Excerpts from My Commonplace Book: On Doubt, Fear, and Failure

Absolute BlankBy Theryn Fleming (Beaver)

I prefaced the first article in this series by saying “By far the most popular article I’ve written for Toasted Cheese is ‘Keeping a Commonplace Book’ (see Top Posts Today in the sidebar for evidence; it’s always there!).” and it’s still true. When I get a Pinterest notification, nine times out of ten, it’s someone liking or repinning that article. (The other 10% consists mainly of people liking something I pinned as a joke, ha.)

For this month’s article, I chose the theme of “doubt, fear, and failure” because I think all writers have experienced feeling like they have no idea what they’re doing, like everyone around them is more talented, like they’re writing and writing and writing and getting nowhere. If you’re feeling like an imposter, rest assured, you’re not alone. Every writer has been there at some point. Remember, everyone has their gameface on, and what they allow you to see does not reflect their own internal struggles.

Background Image: Andrew Hall (CC-by-nc-sa)

Background Image: Andrew Hall (CC-by-nc-sa)

When you start out on a career in the arts you have no idea what you are doing. This is great. People who know what they are doing know the rules, and know what is possible and impossible. You do not. And you should not. The rules on what is possible and impossible in the arts were made by people who had not tested the bounds of the possible by going beyond them. And you can. If you don’t know it’s impossible it’s easier to do. And because nobody’s done it before, they haven’t made up rules to stop anyone doing that again, yet.Neil Gaiman {+}

What’s your advice to new writers? Don’t give a shit. Don’t care. Books, until recently, were dangerous: banned, burned, watched. Write something dangerous. Say something you shouldn’t. Blow something up. But well.Shalom Auslander {+}

Anyway, do we really want consistency in an artist? What does this pressure to please the market have to do with art? Originality involves risk, and risk implies the possibility of failure. That’s how greatness is born.Robert McCrum {+}

Risk! Risk anything! Care no more for the opinions of others, for those voices. Do the hardest thing on earth for you. Act for yourself. Face the truth. —Katherine Mansfield {+}

I often need to remind myself that I need to hear failure out, because by failing at doing an easy thing, a groupthink thing, a thing one has been taught to do for one’s career, one might be encouraged to make or do or be something more original and true. Because failing as an artist is a necessary thing, a thing I wish I could more easily accept.Rebecca Brown {+}

I do worry a little that the modern age has taken the failure stage out of the creative process. Now if you can’t get your manuscript published, it’s because the publishers are cowards, can’t see your genius, and you can self-publish it (and then send out slightly crazed emails to critics). There is a lack of humility, a failure to recognize that getting knocked on your ass is actually good for you.Jessa Crispin {+}

I was talking to my graduate class a bit … about how career writers—career anything, I suppose—are always having to list their shiny accomplishments, and how it would be such a great relief sometime to write up your Anti-Vita and let people see it. It would be such a moment of candor, of behind-the-curtain truth. All the awards you didn’t get, all the amazing journals your work wasn’t good enough to be published in, all the prizes you were nominated for but—oops!—didn’t actually win. Sigh. All the teaching innovations, trotted out with such high hopes, that failed miserably. And so on. How you sat at home on the sofa and muttered, “What’s the point?,” embarrassing yourself and boring your family members, who tiptoed quietly away. Revealing all the failures would be such a relief, such an exhale, such an “I’m nobody, who are you?” opportunity. —Joy Castro {+}

It’s painful to write. It’s painful to take a clear look at your finances, at your health, at your relationships. At least it’s painful when you have no confidence that you can actually improve in those areas. I would not speak for anyone else, but most of my distractions … are traceable to a deep-seated fear that I may not ultimately prevail.Ta-Nehisi Coates {+}

I had hardly begun to read
I asked how can you ever be sure
that what you write is really
any good at all and he said you can’t

you can’t you can never be sure
you die without knowing
whether anything you wrote was any good
if you have to be sure don’t writeW. S. Merwin {+}

“I think the single most defining characteristic of a writer”—I found myself saying to a friend the other day, when she asked my thoughts on the teaching of writing—“I mean the difference between a writer and someone who ‘wants to be a writer,’ is a high tolerance for uncertainty.” … It’s hard to write well. But it may be even harder to simply keep writing; which, by the way, is the only way to write better.Sonya Chung {+}

