What I Learned From Failure

My artwork didn’t get accepted into a juried competition. It’s an experience every writer and artist knows as rejection. It’s not a question of  if, it’s a question of  when.

Over the years, I’ve let rejections destroy my confidence and make me wonder if a skilled PhotoShop user has a better chance of success than I do.  I’ve let the inner critic out of the cage to gnaw on my soul, leaving it half-eaten in the rain of self-doubt.

This is the accordion book I made with alcohol inks. It represents the five seasons in Arizona–spring, early summer, monsoon, autumn, and winter. The length of time the sun is above the horizon is reflected in the length of each piece of art. © Quinn McDonald, 2018.

This time, having worked on a skill that separates creative self-expression from outside judgment, I was disappointed, but only for 10 minutes. And it was disappointment, not crushing self-defeat. I can talk about it without shame. I’m writing about it to see if what I learned (over time) helps other artists who put their work on display to be judged by strangers.

Every artist (I’m including writers, musicians, dancers, performers and every other art form) takes their creative work, tosses it in the air and risks judgment, ridicule, and being ignored.  We are hoping for delight, engagement and maybe a sale.

The skill that I learned, the one that helped me survive rejection, is called non-attachment. I developed it through practice.  Like every other skill, it takes practice to get comfortable with, and then good at, non-attachment. First, non-attachment does not mean not caring, not investing yourself, or ignoring your emotions.

The accordion book laid flat. The white numbers under each panel is the length of time the sun is above the horizon on the 21st of the month in the middle of the season. © Quinn McDonald, 2018. All rights reserved.

Non-attachment is rooted in a simple idea: creators create for self-expression. In my creativity coaching practice, I’ll ask “Why are you writing this book?” (Or painting, composing, singing–engaging in expressing creativity.) Most often, the answer is, “I want to get it published and make money.” That’s where the problem festers.

Yes, artists have to sell their work to pay the grocery, plumber, and mortgage. If that is the primary reason they create, all creative decisions  will be made through the marketing plan and all success will me measured in sales. I’ve been there, and it is a dry, lifeless place of relentless competition and incremental failure.

The reason to create, to practice, to struggle with your creative urge is to express creativity. That’s it. That’s the prime directive of the creative soul–express your creativity. It is the process of creating that lifts the soul, not the price tag.

When you create work that requires your concentration, full attention, joy, fear, satisfaction–that is the reward.

What others think of it is their opinion. You might grow from another opinion, but if you let random opinions steer your creative expression,  you will forever be chasing approval. Your creative expression will no longer be tethered to your idea, it will be tied to someone else’s preferences. That’s an impossible space in which to create.

Here are 10 clear steps to get to non-attachment:

1. Work regularly. Creative work builds endurance and creative muscle.

2. Work relentlessly. Self-doubt? Keep working. Not sure the piece is good? Keep working. Tired? Get some rest, then keep working.

(This stage includes re-writing, editing, overpainting, noodling with those six bars in the refrain, anything that is improving the work.)

3. Work until you are satisfied.  Don’t know if you are done? How satisfied are you? Not sure? Not done. Don’t ask Facebook, Instagram, your mom or best friend if you are done. They are related to your inner critic, not your creative expression.

4. When you have worked hard and made meaning for yourself, you will feel satisfied. Happy, if you give yourself permission.

5. Give your piece a name or title. It’s an ancient tradition that naming something gives you power over it and distance from it.

6. Send it out into the world. Enter a juried competition, put it up for sale, go to a gallery. Because your creative work brought you joy in creation, what someone else says is an opinion, not absolute Truth with a capital T.

7. If you are turned down (the term I prefer instead of “rejected,”) you will still have your hard work, your idea, and your satisfaction. The rest is someone else’s opinion.

8. You cannot live in the judge’s head. They might not like your kind of art. (That’s their opinion.) They may know what price-point sells in their gallery and choose that kind of work. (Their marketing decision.) They may choose a piece that fits a certain space, one that reminds them of the curtains in their childhood home, or something that their dog wagged his tail at–all decisions that have nothing to do with you. Your artistic decisions are complete. What happens next is not yours to control.

9. If you are turned down, you still have your joy and satisfaction. You may feel disappointed that all the unknown decisions didn’t line up right for you, but those decisions were not yours to control. The ones you do control were ones that you were satisfied with. That’s the core of creative self-expression. Once you are satisfied with the quality of your effort and your result, no one can take it from you.

10. Go to the show that didn’t accept you. Enjoy the work, congratulate the artists. Feeling happy for others is a skill that stretches your soul to make it fit more easily.

Quinn McDonald is a certified creativity coach, writer, and artist. She helps artists learn non-attachment.




It’s Not About Space

Most people have their creative play driven out of them by fourth grade. Children are told what art is, and lessons are generally about precision and not making a mistake. But art is about seeing and being. And making mistakes so you can fix them and learn to see better.

