Scared of Fear

It’s easy to confuse anger with fear.  I was watching a movie tonight, and the bad guy was shown in towering rage, in full bad-guy mode. I looked at it more closely, because it wasn’t quite. . . right. Yes, I understand that movies are fiction, but they are designed to manipulate our emotions, so they have to have a basis of reality in them, otherwise we wouldn’t connect. I get that.

Here is what I noticed: the bad guys knew they were bad. They broadcast bad out RATTLESNAKEin front of them, and people shrank and ran in fear. But that isn’t what happens in real life. People who are villains in our life are not aware they are behaving badly. Nope. They are scared. And scared people behave like scared animals do–they hiss, bark, bay, turn sideways and puff themselves up to appear bigger and show their teeth.

Scared animals and scared people are both scary. I’m not messing with the neighbor’s pit bull when he is leaning against his leash, teeth bared. And when I see people behaving in loud, rude, angry ways, I avoid them, too. But they aren’t necessarily bad people, they are scared people. They don’t always know what the problem is, they most certainly don’t have a good solution, so their fear gives way to aggressive behavior.

32i-arched-back-catWhat to do in the face of anger? Most often we get scared, and scared people are scary. We return the hissing, claw-bearing and take it one step further because we are now more scared. You can see where this is going. Someone’s going to get hurt. Emotionally, if not physically.

The way to react in the face of anger and fear is calmly. If scared people are scary, calm people are calming. Keep your voice low, say something that acknowledges the other person’s reactions. Pretending not to notice will only make them escalate so you will notice. Acknowledging is not telling them they are right, but letting them know you see their anger. “I can see how angry you are, Bill.” Notice it’s just an acknowledgment. No fixing, no advice, no soothing. Just witnessing. Without someone to scare them, scary people often aren’t scared and not scary.

–Quinn McDonald is a writer who knows scary people and scared people, too.


The Tricky Memory

My brothers and I had different mothers. Oh, she was the same DNA-donor, the same physical being. But because we were born years apart, and shattering experiences apart, she was a different emotional person. My two brothers’ mother was still soft and interested in her children, proud to be their mother. My mom was a very different person than the ones my brothers knew in childhood.

Image by Temari09, from Flickr, under a Creative Commons License.

Image by Temari09, from Flickr, under a Creative Commons License.

What is the story that goes into a memoir?  Several years ago, I took a memoir-writing course from Natalie Goldberg, the author of Writing Down the Bones  There were rules: we were to listen to any readings and not react. No applause, no critique, no comments at all. That allowed, Natalie said, for each person to be able to share without fear. And only one Q&A.

My question was about the validity of personal memory.  From Natalie’s teaching I gathered that we can own and explore only our memory, and that not objectively. People may disagree with your memory. My brothers certainly had, often describing a woman who was a stranger to my memory.

Book cover from A Million Little Pieces by James Frey.

Book cover from A Million Little Pieces by James Frey.

I have no desire to write a memoir, but I enjoy thinking about memory, its tricks and shapes. If I wrote the story, wouldn’t I fall under the same scrutiny as James Frey who wrote “a semi-fictional memoir” called A Million Little Pieces? His memory was disproved and he was disgraced, reduced and humiliated into being a couch-confessor on Oprah.  My writing is non-fiction. Memory may well be fictitious.

Years passed, and one of my brothers agreed that we were raised by different mothers in different times, although she was the same person. But I still chewed over the whole idea of how to defend memory, interpretation, and the flexibility of Truth. I fully understood the billboard I had seen in China that said, “We must separate Truth from Fact.” It made sense now.

Cover of Judy Collins' book "Sanity & Grace."

Cover of Judy Collins’ book “Sanity & Grace.”