[M]y internal life as a writer has been a constant battle with the small, whispering voice (well, sometimes it shouts) that tells me I can’t do it. This time, the voice taunts me, you will fall flat on your face. Every single piece of writing I have ever completed — whether a novel, a memoir, an essay, short story or review — has begun as a wrestling match between hopelessness and something else, some other quality that all writers, if they are to keep going, must possess.Dani Shapiro {+}

“[T]hat kind of self doubt and low self-esteem you’re describing is just part of the creative process.” This was a revelation to me—that those terrible feelings actually signaled that I was IN the creative process and not that I was failing at it.Michelle Huneven {+}

[I]n my view a writer is a writer not because she writes well and easily, because she has amazing talent, because everything she does is golden. In my view a writer is a writer because even when there is no hope, even when nothing you do shows any sign of promise, you keep writing anyway.Junot Díaz {+}

What many talented people lack is the ability to keep going when external rewards are minimal or non-existent. … Every writer gets rejected, sometimes over and over. But the ones who only have potential stop submitting (or just stop writing) somewhere along the way. They get discouraged and feel beat down. And then, before you know it, they’ve become someone who used to be a writer. Or someone who wanted to be a writer. —Chris Guillebeau {+}

[Writing a book is] very difficult. But so is losing 30 pounds or learning French or growing your own vegetables or training for a marathon … While it’s tempting to keep the idea of writing wrapped up in a glittery gauze of muse-directed creativity, it’s just another sort of work, one that requires dedication, commitment, time and the necessary tools.Mary McNamara {+}

I discovered that, by spending a long time on a short story, I could make it pretty good. But all around me, people were turning in truly terrific short stories and saying, “Oh, I wrote it the night before I turned it in.” There was so little talk of process back then, I really thought that I was the only writer there whose work went through an ugly stage. For years, I thought with deep shame that I was a fraud, up against the truly talented. It took me about twenty years to realize they were lying, and just armoring themselves for the criticism to come, and pretending not to be as invested in the work as they were. —Michelle Huneven {+}

“A novel is a work of a certain length that is somehow flawed,” a wise critic once said—and as I was told during the first few weeks of my MFA program. To write a novel, and see to it through from the first word to the 150,000th, you have to be willing to embrace the idea that every once in a while your prose is going to be, for lack of a better word, more prosaic than it would be otherwise. Why? Because to get a reader to make it through 150,000 words (the length of my last, and about the length of your average robust novel), you need this clunky, unattractive but very utilitarian thing called a plot. —Hector Tobar {+}

What’s in your head is seemingly infinitely richer than what you finally get down on the page. I think that’s why some people never actually get the writing done. They have a dream of a book in their head, and every attempt to write it down feels impoverished. The difference used to bother me until I thought about what the tradeoff was. The book in your head may be the platonically ideal book you could write, while the book you do write may seem a poor beast indeed, Caliban to your ideal book’s Prospero. But the book you write is real. And when you finish, you can hold it in your hands. —Richard Rhodes {+}

I worry about rejection, but not too much. The real fear isn’t rejection, but that there won’t be enough time in your life to write all the stories you have in you. So every time I put a new one in the mail, I know I’ve beaten death again. —Ray Bradbury {+}

“The peculiarity of being a writer,” [Joan] Didion says, “is that the entire enterprise involves the mortal humiliation of seeing one’s own words in print.” … Yet even worse than publication, she says, is the risk that something unfinished will be published.Adrienne LaFrance {+}

Organize Your Story Online

Absolute BlankBy Stephanie Lenz (Baker)

This time last year I was writing a story for Wicked Women Writers, a horror fiction contest sponsored by Horror Addicts. In addition to time parameters, which translate to word count) and the need to record my story for the podcast, I had to make use of elements that were assigned to me: setting, a beast (from the Chinese zodiac), a blessing, and a curse. I was lucky enough to have a story set in New Orleans, complete with a voodoo potion and a gris-gris bag, during Mardi Gras. I wasn’t so sure about the goat.

ab_15-05_pinterest

I began working through ideas without writing much. In a paper notebook, I jotted ideas for the plot but nothing was coming together except for character sketches. I made a playlist of old Southern spirituals, live Dixieland performances, and early blues recordings and played it while I learned more about voodoo and studied maps of the French Quarter. I spoke to friends who’d lived in New Orleans; the only time I’ve spent in Louisiana was a childhood visit to family in Baton Rouge.

