Category Archives: The Writing Life

The Joy of a Trashy Novel

imagesPeople who work on airplanes are admirable. I watch them take out their laptops, open documents and work as if their lives depended on it. Maybe they do. Then there are the game players who hold their iPads like steering wheels and race through narrow lanes on their screens. It’s hard not to feel sorry for the people who are watching a movie on their iPhone. Seriously, I would not want to watch a movie that expanded across a big screen shrink down to the size of my phone. I’d keep wondering, “Which one is that? Was he the driving the getaway motorcycle or was he the guy who crashed through the window in France?”

On airplanes, I bring a book. The kind you don’t have to put away until you are at 10,000 feet. The kind the flight attendant doesn’t ask you to turn off until the Captain tells you it’s OK to read. The kind that makes you look like a matronly grammar teacher on her way to teach a class and . . . let’s leave her alone.

These airplane-reading books are a slice of heaven. I keep my eyes glued to the pages tPile-of-Bookshrough turbulence. Ignore the man in the next seat whose head is on my shoulder and he’s drooling. Ignore the squalling toddler who is kicking my seat.

For I have the trashy novel and am loving it. I pick them carefully. They have to be well-written and the plot has to capture my attention. I’m willing to suspend a lot of disbelief if the main character is flawed in a believable way and has to struggle to solve his problems.

When I say “trashy,” I don’t mean bodice-busters or Fifty Shades of Gray. I have standards. There are genres I don’t like (but not many).  Give me a good mystery with an interesting protagonist, and I’ll have to be pried off the plane like a dried-on diaper from a baby that’s been asleep since we passed over Cleveland.

pile-of-books-1During the work week I often read non-fiction books on writing, coaching, critical thinking. Art books and magazines for fun. But I do have a weakness for novels, and audiobooks have made many a car trip not just fun but deeply satisfying. Airplane books fall into that category. Yes, I’ve read Middlemarch and Moby Dick, Light in August and The Gulag Archipelago, but I don’t read classics on an airplane. I read books that hook my interest and my imagination. Some of them may even be literature. But all of them hold my attention.

My latest airplane novels:

Inferno by Dan Brown. More of the same, but if you love Italy or are a folklorist, there is a wealth of interesting information buried in the so-so plot.

A book of short stories by Neil Gaiman. That led me to reading The Ocean at the End of the Lane and then onto American Gods and The Ananzi Boys. Not trashy, incredible. Some of the best story-telling I’ve read.See where a book of short stories can lead?

Several by Jodi Picoult. She writes page-turners with interesting characters and interesting plots.

Peter Robinson writes about an English detective, Inspector Banks, who is flawed and troubled and a very stubborn and a good detective. The books are always interesting because they weave the personal life of the characters into the crime plot.

J.A. Jance now lives in Seattle, but she’s from Tucson. She wrote a series that takes place in Tucson (Joanna Brady and another set featuring Diana Ladd Walker and Brandon Walker)  another in Seattle (J.P. Beaumont),  a few where the detectives from each town meet. Then there are some about a woman newsreader who gets bounced from TV because her face is starting to look old (Ali Reynolds). J.A. Jance is prolific and a kind and generous woman who once comforted me with a funny story that made a clever blog. And she writes page turners. If I finish one on a plane, I put a note in it recommending it and leave it in the airplane. Someone will be delighted.

You don’t have to get on an airplane to read an interesting novel you like. Good writers almost always are also voracious readers–of anything. Enjoy an old-fashioned book. You won’t be disappointed.

-Quinn McDonald reads books in bed. Her iPad hurts too much when it drops on her face as she falls asleep.

 

Journaling as Building Block

I’m working on the journaling process again. I’m focusing on writing and Commonplace Journaling for right now. I got a 5 x 8-inch journal in which I can’t draw (paper is too thin) so I would write more. I’m fond of doing mind maps, and I’m doing a lot of them, too. Why writing instead of art journaling? Right now, I have a lot of ideas to clear, a lot of inner critic arguing to do, and that (for me), is done by journaling.

