Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Tools of the Trade: Commonplace Book

As I mentioned yesterday, if you see me out in person, odds are you will find a notebook somewhere on me. I have them coming out of my ears (not literally, though a pair of earring notebooks would be interesting...), and I use them often. I keep them with me so I won't miss out on those important droplets of information that rain down so unpredictably. Sometimes it is a quote, sometimes an image, sometimes an idea. They're all things I want to keep, and I just don't trust my spongy gray-matter enough to hold onto it for me by itself. These notebooks are not quite journals, though they are certainly personal. They are my commonplace books.

Yes. They're all full. All.

Commonplace books have a long history, dating back to the 15th century Italy when they were known as "zibaldone", or "hodgepodge books." That's a good way of describing them--a commonplace book can hold a little bit of everything, and each is unique to its owner. Many great minds have used them to store their thoughts and information, including John Locke, Mark Twain, Henry David Thoreau, and Ralph Waldo Emerson. For what it's worth, commonplace books also factored into the A Series of Unfortunate Events series by Lemony Snicket, and that deserves as much distinction as anything.

One facet that separates a commonplace book from a diary or a journal, is that the content is not always intrinsically personal, and the pages are often indexed. John Locke is credited for popularizing an index system in which each page must be given a header to identify the content and how it will be used. Locke's system was aimed toward academics, but the foundation is useful in any context. There comes a sense of responsibility for what goes on the page once that header is on there, and I find it helps me maintain focus. (Read: I feel guilty for tangents. Then I make a new page for the tangent, but since it has a name, it is no longer a tangent. Lather, rinse, repeat.) 

Allow me to outline my incredibly complicated commonplace book indexing system. Every page of my commonplace book gets the topic of that page on the upper corner, and the right page (only, unless it is a top bound spiral notebook) gets a page number.

That's pretty much it.

When the book is full, and I do mean every-single-line full, I go back and fill out an index card with the labels and contents. I tape it to the back cover of the book, and then I grab up the next one to start all over again.

My commonplace book is a comfort. I know I always have a safe place to scribble down a thought or an image so I can save it for later when I'm going to "really" write. If I'm away from home and inspiration calls, I can do a little novel drafting and the index keeps me from losing the pages in the mix. These books also hold my idea stockpile. If I can't find something to write about, I can flip through them and find all kinds of inspiration. When I do find one of those rare free moments to write something down or read something back, I feel more intensely myself than any other time throughout my day. That's a pretty big gift for a tiny little pad of paper.

It might be a notebook to you, but it is more than a place to scribble a grocery list. My commonplace book is like a beating heart tucked into my purse or pocket, and I am better off for having it there.


Ellen Prewitt said...

I love giving the notebooks a title and a place of their own in the history of great writers - could I ever be this organized?

Marisa said...

My commonplace books probably have about as much in common with the pantheon of great writers as a fast food wrapper does with Shakespeare, but I love them anyway. I also have NO DOUBT you are at least five times as organized as me.

At least.