Start With What You Know–Now

When I saw the Sephora bag, I knew that it would make a cute hand-made journal.  The bump in the road—I haven’t hand made a journal in more than a year—didn’t bother me. Hey, I knew how.

The secret to producing anything decent is practice. But psssssh, I’ve made dozens of journals. Sure, I can still do it. Easily. Right? Maybe not. Without practice, the skill dulls. It doesn’t vanish, and I may know the steps, but the skill element dulls.

The Sephora bag, ready to be worked on. Until I cut my finger.

So does the knife blade. After I decided how to cut the bag, I pulled out my cutting knife, did not put in a new blade, and drew the knife down the edge of a ruler. The blade stuttered, the ruler jumped, and I cut my finger tip. Not a big cut, but enough to bleed onto the bag. And soak into the paper surface. Wiping it off made it worse. And my finger was still bleeding, so there was not one drop, but three. Then five. I stopped to get a bandaid.

Yes, the bag was ruined. It didn’t have to be. What I should have done was not start with building a book. As far as creative work, there were many creative exercises that would have made a great beginning. But I didn’t do that. I started with something I had not practiced for a long time. And I failed.

hand-paited bollard

Photograph © Quinn McDonald, 2018

Not because I’m a bad artist, not because I’m not creative, but because I started where I’d left off years ago. Instead of where I was now.

I learn by failing. And my figuring out how I failed and working from there. It’s a good method. It helps you grow better with practice. And that works.

–Quinn McDonald is a writer and writing instructor. She is working on a book about putting down your screens and getting out to listen to the Speaking World in the Invisible, Visible World.

The Power of String

My brother writes from Switzerland, where he lives. Occasionally, he writes of amazingly elegant and simple solutions that I think of as typically Swiss. It’s a wonderful awareness of different problem-solving adaptations in different cultures. Here is the story:

“I was coming home [riding a bicycle] on a paved, two-lane-wide road without lane markers, common around here. I saw a road sign that signaled ‘cow crossing,’ but it was in an odd place and beat-up looking. I mistakenly assumed it had been left there by accident until I came upon the cows blocking the road and coming toward me.

I’ve mentioned before that the Swiss stake out fields that have been turned into pastures by putting frail poles strung with a single thread of electrified fence. The cows could easily walk through, but because
of the shock, won’t. Thus, when farmers herd them down a street, they block of side streets with string, and the cows, mistaking it for electric fence, respect that.

valais_fightingcows_4_060508Well, this herd was being herded down the street with string. The shoulder of the road was lined with electric fence. The farmer and his wife carried some string perpendicular to the road and to the fence
lining it. The farmer formed the corner, and his children and a farm worker brought up the rear, shaping the line of string into a rectangle. The cows carefully stayed within it as the group walked down the street toward the barn.

As they saw me coming, they narrowed the rectangle, freeing one lane for traffic, and I, and then one or two cars, passed through. The cows carefully stayed within the string.”

A perfect example of elegant problem solving!

Quinn McDonald loves innovation and ingenuity.

Adam, Fear, and Problem-Solving

When the training client told me that I’d have to bring my own computer to show the Powerpoint, I said “of course.” But I didn’t want to bring my laptop. It’s heavy and it’s the only computer I have. Yes, it’s backed up, but still, dragging it around wasn’t appealing to me.

Luckily, I have an iPad with Keynote on it. (Apple’s version of Powerpoint). But how to get the file from the computer to the iPad, I asked at the store. “It’s simple on iTunes,” the genius-bar employee said, and gave me some steps. I wrote them down. Now, I hate to admit it, but I’m not a big music fan, so I don’t know iTunes very well. My playlists are all books. Yes, I have music on my iPhone, but I really don’t use iTunes.

Blocked as surely as if a boulder falls in front of me.

Blocked as surely as if a boulder falls in front of me.