Yes, I’m still working on my art. The latest piece is also about writing, though!

Book of letters. © Quinn McDonald 2015

Book of letters. © Quinn McDonald 2015

The collage uses an older idea I had, but the letters around the book actually are words that relate to writing. I often sit in front of a blank journal while my mind writes and my hands don’t. That’s what gave me the idea.

To make myself focus and write, I create a list of problems, worries, and ideas at night, right before bed.  (That goes in the journal, too). The next morning, I choose an item from the list and set the timer for three minutes. When the timer rings, I finish the sentence and shut the book. No re-reading. That comes later.

mindmapOn the left is a mind-map from Journaling from the Inside Out by Susan Borkin. I use mind maps to capture pieces of a big idea when I don’t know the connection yet.

The mind-map helps me grab all the pieces of the brain dump. Sorting them comes later. I’ve found that mind maps are still maps, another one of my favorite concepts.

When I’ve got a book filled, I can go back and distill ideas and save them. The books have cardboard covers and have about 50 pages. They aren’t attractive, but they allow me to be messy and not try to design a page. Sometimes, quantity is as important as quality.

It doesn’t matter how you tackle journaling, it always helps. It always heals. As long as you keep writing, your life will begin to make sense.

--Quinn McDonald keeps journals. In many different ways and styles.

 

Seeing is Believing

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

A diagrammed sentence.

A diagrammed sentence.

list: grammar. Grammar is rarely taught in elementary or middle school 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. It doesn’t show everything we do in class, but it shows enough to pique interest.

biz_writing_visualUsing 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 mixing different skills to solve old problems.

 

 

Punctuation and Assumptions

You’ve seen the meme on Facebook: “If you are over 50, you probably still use punctuation in texts.” There are various version of this poster, most of them showing women in hoop skirts.  The idea is right there: be an old geezer and stick to punctuation or a cool young thing and skip it.

From grammarly.com

From grammarly.com

I was amazed. Peer pressure to stop using punctuation. So you can be younger. Use fewer commas and your wrinkles will disappear.

As a life-experienced person (see how I did that? Avoided an ageist comment while sounding wise), I know that reasoning has a big fallacy. One assumption is not logically connected to another. You might as well say that young people only text when the moon is full. One part is not connected to another.

My classes are filled with people who know that punctuation isn’t about the writer, it’s about the reader.

Here’s an example:  “I enjoy cooking my family and pets.” Doesn’t sound like someone you want to know, does it? Add two commas and you get “I enjoy cooking, my family, and pets.” Different person? No, different punctuation.

comic_grammar

Punctuation isn’t about the writer, punctuation is about helping the reader understand what you mean. If you don’t make it clear, if you leave doubt, people will not know what you really mean. They’ll guess. They’ll make it up. And it won’t always be pretty. Or accurate.

You don’t have to waste energy dancing around other people’s assumptions. If you use punctuation, your writing will be clear without excessive explanation.

There is a corollary to life here. We waste a lot of energy in life dancing around other people’s assumptions. When people talk to me on the phone, they often assume I’m a man, because I have a gender-neutral name and an alto voice. When they see me, there is an awkward moment, which I simply ignore and move into the business at hand. I do not have to dance around with their assumption.

Many people hear my name as “Gwen,” which makes sense, as it’s a more common name than Quinn. If I hear it, I politely correct the mistake, so the other person won’t feel awkward and I’ll get my name said right. I used to dance around the issue, trying to say my name several times, or apologizing for it. Not necessary. I don’t have to make their assumptions mine. I don’t have to apologize for something that is a hearing error.

I like to dance, but not around other people’s assumptions. And I’ll keep my wrinkles and punctuation, too. I earned them.

 

How’s Your Word of the Year?

It’s already March, and time to check in on your word of the year. Do you remember it? If you don’t, consider

  • The word may not have been the best one to move you through a whole year
  • You may be avoiding the word because it calls you into action and you don’t feel up to it
  • Your inner critic wants you to use an easier word
  • You wrote it down somewhere, and it’s time to find that

If you do remember it, what have you done with the word you chose? Is it supporting you? Are you using it as a tool? Is it something you think of every day?

