The Inner Critic’s Martyr Mask

No matter how long you have been working creatively, it’s tempting to take the hook of possibility.

It's well-designed, but it's still a hook.

It’s well-designed, but it’s still a hook.

Sometimes that hook lands a big opportunity. Sometimes it pulls up a discarded, decomposing piece of junk. Almost always, it’s hard to tell the difference.

I’ve written about those “great exposure for you” false opportunities. A promoter wants you to donate your time, energy, artwork, writing and dresses it up like an opportunity. Choose carefully, make sure it is a real opportunity for you.

So when the woman called from a town three hours away and asked me to teach a class in her town rather than have her drive to Phoenix for the class, it was understandable. When she promised she would bring her friends to fill up the class, the warning bell clanged in my head. But my Inner Critic stepped up and whispered “opportunity” sweetly and seductively. The Inner Critic pointed out that asking someone to drive three hours was too much for them (but not for me), and I needed exposure, and getting in that market would help the new book sales.

Instead of pointing out that exposure is what kills people if they go out unprotected, or listening to Pema Chodron’s wisdom that we keep learning the same lesson until we understand what we need to learn, I took the hook. And the line and sinker while I was swallowing.

Yes, I did. Instead of calling on my “You are Enough” Inner Hero, I chose the Martyr Mask of the Inner Critic. Two hours and five phone calls later, I had arranged a class and a demo, rented a hotel room, spoken to the marketing manager and created the to-do list for the class. After hotel, gas, demo time there was no profit, but who cares? It was an “opportunity.” (You may now start to snicker).

From the website:

From the website:

I proudly emailed the woman who wanted to take the class–it was scheduled. I sent her the date and time, and gave her registration details. (You may now slap my forehead and ask, “What were you thinking?”)

No reply. You already know what happened. You are smarter than I am. The next day I got an email telling me the day really wasn’t good for her or any of her friends, and I should email her next time I was in town. You see, she had good resistance to the hook.

Learning from my mistake (again), step-by-step:

1. When talking to a prospect, find out exactly what they want–a class close to their location? Attention? Conversation? Mention a price range to see if it changes their interest level. If they mention friends who will be brought along, ignore it. That phrase is very similar to “I’ll call you” after a first date or “How are you today?” when your boss comes into your office. It’s something polite to say. No offers or interest are implied.

2. Compare what they want to what you have to offer and what you need. Travel is expensive, so your class price might have to increase. Would you go to that town to teach without the call? What real opportunity exists for you? Is there interest? Is there a client base? Consider this before taking any action.

An excellent counter-offer on my part would have been to ask her to gather her friends, agree to a location, and have me come to teach a custom class at a price that made me a modest profit. Don’t take the hook until you have something you need, too.

3. Do not make a commitment to please a prospect. A prospect is an unknown quantity. A prospect is not yet a client. Every company, business, and freelancer has to weigh the conversion cost of prospect to client. If you lose money occasionally, it’s part of doing business. If you lose money frequently, you need to look at how you are doing business.

4. Avoid needy puppy behavior. Needy puppies don’t get the business.

From the WordPress blog The Transfer

From the WordPress blog The Transfer

Worse, they don’t get respect. Think about what you have to offer. That’s enough. Do not offer to jump through burning hoops to prove your worth. That will just get you burned.

5. Create a marketing plan and stick to it. Set a time in the future to evaluate it. Changing it based on the last thing you heard (“Squirrel!”) is not a good business plan.

—Quinn McDonald wishes she had stopped, looked and listened to herself before lighting the hoop on fire and jumping through it.

Saturday Creative Links

OK, I need to admit I am a science geek. My first job out of college was teaching biology. And I still love the connection between science and creativity. I’m a sucker for the Fibonacci sequence, Phi, and Golden Geometry.

Vivian Hart, known as ViHart on You Tube, has a way of combining math and creativity in ingenious ways. Here’s a video with her explaining the Fibonacci sequence and how to draw a spiral while being photo-bombed by an artichoke.

