Want a Critique? Don’t Ask Your Creativity Coach

Yes, I’m your coach.

No, I won’t comment on your creative work.

This is hard to understand, because I am not only your coach, I’m your creativity coach. There are several reasons, so let’s get the one you most suspect out of the way:

1.  It doesn’t matter what I think. What if I tell you your creative project is horrible and I don’t like it? Will it destroy you? Why? Because one person doesn’t like it? What if I say it’s wonderful? Will my opinion validate you? What if I tell you it’s wonderful and then it doesn’t sell? Does that make me wrong? Does it make you wrong? Will you quit doing your creative work? That’s the worst choice. So my opinion doesn’t matter. Not about the meaning-making of your work.

2. You are paying me to coach you. Critiquing is a different service. Most clients think that once they’ve hired me as a coach, I can provide many services–adviser, researcher, conscience, authority-figure-to-fight-with, editor, marketer, problem-solver, and idea-provider. I can, but I probably won’t.  As your coach, my major service is to keep you in action in service to your own creativity. To give you a clear place to take a stand. To let you discover who you are and what your purpose in life is. I don’t give advice. It’s a bad idea. It gives you the idea that I’m responsible for your decisions, when I am not. You came to me because you were stuck in one place. Discovering your next move is your work, and I support you in that. I will toss out ideas for you to consider, but they aren’t advice. They are generally perspectives you can’t imagine yourself, but you will.

Yes, I provide marketing communication, editing, writing, problem-solving and idea-providing to businesses. And I charge them for it. All those services are separate, and my non-coaching clients pay for them.

3. I’m a coach, who understands the slippery work of creativity. I know about the danger of discouragement and the spike of “making it” and the long stretch of creative fear in the middle. I’m not an art/music/film/fashion expert. If fashion listened to me, there would be no 5-inch spike heels, none of those silly platform stilettos without heels, and none of those ankle boots that make women look as if they had ahoof instead of a foot. There are many things that work well, and become hugely popular, even if I don’t understand them or think they would be financially successful.

4. Writing is not about getting published. This is the hardest to understand. I am a writer. And writing is not about getting published. Writing is about writing. A born writer won’t quit, even if I tell them their story stinks. That’s how I know they are writers. Writers want to say something, even if no one listens. Being a writer is a struggle, and that’s the part I’m supporting and making accountable. The rest is details.

5. Because you need to build confidence, not gather encouragement. That’s the heart of the reason. You hired a coach to be able to create a change, work through change, live with change. Or learn why you can’t and live with that. There is a difference between what makes meaning and what will sell, and both have merits. That’s your work. I can’t do it for you. All the stories, the examples, the agreement in the world won’t amount to anything if you don’t do the work. Ah, and that’s the horrible truth. . .I won’t do your work. I can’t do your work. Doing your work is how creative people succeed and live their lives. It’s all about you. And I know that.

Quinn McDonald is a life- and creativity coach who helps people through change, re-invention and transition. Her book Raw Art Journaling, Making Meaning, Making Art has made it to the #1 slot on amazon.com’s Mixed Media division and #3 in Creativity.

Read much, believe little

I am broken, need fixing, I’m dumb. Or not. I’m a blog omnivore, so I read a lot of advice, thoughts, and beliefs of other writers and artists. And it’s a wide range.

The last two days, I’ve been reading about other people’s success stories about blogging and book promoting. (I have a tendency to read about what’s on my plate). Interesting what happens in my brain (maybe yours, too) when we read something new that we don’t agree with. We believe the other person. Particularly if we don’t know them. Because no matter what our experience is, surely the other person is smarter, richer, wiser, and a better human being.

I’m amazed at my own gullibility. “Content is no longer king,” says one blogger, and I gobble up his article, afraid that one of my basic truths has vanished. “The reader is king!” he proudly proclaims, “content doesn’t really matter.” Oh. And what is King Reader reading? Content. And why will King Reader read the content? Because it is interesting to King Reader. So, finish the circle, content is still king.

“If you are still doing book signings, you are over 60 and a dinosaur,” says another blogger. Her idea is that everything is virtual, and social networking sells books. I don’t think so. I’m pretty sure people buy books for lots of reasons, and a good reason is to meet the person who wrote it and talk to them in real life, if they are available. And that means I want to make myself available. Because people who are satisfied tell others. (Not as many as people who are unsatisfied, which is motivation enough.) But can’t I do both? I’m planning a virtual blog tour and a real event tour. (Signings are fine, but making art is more fun, so I’m doing art-making signings.)

Before you believe everything you read (I call this “the last person I talked to is an expert syndrome”) run it through your value-meter. I’ve been writing for a long time, and content matters. If an article is cheap starchy filler, I leave faster than a barefoot pedestrian crosses a freshly-tarred street.

My value-meter knows that meeting people face to face and hearing their stories is what made me write my book in the first place. I heard so many people say, “I’m not creative, I can’t draw,” while hungering for some meaning in their lives, it was impossible for me not to write the book.

Of course, I also learn a lot from reading blogs. And not just facts or behavior-shifts that I already believe in. I’m happy to explore new ideas, and I’m a big fan of change. But change for change’s sake rarely sticks. Change is fueled by current failure, pain, or general misery. That’s what makes change possible–what we are doing now isn’t working. What works for someone else might not work for me. And if it doesn’t match what I know to be true from my own life, it’s probably not true for me. My life is a big circle, and I invite a lot of people in. But it doesn’t mean I have to follow their advice.

Quinn McDonald is a writer, life- and creativity coach whose coaching practice is based on working with deeply-held values and, well, change.

