Reading and the Clean Plate Club

If you had parents who grew up in the Depression, or went through other hardships, you remember the “Clean Plate Club.” You cleaned up your plate at every meal.  Hungry or not, you ate. You finished your meal. old-fashioned-thanksgivingSomehow, I translated that to reading books.

I find it almost impossible to abandon a book I’ve started, no matter how unsatisfactory.  I keep reading, even when the plot is weak, the characters uninteresting, or the premise vague. There is no good reason I do this. But I do.

I just finished an audiobook, and when the female protagonist (a flighty, timid, weak soul who is always “rooted to the spot in fear,” “numb with indecision,” or  “quavering  with hesitant hope”)  gets into yet another scrape, I begin to root for the villain to do her in. When the writing is weak, I keep hoping for a change.

Maybe the next chapter will pick up. At some point, I should know better. It’s not patience, it’s not tolerance. It is a good lesson in the difference between patience and endurance.

There comes a time in every situation when the excuses are used up, the reasons for staying the course unclear. That’s the time to stop listening, stop eating, and look for another source of  satisfaction. If satisfaction is not found in what you are dealing with, it time to stack the plate, put the CD back in the case, and start the search for more satisfaction.

–Quinn Mcdonald has moved on to another book. A far better one.

Wisdom from a Serrated Knife

Dad was a scientist. To be precise, he was a rocket scientist. He loved us, but until we were able to hold a decent conversation with original-source proof, his love was limited to providing for us. My predominant memory of him is the back of his head, studying and writing. We knew not to bother him. But occasionally, he became involved in our lives through science. Sometimes it was physics, sometimes biology.

We baked our own bread. My French mother wasn’t about to bring cottony, tasteless, insubstantial white bread into the house–it couldn’t hold up to sauces, her powerful sandwiches or the rigors of French Toast. Our homemade bread had texture and a crust that eliminated the fear of gingivitis and replaced it with a fear of the scouring action of chewing a crust that would leave the roof of your mouth throbbing.

One afternoon, I was in the kitchen slicing the bread. It was minutes–fresh, and not given to slicing well. I was shredding more than cutting. My father came into the kitchen, observed what I was doing and said, mildly, “That knife is a saw. Less pressure. More action.” I quit pressing down on the knife. I used my upper arm to saw the serrated knife blade forward and back. Magically, the lesson in physics worked: the action allowed the serrated blade to do the work. Almost no downward pressure was necessary.

This principle, like “take care of the edges,” works well in daily application as well.

–Put pressure on yourself and the project disintegrates. Take some action and the project moves forward, almost by itself.

–Put pressure on your story to tell a lesson, and it becomes pedantic filler. Let the characters take action, and your story is memorable.

–Put pressure on your kids, and they fall apart, howling in protest. Put consequences into steady, reliable action, and hard downward pressure isn’t necessary. Action is far more powerful when it repeats consistently and predictably.

–Put pressure on your client, and they will crumble and vanish into client-dust. Put action in your promises and deliveries, and your clients will be firm and square, and just what you want to work with.

–Put pressure on your art, and it turns into a chore. Put action into your art, and it makes meaning in your life.

Quinn McDonald is a creativity coach who prefers action to pressure.

Make it Easy for Yourself

Thorns. Lots of 'em.

The desert is a place of sharp points. Ever plant is armored, armed, or defensive. We expect it of the Ocotillo and Cholla, but it’s surprising to find that lemon, orange, tangerine and lime trees have big spiky thorns. So do palo verde, mesquite and huisache.

The first time I rolled a bicycle down a gravel path I had to carry it back out–two flat tires, with huge thorns embedded in the rubber.

The first time I picked an orange from a tree, I pulled out an orange in a bleeding hand. Even standing by a shady palm tree, I noticed the bark was a series of sharp saw blades and the palm fronds were toothed and ready to bite.