Do you use it in your journal? Do you use it to be creative–in your thoughts, in your music, dance, singing, parenting, idea creation?

My word was “heart,” and I think about it every day. I’m rebranding my business and re-inventing myself, and every decision is done with heart in mind. Is this what I really want? Does this feed my heart? Because if it doesn’t, I am not bringing it one step forward.

Tell me what’s happening in your world with your word.

-Quinn McDonald is realizing that she chose a really demanding word of the year.

Good Writing Blogs

If you are a writer, or a writer-hopeful, you’ll need to look at some other writing blogs and posts.

Here’s a list that should get you started in the right direction.

1. Goins, Writer has a great post on the difference between good writers and bad writers. I so love the first paragraph because I personally know how true it is.

2. K.M. Weiland is Helping Writers Become Authors. Here is her post on fixing the most common writing mistakes authors make.

3. Jane Friedman will help you with a 7-Step Business Plan for becoming a writer. One that gets work.

4. Linda Formichelli is the Renegade Writer. She helps you deal with trolls who hate what you write. Also friends who rip you to shreds.

5. Joanna Pen from the Creative Pen shows you how to write, publish and sell your book.

6. The Artist’s Road is run by Patrick Ross. He talks about living an art committed life.

That should get you started finding your way as a writer, nodding your head and smiling. And that’s what writing is about.

Quinn McDonald is a non-fiction writer who teaches writing.

The Confusing Message of “Not Giving a F**k”

We’ve worn out a lot of words in the last five years. “Awesome” used to mean “fall on your knees, drooling, in fear or amazement.” Now it ranks around “OK” (or to use the common term, “K”) or just a shrug. We’ve also bleached out the meaning of “basically,” “literally,” “absolutely,” and “good job,” usually accompanied by a high-five if said to a child under the age of six.

This image is often seen with the phrase, "this kitten does not give a f**k"

This image is often seen with the phrase, “this kitten does not give a f**k”

Watching how Americans use English is something that fascinates me (but is not “a passion” of mine–we wore out passion when we brought it into the office and substituted it for “mildly interested.”)

Culturally, we are now wearing out the F-bomb. I will freely admit to being a bit stodgy about using this word freely. It makes me uncomfortable, and I’ll confess that I didn’t use it at all until I was about 23 years old. There were two reasons:

1. For me, it was a shocking, violent word best associated with rape, darkness, and the opposite of love. (Your results may vary.) I also had to say “Cheese and rice” in the homes of my Catholic friends, instead of naming the Christian deity’s son outright.

2. The F-word was considered vulgar, and writers (particularly women writers) were encouraged to use move vivid, powerful, and vibrant words. It made for lively combinations of adjectives, adverbs and interjections. It made me an excellent collector of exciting phrases that would pass the editor’s inspection and still allow the reader to know what we meant.

We use f**k  so commonly that we have made up substitutes that are used in zappa3even the most proper corporate meeting: “freaking” came first, and sounded quite harmless, so we upped it to “fricking.” And then we just forgot about talking around it and went right for the f-word.

Note: Many of my friends use the word frequently. I do not correct them. Nor am I shocked. Loving language is more about observation than being the f**k police.

What does interest me is the adaption of the phrase “Not giving a f**k” and its best friend “Not a single f**k was given that day,” to mean two different things entirely. (Google the phrase, then click on images. NSFW).

You would think (or at least I did) that “not giving a f**k” would mean not caring, indifference,  not being involved in an outcome, having an ability to walk away from any situation.

It may mean that in some circles, but it also means being so sure of yourself that you don’t care what other people think. You are rooted firmly in your values. Now, that’s a use I find interesting.  Mark Manson described this meaning in an article on January 8, 2015. Yes, “giving a f**k” means caring, but that’s the point–he discusses why caring too much can drain your focus of what you should be caring a lot about. And on those issues we care deeply about, well, then you give a big f**k.

