Old Hurt, New Reaction

First, the promised winners of the giveaway: Kelly Harms has won Ann LeFevre’s book, Live Your Life, 14 Days to the Best You. Winners of the coaching sessions are: Cynthia Pepper, Linda Marsh and Lynn Thompson. Congratulations to the winners! You’ll be hearing from me for details. *   *   *   *   * 

Emotional reactions (often called triggers) are familiar to every breathing human being.  Something from the past –a word, comment, reaction, song, even a smell–that snaps us back to a  bad memory in full, vivid color. The most common reaction is to behave as we did the first time–although we may be decades older.

Old tree trunk, with considerably damage, still beautiful. Beautiful because of the damage.

In mild cases, triggers cause us to cringe with the emotional strength of the memory. In severe cases, they cause us to behave forcefully, drop years of therapy, coaching, or conditioning. In the worst cases, they aren’t  just flashbacks, they are the symptoms of PTSD.

Let’s focus on those milder triggers: The relative who says something thoughtless, taking you back to childhood. You snap at them as you did when you were younger. A friend teases you and pushes an old trigger, you reply harshly, surprising your friend with your anger and hurt.

This afternoon, I was on the phone, talking to an acquaintance, and she pushed an old, almost forgotten trigger. It was a casual, teasing move on her part. But to my emotions, it felt like a slap, a reminder of a mistake I made that I’d rather not re-hash. I was at the point where my tongue already was sharpened to smack down the remark and devastate the speaker, when a thought flashed across my mind:

“You aren’t the same person as you were back then. Time has passed. You have changed. Circumstances have changed. Use a new reaction. You won’t be sorry.”

Just as fast as it came, it was gone, but the truth it left behind was huge. I paused, pushing away the hurt and embarrassment of the long-ago mistake I made. Instead, I stepped into the adult I have become, the different person I have grown into since that incident. In that instant, I could see the acquaintance meant no harm, I could see her remark from her perspective.

That shift in perspective allowed me to swallow my own hurtful remark, and say something light-hearted instead

The result surprised me. Instead of letting the trigger pull me back into the past, I brought the event into the present and saw that it had lost some of the power to shame and hurt. Time had made me capable of different behavior. Enough time has passed. I am different. It will always be a trigger, but I do not have to let it hurt me again

Quinn McDonald is surprised that old hurts can remain old.



What I Learned From Failure

My artwork didn’t get accepted into a juried competition. It’s an experience every writer and artist knows as rejection. It’s not a question of  if, it’s a question of  when.

Over the years, I’ve let rejections destroy my confidence and make me wonder if a skilled PhotoShop user has a better chance of success than I do.  I’ve let the inner critic out of the cage to gnaw on my soul, leaving it half-eaten in the rain of self-doubt.

This is the accordion book I made with alcohol inks. It represents the five seasons in Arizona–spring, early summer, monsoon, autumn, and winter. The length of time the sun is above the horizon is reflected in the length of each piece of art. © Quinn McDonald, 2018.

This time, having worked on a skill that separates creative self-expression from outside judgment, I was disappointed, but only for 10 minutes. And it was disappointment, not crushing self-defeat. I can talk about it without shame. I’m writing about it to see if what I learned (over time) helps other artists who put their work on display to be judged by strangers.

Every artist (I’m including writers, musicians, dancers, performers and every other art form) takes their creative work, tosses it in the air and risks judgment, ridicule, and being ignored.  We are hoping for delight, engagement and maybe a sale.

The skill that I learned, the one that helped me survive rejection, is called non-attachment. I developed it through practice.  Like every other skill, it takes practice to get comfortable with, and then good at, non-attachment. First, non-attachment does not mean not caring, not investing yourself, or ignoring your emotions.

The accordion book laid flat. The white numbers under each panel is the length of time the sun is above the horizon on the 21st of the month in the middle of the season. © Quinn McDonald, 2018. All rights reserved.

Non-attachment is rooted in a simple idea: creators create for self-expression. In my creativity coaching practice, I’ll ask “Why are you writing this book?” (Or painting, composing, singing–engaging in expressing creativity.) Most often, the answer is, “I want to get it published and make money.” That’s where the problem festers.

Yes, artists have to sell their work to pay the grocery, plumber, and mortgage. If that is the primary reason they create, all creative decisions  will be made through the marketing plan and all success will me measured in sales. I’ve been there, and it is a dry, lifeless place of relentless competition and incremental failure.

The reason to create, to practice, to struggle with your creative urge is to express creativity. That’s it. That’s the prime directive of the creative soul–express your creativity. It is the process of creating that lifts the soul, not the price tag.

When you create work that requires your concentration, full attention, joy, fear, satisfaction–that is the reward.

What others think of it is their opinion. You might grow from another opinion, but if you let random opinions steer your creative expression,  you will forever be chasing approval. Your creative expression will no longer be tethered to your idea, it will be tied to someone else’s preferences. That’s an impossible space in which to create.

