The Commonplace Journal

The instant Kaisa from Valkoinenponi mentioned it, I recognized the Commonplace Journal.  For me, it was a book I had seen before, with the words vade_mecumVade Mecum printed on the cover, that my father used. It was a small notebook, and he took notes in it. About the weather, numbers and measurements he needed to remember, quotes on prices and on wisdom. Vade Mecum means “Come with Me” in Latin, and the book went most places with my father, the original life-long learner.

In the early days of printing, Vade Mecum became a name for books that published information–general or specific–in a variety of topics. They contained medical information, wieghts and measurements, and recipes for healing, cooking, even alchemy.

Vade Mecum had another name, starting in the 15th century: Commonplace books and Zibaldone. These notebooks were a combination of a scrapbook and a note-taking device. Students who were studying by apprenticeship would sketch or write information for their professional learning into the books. As the students became masters, they would allow the next generation to learn from these books. In the 1600s, most college students learned from the professors through keeping a Commonplace Book. Oxford University and Harvard taught via Commonplace Book well into the 20th century.

commonplace bookWhen I was in college, I created a Commonplace timeline in my room. Every time I learned something in one field, I’d mark it on the timeline–when it happened, who did the work. I’d add notes from other fields. By the middle of the year, I could tell you that while Bach was studying music, Peter the Great was building St. Petersburg (later Leningrad) and that 9,000 people died in England in a huge windstorm with gusts that reached 120 mph. The timeline wrapped around the room. The arts, music, science, literature–all trailed around the room, helping me understand the relationship between politics, culture, and science.

2362053970_2f96a14ea3I still keep a Commonplace Book. It holds quotes, book titles, ideas. I wish it looked more like Count Laszlo’s private diary in The English Patient (the 1996 movie made of Michael Ondaatje’s book). You can see a glimpse of it at the 4:00 mark in the trailer. But it is, well, commonplace. It is also the reason that I can’t keep an art journal without words as the origination source. I understand books without words, just colors or images when others do them, but for me, words create the book. And the image.

I love the idea of important pieces of learning and experience caught in one book. Paging through it, I can remember so much of where I was and what I was learning.  You can start your own, but if you already have one, please leave a comment about what you keep in it.

-Quinn McDonald is a romantic at heart. But don’t tell anyone; it’s hard to be a level-headed creativity coach if people think you are a wild romantic.

The Hard Work of Hard Work

When I teach work skills to the unemployed, there is a section about re-writing your resume for online job applications, and I tell the class the two steps that are vital to make your resume visible. Inevitably, someone asks if they need to post a new resume for every job application. When I say yes, there are frowns.

Without direction, you are just wandering. Image from rambling-frans.blogspot

Without direction, you are just wandering. Image from rambling-frans.blogspot

Hands shoot up in protest. I hear about a friend who never updated his resume who got a great job, a woman who wore flip-flops and torn jeans to an interview and got the job, the cousin who got laid off and in a month the boss begged them to come back because they were indispensable. It’s the urban legend and Holy Grail of the unemployed–there is a job that is wonderful, pays well, has a great boss and is easy to find. And then comes the clincher: all you have to do is manifest it by believing, or praying, or following the steps in The Secret.

The horrible truth right now in Phoenix is that there are not enough jobs for everyone who wants one, and the only way to find a job is to keep looking for one. It’s hard, tedious work, and the best person is not always chosen. But you can’t stop trying. And while I believe in prayer and having goals, and positive thinking, I do not believe in magical thinking.

I do not believe that the websites that promise you the “job of your dreams” if only you click on “tell me how” or takes you to another page that doesn’t list a price for anything, and calls the money they are scamming from you, your “investment.” I’ve seen the same websites for finding the partner of your dreams, the SEO of your website’s dreams, and the secret that will make your video go viral.

What’s missing from all of this the is practical application of the ancient Arab wisdom about losing your transportation: “Pray to Allah, but tie up your camel anyway.”

I believe in hard work. I know that people with connections often get the job before people who would be better suited. But if you don’t have connections, you are going to have to work around that lack. In the end, it is doing the heavy lifting, the tedious application, the refusal to give up that moves you along your journey. You can chose to sing to make the work easier, laugh to make the time lighter, or pray for spiritual support and strength. In the end, what you get from your effort is what you put into it. There isn’t any other way.

—-Quinn McDonald has not yet manifested the magical short cut. So she’s doing the work, plodding along the trail, and keeping a journal.

Creativity and the Sunday Sermon

Meg is a creative force in my life. We’re not the same religion, not even close, not

The Mender's home on Sundays.

The Mender’s home on Sundays.

even on the same planet, religion-name-wise, but we are sisters of soul restoration. Meg is deeply creative and stitches her creativity into the lives of those who pass by. She catches a raveled edge of fear and smooths it back into the fabric of a life. She sees a button of calm about to unravel and fall into anger and stitches it back onto the soul to hold the garment of strength buttoned to the edge of calm. Meg is a creative mender of souls.