So I struggled with the instructions, which didn’t work. As any good Inner Critic knows, this is the clarion call to show up and make sure the stuck person knows that she is stupid, probably terminally so, and the client will laugh at her for not knowing simple procedures. Time to make a fast appointment for a one-on-one lesson. None available till I come back.

Fear shows up as anger first. Stupid store and their 10-day wait to get a simple lesson. Then, anger muddles thinking. I came up with the idea of using Dropbox, but I still couldn’t get the presentation itself moved to Keynote.

Notice what’s happening here? Fear blocks all problem-solving ability. I wasn’t thinking through anything. I was stuck in a place in which I would be humiliated for being slow, old, dumb, and not prepared in front of the client. That shame loop circled through my brain while I added more dramatic color and a sound track. [Cue “Chain of Fools.”] No problem-solving whatsoever. Finally, I made another genius bar appointment, sure the Apple employees would mock me, too.

Not so. Adam came up, and I explained the problem with iTunes. Adam looked at me and smiled. “You can send it from one machine to another via email, then just open it in Keynote.” Of course. It couldn’t have been simpler. But while I was filled with fear and imagining a catastrophic scenario, my brain was too busy adding details, color and sound to the catastrophe to see the simple answer.

iphone_5s_6_months_later_heroAnd then, Adam did something amazing. He showed me how to use my iPhone as the remote to control the Keynote presentation. Let me practice it to make sure I got the steps in the right order. And within 10 minutes I wasn’t an idiot, I was a tech-savvy professional, with an iPad and a remote, ready to go.

In those 10 minutes, I didn’t change a bit. I weighed the same, I had the same hair and eye color, wore the same clothing. The only thing that changed was fear. It was gone. Adam had solved the problem I could not because I was concentrating on the fear. Anger is the answer to fear, and anger blocks both logic and creativity.

I’ll probably make the mistake again. It’s a big problem and so not resolved by one experience. Or six, ten or a hundred. It’s a lesson I will repeat until I understand it, myself and the power of problem solving with a clear, creative mind and heart.

-Quinn McDonald wishes a Happy Passover to all who tell the story of the Exodus tonight. And wishes strength and peace to all who live in fear and slavery of any kind, mental or physical, or their own doing or other’s.

The Bent Frame

Not even clear how it happened, but my glasses frames got bent. They are very light frames, so the damage was total. No way they could be worn. While my distance vision is fine, my near vision needs to be corrected with glasses. To make matters just a bit more tense, on Monday I’m leaving on a business trip to teach, so I need to see clearly.

These aren't my glasses. Mine look a lot worse. But you can get the idea.

These aren’t my glasses. Mine look a lot worse. But you can get the idea.

My first impulse was to grab a pair of pliers and bend the glasses back into shape. But I don’t have jeweler’s tools anymore.

My second realization was that the place I bought the glasses is closed on Sunday.

My third thought was . . . to think of a simple solution, one not connected to panic. That was not quite as easy, because the impulse was to use my fingers to straighten the glasses. The frames are so light. But I know about metal fatigue–and that overeager “fixing” can cause more damage than leaving it alone. I’ve done a lot of home repairs that way–first I “saved money by doing the job myself,” and then I paid a lot more to a professional to fix what I made worse and then do the repair correctly.

These aren't mine, either, but they don't look much worse than mine.

These aren’t mine, either, but they don’t look much worse than mine.

After all that, the answer is pretty simple–I take the glasses to a shop in the mall tomorrow and have them fix it with professional tools. It meant no reading tonight. That was a big departure.

What I found interesting was the problem-solving process. It followed so many other problem-solving steps: first, astonishment at how the damage got so serious. Second, disbelief and anger. Even a flash of “why does this kind of thing have to happen to me when I am about to teach at an important out-of-town client?”  This was starting to look like a personality test more than a decision what to do with broken glasses.

Finally, a solution based on mistakes made in the past. Don’t try things without the tools you need if you don’t have the time or replacement pieces yourself. Leave the delicate work to the people with trained, specialized small-muscle control.