As I browsed online, I was inspired by Chagall paintings that featured goats, the architecture of New Orleans (including the tombs in St. Louis cemetery #1 and Metairie Cemetery), and stories of the community following Hurricane Katrina. I bookmarked the links I found but many of my inspirations were just images so I hit upon the idea of creating a private Pinterest board for what I’d found so far. The board helped me organize, picture my setting, and narrow my many ideas into a workable story. After the story came up for voting, I made the Pinterest board public and included a link to it.

Stephanie’s “The Gray Girl” Pinboard

Creating a Pinterest board as a modern “idea book” worked so well for me that I’ve done it again and am currently gathering ideas for a new project. If you’re a visual person, if you like to organize online, or if you get a story idea on the go and you’d like to have an app for that, you might like to create boards like these.

What’s all this Pinterest stuff?

I think of Pinterest as a big corkboard. Some people think of it like a scrapbook or notebook. Early adopters used Pinterest to gather and save recipes, knitting patterns, or ideas for weddings. It’s basically a visual blog that lets you link to content via images. Whereas platforms like Tumblr allow you to use text only, you must use images or videos on Pinterest. If the page you want to pin to doesn’t have an image, you can add an image of your choosing and then link it as you choose.

Creating pins is simple. If there’s an image or video on a page, you can almost always pin it (even gifs). You can create your own images and upload them to your board. Don’t be surprised to see your own created image come back to you (mine did).

If you want to pin a page and there’s no image, you can upload any image and put the URL of the page you want to pin into the link box (use your computer to do this instead of the Pinterest app).

How can I use it?

There are a lot of ways, none being right or wrong. Your board(s) may be public or private, maintained by individuals or groups. You can have one board or many (sub-boards aren’t yet available).

The question becomes: “What do I pin?” Here are some basic ideas for writing-specific boards, which could be used generally or for a specific project:

  •         Story (plot ideas, research)
  •         Character (inspiring images, clothing, traits)
  •         Setting (architecture, landscapes, rooms)
  •         Theme
  •         How-to graphics (plotting, character creation)
  •         Prompts (these are one of the most prolific types of pin)
  •         Favorite books and journals
  •         Writing advice
  •         Exercises
  •         Worksheets
  •         Generators (character names, traits, prompts)
  •         Articles
  •         Challenges
  •         Quotations & sayings (writing. books, character, jokes)

Does this look familiar? It should if you have a “writing” folder among your bookmarks. Clearing out your bookmarks is a great way to get started using Pinterest as your central writing resource.

Stephanie’s Writing Pinboard

I’m not into Pinterest but I read this far

You can use other apps in the same way, taking advantage of their particular features. Tumblr might be less visual (depending on the template you use) but if you like searching your own collection via tags or recycling and repurposing ideas from other users, it might be more to your taste. Whereas Pinterest limits you to 500 characters on a pin, Tumblr will let you write and post an entire story (without the need for images). You’re not going to find explicit adult content at Pinterest. Meanwhile it’s plentiful at Tumblr, which can be useful if you’re writing erotica or using other adult inspiration for your story. Tumblr has settings that can keep adult content off your dashboard if you choose.

I keep Evernote on my devices because I never know when I’ll overhear a conversation I want to save or a name I want to use. It’s replaced the old memo pad I carried since high school, as well as the “I’ll jot this on my arm” method of notetaking.

I like Pinterest because I’m visual and I like having everything on a single page with small images that catch my eye differently every time I visit said page. Someone else might have an established system for story creation but needs help with organizing writing time.

Give me some options other than Pinterest

Other platforms you can use to create your online idea book include:

  • Tumblr, WordPress, Blogger, and other traditional blogging applications
  • Evernote and OneNote (these are similar programs. Like Pinterest, Evernote clips online content and works best as an app. OneNote is better on PC and is an organizational junkie’s dream)
  • Instapaper (syncs across devices; use with friends)
  • Thoughtboxes (think Post-Its in folders)
  • Licorize (you can transfer your Delicious links; has an “add” button for browsers)
  • Bundlr (has a paid “ad-free” version)

Check these out and see which works for your purposes. When browsing apps like these, think of how, when, and where you’ll use them. Many are listed as “productivity” apps, designed for balancing work and personal life. As a creative person, you’ll discover new ways to use them to organize not just your writing life but also your writing projects.