Meg is a Baptist minister and I  . . . am not. I had quick ideas about what “Baptist Minister” meant, just like people had quick ideas about looking at me and thinking “fat, her own fault.” So I put down fast judgment and took a deeper look at the mender’s heart.

This morning I visited, via the interwebs, Meg’s church. I read her sermon, called God’s Laundry. And there I met healing for the Boston Marathon, for Connecticut’s dead, for the mess of killing and anger and hatred we are stewing in. I watched her mending needle darn its way between unraveled hearts and love. Meg’s dream, told, is what deep writing is about.

I struggle with Hope, as I think it gives false security. And I struggle with Faith, because it is hard for me to accept without question. But I did not struggle with this loving dream, told at the right time. I thought you would enjoy it, too, no matter what religion you are. Interpret it in your own way, it still comes out to creative love.

—Quinn McDonald didn’t ask Meg about this before publishing it. Quinn is vaguely aware that if she is struck by lightning today, it will be for her lack of religion. She steadfastly believes however, that she is walking in creative love because, while not religious, she is a believer in doing spiritual laundry.

Saturday Creative Stroll

146-250Serena Barton has a just-released book on one of my favorite topics: wabi sabi. The Japanese esthetic honors the worn, the old and the weathered. Her book is on making art that honors wabi-sabi. It just arrived in my mailbox, so I have just glanced at it, but I’m already happy I ordered it.

You’ll find a nice selection of her art on her site, including some collages, encaustics and mixed media pieces.

Elizabeth LeCourt lives and works in London, creating quirky illustrations and some interesting fashions. After a fashion. She constructs dresses out of antique maps, and that’s always fascinating to look at. And wonder about.

One of Daniel Barreto's houses embedded in a tree.

One of Daniel Barreto’s houses embedded in a tree.

If you like small houses, you will fall in love with the art of 21 year old Boston, MA based illustrator Daniel Barreto. His houses are carved into hidden  trees deep in the woods. Their windows, glowing with light in the snowy forest night is mysterious and haunting.

If I thought I had trouble ginning myself up for a head shot, Wes Naman must have scared his subjects out of their wits. Naman is a photographer, and for this series on faces, he wrapped his subjects in Scotch tape, wildly distorting their faces before he grabbed the camera. It looks like collage of plastic surgery gone wrong, but it’s compelling. OK, just a teensy bit creepy, too. Art’s job is to upset the apple cart, not re-arrange the fruit plate.

Hong Yi works in . . . coffee. She does  detailed, realistic portraits in coffee stains. Prefer tea? No worries, she does those, too. Her name, Hong, sounds like the word Red in Mandarin, so her website is called Red. From her website: “Red is a Malaysian artist-architect.  She also loves how a colour can stir up conflicting emotions – one of love and passion, and of danger and sacrifice.” She has a big variety of art on her website.

Have a creative weekend!

–Quinn McDonald is at the Women’s Expo in Phoenix this weekend, demoing art projects for Arizona Art Supply.

Learning and Selling by Seeing

In another part of my life, I’m a training developer. I create programs that teach business people how to write documents, presentations, even emails. Of all the topics I get asked to teach, the one I never would have guessed is at the top of the list: grammar. Grammar is rarely taught in elementary or middle school

Diagramming a sentence from Homework Help at

Diagramming a sentence from Homework Help at

anymore, so tomorrow’s leaders have to learn syntax and grammar quickly. And that’s what I do–invent creative ways to make grammar interesting.

When I call the Inner Hero book “my second book,” it’s with a touch of irony. In the last year, I’ve written half a dozen workbooks on technical writing, grammar, email communication and creative problem solving. But they aren’t sold in bookstores, so I rarely mention them.

Last week a client said something that made a lot of sense to me. “We offer a lot of classes, and we want people to take grammar, but they have to see the value in it. And grammar sounds boring.” Yes, yes, it does. She said, wistfully, “I wish you could do a cartoon instead of the outline of what’s in the class.” What a great idea my client had! So I sat down with the “boring” outline and made it visual.

BEGR_VisualWe are visual people, and looking at something colorful and interesting makes grammar less threatening. Looking at a busy, colorful “map” of the course is a better way to sell it than an outline.

When I was done, I did one for Business Writing, too. I hope it helps the visual people see the benefit of the class.


Using visual creative tools to explain everyday topics shows the utility in a new, fresh, appealing way. The client knows her audience. And now I have a new tool in my training tool box, too.

–Quinn McDonald loves blending the different parts of her life through creative problem solving.