It’s how I approach creative problems, too. First a bit of panic, anger, and crankiness that I ruined a piece. Maybe a flash of inner critic telling me that other artists don’t make these mistakes. Then the recognition that I have the tools and the ability, but I have to use past mistakes to make the current piece I’m working on come to a satisfying conclusion.

That means admitting to past mistakes, figuring out what worked well and what did not, and repeat the thinking that brings out a simple, elegant solution. A creative lesson in a pair of bent glasses frames. Not such a bad price to pay.

-Quinn McDonald is glad she learned touch-typing at an early age, as she can’t see what she’s typing.


Don’t Forget to Play

Some of you have made resolutions–big ones, small ones, ones you make every year, ones you have never made before. You are focusing hard on keeping them going. Maybe a week into the New Year, you are feeling some pressure to keep going.

May I add something? Please give yourself some time to play. Not work harder. Not work smarter. Play. Not do the laundry first, not check your to-do list. Play.

Play is vital work. It sets your brain up to solve problems. It relaxes your muscles and allows you to take a break from the usual tension, fear and anger. Play is one of the most important activities you can do every day.

imagesWhat’s play? It’s activities that do not end in a completed project. Play is exploring without expectation of completion. Play is experimenting without any anticipation of a result, of winning. Play is the most important part of your day.

Play is fresh air and sunshine into your soul. Play is a big space to allow thoughts to grow. Play heals. Don’t shortchange yourself. Don’t push it to the end of the day. Don’t discipline yourself out of play.

—Quinn McDonald is a writer who is working on the book on your inner heroes and your inner critic.

Simplifying a Complicated World

The world is not easy to navigate. It’s complex and drains a lot of energy from you. Complicated connections. Pull one thing and a whole lot of others come apart, too.

Lots of tangled wires, all connected.

Sometimes, when we don’t do anything except witness–watch and wait, take notes before acting or jumping to conclusions–we get more information. That step–being a witness instead of a fixer–holds the space for learning.

Choosing to be a fixer means we rush in with an answer, a suggestion, a solution as soon as we sense the connection is complicated. We want to simplify it, cut it apart, all before we are sure what  the problem really is. Because solving problems gives us a shot at being a hero. If we are a witness, and wait for information, well, time could be lost.

It’s a twisted fence, ugly from this view. Complicated, too.

Time doesn’t get lost. We do, but time does not. Time knows exactly where it is. When we stand still, stay calm, witness, take notes, don’t give advice till we know what we are doing, we catch up with time. We gather information. We don’t take on work that isn’t ours to do. We see what is ready to resolve itself without our help.

A simple pattern evolves.

And then, in the sharp shadow of understanding, the information becomes not only clear, but beautiful. Sometimes without our getting involved at all. The shadow of the fence on the sidewalk shows, not the complicated twisted pattern, but a simple light and dark outline of connections.

The other side of complicated is not simple, it’s waiting. So we can learn more.

Quinn McDonald is a creativity coach who learns on her walks every day.

The Problem-Solving Bee

The bee landed in the pool next to me. They can walk on the water for a few seconds. But much longer and the chlorine will do him in quickly. I’m allergic to bees, so I’ve figured out a way to splash/scoop them out and get them on dry land. Most of the time, they take a few minutes to buzz their wings dry, and then take off.

This one was different. He flew a few inches into the air and landed again. This time, he landed in my drinking glass, or, more precisely, drinking plastic. I’d finished my water, so the glass was dry. I fully expected the bee to climb out. But he didn’t. He walked around the bottom of the glass, bumping into the edge. He did not crawl up the side, he kept circling the bottom of the glass, looking for a way out.

The whole top was open to the sky, available for flying, but he didn’t do that. He didn’t look up where the solution was. He kept looking straight ahead and running into the glass.