 

Excerpts From My Commonplace Book: On Not Writing

Absolute BlankBy Theryn Fleming (Beaver)

By far the most popular article I’ve written for Toasted Cheese is “Keeping a Commonplace Book” (see Top Posts Today in the sidebar for evidence; it’s always there!). As I mentioned in that article, for several years now, I’ve been collecting quotes on my blog and many of those quotes are writing-related. So when casting about for a topic for this month’s article, it occurred to me that the same people who are interested in the how-tos of commonplacing might also be interested in some of the content I put in mine.

I decided to take a ‘quotes on a theme’ approach and pull quotes that relate to a specific topic. It turns out I’ve collected a lot of writing quotes, so there will likely be future articles on other themes, but for this month’s article, I chose the theme of “not writing”—a subject that seems to be of universal concern to writers. If you wrote fewer words in 2014 than you intended to—this one’s for you. Take heart. Not-writing is as much a part of the writing process as placing words on the page. If you’re in writing drought right now, remember the writing life is a cycle. One day the words will begin to flow again. Trust.

Background image: Mitchell Joyce/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

Background image: Mitchell Joyce/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

Writing is hard—writers say this all the time, and I think probably only other writers believe it. But it’s not nearly as hard, in my experience, as not writing. During my should-be-writing years, I thought about my novel all the time. Increasingly, these were not happy or satisfying thoughts. … I woke one night in the midst of a minor panic attack. It wasn’t unusual for me wake in the night, anxious and scared—and I always knew the source of the panic right away. But it was rare for my heavy-sleeping husband to wake at the same time. And instead of reassuring him and letting him get back to sleep, I told him the naked, humbling truth. I told him that if I didn’t finish my novel, I thought my future happiness might be at risk. He wiped his eyes and yawned and said, “OK. Let’s figure out how to make this happen.” It didn’t happen overnight, but the tide of my life shifted. —Susanna Daniel {+}

Studies on the nature of creativity have shown that people who consistently come up with more inventive and creative ideas are not necessarily innately gifted, nor are they necessarily more intelligent than other people. They are however capable of tolerating a certain level of mental discomfort. It works something like this: When our brains are presented with a problem—any problem—we feel slightly anxious. When we solve a problem, our brains release endorphins that make us feel good. So, we have a problem to solve, we often run with the first answer we come up with because it feels good (literally) to find a solution! But people who are willing to see that first solution, and then set it aside—delaying that endorphin high—while they continue to search for another answer, and another, and another… until they have compared all possible solutions and then chose the best option—and run with it—consistently come up with much more interesting, creative solutions.Molly Idle {+}

Not writing is important: it’s restorative. Taking a break from the work is also a part the work. Nobody really talks about that part of being a writer, and I know why they don’t. It’s scary. When I’m writing, I feel plugged in and energized and in sync. But when I’m not writing, I feel out of it. I have the very real fear that I’ll never be able to write anything ever again. When you look at the stiff, dark branches of trees in the winter, isn’t it hard to imagine those same trees all lush and full of leaves? But winter happens. Then spring comes. —Sarah Selecky {+}

Postal submissions taught writers that this vocation is not a sprint. Writing is a series of marathons separated by long respites, where we regain breath and build strength. It is time for writers to slow down again, so that our performance in the next race can be better, more meaningful, and if we are lucky, closer to the eternal, mysterious rewards of art. —Nick Ripatrazone {+}

Many of the successful published writers I hear talk on panels at conferences make it sound as if they are writing machines, as if they haven’t taken a day off from writing in years. Part of my success as a writer was not writing. If I hadn’t spent all those years teaching and reading and editing the work of other writers, I am certain I wouldn’t be the writer, and person, I am today. There are infinite ways to be a writer with a capital W, just as there are infinite ways to tell a story. —Julia Fierro {+}

There are a number of mysteries in [Penelope Fitzgerald’s] life, areas of silence and obscurity. One of these has to do with “lateness”. How much of a late starter, really, was she? She always said in interviews that she started writing her first novel (The Golden Child) to entertain her husband, Desmond Fitzgerald, when he was ill. But, like many of the things she told interviewers, there is something a little too simple about this. … There is a poignant note inside the back cover of her teaching notebook for 1969, a long time before she started to publish: “I’ve come to see art as the most important thing but not to regret I haven’t spent my life on it.” Yet the conversations she was having with writers in her teaching books show that she was always thinking about art and writing: they show how the deep river was running on powerfully, preparing itself to burst out.Hermione Lee {+}

