Posted by: Liz Massey | June 14, 2009

“Amanuensis to the Zeitgeist”: Quinn McDonald and the 1001 Journals Project

Travels, Real & Imagined, by Helen R.

Travels, Real & Imagined, by Helen R.

Today’s post is an exciting discussion with writer, editor, creativity coach and blogger extraordinaire Quinn McDonald about her involvement with the 1001 Journals Project. I’ve mentioned this journaling project before in Creative Liberty’s sister blog on nonfiction writing, Write Livelihood; the project involves a wonderful set of circulating journals that are making their way around the world as people fill them up and respond to the entries of those who have worked in the journals before them.

Quinn is calling her set of journals The Traveling Journals Project. We had a wonderful electronic conversation about the importance of journaling, how she got involved in the project and what she hopes to do with the results when the journals come home all filled up.

Quinn McDonald

Quinn McDonald

Q. How did you first hear of the 1000 Journals Project?

A. My friend and former art teacher, Helen Rowles, invited me to a screening of “The 1000 Journals Project” at the Phoenix Art Museum. It’s the story of “Someguy”—an artist in San Francisco—who took 1000 blank journals and stamped them with an invitation to fill them up in any way at all. He left his return information in the back of the book. He then left them in bus stations, post offices, churches, men’s rooms—all over San Francisco. Then he waited. About 8 came back. Andrea Kreuzhage, a film producer and director, made a movie about the project, now available on DVD.

I keep a journal and teach journaling, so of course I was thrilled to go.

Q. What led you to want to participate in the 1001 Journals Project?

A. I’ve been a writer all my life, and have kept journals off and on for many years. For me, journals create a human view of our culture and history. When I went to the movie screening, I met Andrea Kreuzhage in the bookstore beforehand. I didn’t know who she was and struck up a conversation. She was very excited about the project, and I asked her way too many questions to be polite. She invited me to take part in the 1000 Journals Extension project, and I jumped at the chance. I then learned about the 1001 Journal Project and got involved in that, too.

Q. What does it mean to “teach” journaling? What are your students most hungry to learn?

A. Many people think there is “a right way” to keep a journal. Some people know one way and think it is the only way.

There are people who keep art journals, and people who long to keep art journals, but can’t draw. I show different ideas, talk about choices. I also teach specific classes–Journal Writing for Perfectionists, One-Sentence Journaling, Wabi-Sabi Journaling.  People want to make meaning in life. I believe that we don’t FIND meaning in life, we MAKE meaning in life. But people sometimes need permission to work deeply. I can’t give them permission, but I can show them how to give themselves permission.

Summer in the Sonoran, by Quinn M.

Summer in the Sonoran, by Quinn M.

Q. How does this project fit in with your journaling classes?

A. It’s a great fit. I see the importance of journal-keeping, and I’d like other people to join this great project of self-expression, imagination and communication.

Q. How did you choose the theme topics for the journals—did you choose them or did you seek input? Why did you go the route you did for selecting the theme?

A. Andrea told me that some people are more eager to write it they have a focus. Then Lynn Trochelman, the president of the Avondale Friends of the Library, wrote me. She also mentioned theme topics. We tossed around some ideas, and I chose Travel (real and imagined), Dreams (daydreams, nightdreams and wishes), Summer in the Sonoran, and an unthemed book. Erin Blomstrand, on the faculty of Estrella Mountain Community College in Avondale, had some excellent ideas about using journals in self-expression.

Q. How is the project going so far? Which journals are getting the most “action”?

A. The project is going well, but I’m always open to more ideas, more suggestions. The books are all out for their second trip. I have waiting lists for all the books. I may start another Travel journal, because it has the longest waiting list, and I don’t want people to become impatient. I also want to give each person room to make meaning—to contribute in a meaningful way.

Q. Are the journals circulating primarily in your local vicinity (Phoenix, AZ) or journeying around the country?

A. The Dream Journal went to Cabin John, Maryland, first. It’s now in Kennesaw, Georgia. When it comes back, it will make a local stop and then go to Thousand Oaks, California. The unthemed journal is scheduled to make stops in Australia and the Philippines, then go to Bosnia. This is really a world-wide project. The Sonoran Desert journal was originally called “Summer in Phoenix,” but now will go to Tucson, too. It may well wind up in the Australian desert, and then I’ll have to rethink the purpose of this journal.