No Safety Guarantees

After the police arrested the Marathon Bomber in Boston, one of the students interviewed said, “Now we can go back to our life. We don’t have to be scared anymore. There is nothing to fear.” He’s so very wrong. The idea that two panic_disorderbombers caught make the problem go away is a false one. And every time a terrorist attack occurs, we (understandably) want it to be over so we can have our lives back. Go back to what we were doing before we had to think about dying. But that isn’t real, and our lives have changed forever already. There is no going back. There is no closure. People died. People had their legs blown off.

And still, there is a huge difference between living IN fear and living WITH fear. When we live with fear, we understand the world around us is unsteady and not in our control. We promote kindness, compassion and understanding because that is what we can do at the individual level. We understand that death is not within our control, and that someday we, our family and friends will die–maybe of old age, maybe of disease, maybe because a terrorist bomb found us.

Fear, from

Fear, from

When we live in fear, we become suspicious, angry and controlling. We trade essential freedoms for the hope of safety, and wind up with missing freedoms and no guarantee of safety.  We refuse to think about death as anything except a cruel cheat, and something that happens to others. And we lose our creativity.

Fear is the big scourge of creativity. Fear robs us of flexibility, agility, choices, and the glory of uncertainty. When we live in fear, uncertainty is the enemy (along with almost everything else.) Instead of spending time in creative thinking, we spend time in isolation, developing rationalizations for “them” and “us” thinking. Anything different, unusual, or non-conforming is suspicious, maybe even dangerous.

The very root of creativity is in different, risky, and strange. There are many countries whose citizens have had to adapt to war–Somalia, the Sudan, Mali, Palestine, Israel, Pakistan, Afghanistan–all have innocent citizens whose lives are directed by war they don’t want, and don’t agree with. But yet, there they are, in the middle of a war, still trying to feed the family and provide a normal life for their children.

Creativity is both exciting and calming, involved in giving up and expanding anew. But let fear in the studio, and it vanishes. Fear makes you small. It takes courage to be creative. But it’s worth it.

Quinn McDonald’s mother was lost to fear. She doesn’t want to follow in those footsteps.

Studio Apron

Aprons for studio use are not easy to find. Oh, you can find the apron, but finding one that fits and that does the job isn’t easy. They are too short if you are tall and too narrow across the chest if you are generously proportioned.

apron1I have short ones and long ones, and even a lapb coat. Summer is already here in Arizona, and my most effective-coverage one, the heavy denim printer’s apron, is already too hot to wear.

No matter where you buy an apron, they come with other people’s logos on them, which makes it tough if you are teaching or demo-ing for a competitor.

Last Saturday, while I was bumming around the Farmer’s Market in Las Cruces, NM, I spied . . . a studio apron. OK, it was meant as a kitchen apron, but I was enchanted. Yannick D’hooge was the designer and maker, and she was finishing a hem. What charmed me was the material–Belgium mail bags. Old, beat up canvas printed with dates and locations. It doesn’t matter if you spill ink or paint on them, they are already stained, sturdy and very cool.

There are no pockets, but that seems like something I can add. I chose one that was deliberately patched. As fan of wabi-sabi, the use, the wear, and the tough canvas folds make it charming.

No metal, so you can throw it in the washer and dryer, and it’s not overly hot. But it is very sturdy. It feels like a firehose and will wear like one. Excellent choice!

–Quinn McDonald has never owned any pink clothing. She’s glad this apron wasn’t dyed.

Photo Struggle

It’s so normal to add a photo to your Facebook page, your blog, even your business card. We have cameras in our phones, and use them, sometimes more often than phoning. We change our profile shots, we Skype so we can talk face to face. It’s  the new normal. There are big, bloviated reasons for loving photos of ourselves. “We are visual people, so we want to know the person we are talking to,” says a well-known blog marketer. “We have an affinity for faces, and we like to look at others,” says a coaching company, who won’t let you have a listing without a photo.

weight-stereotypingBut the real reason we want to see photos is one we talk less about. We like people like ourselves. So we look for people just like our ideal self. We eliminate by age, by gender, by race, by clothing, by glasses, by teeth color. We judge. We eliminate not by experience or content of soul, but by looks. Photos are handy for that. It wasn’t too long ago that a college admission form had to include a photo. Guess who didn’t get in? The ones that “just wouldn’t fit in” at that school.  At the same time, of course, we espouse equality.

Watch out for those grapes and apples--they have more carbs than you might think.

Watch out for those grapes and apples–they have more carbs than you might think.

Here’s my experience of equality: Since last October 3rd,  I have lost about 50 pounds. That’s the weight of the average seven-year-old. I am the same person I was 50 pounds ago. But my life is different now. I get help in stores more quickly. People in clothing stores are polite to me.  Grocery store checkers don’t comments on the contents of my grocery cart anymore.  I’d used to hear, “Is this all for you?” Or, “How long will this last you?”