I think that there is a case for saying that you have a bit more to say as you go through life. I mean, obviously there are people who write wonderful books in their early 20s. … But I think those people are the exception. Most of the time, I think one should just let these things mature. It’s no bad thing to start a writing career after you’ve experienced a bit of life.Alexander McCall Smith {+}

I have a blog, but I don’t do it properly. Months go by, years even, without me writing. Then suddenly I write a lot. Other people … other people blog properly. … The reason I don’t blog every day is because I am slow. … [U]ntil I’ve figured things out, I’m lost. Life for me is leaves blowing backwards. If I try to blog about it, I’m just snatching from the air. I have to wait until I’m clear of the leaves. Then I can look back and see what pattern they’ve been making, and their colours, and the fineness of their outlines. Other people are not lost at all. The precision of people who can blog all the time. It startles me, that clarity of leaves. —Jaclyn Moriarty {+}

Vertical writing … values depth over breadth. Stories are written when they are ready to be written; they are not forced into existence by planning or excessive drafting. … vertical writing seeks to dig into the page, to value the building of character and authenticity over the telegraphing of plot. … Vertical writing is no less work, but it is better work, work at the right time. It requires patience in the willingness to wait for a story to feel ready to be written, as well as the attention and focus necessary to inhabit the story once gestated.Nick Ripatrazone {+}

By and large really great writing from all wars comes a good time afterwards, when a person has had the time to let material develop and form itself, so that it’s not rhetorical. So that it’s not so heavily autobiographical. … It’s a bit like writing about cancer; there needs to be time. You need to find a way to transcend the tendency to put in every little detail. Just because it felt so important, it may not be important to the reader. And time is needed for imagination to come into play and to work with the material, to shape a story that may not be wholly in the real world, but only partly. —Tim O’Brien {+}

Nancy Slonim Aronie writes “great work comes after good work which comes after lousy work which comes after no work. remember that order.” please do. —Irene Nam {+}

What I forget, though, and what I am trying here to remember, is that the work does get done. Not every day, like the writing teachers recommend. Not even every week. But invariably, wherever I go, I write, just as inevitably I forget about having written, and subsequently worry. —Alex Gallo-Brown {+}

The time we have alone, the time we have in walking, the time we have in riding a bicycle, is the most important time for a writer. Escaping from the typewriter is part of the creative process. You have to give a subconscious time to think. Real thinking always occurs on the subconscious level. —Ray Bradbury {+}

Some of our most creative work gets done in downtime–waking from a nap, taking a walk, daydreaming in the shower. (Writers are particularly clean.) Downtime is when breakthrough ideas are delivered to us, unsummoned, when yesterday’s blockages somehow come unblocked. That’s because we treated ourselves to a little boredom and cleared our brains of the sludge of information. Try it. —William Zinsser {+}

I used to think that I needed wide open days and uncluttered hours to get important creative work done. Sometimes that’s true. But I’ve also learned that perhaps more important than what happens when I’m staring at the page is what happens when I’m not. How I chew on the idea in my downtime. My subconscious must know about the deadline—needs it, even—and works feverishly to pull it all together. Perhaps it’s even a pipe dream to imagine having something done early enough to bask in its finished glory with a glass of wine. And maybe that’s not even the point—writing is work and the furious finish is part of the process. —S. Hope Mills {+}

Keeping a Commonplace Book

Absolute Blank

By Theryn Fleming (Beaver)

I love commonplace books; the most recent entry in my own is from the photographer Alfred Stieglitz: “Nearly right is child’s play.” —Michael Dirda

When I was eleven, my godmother gave me a hardcover notebook. Inside the front cover, she wrote: “It can be a diary, whatever you like!” It turned into whatever I liked.

The first surviving page—there are several torn out at the beginning, evidence of false starts made before I figured out what use to put the book to—is a list of potential character names: first names on one side, last names on the other. There are also lists of Likes (cities, peanut butter chocolate chip cookies, reading uncensored books), Dislikes (being serious, snow, people who borrow stuff permanently), Quotes (‘three can keep a secret as long as two of them are dead’), Vocab (made-up or repurposed words a la Urban Dictionary), amongst others. These lists weren’t created all at once, but compiled over years, added to one or two items at a time. My favorite of these is the one titled Words, a list of words I liked, often more for their sound than their meaning: eclectic, elfin, exquisite, eloquent; crinkly, quirk, corrupt, cajole; shimmery, psyche, sepulchral, sinuous. Others seem more prophetic or insightful: scribe, judicial, introspective, and provocative (twice).

