Collaboration Works (Sometimes)

One way of getting lots of buckets to the fire. Two guys, lots of heavy lifting.

One way of getting lots of buckets to the fire. Two guys, lots of heavy lifting.

Collaboration has never been a word I’ve liked. For me, it’s a word rooted in the history of World War II–the French traitors collaborating with the Germans. In today’s business world, it means working as a team, and the rules vary from company to company. It’s become a jargon word, and the sloppy definition is that two heads are always better than one, that crowd sourcing always results in the best method or answer, and that (groan) every idea is of equal value, so producing more ideas is the best solution in itself.

Today, I experienced real collaboration, and it was fresh, crisp and bright. I’m falling into the rhythm of the photo shoot–I produce the images for the book, Amy takes notes, Christine photographs.

We came to a thorny spot where three steps needed to be done at once. I’d brought a template, and I explained to Amy what I needed to do, so she could see the big picture. Amy had a solution she thought might work better. Christine understood it and agreed. I didn’t get it and looked doubtful. The Inner Critic, who had been playing with spilled ink in the corner, showed up and sat on my shoulder. “They are trying to take over your book,” he mentioned sweetly. “Tell ’em it’s your book and you are going to do it your way.” Familiar feelings of not-enough-control, not having the best idea washed over me. I let them. I didn’t fight them.

Another way of getting a lot of buckets to a fire. One person, one bucket, repeat.

Another way of getting a lot of buckets to a fire. One person, one bucket, repeat.

“What else you got?” I asked the Inner Critic. “You’ll lose con-troooolll” the Inner Critic crooned, sensing an old fear of mine.

It was tempting, but I looked at Amy. “I just get the edge of what you are saying,” I said, “explain it again in a different way, I’m almost there.” By asking for another explanation, for more help (instead of less), I could get more information before I decided it was more control I needed. Christine stepped forward, pushed three pieces around on the photo table, and snapped a picture. She showed it to me in the viewfinder.

And then I got it. Through Amy’s words and Christine’s picture, I could see the solution, not as I wanted it, but as the reader would see–and understood–it. The  beauty of their solution was obvious. It could work. It would make it easier for the reader, clearer, simpler.  It did the same for me, too.

Here’s what I learned: Collaboration is not always caving in to what someone else wants. It can also be a way of understanding a new idea and a way of connecting one idea to another for a simpler solution. When that happens, collaboration works.

Quinn McDonald is learning about her book at the photo-shoot this week.


Collaboration and Group Think: Stand and Work

The big pendulum of business fads is starting the long slow swing away from cubicles. Before you stand up and cheer, I should mention the swing is not back to private offices. Nope. The swing is to no-walls, few desks, and lots of collaboration.

“Key West” stand-up writing desk by

There are also stand-up desks and fewer chairs, so people will have to stand more. That, of course, is an over-reaction to the bad health effects of sitting all day. But standing all day isn’t good for you either, according to Cornell University’s Human Factors and Ergonomics research:

Standing to work has long known to be problematic, it is more tiring, it dramatically increases the risks of carotid atherosclerosis (ninefold) because of the additional load on the circulatory system, and it also increases the risks of varicose veins, so standing all day is unhealthy.

The stand-up/sit-down controversy will take care of itself–I don’t think anyone wants to stand all day.
What concerns me a lot more is the constant drive toward open-workspace-as-creativity booster. I just don’t believe it. In an article called  The Death of the Cubicle–and the Killers are Collaboration and Innovation on,  Dr. John Sullivan says about less privacy and more creativity:

Obviously without partitions separating employees, there will be less privacy, more noise, and constant interruptions. And that is exactly why cubicles are dying because the increased number of interruptions builds collaboration and sharing, which in turn increases innovation. . .

I’m clearly the wrong demographic, but “increased number of interruptions” would not build collaboration and sharing and innovation in my way of thinking, it would  interrupt my train of thought, my slow processing of information, and my ability to think. I would be less inclined to collaborate and more inclined to  take a water-soaker to work to keep people at bay.

Personally, I’ll agree with Picasso who said, Picasso: “Without great solitude no serious work is possible.” (Read more quotes from famous people on the benefits of solitude.)

Charlton Heston plays a galley slave in the 1959 movie Ben Hur.

Dr. Sullivan swoons with joy at the new workspace which he describes as “Imagine if you lined up simple tables (that are no more than 36 inches deep) end to end with nothing separating you from the employees next to you or in front of you.” Doesn’t this sound like oddly like the old ships where the forced-labor galley slaves sat lined up on simple benches with nothing separating them but an oar?