A few weeks ago, I was reading Judy Collins memoir, Sweet Judy Blue Eyes, and smiled at her handling the memory question. Here is a woman who has known a lot of people, interacted with them professionally, socially, personally. She had a colorful, alcoholic,  sexual, artistic, creative, talented, big-ups-and-down life during which she fought for custody of her son, lost it, gained it and then lived through her son’s death. Now that had to have a lot of opportunity for interpretation from just about anyone she might have worked with, loved, shared a stage, a bed, a song, or a record label. How did she handle her memory? Here’s the quote from the book:

In all cases, it is my memory of an event that supersedes the memories of other participants who might have been at the same party. There are no accidents in memory, for memory has its own reasons and its own logic. What I remember is what happened to me as I best recall it.

–from the introduction to Judy Collins’ Sweet Judy Blue Eyes: My Life in Music.

She claims the memories as hers neatly, cleanly and without apology. She doesn’t make others wrong, and leaves room for others’ opinions. But not in her book.

And that’s the way to claim a memory that belongs to you.

—Quinn McDonald is not writing a memoir. She is interested in memories and emotions because the Inner Critic and Inner Heroes fight over the topic as she writes her book.   Image: Temari09

The Art of Visual Editing

She handed me her journal–pages splayed with additions, found items, inserts. “What do you think?” Such a hard question to be asked. In one way, it doesn’t matter what I think, if she is satisfied. If she likes her work, if she found meaning in the activity or the result, then my opinion has no importance.

Overstuffed sofa.

Overstuffed sofa.

In another way, I’d like to know why she’s asking the question. Is this the art journal equivalent of “Do these pants make my tuchus look fat?” Is she asking for praise in a hidden way? Is she looking for suggestions? Approval?

I turned the pages of the journal. I’d heard of the technique–do anything. Some pages were sewn chaotically, combining junk mail and lace, tulle and magazine pages. The bobbin thread had become confused with the different tension needed for the different papers, and there were big loops and knots of thread. One page had a piece of ruler glued to it, the next one an angel next to which was stamped the word: guardian angle. When I smiled at the typo, which seemed to make sense along with the ruler, I thought (to myself): What this needs is visual editing.

It’s fun to slap things together and see if it makes sense. Occasionally.

It’s also interesting to ask yourself what you are doing and are you presenting a message or searching for one.

Visual editing is much like word editing. It’s done in stages. First you look for

Overstuffed cheeks

Overstuffed cheeks

content, logic and flow. Does it make sense? Does it unfold logically?  Is it interesting?  Is the sequencing clear? Next you look for typos, meaning-gaffs (its for it’s, podium for lectern, disinterested instead of uninterested)* and then for punctuation errors. Next you make sure all headlines/subheadlines/sub-sub-heads are in the same font and style within each category, the page numbers appear in the center or on the edges, but not both, that photo captions are italic or bold but not mixed. Three passes and you’ve done some editing for clarity and understanding.

Visual editing works the same way.  Is the journal going to be shown to anyone or is it private? (Since she showed it to me, it became public.) Is there a theme to the overall journal? If so, is it obvious? If not, does it need an explanation? While turning a page and moving from front to back is the normal order of Western books, does this one create an order? If there are inclusions, attachments, found objects, how is space created for them?

Overstuffed shelves.

Overstuffed shelves.

There are guidelines for visual editing just as there are for word editing. To break the rules you have to understand them first. Yes, ee cummings and James Joyce broke the rules, but they first followed them, then knew why they wanted to break them. And some well-read people are still grumbling about that decision.

Personally, I’m not fond of splayed-out books that are sewn, spackled with gesso, layered randomly with paints and papers, and weighted down with found objects that don’t create a narrative that can be followed. But then again, I’m not the art police. If that makes meaning for you, it is your meaning. If you are satisfied, that is an important step for you.

In the end, instead of giving an opinion, I asked questions. “How did this book come together for you?” “What did you like best in making this book?” “What caused problems for you?” “How did you solve those problems?” “Will you keep this for yourself or will you give it away?” The answers told me a lot, including that my opinion was not required. So I kept it to myself. And we both parted with our perspectives intact.