Making art isn’t about “stuff” either.  Art comes from within you, not through stencils, transparencies and puffy paints. I’m not saying they aren’t fun, or that creative play should be sparse. I am saying you don’t need to break the bank and become an art-product consumer to be an artist. It’s not what you own, it’s what you do with what you have.

justine_ashbee1Here are two great examples of what I mean. Both of these people can’t NOT make art. They stand in the flow of time and art and the work pours out of them because there is no other choice. They have their own ideas of what art is, and the only tool either one of them uses is a Sharpie pen.

ashbee_web61Justine Ashbee uses good paper along with her Sharpie. Her flowing lines and subtle use of color are incredibly beautiful art. She does it freehand. It comes from within her. It’s the flow of art. You couldn’t stop her creative work because it makes meaning. It doesn’t need to be supported with a million products.

Charlie Kratzer, the other artist, does a totally different kind of work. He decorated his entire basement with a black Sharpie. OK, it was more than one. It was $10 worth. The rest was his creativity, his ideas, his desire to decorate his life.

Kratzer is a lawyer, and started with one line in the basement–a line that began a mural around his basement wall. The mural is not just furniture and columns and wainscoting, although it is all that.

The art spans literature and popular culture, Picasso and Churchill. I could list all the things on the wall, but there is a wonderful video and article that does a much better job.

Being creative is not about owning stuff, buying stuff, or having a fabulous studio to store the stuff. Right now there it’s popular to have artists’ studios in magazines, along with descriptions about how this big, airy, wonderful space is exactly what every artist needs. Yes, it’s nice to have lots of space and storage, but thinking you need 300 square feet with special furniture before you can create is the same as thinking you aren’t an artist until you have four bins of stuff.

Creativity is making meaning in your life. Anyway you can. No excuses. Get busy doing one thing that you love. It’s fine if you think you can’t. Just get into the studio and start. The rest will wash over you and sweep you away in art.

—Quinn McDonald is using her old stuff to create new stuff.

Back from Madeline Island

Thanks to all of you who stayed and chatted while I was on the Island. It was absolutely magical. A wonderful class, amazing participants, and surroundings that I could not get enough of.  The staff of the school, artists themselves, spoiled us with help getting what we needed (an extra tarp? No problem. More paper towels? Sure. Fresh apples, water, soda? Of course–in the fridge in the classroom.) We had a light and airy classroom, open 24 hours a day.  We had beautiful weather until the end, and the rain and cold were perfect for leaving with a tinge of sorrow.

Here are some images so you can have a peek at the week:

MISA Ferry_SmOn the ferry from Bayfield, WI to Madeline Island. Another ferry is still at the dock. The ferry held about a dozen cars.

MISA_Reflect_smA color-corrected version of the sunset reflected in the window of the hotel in Ashland, the night before I took the ferry.

MISABarn_smThe classroom was in this barn, on the top floor. You can see lights on in the room. The room was bright and airy and big. On the ground floor was the hall where we shared meals with everyone at the school–writers, painters, journalers, all of us. Good food, too!

MISALandscape_smLooks like a painting, but it’s a photograph of the view from the South balcony. Yes, our classroom had two balconies. On the second and third day, a pilot flying an ultra-light airplane buzzed this field about eight feet off the ground. As he roared past the balcony, we could see the top of the plane. My jaw was hanging open, so I didn’t get a photograph.

MISAClouds_SmAt the other end of the island is a town park. I went to watch the moonrise. Before that, there was this amazing view of clouds moving in, reflected in the estuary.

Moonrise over Lake Superior

Moonrise over Lake Superior.  Just like that.

MISATurtles_sm Because you want to give them a chance to get to the other side. And you aren’t in a hurry anyway.

MISACemetery_smMadeline Cadotte (who gave Madeline Island its name) is buried here. She is the daughter of Ojibwe (Chippewa) Chief White Crane and wife of fur trader Michael Cadotte.

12715657_133952560724The cemetery is closed to the public, so this is a photo of Madeline Cadotte’s headstone  by historian Paul Wilcox. Madeline died on August  17, 1887 at age 35. Must have been a hard life in those years.

MISAHands_smMonsoon Papers with inked hands. As Lindsay said, “I don’t want to wear gloves. I want proof of life.”

MISA_TableArt_smA table full of art made by meaning-making hearts and busy hands.

MISAARtists_smThe willing artists, each with some of their art. After class some would stay, often till after midnight, working on what pleased them and what called to them. It was a magical week, for sure.

Quinn McDonald is back from a week at Madeline Island School of the Arts, making meaning and exploring the island.

Creativty, Originality, and Good Manners

If you do any creative work, you know that you will have a brilliant idea, fall in love with the idea, polish it, then release it to public view. As soon as you do that, you will see the same idea all over. You get angry. Who stole your idea? The answer is–nobody. There are several reasons this happens.


Parallel Universe from May 8, 2012 edition of the NY Times eXaminer. No photo credit is given.

