Category Archives: The Writing Life

The Grant that Wasn’t

This past January, I applied for a small grant to work with veterans, helping them come to grips with their lives through journaling. The exercises were going to be from the book I’m writing, Write Yourself Whole.

Writing a grant is an art and a science, one with which I have little experience. A kind person who had recommended that I apply read my drafts and made suggestions. It was helpful.

This flower is persistent, climbing up a fence every spring. I love this backlit vision.

This flower is persistent, climbing up a fence every spring. I love this backlit vision.

Today was the day Kosmos Journal announced the receivers of the grants. I did not receive one. I am not disappointed. Yes, of course I would have loved to be a winner, but I do not feel like a loser. I worked hard on the proposal, I was proud of the idea, and that brought a great deal of satisfaction. After the application was sent in, I had a feeling of non-attachment. I did not mark the announcement day in my calendar.

The winners were organizations with a lot of experience in community work and activism. A lot of good will come from these projects. People will be helped. How can I not be thrilled for all the help being offered?

I do not believe in “this was meant to be,” predestination, or the phrase, “This is all part of God’s plan.” I’m not good at sitting around waiting for a deity to take care of me.

I’m glad I applied. The work I am doing will continue. Nothing is lost. One of the things I have learned over my life is that resilience is an important component of creativity. Mistakes, loss, missing the mark, failing–all are part of a rich life, deeply explored. They don’t always feel good, but they always teach us something–even if it is the energy to get up again and try again.

-Quinn McDonald has a lot of work to do. New plans are already in the works.

 

 

Starting Over

freshpaintsigncroped

The gallery is in Yarmouthport, Massachusetts

Starting over. Starting fresh. It sounds like a new coat of paint over a tired life. The messy slate of the past is wiped clean, and ahead is a shiny new start. We can put on a new face, a new attitude, a new effort. It seems like we can create a whole new identity with as little effort as a new website.

Soon enough, that new effort is overwhelmed by the old ideas, old habits, old behavior–the old us. Alcoholics Anonymous figured this out years ago when they said, “If you are a drunk in Cleveland, moving to Peoria for a fresh start isn’t the answer. You’ll be a drunk in Peoria, too.” It’s a wise saying, although a tough one. (AA never pretended to have easy answers.)

When I went to Catholic school (I’m not a Catholic, but that’s another story), I loved seeing my friends go to confession. They’d say their prayers and their sins were wiped away. Poof! Just like that, they were brand new and sin free. Unfortunately, the old habits didn’t vanish, and my guess is that the same sins got repeated in the confessional time after time. And since there were different priests, no one really noticed or cared, and little personal growth resulted.

Teresa Jennings Robinson read this post and sent me the gorgeous hand-lettered quote she made for her art journal. See more of her work at rightbrainplanner.com

Teresa Jennings Robinson read this post and sent me the gorgeous hand-lettered quote she made for her art journal. See more of her work at rightbrainplanner.com

And that’s the danger of new projects. They seem free of the past baggage, but they are not free of us. We show up with our past, and relive it because it’s familiar. In a few days that new project takes on the fingerprints of the old us. If we don’t like the old us, we’ll hate the new project, too.

I have friends who are start-up junkies. Addicted to new beginnings, these eager people will start up a company with the fervor of Ron Popeil selling the Veg-O-Matic. But they aren’t good at running a company, which seems tedious and boring, so they dash off to do another start-up, leaving the clean-up team to handle the rest.

Any beginning feels like the creative part. And it is. But the road-test of creativity is showing up every day to do the hard work. The book I am writing is hard work. It’s satisfying, and I enjoy it, but it’s not riding rainbow unicorns. It involves saying “I can’t go to the movies with you, I’m writing,” or thinking, “I need to re-write this chapter, it’s not working, even if it is the fourth re-write.”

Creative work is hard. We want to give up, we get bored,  we want to do something fun and new. Yet what gets the work done is moving steadily ahead, when it’s not fun and not new.  Learning from your mistakes and getting up every time you fall is what the real work of creativity. And it pays off.

—Quinn McDonald is working on a re-write of a trio of chapters. She has done it before, and she may well do it again.

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.