Starting Over


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

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

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.

Letting Go of 2014

It doesn’t matter if it was a great year or a tough year. Probably some of both. Either way, in a week it will be 2015. And you can choose what to take with you and what to leave behind. Yes, you can. This is not up to your partner, or your parents, or what happened in 1974. It’s your choice.

Screen Shot 2014-12-25 at 11.34.12 PMLetting go means not dragging the worry and tension with you into a new year. Letting go means exhaling and waiting to pull in new air into your life and lungs.

Letting goes means leaving behind. Things that aren’t useful. Things that drag you down. Things that hold you back.

You get to choose priorities. You get to name what it important to you. No one can decide for you. You can’t claim it is important and then turn your back on it. Then it wasn’t important enough.

One year from now, you will not remember if you started the year with clean floors, dusted furniture, or a put-away tree. But you will remember your creative work. The work that expressed who you choose to be. The creative urge you followed that made 2015 different from 2014.

Start to let go of what isn’t make you eager, alive, wonderful and awake. You have a bit less than one week.

–Quinn McDonald is starting to let go.



Get It Done: Book Review (and a Giveaway)

What better day than Valentine’s Day to love yourself enough to give yourself the creative help you need to finish your work? Creative people are wired differently and see the world a bit differently–but the one thing they have in common with every other person is a lack of time to work on projects that are due, projects that sound like fun, and projects that need to be explored.

SamRt443-199x300Sam Bennett created the Organized Artist Company and she wrote a book that is part coaching, part time management, and part kick in the butt. Get It Done, from Procrastination to Creative Genius in 15 Minutes a Day is a book with suggestions, how-tos, and clever ideas to help anyone (but especially artists) choose their work, get their work done in a time frame (by working 15 concentrated minutes a day), and complete their work.

Here’s are some chapter titles:

  • Procrastination is Genius in Disguise
  • Which of Your 37 Projects to Tackle First
  • Overcoming Perfectionism
  • How to Do Your Could-Do List
  • Where Will You Find the Time?
  • Organizing Your Space
  • Why Is It So Awful When Everyone Thinks You are So Wonderful?
  • Do You Quit When You’re Almost Done?

When you read Bennett’s book, you know she is an artist, has been in your shoes, and can teach you how to dance in them–backwards–to success. Her worksheets are realistic, her steps doable and her process powerful.

sambennett-412fab8b-eff5-4bda-bf24-8f7aa46f6602-v2The book is a fast read but one you will want to concentrate on to overcome perfectionism and the destructive procrastination that goes hand-in-hand with it. She’s knows art is important to culture, supports the necessity for excellent work, but won’t let you ruin your success with senselessly chasing perfection.

It’s 204 pages that are packed with good advice, success stories, and real help.

Giveaway: I’ll be giving away this copy. so leave a comment for a chance to win. The drawing will be random. And the winner will be announced on Monday’s blog. Stop by and see if you were the lucky one!

Disclosure: The book was sent to me for review from New World Library. I did not purchase the book I read. However, I did purchase one after I read it, as I’m giving away the original.

Quinn McDonald is a creativity coach who will be using some of the ideas in this book in combination with the ideas in The Inner Hero Creative Art Journal.

Sharing the Fig Tree

In July, the figs on the tree ripen. Finches, starlings, doves, woodpeckers, and grackles feed on the figs. For years, I fought them off. Now I’ve come to accept them. The birds need the figs because it’s a source of food and water when the heat destroys other food sources.

figsripeEarly in the morning, while the birds are feasting on figs, I hose down the walkway and scrub the ruined fruit off the cement. By noon the fig hulls will be as dry and hard as walnuts and the seeds will be stuck to the cement.

Now that I’ve accepted sharing as part of having a tree in my yard, I also gather  figs from the tree and make jam. I can’t eat the jam, but it’s wonderful to see others enjoy it. Same with the figs. There is enough for both uses

And both uses require work. Watering the tree, fertilizing it, trimming it. Picking up the fig leftovers, scrubbing the sidewalk. Gathering the figs, washing them, cleaning them, cutting, cutting and bottling them. It’s work with a purpose.

