The Commonplace Journal

The instant Kaisa from Valkoinenponi mentioned it, I recognized the Commonplace Journal.  For me, it was a book I had seen before, with the words vade_mecumVade Mecum printed on the cover, that my father used. It was a small notebook, and he took notes in it. About the weather, numbers and measurements he needed to remember, quotes on prices and on wisdom. Vade Mecum means “Come with Me” in Latin, and the book went most places with my father, the original life-long learner.

In the early days of printing, Vade Mecum became a name for books that published information–general or specific–in a variety of topics. They contained medical information, wieghts and measurements, and recipes for healing, cooking, even alchemy.

Vade Mecum had another name, starting in the 15th century: Commonplace books and Zibaldone. These notebooks were a combination of a scrapbook and a note-taking device. Students who were studying by apprenticeship would sketch or write information for their professional learning into the books. As the students became masters, they would allow the next generation to learn from these books. In the 1600s, most college students learned from the professors through keeping a Commonplace Book. Oxford University and Harvard taught via Commonplace Book well into the 20th century.

commonplace bookWhen I was in college, I created a Commonplace timeline in my room. Every time I learned something in one field, I’d mark it on the timeline–when it happened, who did the work. I’d add notes from other fields. By the middle of the year, I could tell you that while Bach was studying music, Peter the Great was building St. Petersburg (later Leningrad) and that 9,000 people died in England in a huge windstorm with gusts that reached 120 mph. The timeline wrapped around the room. The arts, music, science, literature–all trailed around the room, helping me understand the relationship between politics, culture, and science.

2362053970_2f96a14ea3I still keep a Commonplace Book. It holds quotes, book titles, ideas. I wish it looked more like Count Laszlo’s private diary in The English Patient (the 1996 movie made of Michael Ondaatje’s book). You can see a glimpse of it at the 4:00 mark in the trailer. But it is, well, commonplace. It is also the reason that I can’t keep an art journal without words as the origination source. I understand books without words, just colors or images when others do them, but for me, words create the book. And the image.

I love the idea of important pieces of learning and experience caught in one book. Paging through it, I can remember so much of where I was and what I was learning.  You can start your own, but if you already have one, please leave a comment about what you keep in it.

-Quinn McDonald is a romantic at heart. But don’t tell anyone; it’s hard to be a level-headed creativity coach if people think you are a wild romantic.

Different Journals, Different Jobs

Keeping a journal is not a formal work for me. I have several journals, some larger than others, some with handmade paper. As long as I date the work, it doesn’t matter which journal I work in.

yhst-71326348041790_1977_1622103.gif As most people who juggle different projects, I have to keep track of voice mails, make lists, and jot down notes to find directions. I tried keeping the information on 3×5 notes, but discovered I often needed information on notes I discarded. So I began keeping the information on rollabind-punched 3x5s.

Warning:  I can no longer recommend Rollabind after reading the horror stories about non-delivery and non-communication. Even the BBB rates them with an F and has an alert out about them. The Ripoff report has a steady stream of complaints that go back several years and are added too almost weekly.

Then I noticed that I have a hand-brain memory. I would remember on which side of the page certain information appeared, and about where in the book. So removing pages confused me and threw the whole book into disarray.

Another fact floated to the top of my brain: these notes, phone numbers, movie names, books someone recommended–all form a weird map of my life. They are as much journal information as the stories, artwork and posts in my more formal journals. I refer to them to find out when I saw which movie, or to draw a map to get me from the bookstore to the art class.  These pages form the real pieces of my life, the daily patchwork that makes life interesting, gives it colorSolstice and texture.

And now I’ve decided to start keeping those scribble journals.  Instead of loose cards, I’ve moved the whole thing to Moleskine Cahier bound-books, the 5×8 size. They are thin and flat and fit into my paper calendar that keeps my appointments straight. (Yes, I have an iPhone, and it keeps many things, but I need a paper calendar to show me what I’m not doing as well as what I am.)

This is a whole new direction, and piques my interest in mapping a life through journals. It may be a whole new kind of journal.

–Quinn McDonald is a writer and certified creativity coach. See her work at (c) 2007-9 All rights reserved. Cahier notebooks by   Image: “Solstice” by Quinn McDonald. Watercolor, pencil, on handmade paper.

Theme Thursday #5: 6/11/09

This weeks theme is pen and notebook reviews, with a bit of thrift store fashion and studio-mixed ink tossed in to make it interesting.

Last week, I introduced Pen Addict. Little did I know he has another blog,



Notebook Addict. In today’s blog he quotes Murderface and his Reciprocral Crap Exchange on Quo Vadis notebooks, which I mentioned last week. Both of these writers have a clear, easy-to-understand manner and keep you from buying lots of stuff you don’t need and just the fine stuff you must have.