In my book, I also copied out song lyrics (painstakingly transcribed while pressing play-rewind repeatedly), poems I read at school, bits of creative writing from English classes. Some fragments are typed (how 2012!) and pasted in. There are clippings from magazines and newspapers—and, naturally, no shortage of Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Teenage Angst Poetry. I did fancy myself a writer, after all.

Though I did include some of my own writing in the book, these were pieces I either considered finished (that I’d revised and polished) or that were like the word version of those snapshots that seemed like a good idea at the time (you know the ones I mean), but now not so much. It wasn’t my journal—I had a separate notebook for that, and it wasn’t a writer’s notebook—I kept my writing projects, such as they were, in a binder. Though I didn’t know it at the time, what I had created was commonplace book.

Keeping a Commonplace Book

Commonplace Books: The Basics

While the lyrics to eighties pop songs probably won’t be consulted for their wisdom in a hundred years, teenage me did have the basics of commonplacing down: find things that are meaningful to you and collect them, over time, in a book—eventually creating a sort of a textual collage.

Commonplace books have elements in common with journals/diaries, writer’s notebooks, and scrapbooks, but are their own distinctive genre. A commonplace book might include some of the commonplacer’s own thoughts and observations, but unlike a journal/diary, which typically consists of narrative entries written in chronological order, a commonplace book is non-narrative and non-chronological. Ideas are typically organized under headings rather than by date.

A commonplace book tends to be both less impulsive and less practical than a writer’s notebook. Entries into a commonplace book are usually made with some forethought—a particular pen, an attention to neatness—unlike a writer’s notebook in which fleeting thoughts are scribbled, often illegibly. A writer’s notebook is often kept with specific projects in mind, whereas commonplaced ideas are collected more for their intrinsic value—knowledge for knowledge’s sake—than any immediate practical purpose.

Clippings and photographs might be pasted into a commonplace book, but unlike a scrapbook, which is outward-facing—the curated version of the scrapbooker’s life they want to present to others—a commonplace book is inward-facing. It is either completely private, or at least designed with one reader in mind: the author/curator him or herself. As such, a commonplace book tends to be more honest and personal than a scrapbook.

Traditional Commonplace Books

Historically, a commonplace book was a handwritten notebook, a place to store quotations, ideas, reading notes, scraps of conversation, etc. for future reference.

[Commonplace] books were essentially scrapbooks filled with items of every kind: medical recipes, quotes, letters, poems, tables of weights and measures, proverbs, prayers, legal formulas. Commonplaces were used by readers, writers, students, and scholars as an aid for remembering useful concepts or facts they had learned. Each commonplace book was unique to its creator’s particular interests. —Wikipedia

[Commonplace Book], [late 17th Century]Photo Credit: Beinecke Flickr Laboratory

Commonplace bookScholars, amateur scientists, aspiring men of letters—just about anyone with intellectual ambition in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries was likely to keep a commonplace book. In its most customary form, “commonplacing,” as it was called, involved transcribing interesting or inspirational passages from one’s reading, assembling a personalized encyclopedia of quotations. It was a kind of solitary version of the original web logs: an archive of interesting tidbits that one encountered during one’s textual browsing. The great minds of the period—Milton, Bacon, Locke—were zealous believers in the memory-enhancing powers of the commonplace book. —Steven Johnson
Photo Credit: vlasta2

 

MS Eng 584 (1)A common-place book is what a provident poet cannot subsist without, for this proverbial reason, that “great wits have short memories;” and whereas, on the other hand, poets being liars by profession, ought to have good memories. To reconcile these, a book of this sort is in the nature of a supplemental memory; or a record of what occurs remarkable in every day’s reading or conversation. There you enter not only your own original thoughts, (which, a hundred to one, are few and insignificant) but such of other men as you think fit to make your own by entering them there. For take this for a rule, when an author is in your books, you have the same demand upon him for his wit, as a merchant has for your money, when you are in his. —Jonathan Swift
Photo Credit: John Overholt

 

Time was when readers kept commonplace books. Whenever they came across a pithy passage, they copied it into a notebook under an appropriate heading, adding observations made in the course of daily life. … early modern Englishmen read in fits and starts and jumped from book to book. They broke texts into fragments and assembled them into new patterns by transcribing them in different sections of their notebooks. Then they reread the copies and rearranged the patterns while adding more excerpts. Reading and writing were therefore inseparable activities. They belonged to a continuous effort to make sense of things, for the world was full of signs: you could read your way through it; and by keeping an account of your readings, you made a book of your own, one stamped with your personality. —Robert Darnton, The Case for Books (149-150)