We expect trees to be work. We expect food to be work. But somehow, when it comes to our creative work, we think of it as play. And are surprised when it takes work to nurture it, maintain it, and yes, reap the benefits. Creativity is somehow supposed to be immune from the focus, goals and results of the rest of our lives. It’s supposed to be fun and ephemeral. Most of the time, creativity is hard work, but satisfying work. And, like ripening figs, sweet and worth it.

—Quinn McDonald is a naturalist and teacher. Join her in Madeline Island on July 22-26 for a deep writing and intuitive art class. Or in Phoenix on July 13 for a class on Monsoon Papers and accordion folders.

Seed-Pod Creativity

In Arizona, we are entering the Season of Seeking Shade. Oranges stop growing, figs dry on the branches, birds sit in the tiniest patches of shades, beak open.

Seed pods ready for threshing

Seed pods ready for threshing

But there is another fascinating process that unfolds in the heat. Native trees produce seed pods. Most of them are hard and protective–understandable, soft seeds would wither and dry up in hours.

Nothing rots here; it’s too dry. Leaves that drop, branches that blow down, rot in weeks on the East Coast. Not so here. You’ll find them years later, just where they fell. They will be the bones of trees, bleached and stiff, but not rotting.

In order for seed pods to free the seeds, they need a threshing machine. Well, something to break open the pods so the seeds can drop to the dirt and wait for rain, or birds, or coyotes. Unless those pods break open, the seed can’t put out roots.

The lucky trees are the ones planted close to sidewalks and roads. The pods fall, we stomp or drive over them, the pods are crushed, the seeds released and ready to be washed into a gully by a Monsoon Rain.

I was crunching over pods yesterday, loving the hollow, rattly sound the seeds make in the pods, when I thought how this is creative work. Well, it is like creative work. You have an idea, but it’s not ready to work, to grow, to connect with other ideas. You create an idea-pod, but you hoard it. Nothing happens.

Then you drop it and other people walk over it, kick it aside, roll over it, and suddenly, you can see it in a fresh new light, ready to grow. And that’s when you see that letting it go, not forcing it, was what it took to break out into a project that you can do. You had to let it go to make it work.

—Quinn McDonald is a naturalist for whom everything is grist for the mill.


Behavior Modification for the Creative Soul

When you hear “behavior modification” it often seems to be a negative way to get a positive result–stop eating what you love, stop doing some behavior that has become a comforting habit.

The trouble with empty calories is that they are fun and taste good.

The trouble with empty calories is that they are fun and taste good.

I was journaling last night and had a big “Aha!” moment. Two, in fact. One was about the way I’m changing my relationship with food. I’ve finally crossed over from anger and resentment to experimenting with new foods and old foods in different ways. And liking it. (Well, that took only seven months). Yes, I still miss cookies and chocolate and all the things my sweet tooth loved, but it’s been replaced by a satisfaction that I am managing to stay on track. Mostly.

Here’s the more important thing–behavior modification also works with creativity. But you have to look at it in a different way. It’s not stopping what you love doing. It’s doing what you love already in a more supportive way.

It’s easy to want to start 50 projects–pile up your creative plate with the creative equivalent of cookies and cakes–work that tastes delicious, gives you a rush of joy, but doesn’t lead anywhere. It can be loading yourself up with every project you saw in the latest magazine, instead of focusing on one project that supports your creativity but is challenging.

It can be buying a lot of new equipment that does just one thing per machine, requires lots of special, proprietary refills and takes up space.

It can be deciding to learn something new and make that the focus of your creative work, when it’s far away from your main interest. For example, deciding to buy a floor loom and take up weaving if you have done watercolors for years.


Going deep allows you to see new things and learn more.

None of these pursuits is dangerous on its own, but it is scattered behavior that is fueled by the Inner Critic’s insistent whisper: “What you are doing now is not as fun/ flashy/ popular/ money-making as your current creative work.

Focusing on your creative work requires discipline. It is incredibly easy to rationalize–to make what you want seem more important than your creative work that makes meaning but has hit a hard patch. There is nothing wrong with trying out new supplies. But if all you do is buy supplies and never use them, or play with them and then move on to the next new fad, if you never decide if the new thing is worthy of your precious time, energy and money, well, then, your creativity needs some behavior modification.