Q. What do the journal-writers fill their pages with? Are they primarily visual artists? Writers?

A. They are primarily journal keepers. They can write, collage, stitch, draw, paint—whatever makes meaning for them. So far even the pages with art on them have writing on them as well.

Q. Have you had any trouble getting journals back? Do you think having designated journal-circulators enhances the final results? How?

A. I did send out a journal to someone who told me not to send it till she got back from Italy. I have a spreadsheet with the information on it, but the date notification slipped underneath the row above, and I didn’t see it. So it will be delayed for a bit.

I’m far more controlling than “Someguy,” because I’m intensely interested in the content. So when people sign up, I ask for their address, their e-mail, their phone number. Before I send the journal out, I send an e-mail. In the case of the woman in Italy, I sent her an e-mail, and left a voice-mail that the journal was coming, but did not wait for a return e-mail or call. I will from now on. As these books travel, they become more and more precious.

Someguy always knew he wouldn’t get all the journals back. And for him, it was an art project. That automatically meant that he could not be attached to the outcome—he couldn’t control what people put in, if they destroyed someone else’s work, if they burned or ripped pages.  That was his art project, for him to design. My project is a bit different. I’m far more interested in the content—watching people make meaning, express themselves, working in conjunction with strangers they don’t know—so by circulating it, and getting it back each time, the outcome will be different. People will read what others wrote and that will influence them in some way.

I scan the pages and post them, both on my website and on the 1001 Journals Project space, so people can see the progress of the journals. I think that affects the outcome. I’m also using libraries to circulate the books. I have several libraries that are interested in having me run a journal-writing evening, and then leave the journal for the library to check out.

Q. What would you say to encourage a blog reader to sign up to participate in the project?

A. Blogs are often visual, virtual journals. Most people who blog are making meaning. These books will probably exist long after the intangible blogs vanish. Anyone who is interested can sign up. I try not to tell people what they “should” do. I can’t want it for them.

Q. What do you think the ultimate impact of the project will be?

A. I hope to gather a large number of journals, and take them on tour to libraries, schools, museums. It’s a powerful project from a literacy perspective, from an identity perspective, from a cultural identity perspective. People who write in a book will read what other people said. Think about it. React to it. People who keep journals stand in a long line of writers and artists who have recorded moments of real life, defined a culture, recorded history. These journals capture a certain moment in time.

Someone called me the “Amanuensis to the Zeitgeist.” I had to look up ‘amanuensis.’ It means secretary in the sense of administrative assistant.  That’s pretty accurate. I’m making something much bigger happen, but it’s not about me at all. It’s about people who volunteer to express their creativity among stranger, and be confident that it makes sense. That’s how I see the project—a slice of different realities in one time period. Many voices in one book.

Q. Is there anything else you’d like to add about the project?

A. This project is helping me make my meaning in life. I separated meaning-making from money-making. The project is not tied to any sort of income, so I won’t make creative decisions through my wallet. I did put a “donate” button on my website, as a way for people to participate in way other than writing—a contribution of a different sort, if they choose. The project takes up time, but there are also padded envelopes, outer envelopes and postage, not to mention the free and low-cost classes I teach.

I didn’t realize how much time I would so happily give to this project. My biggest surprise was how many people not in the U.S. want to participate. My second biggest surprise was that people are donating on the website, and doing it with kind, generous notes. It’s a humbling and powerful experience.

Fishing, from the Unthemed Journal

Fishing, from the Unthemed Journal

To learn more about the Traveling Journals Project, make a donation or sign up for one of the journals, visit the web page Quinn has set up for the project.


  1. Great interview. As someone who just received her pages to use, I’m interested in seeing how this project has been going. I figured out this morning what I want to do with my entry, but haven’t a clue how it will fit in with others. It’s kind of like going to a pot luck where the host is brave enough not to say “Well, so and so is bringing salad, why don’t you bring an entree.” This feels like true pot luck!

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