The bee was not going to do the one thing he needed to gain his freedom–look around, get a different perspective. And it occured to me that I am just as stubborn as that bee. I keep repeating the same solution, not looking up, not finding a new way. I’ll circle my problem, bumping my head against the wall for days before it occurs to me to look up, to see their was an open space right over my head. A way out, in easy reach.

The only difference between a groove and a rut is the length of time you’ve been going around and your satisfaction level with the route.

Quit circling. Look up. It’s the way out.

Bee image: From the USDA website.

–Quinn McDonald is a creativity coach who helps her clients look up at the big blue sky of possibility right over their heads.

Under the Mistake, Gold

“Sometimes it hits me that I’m wrong about most things. About time. About my place in space. About the nature of the body. About the nature of the divine. About human nature. About what death is. About who I am and who my kids are. And about what the creek needs to support the salmon and all its visitors.

But heavens, let’s not worry about being wrong! I’m gradually learning that, paradoxically, it’s the foolsgold–the blunderings, giving ups, breakdowns, in spite ofs, chance encounters, shatterings, letting gos, and mess-ups, that has led to most of the creativity in my life, not the sweet making of something beautiful, or “enlightened” inspiration, and certainly not feeling in control. It’s the opposites, listenings, buzz hums,  the falling (leaping) down the rabbit hole, the stepping through the looking glass, barefoot, with no suitcase, in new territory.”

–Susan G. Wooldridge, Foolsgold, p. 88.

Transformation. Tape, ink, stitching, © Quinn McDonald. All right reserved.

After reading that, I began to wonder why, when we notice we are wrong, we are so concerned with having been wrong, instead of eager to have the skill of discernment and a chance to practice problem solving.

What exciting, wonderful, practical or clever thing have you learned recently from making a mistake?

Here’s my list: I need seven hours of sleep, no matter how much I think I can get by on five or six.

Rushing in the studio is directly proportional to the project failing at the last moment.

Not walking in the morning means losing important incubation time for ideas.

Quinn McDonald is a writer, life- and creativity coach.

Archival Papers: Not Always The Best

Newspaper, magazine strips, fading out in the rain and sun.

When I was a child, I had a method for handling problems. With two older brothers and parents who had their own problems, sharing mine didn’t seem like a smart choice. So I would write my worries on strips of blue-lined, rough, tablet paper, tear them up and “hide” them–bury them under a tree. Doing that taught me that paper is plant material and rots. I was fascinated at the decomposition of the paper–and, I was sure, my worries. Mother Earth took them back and made them go away.

As I got older, I developed a ritual of handling worries–always with writing, always with strips. Some paper strips got burned, some got pulped and put into handmade papers, some woven into journal covers. I then switched to ripping the strips from newspapers and magazines and letting nature take care of the paper. I’d write worries down, pull a thread through the top and hang them outside to bleach and fade in the sun and rain. By the time the strips disintegrated, I was done worrying.

Skip forward several decades: I’m a raw-art journaler, but still have worries. One afternoon, I remember the strip method,  grab some paper from the studio, write, sew through the top, hang them from the orange tree in the backyard. In the Phoenix heat. Days go by, 110 degrees, 111 degrees, 108 degrees, never below 90 at night. I hit the papers with a stream from the hose. Nothing deteriorates. The strips stay readable. My worries don’t

Archival strips--still tidy, unbleached or faded. You know, archival.

fade. My brow furrows over this.

And then I realize. . .I have used archival materials. Archival pens, archival,  acid-free, lignin-free paper. My worries are preserved. Possibly forever. Only then comes the wabi-sabi moment.

The revelation comes with a blast–isn’t this what I do (however unintentionally) with worries–preserve them, hang on to them, refuse to let them deteriorate?  And so they’ll stay with me, until I am willing to let them deteriorate, bleach out in the sun, fade in the passage of time.

—Quinn McDonald is a writer and chief learning officer of QuinnCreative. She teaches others what she’s learned. Sometimes they are interested.