Here are 10 clear steps to get to non-attachment:

1. Work regularly. Creative work builds endurance and creative muscle.

2. Work relentlessly. Self-doubt? Keep working. Not sure the piece is good? Keep working. Tired? Get some rest, then keep working.

(This stage includes re-writing, editing, overpainting, noodling with those six bars in the refrain, anything that is improving the work.)

3. Work until you are satisfied.  Don’t know if you are done? How satisfied are you? Not sure? Not done. Don’t ask Facebook, Instagram, your mom or best friend if you are done. They are related to your inner critic, not your creative expression.

4. When you have worked hard and made meaning for yourself, you will feel satisfied. Happy, if you give yourself permission.

5. Give your piece a name or title. It’s an ancient tradition that naming something gives you power over it and distance from it.

6. Send it out into the world. Enter a juried competition, put it up for sale, go to a gallery. Because your creative work brought you joy in creation, what someone else says is an opinion, not absolute Truth with a capital T.

7. If you are turned down (the term I prefer instead of “rejected,”) you will still have your hard work, your idea, and your satisfaction. The rest is someone else’s opinion.

8. You cannot live in the judge’s head. They might not like your kind of art. (That’s their opinion.) They may know what price-point sells in their gallery and choose that kind of work. (Their marketing decision.) They may choose a piece that fits a certain space, one that reminds them of the curtains in their childhood home, or something that their dog wagged his tail at–all decisions that have nothing to do with you. Your artistic decisions are complete. What happens next is not yours to control.

9. If you are turned down, you still have your joy and satisfaction. You may feel disappointed that all the unknown decisions didn’t line up right for you, but those decisions were not yours to control. The ones you do control were ones that you were satisfied with. That’s the core of creative self-expression. Once you are satisfied with the quality of your effort and your result, no one can take it from you.

10. Go to the show that didn’t accept you. Enjoy the work, congratulate the artists. Feeling happy for others is a skill that stretches your soul to make it fit more easily.

Quinn McDonald is a certified creativity coach, writer, and artist. She helps artists learn non-attachment.




Pompeii Comes to Phoenix

The Pompeii exhibit is in Phoenix right now. (Science Center, November 18, 2017 to May 28, 2018). The story of Pompeii was the first chapter book I read when I was about eight years old, and for years I believed it was fiction. How could all those people not have escaped? How come did they find bread and artwork and dogs and people years later? After all that ash and fire?

This colander, carefully cleaned, showed the care taken to create utilitarian vessels and tools. The shadow shows the decorative pattern of the holes Photo: © Quinn McDonald, 2017.

Part of the story is no longer a mystery–the volcano explosion that happened on August 24, in the year 79 CE. It took 1700 years for Pompeii to be discovered. Vesuvius, the mountain that blew up, didn’t just spew ash, it blew its entire top off. The caldera is still active, and today is about 4,200 feet tall. It was twice that height when the volcano erupted.

The ash, pumice and dirt that fell buried Pompeii under 12 feet of debris. It sealed off the city, kept oxygen from deteriorating paintings and mosaics, and made the discovery surprising.

In the exhibit, you can see frescoes, perfectly preserved and in full color. Decorative and delicate, the frescoes show pomegranates (symbol of fertility and abundance) and various gods worshiped at the time. Mosaics, mostly from floors, are also shown. One of the signs said that mosaics were often created to use up marble from bed frames, tables and walls.

Plaster cast of a woman, shown on her back. Originally, she was lying over the child, shown trying to crawl away. © Photo: Quinn McDonald, 2017. All rights reserved.

The story that blew me away was this: As the city was being carefully dug up, archeologists discovered holes. Their irregular shape made it clear it wasn’t bubbles of gas. One of them had the idea that the holes might have once been something else. The holes were filled with plaster of Paris, left to dry, and then the plaster was dug out.

The casts were of people. A mother lying over her child, people climbing a staircase, dogs, a man hunched over, protecting his mouth and nose with his toga. The people had been covered in ash, but over hundreds of years has decomposed, leaving just their imprints in the ash.

Without the casts, it would have been too hard to see the negative space as people. Metaphor alert: Since this post is going up close to New Years Eve, what do we see and not understand as long as it is negative, but makes perfect sense, in fact, tells a story, when seen from the positive view?

–Quinn McDonald is a writer who teaches writing. She also teaches journal-keeping as a healing art.



Creativity in Black and White

Black paper is attractive. But applying color is not always easy. Copic (alcohol ink) markers don’t show up. Watercolors aren’t ideal. You have gel pens, acrylic ink, or colored pencils. Twinkling H20s work, too. Still, not a lot of choice.