While I still need to lose weight, it’s been a record-setting three weeks since a complete stranger came up to me and suggested a diet. This used to happen three to four times a week–a woman (it was always a woman) would step up to me at the library or grocery store and suggest a diet that had “done wonders” for her.

fast-weight-lossWhen I mentioned diabetes, I was often told that I had brought it on myself, by eating sugar (or gluten, or not enough kale, or whatever people felt like saying.  A well-known crafter once said that fat people took up too much space in the world. Thirty of her friends agreed with the statement on Facebook. Some of them belonged to minority-factions themselves, but did not feel compelled to consider their piling-on as defamatory or hurtful.

So, no, I didn’t want to post a photo on my site. Because we absolutely, positively judge the overweight as undesirable. Fat people may the the one group that we still make fun of, tease, taunt and feel self-righteous and justified in dishing out the mean-girl words.

When we want to describe a problem as difficult to overcome, it’s a “big, fat” problem. If a business “trims the fat” it becomes “lean and mean” which is a good thing.

The changes in my life are profound. I have chosen to control my blood sugar by diet. No “just give yourself a little insulin and have this cake.” No pill to cover a guilty pleasure of a glass of wine. It’s an incredibly hard choice to make, but it makes me be aware of how I live and how I choose to nourish myself. There are no more treats in the way I defined them–no more cookies, no chocolate covered ginger, no fresh cornbread.  There cannot be, ever again. It is not a choice I recommend, because it reminds me of loss. In my case, it also fills me with gratitude, and the desire to make the same choices again. I get sick if I make mistakes, so I make fewer mistakes.

And yes, I had a head shot taken. Not because I lost 50 pounds, but because too many workshops, training and speaking opportunities won’t come your way unless you have a head shot to show. And because, for me, this is who I am. If you don’t like the photo, you absolutely won’t like the personality that comes with it.


-Quinn McDonald still has weight to lose. But she’s moving ahead step by rocky step. She will always wish she could eat ice cream, but she will never have to give up Inktense watercolor pencils.

Letters as Tools

Chefs have knives, carpenters have screwdrivers and saws, painters have canvas. Writers have letters and numbers. And so do journalers. I’ve long been fascinated by letterforms and shapes, by the rhythm of numbers and the flow of typefaces.

For a while, I had an ID bracelet that had the alphabet on it, along with the punctuation marks and the numbers from zero through nine. That, I realized, were the tools for everything I wrote. Twenty-six letters, 10 numbers, and six punctuation marks. It fit on a small bracelet, and all the speeches, letters, memos, bad news, good news and announcements in the English language were written with those. It was a humbling realization for a writer.

lettersMy art hinges on words and numbers, too. I’ve always expressed myself with writing, and letters and numbers have always been important in art, whether in found poetry or in collage.

Now I’m exploring writing as a background for collage. Part of this is an exercise in visual poetry, part of it is using writing as a collage element.


What I liked about the collage I did is that I wrote part of the background upside down, so it doesn’t make you want to read it, it’s just a pattern. The large words “Day” and “Night” complete the idea of “dream” and writing down your daydreams or your night dreams makes sense. But what is almost hidden is the small phrase “they are assembled and already in existence,” which completes the cross bars of the A, G, and H in the words Night and Day. It’s a reward for spending time looking closely at the collage. Another discovery.

This feels like a starting point. Again.

If you’d like to explore your journal’s content in a way that includes both art and writing, as well as confronting your inner critic, please join me on May 18 and 19 at the Minneapolis Center for Book Arts or July 22 through 26 in Madeline Island, Wisconsin.

–Quinn McDonald teaches what she does. Sometimes she knows more than other times, but she is always curious about what’s out there.

Feeling the Pull of the Poetry Tide

“Human salvation lies in the hands of he creatively maladjusted.”
–Martin Luther King, Jr.

“A man who has no imagination has no wings.” –Muhammad Ali

"The poet's task is to obscure the point, not to reveal it." --Jon Mychal

“The poet’s task is to obscure the point, not to reveal it.” –Jon Mychal

Poetry is not given much value in today’s world. Tell someone you are a poet and they ask you what you do “in real life.” And yet, poetry is the literary equivalent of singl-malt scotch–the distillation of a vision into a dream.

“I listen so that I may decipher the mystery of myself and become more whole.” –Richard Moss

Poetry comes from a tumultuous life, followed by the stillness of the soul that allows sorting out and choosing the seeds of a story, a life, a moment that will blow away in the wind of the next breath.

“Images are the heart of poetry. Images come from the unconscious. . . .Your’re not a poet without imagery.” –Anne Sexton

I will be teaching the how-to of poetry in Minneapolis this May and at Madeline Island in July. Give yourself the gift of stillness and the transcendence of your own voice. Join me at one (or both) of those locations.