Wade Kavanaugh and Stephen B. Nguyen are collaborating in Brooklyn, New York and they are making trees out of paper. Big trees. People are dwarfed under

Tree by Kavanaugh and Nguyen

Tree by Kavanaugh and Nguyen

the structures, which can also look like veins and arteries in paper and wood.

It’s the scale that is surprising, although we are not surprised by big forests. But this combination of art and nature is stunning.

You’ve seen the white buckets at construction sites and at the side of the road. The white bucket holds paint, cement, and eventually, holds garbage and becomes garbage. Except to Jason Peters. He gathered them up and turned them into giant, winding installations. The buckets are lit from within, either in color or with natural light, striped and sinuous.

Jason Peters installation

Jason Peters installation

The images are fascinating and airy. One man’s art is another man’s garbage. The difference is creative vision.

Kirsten Hassenfeld creates gems in Brooklyn.  Seen in soft light, these gems seem to be fragile and detailed. Once you see that these gems are made of paper–light and translucent–you fall in love with them.

KH-2The spatial relationship of a group of these gems is both intricate and intense.The images look drawn in shadow and light.

Have a wonderfully creative weekend.

—Quinn McDonald is doing a demo at the Scottsdale location of Arizona Art Supply on Saturday. She loves involving people in creative joy.

Seed-Pod Creativity

In Arizona, we are entering the Season of Seeking Shade. Oranges stop growing, figs dry on the branches, birds sit in the tiniest patches of shades, beak open.

Seed pods ready for threshing

Seed pods ready for threshing

But there is another fascinating process that unfolds in the heat. Native trees produce seed pods. Most of them are hard and protective–understandable, soft seeds would wither and dry up in hours.

Nothing rots here; it’s too dry. Leaves that drop, branches that blow down, rot in weeks on the East Coast. Not so here. You’ll find them years later, just where they fell. They will be the bones of trees, bleached and stiff, but not rotting.

In order for seed pods to free the seeds, they need a threshing machine. Well, something to break open the pods so the seeds can drop to the dirt and wait for rain, or birds, or coyotes. Unless those pods break open, the seed can’t put out roots.

The lucky trees are the ones planted close to sidewalks and roads. The pods fall, we stomp or drive over them, the pods are crushed, the seeds released and ready to be washed into a gully by a Monsoon Rain.

I was crunching over pods yesterday, loving the hollow, rattly sound the seeds make in the pods, when I thought how this is creative work. Well, it is like creative work. You have an idea, but it’s not ready to work, to grow, to connect with other ideas. You create an idea-pod, but you hoard it. Nothing happens.

Then you drop it and other people walk over it, kick it aside, roll over it, and suddenly, you can see it in a fresh new light, ready to grow. And that’s when you see that letting it go, not forcing it, was what it took to break out into a project that you can do. You had to let it go to make it work.

—Quinn McDonald is a naturalist for whom everything is grist for the mill.


Walking the Talk

A few weeks ago, I hit a slump. A few bumps in the road and the road seemed too hard to travel. I discussed it with my coach (I believe in coaching, so yes, I have a coach, too. She’s brilliant.) The problem I keep coming back to is being different is not always fun, interesting, or a trait that draws clients. Some clients are afraid of “different.” It’s not always easy to create classes when you are different, and once you have created them, filling them can be a challenge, too.

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

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

Retreat producers prefer to have popular teachers teaching popular classes that will result in a satisfying experience and a product that can be a gift. My classes tend to be complex, involve both writing and an art techniques, and deep work. You don’t always work away with a give-away gift. You often walk away with a gift of self-knowledge, acceptance and understanding. You’d be surprised how many people feel guilty about feeling good.

Sometimes I want to do the easy thing. My coach warned me off. “If you do the easy thing, how do you think you will teach it?” I imagined myself zipping through a class without traction and knew that I’d not seem engaged, interested or involved. And an instructor has to be all three.

