t lower your prices to get the job. Under-bid and the amount you quote is how your client sees you. You will be stuck at that price point.

Time moves at different speeds for client and freelancer. Image: Trade King,

2. There isn’t enough time to do the job well. Freelancers are often called in when the company with the job didn’t plan well, or has run out of time. Beware the time-crunch job. Many companies believe that freelancers work only at night and on weekends. They become offended when you don’t want to work from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. on their job. In 25 years of writing for other people I have learned one truth over and over: You hand in that rush job on time, squeaking under the deadline. You are a hero, you think. You nailed the deadline. Wrong. Once the deadline has been met, the priority immediately shifts to quality. And if you don’t have it, you won’t get paid.  Cure: Quality is your first responsibility. If you can’t deliver quality within the deadline, turn down the job.

3. You are asked to take less pay this time, and the company will “make it up” on the next job. Just say no. This has never happened in the history of the universe. Why would a company that knows you will work for $X an hour one time, pay you $2X the next time?  You will hear the same story the next time, and the time after. The person who says it may mean it, but they aren’t the decision makers. And in the end, they will leave, and not be around when the next job is discussed. Cure: If you have done a project for less money before, remind the client that this is the time you need more money. If this is the first time they ask, tell them as much as you would like to take less money, you simply can’t. Don’t explain or talk about your finances. You deserve good money for hard work.


4. The job suffers from “scope creep” in a strict budget. You are asked to quote the job. You hand in a proposal. The budget it set. Two weeks into the project, the project grows a new arm and leg, and you are asked to cover those, too. Without extra pay. Cure: Cover yourself quickly by discussing how you will handle scope creep in the original proposal. Present a list of tasks you will do and a second list of those not included. Add a paragraph that says if the project expands, you will stop work and submit a new budget for approval. Then stick to it. Nothing frees up money than stopping the work. If you don’t manage scope creep early, you will never make a profit as a freelancer.

5. The client doesn’t return emails or phone calls in the proposal stage. The time a client will treat you best is when they want you to work for them. If they don’t return your calls or emails, it’s a sign of the lack of communication you will experience for the entire job. When the job is then late, it will be your fault. The cure: set deadlines for replying to emails or phone calls. “Please let me know by Friday if  X is what you are looking for,” is one way to help your client set priorities that match yours.

Quinn McDonald is a freelance writer who has made all the above mistakes more than once. She’s like to help other freelancers avoid them.