Here’s what Manson says: “Indeed, the ability to reserve our fucks for only the most fuckworthy of situations would surely make life a hell of a lot easier. Failure would be less terrifying. Rejection less painful.”

What all this means is that indifference breeds drama, and drama is empty of power and force. Caring about others, choosing to protect what is important to you, well, that is what we want to give a f**k about.  An interesting twist of events.

And finally, because I’m worn out from clicking on all those asterisks, here is a poem I found about living that life of deep caring, real coherence and authenticity. Without once using the f-bomb.

I found this poem on The Practical Mystic, credited to The Awakening Woman Institute.

You are the well-trodden, dusty tracks of habit
and you are a freedom so brilliant it brings
deities to their knees.

You are the hesitation and the mistrust that make us
so desperately cling to the plastic replicas of who we are,
and you are the ache of the real calling us from the other side of risk.
You are that mystical courage
that makes us get up and out of bed each morning, despite it all.

Achingly beautiful, dull, exhilarating,
horrendous, paradoxical, cosmic, dense,
dark matter and radiance beyond measure.
Here is your world.
Here it is.

You have been so busy creating walls,
squeezing your tail and your wings
into this digestible hand-me-down dress,
trying so very hard to compartmentalize the
unfathomable wilderness that you are.

There is no action, no withholding,
no sprouting or rotting,
no lover or predator,
no loser or hero,
no wound nor victory
that is not you.

Here is your world.
Here it is.

:: Chameli Devi

-–Quinn McDonald is careful what she cares about. Language is right up at the top of the list.

Warning: If you use the spelled-out f-word in your comments, the comment will automatically go to spam. I’ve been a blogger for eight years now, and that control is a comfort.

 

Creative Link Hop (Feb. 14, ’15)

Normally, I post links to paintings, photography, or street art on Saturday. But it’s Valentine’s Day, and you may be writing cards, so here are some lovely people doing caligraphy and hand-lettering.

Joanne Sharpe is a delightful teacher of hand-lettering. She never runs out of ideas. You can see her demonstrating hand-lettering here:

And here is one of her colorful journal pages:

© Joanne Z Sharpe

© Joanne Z Sharpe

Joanne Fink also does wonderful lettering. Here’s a video of her using Koi (watercolor) pens, making it look easy:

Here’s a series of hearts in her loose, doodling style.

© Joanne Finnk

© Joanne Finnk

My friend, Michael Noyes, is an amazing calligrapher. He did my first logo:

Design by Michael Noyes

Design by Michael Noyes

And he does amazing work with images combined with calligraphy.

product_220_border

I love this quote he illustrated by Henry David Thoreau. And yes, he sells his work.

The late Lisa Engelbrecht made wonderful art and was a kind and inspiring teacher.

© Lisa Engelbrecht

© Lisa Engelbrecht

She called herself a Letterista, because much of her work was new, inventive and got her in trouble with traditional calligraphers.

Laurie Doctor is a calligrapher whose work is both powerful and gentle. She’s an inspiring teacher, too. She has a series, Another Night in the Ruins, a response to a poem by Galway Kinnell.

© Laurie Doctor

© Laurie Doctor

Above is Night Vigil, a combination of writing and figurative work. She will be coming to Madeline Island School of the Arts in September (2015), but she does many workshops each year.

Go have a wonderful weekend writing wonderfully.

-Quinn McDonald is a writer who loves hand-lettering.

Words in Words

Words are an endlessly fascinating playground of letters. They help you (sometimes) keep from tripping up. There are fun shortcuts to make up or discover. Stationary means staying in one place. Stationery is writing material. Lucky that the letter kind of stationery had an E in it, just like letter does.

When I talk about the difference between there, their and they’re in class, I can point out that there is the opposite of the word here, conveniently stuck in there. Moving on, their is a word that shows ownership (their car was parked on the street) and has an ownership word in it–heir.  OK, not every example is brilliant, but it’s fun to look for one word hidden in a larger word. When one defines another, it’s even more interesting.