The Danger of “Should”

It’s been a hectic few days. Things are not going as planned. It’s been up and down. Clients are changing dates, appointments are piling up. Friends are “helping” by saying obvious things with great authority.

DC arboretum wallAs I get grumpy, I start to add “should” to my vocabulary more and more. “I should have seen that coming.” “I should have not booked so many appointments into one day.” “I should have been more assertive.” The list goes on and on. Often, friends add to the “should” list. These shoulds fall into two categories–things that are blindingly obvious that I’ve done weeks ago or thing they wouldn’t take on themselves but will ask others to do.

In the first category, I hear, “Having trouble with that new CD player? You should read the directions first.” “Have you checked your air conditioning filter? You should do that every month, on the 1st or 15th.” That gets a secret smile. If I did all the thing I was supposed to do on the 1st or 15th of the month, I’d have to take two vacation days a month to get them done. I can store that list right next to all the original boxes I “should” keep to return defective appliances.

In the second category, I hear, “Have you gotten the check from the client yet? You should call the CEO and tell him you are going to sit in his office till he hands over the check.” This from someone who hasn’t confronted a client in 10 years. Or, “The loaf of bread grew mold? You should threaten to sue and then take a big cash settlement,” from someone who has no idea of the time, money and effort it takes to work with a lawyer.  It’s a head-shaker.

“Should” is a dangerous word. Slippery. Demanding. Posturing. It turns empathy into passive-aggressive pushing and motivation into negative self-talk. Someone once said, “Stop should-ing all over yourself.” And it was Yoda who wisely counceled, “Do or don’t do. But don’t ‘try’.” The best view of all.

—Quinn McDonald is a writer and certified creativity coach. See her work at QuinnCreative.com Image: DC arboretum wall, photograph by Quinn McDonald. (c) 2008-9 All rights reserved.

The Problem With “Fixing”

We are so helpful. We have to keep things perfect. When things aren’t perfect, even if that happens in someone else’s life–we have to fix it.

You don't need a toolbox to help

You don't need a toolbox to help

My husband slipped on the kitchen floor a few days ago and crashed into the kitchen island. He will have to have surgery and an immobilized arm for a while. Life for us will be significantly different for a few months. We will have to make work adjustments. He will have to ask for help. I have to drive him everywhere, pick up his chores and do them along with mine. I won’t be cheery all the time, and I’m sure there are frantic days ahead. My focus is to be mindful, balance humor and despair, and know it’s OK to harbor murderous fantasies as long as I don’t act on them.

As people hear about this, I will inevitably hear  a lot of “fixing” advice. Sure, people say the first thing that comes to mind. It’s almost as if they need to create a space between misfortune and themselves. But I’ve gathered a few things people say from some other incidents in my life–the other rotator cuff of ’04, the fire of ’02, my mom’s death in ’03–and I’d like to pass on what sounds like “fixing” –things you think would fix the problem.

I notice that they are not necessarily things people actually do, but things that sound good.  The next time you get ready to “help” someone by using one of these phrases, re-think it. Most likely you don’t know all the financial, emotional, or work circumstances involved. And a “fix” generally is a big-picture idea that has small-detail consequences that are hard to apply.

“I had the same thing happen to me two years ago. . .” This isn’t about you, and telling that story is not helpful to the person you are telling it to.

“Well, what can you expect if you run in bare feet?” Thank you, Obviousman. What do you expect for an answer?

“It could have been worse. . .” What, this isn’t bad enough for you? When a dominant arm is strapped to your side, you need help in the most interesting ways. That’s plenty bad for me, thanks.

“Here’s what you should do. . .” You don’t know this person well enough to take over responsibility for their decision-making, even if it’s your sister.

“Just hire someone to do the yard and house work. . .” Unless you are offering to pay for these services, don’t suggest it. Most freelancers, if they have medical insurance, have a giant deductible that has to be paid out of pocket before the insurance kicks in.

“You’re so lucky that it wasn’t worse. . .” Lucky is winning the lottery. If that didn’t happen, don’t use the word ‘lucky.’

“It’s all God’s will . . .” Stop blaming higher powers for dumb accidents. Accidents are called that because no one wanted them to happen and they don’t have a lot of purpose. I’m with the Buddhists on this–stop trying to get ground under your feet and deal with the uncertainty that is.

“Really, some good will come from all this. . .” Unless you are personally going to make something fabulous happen, skip this one. Some things are just rotten, and getting through them is rotten. And it still has to be done. Self-discipline is a virtue you hate to practice.

“I’m not married and I have to do all the work all the time. Be glad you have a husband.” Sigh. It’s still not about you. When you are married it’s more than twice the work to take over the spouse’s chores. When you live by yourself, there is less laundry, less food (and you can eat over the sink), and half the people to make the mess in a smaller place.

So what is a good way to help? Be empathetic. You don’t need to fix this. Just witness it. A witness sees and notices but doesn’t turn into Dear Abby. If you offer help, expect it to be taken and be ready to give it cheerfully and without payback. You don’t have to offer help, either. You can say something like, “What a rotten break. I’m so sorry, ” or “I hate it along with you.” Empathy glides over bumps while advice has a nail in the tire.

If you do offer help, give a hint what kind you are willing to offer. Because if you ask “What can I do?” and your friend says, “Clean my house and drive him around on Tuesdays,” you’ll probably turn her down. If you say, “Can I bring you my clam and watermelon casserole?” you’ll get a polite turn-down and won’t have to offer anything else.

Being a witness is all that it takes to nourish a friendship. You don’t have to be a healer or a fixer.

–Quinn McDonald is a writer, life- and creativity coach. She has a business website at QuinnCreative.com and an art website at raw-art-journals.com