Answering a Question with a Question

One way the ever-present inner critic gets to us is by asking rhetorical questions. You (and your inner critic) already know the answer, but the question hangs there for effect—to diminish you, or send you into a funk of embarrassment.

Castle wall made entirely out of handmade, minimally-decorated building bricks. What makes it effective is the cumulative effect of bricks. The installation is at the Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix.

Last week, while I was teaching positive self-talk to a group of job seekers, one of the participants was looking for a shortcut to the right answer, and he discovered something interesting.

The task was to create new, positive self-talk from old, negative self-talk. The negative statement was, “Why would that company choose me?” The student turned it into “How can I help the company choose me?” That’s brilliant. Most people, having seen too much of Stuart Smalley, say, “This company will choose me–I will get this job!” While it’s positive, it often feels empty to someone who has been turned down for 45 jobs. And when it doesn’t come true, it’s easy to assume that positive self talk doesn’t work.

This line of answering works for the inner critic, too. “What makes you think you are an artist?” turns into, “What can I do to feel more like an artist?”  When the inner critic asks, “How can you ever think you will be as good as John Doe?” you can think, “What is it I like about John Doe?” or “John Doe and I share several great characteristics.”

Flipping the negative question to result in a positive answer is a great way to face your journal. It doesn’t sink you into “poor me” pity parties and helps nudge you in the positive direction.

The other day I said, out loud, after an embarrassing misstep, “What was I thinking?” and almost immediately I had a better question, “What did I learn from that?”

Quinn McDonald messes up, gets up, dusts off and moves on, taking notes all the way.

Loose-Leaf Journal Pages (Again)

The idea behind loose-leaf journal pages is simple–you can create a group of pages. If you like them, they go into the book. If not, they can be reworked without slowing down the creative process. Some other good reasons:

1. I can keep sample pages in one section. Here is a page that shows Twinkling H20 colors on one side, and some Tombow water-soluble pens on the other. I always keep samples in my journal, but now I can keep them all in one place, instead of shuffling through journals searching for that second set of Inktense samples.

2. I can remove pages that are too personal to show to a class. This means I can carry samples that are ready to show and take out pages that aren’t the right sample for the class, or ones not meant for anyone but me. The pages are easy to remove.

3. Loose-leaf pages can remind me of an idea I had and what it meant. I can group similar ideas or series that I make weeks apart. It’s a great idea for teaching and planning. This one shows a group of alchemy symbols. On the back I have notes on how creativity is like alchemy.

Loose-leaf journals don’t have to be your only journal, but they can be a very useful one if you have a lot of ideas, a lot of plans, or teach a lot.

-Quinn McDonald is a keeper of journals and a maker of Monsoon Papers, a technique she created and will teach in Valley Ridge, Wisconsin, May 5 and 6.

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Holding Opposite Thoughts

“It’s impossible to hold two opposite thoughts in your head at the same time,” my philosophy professor said all those years ago in college. Maybe it was then, but it’s not now.

The spare house with clean lines.

Example 1: 
I want to live simply, with few possessions, in a house with clean tile floors and no curtains.

I want a studio that isn’t also the guest room. A studio that is wonderfully stocked with books and paints, papers and tools.

You can see the difference–a spare, sparsely furnished house and a fully stocked studio are at opposite ends of the possessions spectrum. And yet I can easily want both, no discomfort to think about them both.

Example 2:
I want to wear only black, gray, and neutrals. Tailored and easy.

Simple and lovely.

I want to wear bright colors in soft draped shapes.

No worries that they are both opposites. Both ideas are equally pleasing. But I do not want tailored outfits in colors, or draped black clothing. No. It’s the opposites that appeal.

Example 3:
I’d like to work only with black ink and pens. Do simple-line drawings that are unambiguous.

I’d like to work in watercolors. Complicated washes, wet-in-wet techniques that are meaningful, but not hard-edged.

So what does all this mean? I don’t know. I think we can hold opposite thoughts in our heads that are more complicated than just what we want. We can love and hate the same person at the same time. We can be strong and needy at the same time. We can be profoundly spiritual and still yearn for material things.

I think this is not only possible, I think it makes us interesting and flexible, as well as confusing and frustrating. The whole idea of opposites is fascinating. It’s not always possible to blend or have both. Sometimes we have to choose. But meanwhile, we can love opposites.

Tell me about yours–what’s confusing and impossible and wonderful for you?

Quinn McDonald is a writer and artist, a trainer and creativity coach. She’s not confused by any of them.

Image sources: Japanese house–


Forget It? Remember It! Journaling Does Both

Writing to Remember
If you keep a journal, you fill pages with detailed memories and ephemera to remember events or people. You had a wonderful reunion with a friend. You write it down so you’ll  remember that evening years from now. In your journal are all the details, ready to replay in your imagination long after your memory records it as fuzzy.

Writing holds your emotions and memories, it heals and creates.

 Writing to Forget
Pouring emotions on paper lets you release it. Have a disagreement with a friend? Pour your feelings out in your journal, and you will leave them there, because there is no reason for you to want to hold on to the hurt. Writing is an act of healing, and the healing begins when you release the need to rehearse the pain over and over again to make sure it’s still there. Knowing it’s in your journal is reason enough to quit rehearsing the details.

How can journal writing do both?
How can writing help you both remember and forget? Writing is a creative activity, and the act of forming words carefully, with a pen, creates a reaction between your brain and hand that lets you think through the emotional impact while you are writing. Writing by hand slows down your thoughts and helps you concentrate. (Some recent studies have shown that people who have learned to use a keyboard at an early age may get the same release from typing.)

Writing helps you forget, because you can vent on the page, examine your motives and reactions, and decide what to take with you as you move on. You learn from your hurts, as long as you don’t nurture them to feed anger and thoughts of retribution.

In the same way, writing down a to-do list allows you to forget, because you have the items written down. No need to keep rehearsing the list in your mind. Keeping a to-do list reduces anxiety and feeling overwhelmed because you no longer repeat what you haven’t done yet over and over.

When you write down to remember, something different happens.  You write to enforce a memory, to recall more details, to bring a full range of emotions to the top of your mind. As you feel an enjoyable emotion or physical pleasure, the words you write create a path to feel that pleasure again, in full measure.

Keeping a journal is both a creative act and and act of healing. It can do both at the same time. Visit your journal often and allow your creativity to fuel healing.

—Quinn McDonald keeps a journal. She helps people learn how in her book Raw Art Journaling, Making Meaning, Making Art.