Here, Steven Johnson, author of Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation, discusses how Charles Darwin’s commonplace book was influential in his formulation of the theory of evolution:


(clip length: 3:00m)

This Harvard exhibit on note-taking includes scans of several handwritten (manuscript) commonplace books that you can flip through to see what they were like, and here’s an example of a nineteenth-century commonplace book that was published in print form:

Writers’ Commonplace Books

Many well-known writers kept commonplace books. Here’s a list of a few of them. Since most of these are out of print, the links are to WorldCat, which will show you what libraries near you have copies of the books.

Modern Commonplace Books

It might seem like commonplace books are a thing of the past; after all, who picks up a pen to write anymore? Why bother to transcribe text when it’s so easy to copy/paste? But a quick websearch shows they are alive and well.

Commonplace Book (Moleskine Foldout)Photo Credit: Chris Lott

76th of 2nd 365: A turned down corner in my previous commonplace bookI keep what I now realise is a commonplace book. A constant stream of notebooks—except most of my own notes go straight onto a keyboard these days … so the books are where everyone else’s notes go: notes on talks, and pages copied out of books. A lot of these. This is how I think. —James Bridle
Photo Credit: Tim Regan

 

The large version of my notebookRilke in my Commonplace Book[A commonplace book is] a means of collecting and storing all those bits of information that make our lives interesting. It could be a photo, an essay, or a quote. Regardless, it’s important information that you want to mark and save for later. Sharing things in my corner of the web makes them also form a part of my identity. What I share, to a large extent, is who I am. It’s how I communicate with you even if I’m not able to talk to you everyday. The destruction of a sharing service means I would also lose the ability to flip back through a history of my thought. Those long-forgotten hunches would stay forgotten and lost to history. Without a commonplace book that you control you’re gambling your ability to learn and grow from your current actions. —Andrew Spittle
Photo Credits: (top) George Redgrave
(bottom) Winston Hearn

 

Pages from my Commonplace BookKeep a commonplace book, inspiration board, scrapbook, or catch-all box to keep track of ideas and images. Not only do such collections help you remember thoughts, they create juxtapositions that stimulate creativity. My catch-all happiness document for happiness is 500 pages long, single-spaced. When I need a mental jolt, I just skip around and read random sections. It always helps. —Gretchen Rubin
Photo Credit: Jason Helzer

David Shields’s recent book, Reality Hunger: A Manifesto, takes the form a commonplace book: a series of quotes from various sources compiled together and interspersed with his own thoughts. The controversial twist was that he removed all attribution from the quotes so there was no way to tell who wrote what, unless you were previously familiar with a quote or style of writing—or you flipped to the appendix his publisher made him include (and that he urged readers to tear out).

The American Scholar has a digital commonplace book with quotes collected around themes such as blame, grief, and gratitude.

Why Keep a Paper Commonplace Book in the 21st Century?

Several years ago, in “Poetry 101: Getting Started,” I wrote, “[W]rite poems you like out longhand. When you do this, you’ll find your hand moving as the poet’s did, your breath as the poet’s did. You slide inside the poem and it becomes yours if only for a moment. Keep a notebook, and copy into it poems that inspire you, that make you want to write. When the book’s full, you’ll have your very own personalized anthology—one that isn’t just good reading, but is a document of your growth as a poet.”

This advice was based on my own experience keeping such a notebook—in reality, a very traditional commonplace book in which I only copied poems and quotes from things I was reading. But at some point, I stopped adding to my book. For a while, I kept quotations in a Word document, and then on my Geocities website (RIP). These days, quotes I like end up on my blog, which is fine—it’s efficient and allows me share them with others—but I can’t help feel doesn’t have the same weight that the book did. Writing quotes out by hand, instead of copy/pasting, forces you to slow down and really pay attention to the words rather than skimming.