So there is an EAR in HEARD.

ID in INDIVIDUAL.

If you want your eyebrows to rise in surprise and wonder if that was intentional, there is a GRIN in GRIND and BRA in VIBRATE. And, of course, there is WANT in WANTON.

Snark lurks in words-in-words, too. There is MENTAL in FUNDAMENTALIST and RED in CREDIT and IRK in QUIRK and GIN in ENGINEER.

Some may just be a spelling tip. So there is VERY in EVERYTHING, TAG in HERITAGE, TIP in MULTIPLY and RATION in INSPIRATION.

Now that you know, you’ll see small words in bigger words and smile while you are reading. There is SIN in EASINESS, but it doesn’t mean you have to give it up.

Quinn McDonald has fun with words.

Re-Invention and Updating

Re-inventing yourself is another way of saying you are deliberately making a decision to grow. It’s a sore point for some. “I like you the way you are,” is a powerful threat, particularly from those who love you. We all know people who still have the same hairstyle, clothes, and beliefs they did in Middle School.

Tough seedpods protect small seeds.

Tough seedpods protect small seeds.

Nothing against loyalty, but often we outgrow that look, those ideas, and even the dreams we had. In fact, we should. We should allow dreams to grow up, too.

Growth includes overcoming resistance, from the seed breaking out of the shell to the flower breaking out of a bud. Friends and family can be despicably  mean in the face of your growth, but it is your growth. If they don’t want to come along, they will make that decision for themselves.

In about six weeks, I will have a new website, and after seven years of having a website and a separate blog, the blog will move over to the website. When that day comes, I’ll lose all my readers who don’t come over and sign up again. I will have to ask people to change with me.

It was never my idea to track my readers, except if they choose to comment. You can sign up or delete the RSS feed to my blog and I’ll never know. Readers have always had the freedom to come and go.

The good news is, it is still in your control to read my blog (or not).

Fencepost cactus flower photographed with iPhone, no flash. Illumination with flashlight. © Quinn McDonald 2014

Fencepost cactus flower © Quinn McDonald 2014

The bad news is, you will have to re-sign up on the new website. It’s not ready yet, and I’ll give you plenty of warning when it is. This blog will stay up for a while after the switch, but no new posts will be added. Some of the old posts will be moved and all new posts will be on the new website.

Another change is the tagline. For years, it has been “tips, slips, stumbles and leaps on the creative journey.”  While creativity is a huge part of my life, my website will concentrate on writing, teaching and coaching.

The writing focus comes in two parts: corporate training and online training. I’ve been a corporate trainer for 20 years, but never talked about it much–some of my clients have non-disclosure clauses, and it was easier to be quiet about all of them. I’d like to welcome more corporate writing-training clients. I have a killer one- and two-day course on business writing. In person. Grammar, punctuation and syntax with lots of exercises and lots of personal attention. I don’t know how to teach without customizing my class to the specific participants.

I will also welcome invitations to teach writing to retreats and small groups. For retreats, I will be concentrating on the healing, growth-inspiring aspects of writing. Most of it will come from the exercises I’m developing for the new book. [Working title: Write Yourself Whole.]

I have two suggestions for a new tagline:

1. QuinnCreative: Be understood.  Everyone, especially writers, wants to be understood. Having the audience understand your writing and message is just as important as the deep personal need to have your values understood. Corporate clients need their teams, departments, sales reps and speeches to be understood. That tagline has both an emotional and a benefit appeal.

2. QuinnCreative: Clarity starts here. Most corporate writers think that jargon makes them powerful, when it weakens the message. Crisp, short, focused writing delivers a message that everyone can grasp and use. I teach a kind of writing that sucks out the bloated, vague words and concentrates on speedy verbs and muscular nouns to get the job done. That tagline fills a tool-using benefit.

Opinions, please: which would offer you more–the real you, not second-guessing what a corporation would prefer.

QuinnMcDonald hopes she never gets tired of change.