Running after every fad, trying every new device has the same effect on your creativity that eating a box of cookies has on your attention span. It feels great for a few moments, gives you a spurt of energy, and then your creativity crashes leaving you feeling empty and spent.

Creative behavior modification is a struggle, but after a few months, when your work improves and you move deeper into the work you love, you won’t miss the box of cookies new fad art supplies so much. You’ll value skill and depth of accomplishment. Life is good again.

Quinn McDonald is learning that behavior modification has advantages from many sides. Some days are harder than others.

Work or Play?


All work and no play makes Bart a troublemaker.

Creatives are often told “You are so lucky! You get to play all day!” Most artists begin to grumble at this–creative work is just that–work. But many creatives love their work deeply, are dedicated to exploring the limits, and also have fun when they can chase an idea.

Play can be work. Design, the right use of color, critiquing your own work–that’s work.

Work can be play. You lose yourself in what you do, and the lightness you feel is the sound of success landing in your heart.

There is always the struggle is you are pricing your work. Then play doesn’t get paid enough and work that doesn’t work is overpriced. Creative exploration is work and play.

What do you do in your studio? Is it work? Is it play? How do you decide?

—Quinn McDonald sometimes can’t tell work from play. If she plays with it long enough, it starts to feel like work.

The Creative Chew

Micahel Pollan, author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma, wrote Food Rules, an Eater’s Manual in 2009. It is a light, funny, serious, simple, wise book on how to eat well. “Eating has gotten complicated,” Pollan writes, “needlessly so.”

Reading the book on feeding yourself  to give yourself a healthy body and agile mind made me wonder if we could take what Pollan writes and make it work for nurturing our creativity.  What Pollan says about eating—being careful what we put in our bodies—was also true about creativity. The more I read, the more fascinating it was to see that what is true about food is true about creative work.

Pollan’s rule # 44: Pay more, eat less. Quinn’s creative corollary: Pay more for good art supplies if you use them often. Don’t buy the junk food of art supplies just to have them. And if you did pile up a lot of art supplies you won’t ever use, give it away. Your local public high school will be grateful and you won’t fret over trying to use what you will never need.

Pollan’s rule #27: Eat animals that have themselves eaten well. Quinn’s creative corollary: Take classes from people who are good at what they do and who have the additional talent of knowing how to teach. It’s hard to learn from someone who is impatient, speaks too fast, or has favorites in class that get most of the attention.

Pollan’s rule #34: Sweeten and salt your food yourself. Quinn’s creative corollary: Do your own work. Don’t try to outdo what someone else is doing; don’t spend a lot of time looking over your shoulder to see who is doing what you are doing. Experiment with ideas until you know they won’t work or until they shine with the gloss of your own effort.

Pollan’s rule #1: Eat food. Quinn’s creative corollary: Create what helps your creativity grow. Take time to peel away your tough outer layer. Get to the tender heart and work there. Ignore what is fast to assemble–you’ll be yearning to be creative half an hour later.

Pollan’s rule #43: Have a glass of wine with dinner. Quinn’s creative corollary: Have a glass of wine with dinner.

-Quinn McDonald is a reader and creativity coach who keeps a journal and works on her creativity.

The Dark Side of Creativity

The guy looked like Grizzly Adams without the smile, but complete with suspenders and wild beard and hair. I worked in a very conservative company as the marketing writing manager, and he was a freelancer, hired for his creativity.

Sometimes creativiy discovers new worlds, sometimes creativity discovers empty galaxies. Photo credit: JimKSter

Getting to the point, I hated him. He delivered nothing on time and made fun of me for wanting to stick to a schedule. He told huge tales (none of them verifiable) of amazing deeds in the service of his country,  impling shadowy connections to black helicopters and secret missions. He had scars to show, both physical and psychological. Frankly, to me, the scar looked like a Sunday morning bagel cut. He insisted it was from hand-to-hand combat is a dangerous country where even the air was deadly.

He got a lot of attention for being “creative.” His bad behavior and poor social skills didn’t matter because he saved my boss from daily tedium. For my boss, relief  balanced the havoc wreaked on every project he touched. My boss didn’t care that I had to re-write everything he handed in because it was not suitable for our clients. My working deep into the hours of the night  was a small price for my boss to pay in exchange for bragging rights to claiming that the creative genius slept, as he claimed, on the floor with a knife under his pillow. War scars, you know.