Today, while I was at a big box home repair/supply store, I found a can of  spray paint. Except it was really not paint. It was Krylon webbing paint. Spray it on hard surfaces for a faux marble approach. I have no idea how you are really supposed to use it, because I used it on black paper. And it gives a lot of different effects.

If you are going to try this, protect the area you are going to spray. This can will “decorate” your walls, floors, and mirrors.

First, I sprayed it quickly across the black page, which is about 6.5 inches by 11 inches, bound on the short side.

Next, I sprayed more slowly, but aiming above the paper, so the paint drifted down. The interesting effect of the paint on the bottom row was a mix of an erratic ECG and a map of an ant exploring a tunnel. Still, really interesting.

Finally, I used gel pens to fill in the tiny gaps with color. Just a few, for effect. Then, because this one looked like a map, I added asemic writing on the left, and a map helper on the right.

This technique is worth exploring more. I hope you do, too.

-Quinn McDonald is a writer and writing teacher, creativity coach and artist who loves mixing words and art.



The Pigeon and the Peregrine

Phoenix has peregrine falcons. They have adapted, using our high-rises as aeries and our pigeons as food. There is no shortage of pigeons in Phoenix.

Peregrine falcon, audubon website free download.

Peregrines are compact and fast. A stooping (diving for attack) peregrine can reach speeds of 200 mph. Females are considerably larger than males.

Yesterday, I was driving from one place to another, stopped at a traffic light, waiting for the light rail to pass. There was a blur above me and I saw a pigeon working hard and above it, a stooping peregrine. The pigeon didn’t stand a chance, I thought.

But the pigeon was not ready to be dinner. He flew directly in front of the light rail. I flinched, certain he was crushed. Then my eyes jerked up to watch the peregrine. He had vanished. Had he hit the light rail? Nope. The pigeon was safe in a nearby palo verde tree. The peregrine pulled up in a move that must have filled his imaginary Pilates teacher with core pride, and flew along the light rail, and then up toward a tall building. Both birds were safe. Both had survived another day in the city without being killed by the Machine in the Garden.

The car behind me honked. The light was green. I moved on, part of the machine in the city garden.

Quinn McDonald is an urban naturalist, a writer and creativity coach who helps people heal from trauma through writing.



Poetry Retreat in Phoenix

Enjoy our amazing winter sunsets in Phoenix, along with this amazing retreat. "John Fox is the most sensitive and effective teacher of poetic medicine I know. He listens to both poem and person deeply, and he is a master as guiding others." --Courney Davis, NP Redding, CT

Enjoy our amazing winter sunsets in Phoenix, along with this amazing retreat. “John Fox is the most sensitive and effective teacher of poetic medicine I know. He listens to both poem and person deeply, and he is a master as guiding others.” –Courney Davis, NP Redding, CT

Most of you know I am studying to become a poetry therapist. The work is deep and rich and wonderful. If you have ever wanted to get closer to poetry, to attend a poetry retreat, this is your opportunity.

The retreat is being held on February 24 to 26 (Friday evening through Sunday at noon) in central Phoenix, Arizona. It’s being presented by John Fox, the head of the Institute for Poetic Medicine.

Retreat Title: The Seven Gifts of Poetry: Poetry as a Pathway to Renewal
When: February 24-26 (Friday evening through Sunday noon.)
Where: Villa Del Coronado, Phoenix (Mid-Town), walking distance from the Phoenix  Art Museum light rail stop
Price: $130, does not include hotel or meals.

For more information or to make your reservation, contact me via the comments or the contact page on this website.

The intention is to serve as encouragement and catalyst for poem making in your personal journey. The retreat will include gentle, evocative and poignant writing prompts, writing and sharing of your own writing. No prior experience is necessary.

I’ve attended John’s retreats and they are a wonderful break from the frantic world of to-do lists and endless work. You’ll work deeply and leave refreshed. You’ll spend a few days with new friends, no one is a stranger for long in John’s retreats.

Give the retreat as a gift of renewal for the holidays!



Healing Through Writing

We all meet dips in our lives. We don't always get warnings.

We all meet dips in our lives. We don’t always get warnings.

It’s been a tough year, no matter what side you are on. There were surprises enough for the whole world. If you feel in need of healing medicine, I’m offering a healing through writing class. It’s online, on a private group on Facebook.

The details are here, on my professional writing blog.  The basics? It’s four classes, one every two weeks, starting on November 19. There are two warm-up lessons already on the Facebook group, so you won’t be bored till it starts. The class is non-partisan, no political talk allowed. It’s about healing whatever needs to be healed in you.

Price? Pay what you want. There is a link to a PayPal donation page. You can pay nothing, you can pay a bit to help you feel accountable, you can pay a lot. All of the money goes to two charities.

If you have questions, you can always contact me through comments or by the Contact page on either blog site.

–Quinn McDonald is a writer who teaches writing. She is studying poetic medicine and will become a writing therapist.