My coach suggested something I have suggested to my clients many times. Remember the story of my motorcycle, Suzie Lightning, and the instructions to “look where you want to go”? The technique of imagining success works, because you begin to make small adjustments that build your ideas, decision-making and choices. You feel settled with your ideas and make the most of them. (That’s what yesterday’s post was about). So I got busy and visualized the class and people enjoying it. Had some great ideas. Re-worked the plan.

It was still a big surprise and a bigger joy when Madeline Island School of Art called this morning to tell me my class made (Enough people had enrolled to run the class.) I had reached one of the dreams I’ve had for years–to teach a week long retreat combining both deep writing and intuitive art.

mp624And right after that, the flyer went out for the in-person class I’m teaching here in Phoenix on Monsoon Papers and making accordion folders went out. And people began to register! It’s true that to have a successful class you have to find the right audience and teach the right class. It’s also true that the combination is not always easy to fit together.

Both classes still have open slots. If you have always wanted to try combining writing and intuitive art, now is the time to sign up. The give-away of gift cards and a month of creativity coaching will happen at the retreat.  And if you are in the Phoenix area, come join me in making Monsoon Papers.

Quinn McDonald practices what she preaches or her coach will kick her butt.

Working With What You Have

Some trees can't stand the sun's intensity.

Some trees can’t stand the sun’s intensity.

July is the hottest month for most Northern Hemisphere areas, and we often have 30 days of more than 110 degrees in the Sonoran Desert. Most of those over-hot days happen in July and August. Each year, I buy plants that say “full sun” on their needs. Now, “full sun” may mean 6 to 8 hours of sunshine, but it doesn’t mean the intense heat we have here. And each year I struggle to keep those plants alive. That makes as much sense as trying to keep the leaves on the trees in October in Vermont. It’s just not going to happen.

This morning I quit watering the straw those plants turned into and decided to put my efforts into the ones that could survive without a lot of extra work.

And that’s exactly what happens with your creativity, too. Put it in a place where it can’t possibly survive, and the struggle is ugly and non-productive.

Whether that’s a bad relationship, bad conference you feel you should have loved, bad project you thought would be great, or bad book you are reading, there are some efforts that won’t be rewarded. Goethe, the German thinker and poet, said “Die Arbeit ist nicht immer mit Erfolg gekrönt,” —Your work is not always guaranteed success. (I know it’s not the literal translation, the interpretation was called for here.)

A plant that thrives in the desert.

A plant that thrives in the desert.

So why not eliminate all those dead creative places that aren’t worth saving?  Sometimes it’s far more worthwhile to be very honest, determine that you do not have the stamina, strength, materials, smarts or spirit to make this project succeed, or even move forward. The smart thing to do is to stop pouring your effort into a bottomless pit and spend more of your effort doing something that will give you a better result.

Yes, this is different from stopping because you are bored or tired, or walking away from your job because there is something more appealing to go after.  Spend the precious water you have in the Sonoran desert to nurture the plant that can adapt to the desert. Put your energy behind the projects that will work. You will be better off for it.

–Quinn McDonald lives in the desert and is happily thriving.

The Word We Hide

No one dies anymore. And no one is dead. Last week, when I wrote about my parents’ deaths, the emails started up. It seems, according to the emails, that “death” and “dead” are no longer politically correct. If you only knew.

No one is born to stay. It’s not a dirty word.  You might prefer “pass,” “pass on,” “go home,” “go to their eternal reward,” or “shuffle off the mortal coil,” but all those things happen after the body dies.

What death is, however, is taboo. We hide it from our children. We pretend it doesn’t exist in our house. We die in hospitals. Death is more taboo than sex in our society, and because death is not as much fun as sex, most people buy into the “let’s not look at it and it will go away,” school of thought.

Several generations ago, children attended their grandparents at their death. Wakes were held in the living room, and family sat around a body, laid out in their best clothes, and held watch all night by praying or sitting in silence. If a child was old enough, he or she was generally pressed into service to wash a body after death and clothe it. This was a sacred ritual, done in silence or while singing hymns, and it allowed children and adults to see death, know it was coming and discuss the events around death. You don’t see a lot of that anymore. Too scary. Too gruesome. Better send the kids to play video games where they blow up “the enemy” or zombies.