What this really fosters is Groupthink–a belief that the best ideas come from a team or group, rather than in individual. Children already sit and work in groups at tables in grades school, and 70 percent of American offices are already open-work spaces. Group compliance is praised, peer-pressure is a powerful compliance tool, and, sadly, in this cluster environment, all ideas are considered equally valid.

You might want to remember that Isaac Newton was not on the patio chatting up

Isaac Newton and the apple from

his pals and playing fusball when the apple fell on his head, he was alone under the apple tree.

I’ve had this quote pinned to the wall for a long time:

“Most inventors and engineers I’ve met are like me … they live in their heads. They’re almost like artists. In fact, the very best of them are artists. And artists work best alone …. I’m going to give you some advice that might be hard to take. That advice is: Work alone… Not on a committee. Not on a team.”

Which sad loner said this? No, no, not the unabomber, but the man quietly inventing the magic that Steve Jobs fronted with great panache—the quote is from Steve Wozniak, who invented the personal computer.

The only thing that open-office, lots of interruptions, everyone sitting within arm’s length spreads is colds and flu. Ideas can certainly be half-baked in a team environment, and spurred on with group brainstorming,  but the serious work of thinking is done best in solitude.

-Quinn Mcdonald works in solitude. She’s an every-day creative writing another book.

Paper Stacks: Origins of Raw Art Journaling

Journals, hand-made and purchased, from my studio.© Quinn McDonald

Over at Altered Pages, Seth Apter had a great idea: On September 21, 2011, post your stack of journals, handmade journals, artwork–whatever you stack up in your studio. An inveterate piler, I loved this idea. Things filed neatly away disappear from my memory, but a good stack of journals and papers is a searchable treasure. Check his website today for a list of links to participating artists and their stacks.

In my stack (above, a fraction of what’s in the studio), is a copy of my book, Raw Art Journaling: Making Meaning, Making Art. I included it because it had its origins in stacks of work. And so did the name. Raw art is the work you do with your hands and heart. It might be outsider art, if you consider Jean Dubuffet’s definition of outsider art: “Dubuffet’s concept of Art Brut. . . was of works that were in their “raw” state, uncooked by cultural and artistic influences.” When we make art that delights us and helps us understand our lives, our journey, ourselves in our culture–that art is raw art. Full of raw emotion, alive with raw meaning. It is not art made to suit an audience, it is not perfection assembled from a kit. It is made with emotion, wonder and discovery.

After years of teaching collage, art journaling, card making, I had stacks of work

Same stack, different angle.

in the studio. Sifting through it, I found small treasures, pieces of experiments, scraps of memory that I could feel over again, pieces that were precious to me because they represented a flash of understanding of who I am and what I was called to do. The beginning of raw art is discovery, the middle is understanding. There is no end.

Please join me at Antigone Books,  411 N. 4th Ave. in Tucson at 7:00 p.m. on Friday, September 23rd for an informal talk, making a permission slip and book signing. Bring your colored pencils and questions about Raw Art.

–Quinn McDonald hopes to see you at Antigone books on Friday evening.

Artist Double Date

What was your last artist date? Better still, when was your last artist date? Those days off to play are easy to push aside, to ignore, to pretend there is no time. An artist date is a way to re-fill the well of creativity. Your creative abilities are not a tube of toothpaste that can be squeezed forever. That’s the reason you left the corporate world, remember? Because you couldn’t produce your best every day with no time off?


Sharing art supplies with a friend is a great artist date.


Having trouble keeping your artist date is the perfect reason to bring someone else into the mix. An artist double date–invite someone to come over and play. When I need to explore, I ask my friend Rosaland over. She’s fearless, she encourages exploration and she is in a completely different art than I am. She’s an art quilter. Her interests range into mixed media. I’m a raw-art journaler–my art combines writing and art in non-traditional journals. Occasionally I reach into mixed media. That small sliver of overlap is enough. Rosaland and my art supplies are different. She’ll bring over something she uses, I bring out something I use, and we combine. We have no agenda, no project to complete. We try out stuff. We play in the world of “I don’t know.” Because neither one of us has an agenda, we can veer toward a result that needs exploration or away from a project that isn’t working. That kind of free-form play is unstructured, fun, and without rules. A creative person’s biggest joy–to discover new results without having to produces a product that’s good enough to sell.