*In case you were wondering about the differences:
its=possessive form of it. The book was blue; its cover was torn. It’s means “it is” or “it has.”
A podium is something you stand on to make yourself taller, such as a riser. A lectern is something you stand behind to give a speech or lecture.
Uninterested means “doesn’t care.” Disinterested means impartial.

Quinn McDonald understand visual editing, and knows that sometimes, no matter how much she loves that page, it doesn’t belong. Sigh. So she saves it for another time.

Teaching Joys

Teaching is a joy for the instructor, and, if all goes reasonably well,  teaching brings joy to participants. This week, there were two art teaching gigs–one in Anthem (AZ) at the regional library and one in Tucson, with an incredible collective of people called Paper Works.

A thank-you note left on the board in Anthem made my day!

A thank-you note left on the board in Anthem made my day!

You never know who is going to show up at a library workshop. This one was sponsored by Friends of the Library, and that always means an enthusiastic group.

The Friends of the Library also hold book sales, which are great sources for books to read, alter, or use in Found Poetry.

Ranging in age from 11 to 70s, the participants were eager to try out Art Journaling 101. The class is fun, but fun is in the experience, and not everyone wants to have fun in public. I generally don’t teach 11-year-olds, but this set of twins was in turn serious, funny, open, and willing to share.

The adults shared their work, which means they were open and vulnerable and those two emotions made everyone comfortable and ready to jump in. And jump they did, with inventive writing, clever design ideas, and my favorite–those who listen to the directions and then take it in a new direction.

I brought inks to experiment with, and experiment we did!

I brought inks to experiment with, and experiment we did!

The next day, I drove down to Tucson to teach Monsoon Papers at PaperWorks. The group dived into the experience with both hands–which got heavily inked. Since I published the first tutorial there have been a lot of updates, and this class was Monsoon Papers 3.0, which will also be in the new book.

The papers were a light cream to start, but soon morphed into a look of batik fabric. It rained heavily, but no one needed to run out and create their papers outside, since I’ve developed inside methods for inking the papers.

When the sun did come out (making some startling cloud shadows on the Catalinas), some participants took advantage and hung the work outside, letting the last of the raindrops create patterns.

Inked papers drying. Don't they look like fabric?

These drying papers looks so much like batik fabric. The color choices all worked out.

Tucson2Monsoon Papers defying the weather on an improvised clothes line. My laundry should be this colorful! The fact that they are in color order is due to the sensibility of the class members, I didn’t change a thing.

Tucson3When a participant does two very different color choices, it always means curiosity, creativity and imagination are at work.

tucsonpoetryWe also did two additional exercises (well, three, since Linda Penny brought gel plates and did a demo on how they work–love those unplanned extras!) of found poetry and paper mosaic–both from the new book. Note the cool abstract-ink on paper in the foreground. That’s in the new book, too.

I’m ready to travel and teach any of the new courses. My contact information is in the “Work With Quinn/Contact” page at the top of the page. Check the Workshop list for classes scheduled in the Phoenix area and for the week-long retreat for working with your Inner Heroes and Inner Critic at the Madeline Island School. Read about my workshop, Metaphor and Magic, Mixed Media Conversations with Your Inner Hero, here.

Quinn McDonald is almost ready for the photo session for her new book. Lucky she’s ready, she’s leaving at the end of the week.

Frozen, then Alive

The freeze we had last week turned the tops of trees black, froze plants where the stood. This week, the roar of chain saws is as loud as after a Connecticut ice storm.

frozenflowerAnd it’s the wrong move. The leaves have died, but most trees are not dead. They are dormant, and while the top two feet are dead, cutting them off now, while it’s still January, will encourage them to start growing while it’s still too cold. Then the tree will suffer the damage, maybe die.

The best thing to do, according to the arborist I spoke to, is to simply let it go till early March. The leaves will turn black, fall off, and it will look ugly, but when trimmed in March, the tree will recover. Maybe not as lush, but it will take a cycle of a year for the damage to heal. Heal. Yes, even trees.