Dan Somers (center) and band members, in Phoenix. From the Lisa Savidge website.

Dan Somers (center) and band members, in Phoenix. From the Lisa Savidge website.

We don’t talk about death and the young men we send to war. We send those men to kill people. Not on our land, of course. Far away. It’s not a video game. Our husbands, wives, fathers, mothers, daughters, sons–we send them to go kill people. And when they come back changed, we don’t want to talk about it. We expect them to find that most difficult of all emotional passageways–closure– and join life where they left off. “Get on with your life. You are home now,” is a fast answer. But not a good one.

For soldiers, there are two jarring realities. One day, each stranger could kill them or be an innocent bystander, and our loved ones make that decision and live with the consequences. The next day, they are back home settling squabbles over Barbies, sleepovers, whether a child should have a toy gun to play with, and school visits.

There are precious few resources to prepare families for the return of a soldier who has killed people and now is expected to be concerned with daily life. Most returning soldiers just struggle. Many of them, having survived killing people, cannot survive living with that knowledge. Our country is losing more veterans to suicide than to war. And suicide means choosing death over life.

The most-often question when we hear of suicide is “how?” when it should be “why?” We want the gory details we can do nothing about instead of the harder uncertainties we can’t deal with.

Daniel Somers told us. Daniel did two tours in Iraq, and could not fit back into life here in Phoenix. Daniel’s father, Howard, wants others to know about Daniels’ death, so I am talking about the death. There are vets in your life, too, and most likely, you just want them to get closure and get on with their lives. And they can’t.

Dan fronted his Phoenix band, Lisa Savidge. He had a wife. He had friends. But on June 10, this 30-year old vet killed himself. He was one of 22 vets who kill themselves every day. More than the number of children who died at Sandy Hook. But we look away. The Veterans Administration is supposed to handle that. They can’t. There are too many. The problems can’t be solved by a pat on the back and a pill.

Here’s what Dan wrote in his suicide note:

I really have been trying to hang on, for more than a decade now… In truth, I was nothing more than a prop, filling space so that my absence would not be noted. In truth, I have already been absent for a long, long time. . . . I am left with basically nothing. Too trapped in a war to be at peace, too damaged to be at war… This is what brought me to my actual final mission. Not suicide, but a mercy killing.

Dan did not pass on. He killed himself. He is dead. There is no neat wrap up for this story. And not for his family. But when I use the word “dead” I don’t use it lightly. And I’m not using some euphemism instead.

—Quinn McDonald knows about death. A long time ago, in another war, she knew a soldier who came home, but never came all the way home.

Time Management? Not Any More

“Knowledge is power,” Francis Bacon said. So did Hobbes. (Not Calvin’s friend, the other one. Thomas.)  I’m not sure it is anymore. Knowledge is easily available–we can now check up on facts much faster than in the days we had to go to the library and look up a book or article. Of course, we also have to spend some time sifting through drek to find the knowledge. But still, it’s easy to access knowledge.

What is important, however, is attention span. That is in danger of disappearing.

The star-eating chicken  Ink on paper. © Quinn McDonald

The star-eating chicken Ink on paper. © Quinn McDonald

Attention span is power.

Which jumps me to time management. It’s not time we need to manage, it our attention. Choosing what needs attention, how much attention, listening to what needs to be done, paying close attention on completing  the steps needed to complete the task–that’s attention management. It’s easier to start six things, jump from one task to another, add household tasks while we are doing office chores, avoiding creative work because we pretend the laundry needs our time–time management vanishes when we begin to practice attention management.

Attention management allows you to separate “urgent” from “important.” Both need attention, but mot of the time, we suppress “important” for “urgent” because “urgent” has our reputation on the line, and “important” isn’t “urgent” yet.

Yep, I’m pretty sure that attention management is a skill that can solve problems and help us get work done. And allow for play. Which is the whole point.

–Quinn McDonald believes that play is real work.

Saturday Creative Links

Transitory space photograph by Leah Oates.

Transitory space photograph by Leah Oates.