1. Heightened awareness. Once you begin to concentrate on an idea, and certain words, phrases, images begin to repeat in your head. Your heightened awareness makes you see those words “more often,” when you are really simply more aware of seeing them. This happens when you learn a new word–you suddenly see it three times in a day when you don’t recall seeing it before. This is the same reason that gratitude journals work, but that’s another blog post.

2. Mysterious parallel universes. OK, I made that up. If you were to ask a Russian who invented the telephone it’s unlikely they would credit Alexander Graham Bell. They would mention a Russian who invented the device roughly at the same time. Simultaneous invention, writing, advertising ideas do happen. Regularly. And has happened for years. Now, with the increasing speed of knowledge shared through the internet, more people come up with similar ideas more often.


From SquawkFox.com

3. Your grass seed, my lawn. When we talk about our ideas to a friend, the friend often takes the next step with the idea. You talk about creating a journal page using a dictionary page, and suddenly your friend is teaching a class on altering dictionaries. And that’s when things get sticky.

This is the hard part. I know exactly how hard it is, because I just had to go through it. One of my favorite techniques (and the basis for the upcoming book) turned up on another site. Yes, I was angry. Yes, I felt cheated. But I also know that ideas can’t be copyrighted, and that my idea doesn’t belong to me exclusively. What to do? Well, break that list into legal, ethical and generous steps.

Legally, I notified my publisher, so if any of the images I shared or the journal prompts I created and shared appear on another website, the publisher can handle the copyright violation.

Ethically, if my idea is similar to another artists, I have to follow the rules The Ethics Guy uses to judge actions as ethical. (Bruce Weinstein, Ph.D. is the Ethic Guy). This isn’t that complicated:

  • Do no harm
  • Make things better
  • Be respectful
  • Be fair
  • Be compassionate

But the items may be hugely difficult to manage. If someone treats you unfairly, you don’t want to treat them (or anyone else) fairly. But you have to. The entire reason the world doesn’t collapse into savaging each other is that most of us want to be fair and even generous.

How do we act fairly and generously? We give credit. It doesn’t detract from our work, it adds to it. Giving other people credit for helping you get to your own idea is a wonderful way to increase your creativity and your peace of mind.

Saying thank you on your blog, in your classes, in your articles, even giving up some of those precious 140 characters in a Tweet to thank someone, is a gift to yourself.

Thanking and crediting others relieves you of guilt, makes you feel generous, expands your creativity. And I’d like to thank my editor, Tonia Jenny, for helping me come to that conclusion.

-Quinn McDonald keeps a gratitude journal and another one for ideas on change. Sometimes she writes one idea in another, and then alchemy happens.

Art Challenge at Thanksgiving

It sounds like a recipe for a Thanksgiving tear-jerker: My spouse is in Virginia, waiting for our house to sell; the people I’m staying with are in the Caribbean, watching the UConn Lady Huskies play; I’m alone in Arizona without a Thanksgiving invitation.

The instant I knew this would happen, I began to plan for it. No turkey, nothing that makes me feel alone and sad. No need. I chose this way of moving to another state, and knew it could happen. Dinner will be a favorite chicken recipe, and I will go over all the things I have to be grateful for. It’s a long list.

art suppliesOne of the things I miss the most is not having my art supplies here with me. Today I came up with an idea–if I spent $50 on art supplies, what would I chose? How much art could I make? Off I went to Utrecht Art Supply in Tempe to find out. I had a few things with me–my journal would serve as paper, I have a few pencils and pens, I can borrow masking tape and some cheap, hardware store 1-inch brushes for gel medium. Here’s what I purchased:

— An 8-0z. jar of gel medium in semi-gloss Golden gel medium. Can’t live without it. It’s glue, it’s paper prep, it makes colors more transparent.

— Five small bottles of Golden acrylics in Titan Buff, Naples Yellow, Raw Umber, Interference Gold, and Cobalt Turquoise. Can’t resist that gold shimmer. I stuck to one color palette and added a contrast.

–A set of inexpensive brushes for paint, blending and gel medium application.

–A box of 15 Caran D’Ache water soluble neocolor crayons. I’ve never used them before, but I love crayons and the idea that these can be used with water is exciting. And it extends my color range.

–A kneaded eraser, a 6-inch ruler, a hardware store version of an X-acto Knife.

That’s it. Tomorrow I’ll start to see what I can create with that supply list and whatever I can use for art in the house. This morning I noticed that the dining room chairs have some interesting carved designs. A rubbing might be nice.

I’ll publish the pieces as I go along. And if you, too, are alone at Thanksgiving, join in and make some art. Send along a photo to Quinncreative [at] yahoo [dot] com, and I’ll post the best ones.

I also stopped at the library and picked up three great books, two world music CDs, and a DVD of a classic movie–Now, Voyager with Bette Davis and Paul Henreid. What a great weekend–chick flick, art and no bickering relatives!

–Quinn McDonald is an artist, writer and certified creativity coach. See her work at QuinnCreative.com (c) 2007 All rights reserved.