The Problem With “Fixing”

We are so helpful. We have to keep things perfect. When things aren’t perfect, even if that happens in someone else’s life–we have to fix it.

You don't need a toolbox to help

You don't need a toolbox to help

My husband slipped on the kitchen floor a few days ago and crashed into the kitchen island. He will have to have surgery and an immobilized arm for a while. Life for us will be significantly different for a few months. We will have to make work adjustments. He will have to ask for help. I have to drive him everywhere, pick up his chores and do them along with mine. I won’t be cheery all the time, and I’m sure there are frantic days ahead. My focus is to be mindful, balance humor and despair, and know it’s OK to harbor murderous fantasies as long as I don’t act on them.

As people hear about this, I will inevitably hear  a lot of “fixing” advice. Sure, people say the first thing that comes to mind. It’s almost as if they need to create a space between misfortune and themselves. But I’ve gathered a few things people say from some other incidents in my life–the other rotator cuff of ’04, the fire of ’02, my mom’s death in ’03–and I’d like to pass on what sounds like “fixing” –things you think would fix the problem.

I notice that they are not necessarily things people actually do, but things that sound good.  The next time you get ready to “help” someone by using one of these phrases, re-think it. Most likely you don’t know all the financial, emotional, or work circumstances involved. And a “fix” generally is a big-picture idea that has small-detail consequences that are hard to apply.

“I had the same thing happen to me two years ago. . .” This isn’t about you, and telling that story is not helpful to the person you are telling it to.

“Well, what can you expect if you run in bare feet?” Thank you, Obviousman. What do you expect for an answer?

“It could have been worse. . .” What, this isn’t bad enough for you? When a dominant arm is strapped to your side, you need help in the most interesting ways. That’s plenty bad for me, thanks.

“Here’s what you should do. . .” You don’t know this person well enough to take over responsibility for their decision-making, even if it’s your sister.

“Just hire someone to do the yard and house work. . .” Unless you are offering to pay for these services, don’t suggest it. Most freelancers, if they have medical insurance, have a giant deductible that has to be paid out of pocket before the insurance kicks in.

“You’re so lucky that it wasn’t worse. . .” Lucky is winning the lottery. If that didn’t happen, don’t use the word ‘lucky.’

“It’s all God’s will . . .” Stop blaming higher powers for dumb accidents. Accidents are called that because no one wanted them to happen and they don’t have a lot of purpose. I’m with the Buddhists on this–stop trying to get ground under your feet and deal with the uncertainty that is.

“Really, some good will come from all this. . .” Unless you are personally going to make something fabulous happen, skip this one. Some things are just rotten, and getting through them is rotten. And it still has to be done. Self-discipline is a virtue you hate to practice.

“I’m not married and I have to do all the work all the time. Be glad you have a husband.” Sigh. It’s still not about you. When you are married it’s more than twice the work to take over the spouse’s chores. When you live by yourself, there is less laundry, less food (and you can eat over the sink), and half the people to make the mess in a smaller place.

So what is a good way to help? Be empathetic. You don’t need to fix this. Just witness it. A witness sees and notices but doesn’t turn into Dear Abby. If you offer help, expect it to be taken and be ready to give it cheerfully and without payback. You don’t have to offer help, either. You can say something like, “What a rotten break. I’m so sorry, ” or “I hate it along with you.” Empathy glides over bumps while advice has a nail in the tire.

If you do offer help, give a hint what kind you are willing to offer. Because if you ask “What can I do?” and your friend says, “Clean my house and drive him around on Tuesdays,” you’ll probably turn her down. If you say, “Can I bring you my clam and watermelon casserole?” you’ll get a polite turn-down and won’t have to offer anything else.

Being a witness is all that it takes to nourish a friendship. You don’t have to be a healer or a fixer.

–Quinn McDonald is a writer, life- and creativity coach. She has a business website at and an art website at