My boss adored him and constantly suggested I was jealous of his creativity and resentful of his success. Maybe. They paid him a lot more than they paid me. In more than one case I said, “Please let me hire someone who is not quite as creative, not quite as brilliant, but a lot more reliable.” It never happened. No doubt he was smart, but he was also impossible to work with. He gave creativity a bad name. He’s long out of my life, but the incident reminded me: there is a dark side of creativity.

Creativity is often thought of as a light, cheerful gift. Not always.  Mondo Guerra (Season 8 of Project Runway) nailed it when he publicly  said “I feel like this gift and talent is a curse to me sometimes.” In a corporate setting, creativity can easily be considered a mental aberration by a supervisor. Soon the creative feels like an outcast.  The process of coming up with something innovative is only creative when it generates ideas that are money-makers or practical. If it falls short, it’s just weird and different. Occasionally it’s also called Not playing nicely with others, a bad attitude or “not suitable for corporate vision leadership.”

Creativity has deep roots in unhappiness with the status quo. With willingness to go against the grain. With certainty of purpose. With the idea that the creative ideas are better than what exists now. That’s tough when your culture values individuality only if it fits in with what already exists. (Before you doubt that we are a culture that turns the different into outcasts, consider how we judge people of color, those with uncomfortable handicaps, those who don’t speak English well, those who are fat, or those who want to marry people of the same sex.)

Creativity has roots in “other-ness.” There’s a lot of responsibility attached to it. Creativity isn’t re-arranging the fruit plate, it’s overturning the apple cart. While risking reputation for an uncertain result, the creative has to explain how the result is useful and why the risk is worthwhile. And, of course, sometimes the creative is wrong, and the risk causes damage.

Creativity is absolutely how change comes into the world, but it is not the preternaturally cheery, holy, shamanic gift it’s painted to be. It has a dark, difficult, mean side, and that needs to be recognized, too. It’s not for everyone or every place. When you choose the light, you choose the dark. One does not exist without the other. In fact, it’s how we know it’s light. Because we know the dark as well.

–Quinn McDonald is a writer and creativity coach. Her book, Raw Art Journaling, will be out in July of 2011.

Photo credit: JimKSter through Creative Commons.

Pushing Ahead

Poplars at dawn, with moon. Ft. Worden, Washington

My time at Journalfest was wonderful, but coming home means returning to a routine. No more hanging out at Undertown, a cafe built in the underground ruins of Port Townsend, WA. No more taking a slow walk along a row of poplars, listening to the ripping sound as the wind plucks the leaves from the branches.

It’s back to a four-mile walk at dawn, the discipline of to-do lists and travel laundry, chores that didn’t get done while I was gone, and answering accumulated emails.

When I started out this morning, my knees protested. They began to convince me that a short walk around the block would be enough. I told them that the airplane ride yesterday had been long, so they might be creaky today. Halfway around the park one of

Floor insert at doorstep of Undertown Coffee and Wine Bar

my knees began to send threatening messages–serious pain every step. I thought of turning back. And then I had another idea. I slowed down. Stopped. Stretched by standing on my toes. And began to walk slowly ahead. The other knee chimed in, encouraging me to turn back, go home. I took another step ahead. Slowly. No longer in aerobic territory. Hardly classifying in the exercise category at all. But it was forward motion. I continued at this snail’s pace around the rest of the park.

Stairs to climb up to street level. Get moving.

At the intersection, I stepped off the curb. No pain. I walked deliberately across the street. Worked just fine. With each block I stepped it up a speed–first purposeful,  then stride, then arm-swinging walking, then aerobic walking. Letting my knees catch up with my determination had done the trick. No complaints from them for the rest of the four-mile walk.

When you face creative work, you may hear the same complaints from your heart–it’s too hard, you need a rest, it’s not great timing. Don’t leave the studio. Slow down, put hand to paper in an exercise, then begin to move slowly ahead. Push ahead to do some thinking about what you are creating, pick up the pace, and keep moving. Pushing ahead clears the road, and the mind. You can push through the frustration and reluctance. You can. If you leave the studio, it will be that much harder to come back to it.

Quinn McDonald is a writer, artist and creativity coach who works with people facing change or re-inventing themselves.