Leah Oates is a Brooklyn (NY) photographer who thinks about transitory spaces, and how they appear and disappear, unnoticed. So, being a photographer she noticed and memorialized them. Here’s Leah Oates’s  artist statement explaing the exhibition:

The work I create first originates as a response to space that is in a continual state of change. In everyone there is a sense of flux and a familiarity with this type of space.

Transitory spaces have a messy human energy that is always in the present yet constantly changing. I find them endlessly interesting, alive places where there is a great deal of beauty and fragility. They are temporary monuments to the ephemeral nature of existence.

Finding entropy in photography is interesting. It reminds me of the accidental double-exposures we used to do with film, when they were lovelier than either of the originals.

Another photographer, Lisa Rienermann, has a show called Type the Sky, a playful and clever combination of negative space and alphabet forms. She photographs the sky from ground level, allowing the rise of the buildings to hape the sky into letterforms. It sounds contrived, but the photographs are interesting before you notice that the sky is a recognizable shape.

She keeps a visual journal, too.


Mlle A by Fabienne Rivory

Mlle A by Fabienne Rivory

Fabienne Rivory is a mixed media artist who combines photography with painting–she uses ink or gouache and combines it digitally with photography. She begins by blending two photographs, often landscapes, then adding the color. The startling contrast of the color and the black-and-white photograph adds more to each part of the media.  Her “Saison Grise” (literally, Gray Season) is a barely colored landscape that is both evocative and almost sad.

Evelin Kasikov is a graphic designer who lives and works in London. She  embroider in CMYK colors (cyan, magenta, yellow and black, the colors in a printer that combine to make thousands of colors). She uses strict grid systems and embroiders in them to form letters and patterns that look both like old comic books and messages from another universe. Her webpage Stitched Colors makes you aware how printing combines color by looking at cross-stitch embroidery.

Have a delightfully creative weekend!

Quinn McDonald is always amazed at other artist’s ideas.

A Poem for Solstice

Carole Dwinell is a graphic designer and poet. This poem seems perfect to celebrate the longest day of the year.




i am
older and wiser now,
it’s true.

but i have a secret.
it’s the moon.
believe me,
it doesn’t just
hang in the sky
with footprints in moondust
and litter of rockets.


it’s a cookie.

crisp, cold silver sugar
to melt

in my mouth.

placed on the skyshelf
and hid until dark


then each month
you can eat it.
one small bite at a time.

Creativity Slams to a Stop

Many of the places I teach think they want creative solutions managed by creative people. Often that thought doesn’t get out of the Inbox, much less out the door. Why not?  If you are a creative leader, worker, or thinker,  maybe these 10 reasons sound familiar:

  1. “We’ve always done it this way, there is no reason to change.”
  2. “The boss doesn’t like change. It’s upsetting.”
  3. “Why stir up trouble? Things are OK now.”
  4. “Just get this assignment done, then we’ll talk.”
  5. “The director sets the way we get things done. And your idea is not it.”
  6. “Your idea will require too much [time, energy, money, people]”
  7. “Who died and made you CEO?”
  8. “How do you know this will work? Doesn’t look like it to me.”
  9. “Let me play devil’s advocate for a minute. . . “
  10. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

You’ve heard these at work, but how many of them have you believed?  How many of them have you said? Change causes upheaval as it works.

from Biocultural Science and Management,

from Biocultural Science and Management,

There is the enthusiasm stage, where the idea sounds good. Then there is the work stage, where all your co-workers redefine “collaboration” into “if it fails, it’s your fault.”

That’s the liminal stage–where the work is started, but not finished. The change is happening, but you can’t quite see it working.  The eggs are broken, the omelet isn’t shaping up yet.

The liminal stage is a time that has to happen, but it is the time of most resistance. Focus on that part–on pushing through. It will test your creativity fully. If you give up, a part of your creativity will wither away. This is the time to call on your Inner Hero to be an advocate. Your Inner Critic already has everyone else at the office.

How will you stand up for your creativity today?

—Quinn McDonald has been listening to Baba O’Reilly again.