When you are on your own, what starts as time off becomes a deadline and goal to produce. Add a friend and laughter comes in the door. When Rosaland comes over, we generally start with a question, but if we don’t answer it, that’s OK, too. The only goal is trying different ideas. And laughing. Rosaland is calm and wise and has a perspective completely different from mine. This is a treat, not a threat.  We keep asking each other questions, and if one of us has an answer, we both know. Sharing information is part of the artist double date’s purpose. The ability to collaborate, share and relax works better with two people.

If you are an introvert, I suggest you set a time limit and decide what you will do ahead of time to reduce your anxiety. I’m an introvert, but working with Rosaland is not exhausting. It’s fun.

Try inviting someone you enjoy to share your next artist date with you. See if your brain doesn’t thank you for it.

Quinn McDonald is an artist and writer. Her book, Raw-Art Journaling: Making Meaning, Making Art is being published by North Light books next June.

SPARK Collaboration for Writers, Photographers

Amy Souza runs the blog SPARK. It’s a creative jump start for collaborations between writers and artists. Souza says, ” Writers send artists a story or poem, and artists send writers an image of their painting, photograph, or sculpture. During the 10-day project period, each person uses their partner’s piece as a jumping off point for new work of their own.”

The goal is simply to give writers and artists a challenge, a new way of looking at the world and their work, and a chance to inspire another creative soul.” The project runs four times a year, and you can sign up any time.

The project continues each month and new examples go up. (See the most recent contest.)  My friend Lin Jorgensen participated in this imaginative exchange with Louisa Di Pietro.  Lin’s poem is below.

Lullabies for a Rainy House

I wouldn’t leave my house
Though the roof, unmended
For decades, sent rain seeping
Down through the walls
To meet water seeping
Up through broken pipes.

I stayed when the walls lifted
Away from floorboards
That sank, gaping.
With hell close underfoot
I stumbled tilting from
Room to room, amazed by
This decaying ark
Covered by a tattered tarp
Always damp and mostly dark
That I called home

Until, fifty years standing,
Thirty of them mine
Through ice and rainstorm
The elm tree let go

A quarter-ton bouquet
A rude awakening
A roaring boom across
The bow of the roof
Twelve feet from my bed
Shook the house
And ran my ark aground.
I knew it was bad before
I saw it: We’re sunk
I whispered to the cats.
It’ll never stop raining now.

The dog and I blinked
Through 3 a.m. murk
At a huge limb leaning
The length of the roof
Balanced on a single eave,
The crushing weight scarcely
Piercing a little room
I thought might be spared.
But already rain swept in. Soon
Every surface would I knew
Brimming, buckling, fall asunder

No more praying the elm
Tossing above in ice or rain
Stands fast until the morning.
Free from all hope, but things
Could always be worse!
That’s what we always said.
That’s boats for you. That’s
Staying afloat. That’s being
An elm tree, that’s living
Under one!  The dog and I
Crept back inside, weary from
Staring at the damage.

The worst had come and
It staggered, it beggared, it
Knocked all the wind out
And made me long for shelter

So I took what I could of the garden
And a slice of the elm and moved house.
New people bought my ark, razed it.
Built clean over my streaming sadness.
Cut down the elm.  I could never go back.
It’s safe here. The worst is over.
But comes a strong rain, I swear
A blue tarp frays and flaps like sails
I hear the steady hiss of hidden water
Leaking soaking sinking and
The elm tosses fifty feet above
Us, quaking, praying for morning.

Our old lullabies wake us:
The little cats keep close, the dog eyes
My face, then the window, and sighs.
We grow still, comforted, waiting for
The crack of doom together. Trusting
The ark of sleep to carry us home

—Lin Jorgensen

The 1000 Journals Project

The Phoenix Art Museum was host to the 1,000 Journals Project. Today, the museum ran a documentary about the project, with commentary afterward by the documentary filmmaker, Andrea Kreuzhage.

the 1000 journal project is a book and a DVD

the 1000 journal project is a book and a DVD

Here’s the story: In June of 2000, a graphic designer, known in this project as Someguy, had an idea for a collaborative art project. He would distribute 1,000 blank journals, allow people to fill them in any way they wanted to, and return them to him. Read the rest of the review of the book and documentary.

Read about the 1000 journal project.

See if the film will be shown at a location near you.

Quinn McDonald is a life- and creativity coach and journal keeper.