“[T]here are still good reasons for writers to keep commonplace books the old-fashioned way. In copying by hand a masterful construction from another writer, we can inhabit the words, grasp their rhythms and, with some luck, learn a little something about how good writing is made. —Danny Heitman

[T]he key thing was to write the words in your own hand — by this means, by laboriously and carefully copying out the insights of people smarter than you, you could absorb and internalize their wisdom. Call it osmosis-by-handwriting. …When I post quotations and images to my tumblelog I suppose I’m succumbing to the temptation to cheat: I’m not writing anything out by hand; I’m not even typing the words … I’m just copying and pasting, which is nearly frictionless. I don’t have to think about whether I really want to record a passage or image: if it’s even vaguely or potentially interesting, in it goes. I might not even read it with care, much less give it the kind of attention that would be required if I were to write it out by hand.
Alan Jacobs

Commonplacing was a means of more deeply internalizing an author’s words, as its early practitioners often pointed out. It was a sign of attentiveness, of profound engagement with text. The cutting and pasting, or mashing up, that we do online today tends to be much more cursory and superficial—it’s done with a couple of mouse clicks rather than with the painstaking retracing of a passage in longhand. And what’s cut-and-pasted is rarely kept in the way that the passages in commonplace books were kept. (Rewriting a passage was often the first step in a process of memorization.) With cutting-and-pasting, the words remain external; we borrow them, briefly, rather than making them our own. —Nick Carr

There’s something important about exploring ideas privately as well as collectively. Indeed, there’s something about promiscuous online bookmarking and highlighting that seems antithetical to commonplacing. Because the real challenge of handling stray nuggets of information isn’t how to collect and organise them … Commonplacing is about internalising that information: engaging deeply, processing it so that it becomes part of you. Writing by hand seems to help; so does not instantly sharing everything. If the web is a wild, furiously creative ecosystem—a rainforest, say—the commonplace book is a private vegetable patch. Different things grow best in each. —Oliver Burkeman

Ideas for Keeping a Commonplace Book

Traditional Options

If you decide to start a traditional notebook as your commonplace book, consider how you write (e.g. do you have tiny, neat printing or sprawling, loopy cursive?). A small notebook can fit in a pocket, making it easy to take with you, but if you don’t have tiny handwriting, you might find it frustrating to use. Also think about your personal preferences and how you plan to use the book. If you hate it when your handwriting slopes up the page at angle, you’ll probably want to choose a lined notebook rather than an unlined one. If you’d like to illustrate your quotes, think about choosing a sketchbook rather than traditional notebook.

  • The I’m-not-ready-for-commitment option: index cards in a box. Easy to shuffle around if you change your mind about what heading to put a quote under and if you make a mistake, no worries. Toss the card and try again.
  • The environmentally-friendly DIY option: make your own commonplace book with scrap paper. Here’s a tutorial.
  • The old standby option: Moleskine journals.
  • The splurge option: invest in a leather journal. Here’s one example from Chapters (bookstores are a good place to look for journals/notebooks), and an indie version from Etsy.

Digital Options

If you know a notebook is just not going to work for you—maybe you really hate your handwriting or it’s completely illegible—but you think there might be some merit to keeping a private commonplace book, here are some offline and/or private digital alternatives that are superior to a neverending Word document.

Online Options

Finally, here are some public options for those of you who crave the social in social media. I’ve included some very non-traditional alternatives here, to illustrate that you can create a commonplace book almost anywhere.

  • A blog, such as WordPress or Tumblr, is the most versatile online option. Both give you the option of quoting, linking, sharing photos and video—as well as liking and reblogging others’ posts.
  • Delicious. Use the “description” box to copy a quote from the page you’re bookmarking.
  • Goodreads. Add quotes to “Quotes You Like” or like ones already added by other users. You can arrange your quotes in any order.
  • Twitter. Make use of retweets and favorites, as well as tweeting your own thoughts.
  • Pinterest. Here’s the board Baker started for Toasted Cheese, which includes illustrated quotations and writing humor. The limitation of Pinterest is that pins must include an image, but if you find inspiration in the visual as well as the textual, this might be an option for you.
  • Flickr. Another visually-oriented option. Favorites can reveal themes over time, as I realized when I looked at my page. Once you’ve identified a theme, you can use a gallery to collect images based on it. In galleries, there’s a space for adding text to each photo you select. Here are galleries of old books, people sleeping in libraries, empty spaces (shows how text can be added to the left of the images), and illustrated quotes.

Keep in mind that you don’t have to limit yourself to a single option. You can keep both a private book and a public blog or a text-focused commonplace and a more visual one. The beauty of the commonplace book is that it’s your book—you can make it whatever you like.

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