Waiting. Healing. We don’t like to look at damage, so we cut, remove, throw out. And cause more damage.

I’ve done that with my work. Hating to look at a piece I didn’t get right, I will tear it out of the journal and threw it out. Fast, so no one could notice. So fast, that I couldn’t sit with the discomfort of figuring out what I’d done that didn’t work and learn from it. So fast that the fault line would grow and I’d make more mistakes.

Had I left it, learned from it, accepted that I’d messed up (again!), I could have accepted it slowly, become OK with it slowly, and then covered it with paint or gesso and remembered and grown around it.

–Quinn McDonald is a writer and art journaler.

The Book and Mise en Place

It seems pretty easy–the photo shoot is coming up, so I have to ship everything I need to the publisher so I can draw, collage, sew, paint and write my way through a week of photos for the book.

misenplaceIt gets complicated fast. First you decide which projects your are going to show step-by-step, (which you do from an approved outline),  then you make a list of everything you need for those projects, cross out the duplicates, and start packing.  That part is still fairly simple. I learned the process from my husband, who is a chef, and who uses the term “Mise en place,” a lot. It’s French for “things in place” or “get your $h!| together.” Which is what I had to do.

It gets complicated because I am teaching a class at the Anthem (AZ) library tomorrow night. Friday, I am driving down to Tucson to teach Monsoon Papers, which is a project in the book. So there are some items I will have to

  • repurchase
  • take on the plane with me
  • pack and send quickly next week

Since the materials cover a lot of ground–fabric, ink, paint, brushes, thread, iron, watercolor pencils, and about 20 more pounds of things, you don’t just plop them in a box. First I made a giant pile on the floor. Then I sorted them into projects and packed them by project. The ink went into a separate box-within-a-box, lined with paper towels and wrapped in plastic.

When the box was taped shut, I looked around a studio that looked like the vandals (and the Visigoths) had been through it. I won’t be able to do art for another week. It was the first time in a long time I realized how much I shape by identity with my art, and by extension, the tools that make me real.

—Quinn McDonald is writing a book. The writing part is almost over.


Time to Clean Up

Not my office, honest. i got this from

Not my office, honest. i got this from

Some days you are the pigeon. Some days you are the statue. And some days you have to clean your desk, table, or studio space. You just have to. Either that or plow it under and call one of those reality shows where Donald Trump shows up with 50 cat carriers and has a desperate housewife fire you and send you to rehab. I’m sorry, I don’t watch TV, so it all sounds alike to me.  For me, it was another part of my Word of the Year: Let it Go.

Here are some tough love tips for cleaning that worked for me today.

1. Don’t look back. I tried being serious about saving all those articles I’ll read someday. Then I realized that if I really had wanted to read them, I would have. In the time that I’ve collected the articles, I’ve read four books. So I’m not really motivated to read the articles. Toss them.

This is a perfectionism stumble. “If I were a really good X, I would read, file, remember, sketch, write, use this article, image, scrap of ephemera.” Deep breath. It’s a perfectionist thing. Toss it.

Yes, you will probably need it within 10 minutes of the trash truck vanishing down the street with it. Toss it anyway.

2. You won’t buy it anyway. Catalogs marked with turned-down page corners for storage, filing, clothing items. Largely waiting for a windfall. When windfall comes, will need something else. Toss catalogs.

3. Compare and act. Two of the items I wanted in the winter catalog are now on half-price sale. Pick up phone and order. Done. Move on.

4. Even if you teach, throw it out. I have a huge stack of magazines, catalogs, flyers that are “perfect” for that collage class that I’m not teaching this month. Or next. More stuff will accumulate. Toss it out.

5. Start where you are. Don’t try to catch up. More paper is mistakenly saved because you are scared to throw it out, for fear of forgetting, falling behind or forgetting. Unless it bank or tax stuff, make NOW your starting point. Easier and saves the nerves.

Quinn McDonald wishes she would clean up more often. The desk has a nice wood grain she rarely sees.