When I first came to the desert, I stopped by a nursery, and stepped carefully through the aisles. A weathered arborist who worked at the nursery spotted me for a what I was–a refugee from New England. “So what do you think about the desert?” he asked, grinning. I looked balefully around the narrow aisle, rubbing my knuckle which was red from accidentally brushing something pointy, and said, “if all this were covered in bubble wrap and leather, I could walk through the place really easily,” I half joked, thinking that a lot of bubble wrap wasn’t such a bad idea.

The naturalist considered my answer for a few seconds before he said, “Instead

Ocotillo in bloom, hiding the thorns.

of 50 yards of bubble wrap and half a cow’s worth of leather, make it easy for yourself–wear shoes. Gloves, too, maybe. Costs less.”

I’ve given the piece of advice a lot of thought, and I see how it works on relationships, too. Instead of avoiding all confrontation, or shying away from thorny people, it may be worthwhile to protect yourself in the spots that are likely to be exposed in the encounter.

No doubt there are difficult, hurtful people. But you don’t have to hug them (literally or metaphorically). You can keep your distance emotionally. Be polite, but don’t try to impress or compete. That’s easier said than done, sure, but if you can spot someone with a cholla-character (cholla’s have thorns that attach easily and segments that break off and stick to your clothing or skin), you can learn to protect yourself. No volunteering to work on their committee, no thinking you can make them love you.

I’ll be happy to admit that challenging people attract me. I’ve also learned that the nursery man had a point–you can’t change the world, but you can protect yourself.

Quinn McDonald is a book artist, writer and the author of Raw Art Journaling: Making Meaning, Making Art.

You and Art

This weekend, I’m spending two days taking a course from calligrapher Laurie Doctor. I’m not a calligrapher. In fact, my handwriting isn’t all that great. In this class, it doesn’t matter. Laurie’s emphasis is on the flow of words. Words, I have. And the work we are doing is about the Poetry of Handwriting.

She read us a poem that took my breath away. It’s by William Stafford, the prolific 20th century poet who died in 1993 at the age of 79.

You and Art

Your exact errors make a music
that nobody hears.
Your straying feet find the great dance,
walking alone.
And you live on a world where stumbling
always leads home.

Year after year fits over your face—
when there was youth, your talent
was youth;
later, you find your way by touch
where moss redeems the stone;

and you discover where music begins
before it makes any sound,
far in the mountains where canyons go
still as the always-falling, ever-new flakes of snow.

—William Stafford, from You Must Revise Your Life

—Quinn McDonald is a writer who teaches workshops and seminars on business and personal writing. She owns QuinnCreative, and is a creativity coach.

Layering Colors

It was my first night in colored pencil class. This sounds a bit like coloring class for grown-ups. The lesson was drawing an apple. As I looked at the apple in front of me, I noticed it was irregular and had an interesting stem–and that made for a great outline drawing.

The lesson was to apply color from light to dark, so the first step was to cover the inside of the drawing with a nicely applied layer of cream. You dont’ want a lot of white spots on the paper. A layer of a light color modifies the image nicely.

red appleAs I applied layer after layer, it occurred to me how complicated the outside of an apple is. And how easy it is to make the apple look three -dimensional with the addition of a darker color. And how the highlight, where the ceiling light shines off the peel, is not really white, but reflective.

While I sat an applied color, I learned that a wash of yellow over the curve in the front brightens the entire image. That using the opposite of the red color of the apple–green–makes the shadows look deeper. That another layer of color can change the color entirely.

And I smiled because this sounded more like a life lesson than an art lesson. That steadily applying a cheerful face to life makes you more cheerful. That knowing the opposites in life–happiness and sorrow, failure and success, patience and impetuousness–adds richness to the texture of life. And that adding another perspective can change your outlook. Not only that, but that a lot of work and a willingness to keep layering color makes for a better depth of experience.

When I was done, I had used 15 colors on the apple. It had taken two hours. And I know that if I show it to someone, they’ll shrug and say, “Well, what will you DO with that? Can you sell it?” And I’ll smile and say, “It’s art,” and think, “Just like life.”

–Quinn McDonald is a writer and certified creativity coach. See her work at  Apple drawing by Quinn McDonald. (c) 2008 All rights reservd.