You might think a cat of an impossible color is a fashion site, but the blog’s author is writing a book and the blog contains excellent links for writers. The author does make the most of her thriftshop expertise, which makes for some great pictures. She’s a Zimbabwean living in New Zealand, so don’t skip this blog.

Unposted reviews pens he’s used, but he also mixes his own inks. The link is to the contents of his backback—pens, notebooks and notes. I’m relieved that I’m not alone in taking three or four pens with me as well as a journal or two when I leave the house.

Theme Thursday is a post I create every week for creative play. You can join, too. Simply post three (or more) links on a topic you are an expert on or one that delights you. You can post them on your blog and leave a link in the comments.

Below are previous Theme Thursdays.

Creative Play 6/4/09

CreativePlay 5/21/09

Creative Play 5/14/09,

Creative Play 5/7/09

—Quinn McDonald is a life- and certified creativity coach. She teaches people how to write and give presentations. She also  manages four journals that travel the world.

No More Art/Craft Kits

Many artists may have started with art or craft kits, but the more I see them, the more I get grumpy about the expectations they raise and don’t complete. And I think the same kind of thinking that went into the real estate bubble (consumerism, greed, and the idea that if you don’t have the latest gadget, you are nobody) is hitting the art market.

Survival kit in a sardine can, courtesy

Survival kit in a sardine can, courtesy

For a long time I believed that kits and assembly-projects were art portals. People would understand art, get the fun and creativity, and strike out on their own. But I don’t see that happening. Instead, I see people demanding perfect, gift-ready products at the end of a two-hour class.

The very field that encourages thinking, creative problem solving, experimentation, delightful mistakes that lead to interesting discoveries is now fraught with kits that assemble in under an hour and guarantee “perfect” results.

No creativity here. No problem solving, either. No

A can of worms. (

A can of worms. (

experimentation. You might as well be assembling a bookcase from Ikea. The last time I did that, I didn’t claim to be a carpenter or a woodworker. I did learn how to use an Allen Wrench, though.

The problem with kits is that they don’t encourage artistic exploration, they encourage consumerism. You often have to purchase that special tool, which comes in three sizes, so you’ll need the container to put it in, and the book with other projects that require six more specialized tools.

There may have been a reason for kit creation. I could also be lining my hat with aluminum foil and designing conspiracy theories. Here’s the logical thread: artists who spent time and effort developing a useful technique would teach it. The class participants took the class and promptly began to teach the same thing with less experience. The original designer began to create shortcuts to blur the process but produce uniform results, which pleased art retreat promoters who could teach more classes in a day. It pleased the participants, too, who began to walk out with “can’t fail” projects.

Craft tool manufacturers loved it because instructors could demand more specialized tools.

The whole thing has gotten out of hand. In a recent class, I passed out samples of some of the explorations of the technique I was teaching and one woman immediately began to make sketches of the pieces I was passing around and write down notes I’d put on some of the pages.

There was no doubt that she was copying, word for word, my copyrighted material. What’s interesting is that by the time class was over, she had learned the technique but had not recognized it because she was busy copying information, not experimenting with a technique.

As a culture, we’ve over-scheduled our kids and ourselves to the point where free time has to be productive, result in a gift or something “creative.” We don’t feel joy or pride when we complete a kit, we feel relief at duplicating the picture on the cover in the time allotted.

We haven’t learned a thing, and certainly not made meaning or art. No wonder people don’t “get” art, they’ve never experienced the joy of creation.

There is a legitimate place for kits, and it’s the equivalent of the Ikea bookcase. If you want to assemble something in a short time with little hassle, a kit is just perfect.

But I’m submitting a new analogy for the SATs. Kits are to art like reality shows are to real life. You can participate in a passive way and be glad it’s not all your idea.

It took me a while to figure out why I am so enthusiasitc about raw art journals. I finally figured it out–it’s all technique. I can’t tell you if you are doing it right. You’ll know. You’ll sit down and time will fly and you will like the result or know how to change it to love it next time. It’s meaning making. And for me, that’s life being art.

-Quinn McDonald is a writer and raw-art journaler. She gives workshops in writing and raw art for businesses and  people who can’t draw.   © Quinn McDonald, 2009. All rights reserved.

Raw Art Journaling (Online) Starts April 22

Raw art journaling (an online class) is for everyone who can’t draw and wants to keep an art journal. You’ll learn to express yourself in ways that include framing your words, creating a focal point on the page, and using abstract designs to express emotion.

I’m starting an online class on April 22. It’s a 3-session class and will continue on April 24 and 29. Once you sign up, I’ll send you a Yahoo Group address (different from the creativity incubator I moderate).

Raw-art-journal page © Quinn McDonald 2009

Raw-art-journal page © Quinn McDonald 2009

The class will be held on the Yahoo Group. I’ll post a lesson and example on each of the 3 lesson days. The lesson will be a visual and a prompt. You’ll practice and post your results, comment on other people’s posts and see what develops.

Raw art doesn’t require any special tools–a journal you don’t mind experimenting in and a pencil or pen. That’s it. You can get much more complicated, but you don’t need to.

Please join us for this exciting, fun class and learn how to keep a Raw Art Journal! More details and registration on the raw-art-journals site.

Quinn McDonald is a writer and certified creativity coach. She runs workshops in person and online on writing, presentations, and raw-art-journaling.

What do I do with my journal?

Are you afraid that someone will find out your journal secrets? That when you die your life will be there for all to see? If this is keeping you from writing in a journal, could you reconsider? There are steps you can take to protect your privacy, and some things to think about before you cut off your connection to the past.

If you feel strongly that your privacy not be invaded, you can rent a safe deposit box at a bank. Put your completed journals in this safe deposit box and give the key to a trusted friend.

open journalJulia Cameron, the author of “The Artist’s Way,” and the proponent of writing three pages of whatever you are thinking every single morning was asked at a book signing if she keeps her journals. She said she did, they fill a storage locker. She has an agreement with her daughter, her executor, that she be cremated. “But first, burn the books. Then burn me!” Cameron said.

Before you choose to keep your life such a secret, let me encourage you to let go. Once you are dead your past is not going to haunt you. And it might help others. My mother’s life was a mystery to me. I was born late in her life and only knew her as angry and manipulative. Sure, she had bright moments, but they were short and quickly dispensed with.

After her death, I found a packet of love letters she and my father had exchanged. So strong was her hold over me, even from the grave, that I seriously considered destroying the letters, unopened. When I read through them, another woman emerged. One I had never known. A young woman, the woman who was the mother to my brothers. She seemed eager to live her life. I never found out what had shut her down, although she had many reasons.

Without those letters, I would have never had a chance to see this other person. This person with hope and humor. This woman who suddenly had more in common with me than I ever believed. It was a generous gift to discover.  I’m sure she would have hated my prying into her past, but now that I know, it is also easier for me to be easier on her.

Before you lock up your past, think about the help you might be. That event you are ashamed of might help someone else, might change their mind, might leave a word of encouragement. Once you are gone, your life in this world is complete. Leave some clues for the next generation. You might create a picture of yourselves for people who are not even born. Give them a view into your life, and into the status of life in a time period they never knew.

–Quinn McDonald is a certified creativity coach who teaches journal writing. See her work at You can also read about Raw Art Journaling for journal writers who can’t draw.

Journal, Diary, What’s the Difference?

It’s a question I get asked all the time. “What’s the difference between a journal and a diary? A diary is a report of what happened during the day—where you ate, who you met, the details leading up to the kerfluffle in the office, and who took whose side. It’s a bit like a newspaper about you.

A journal is completely different. A journal is about examining your life. It’s a GPS system for your spirit. “I’ve made this mistake before. . . and I always make it when I rushed for time and feel panicky. But I feel panicky because I know I’m headed for the same mistake.” Journals lead to insight, growth, and sometimes, achieving a goal.hand made journal

You don’t have to set a goal to have a journal, I have a tendency to live in my head and like goals. You can just muse. You can put down the shifts in emotion, the goals you’ve achieved and how, to remember them. The shortest pencil beats the longest memory, says the proverb, and writing down your motives, successes, emotional pratfalls, helps you remember how you got there and why, not just that they happened.

You can keep a journal in anything that feels comfortable and that’s portable–a spiral notebook, a rollabind book you’ve put together with lokta paper, index cards held together with a rubber band. You can use a computer, keep a blog, although that doesn’t work as well for me. I believe things on the internet are simply not private, password protected or not. And I like the feeling of flipping through pages.

To keep a journal on paper, pick a time of day to write. Keep it regularly. It makes it easier. I never stuck to an exercise program because I never nailed it into my schedule at a certain time. Writing works the same way. First thing in the morning, last thing at night, while eating lunch at your desk. Write with a good pen that feels good and whose color you like.

In the beginning, you may have to set a time limit. Three minutes is good. Just write whatever comes into your head. No editing, no crossing out, no reading it in your mind in front of the committee who lives in your head and judges your writing.

Journal prompts are ideas or thoughts to get you started writing. They help you focus on a topic. You can use one over and over for a week, to see your different answers, or you can use a different one every day.

That’s it. It’s not complicated and it doesn’t take a lot of time. And yes, I teach journal writing courses. That’s how I learned about the GPS of the spirit idea. From my own journal. My website contains a schedule of classes and events on the tab at the top of the page.

Meanwhile, some prompts to get you started:
I couldn’t start my day right unless. . . .
If I could change one thing about my job, I would. . .
Before I get too old, I’d like to . . .

You can also read about Commonplace Journals, 10 Ideas for a Commonplace Journal, or Five Things You Can Put on the First Page of Your Journal.

–Quinn McDonald is a certified creativity coach. (c) 2007. All rights reserved.