“Don’t try to make life a mathematics problem with yourself in the center and everything coming out equal. When you’re good, bad things can still happen. And if you’re bad, you can still be lucky.” ― Barbara Kingsolver, The Poisonwood Bible
I found this quote written out on the first page of an ancient little notebook that came to light when we moved house a year or so ago. OK, here’s the admission, it was one of a number of notebooks, used and unused, that ran well into double figures. Yes, I have a thing for stationery, especially blank notebooks and journals and in particular beautifully bound fine lined smooth papered pamphlets that smell of luxury and the promise of words… always have and always will, I expect. I’ve always fancied myself a writer, and so buying these little books is a necessary precursor to the writing life, surely? Like pencil sharpening and desk tidying? But writing original stuff is damn hard, and as if I needed another diversionary tactic I’ve found myself adopting a delicious little habit of collecting quotes from books and films, words, ideas, snippets from overheard conversations, phrases, epigrams and poems that I see around and about the place.
I’ve been doing this for years and years. The Poisonwood Bible quote was from around the time my children were born. But I’ve been collating these personal anthologies in one form or another since I was a wee lass. It’s just a natural extension of folding over page corners and writing in the margins. I have quite a library of half filled notebooks! And, (and this is the really exciting part) I have recently discovered that there is an actual official name for these humble collections of borrowed words. Commonplace Books have been around for hundreds of years with their heyday in the 17th century. They were used as a way of collating knowledge, from poems and proverbs to quotes and conversations. So really, I’m really just carrying on a long tradition.
I suppose that the internet, and social media are our modern methods of curating words and ideas. Pinterest, Instagram, Facebook, tumblr are really just visual commonplace books. Apps like Evernote and Pocket (which I use all the time) are great for clipping and bookmarking, but there’s something a bit more wholesome and worthy about a handwritten notebook though, isn’t there? And it definitely helps you to remember something when you’ve put in the effort of writing it down using an actual, old fashioned pen. (‘great wits have short memories‘, said Jonathan Swift)
I suppose when I eventually write my novel (cough) I may go back and plunder my Commonplace Books for ideas and inspiration, but that’s really not the point. The worth is in the doing; process not result is the important thing. It’s so satisfying when you read something that makes you go ‘ooh, yes‘, to record your enjoyment of those words in your own way, in your own handwriting.
I urge you to begin your own Commonplace books! If you want to find out more…
- The Manly Tradition of the Pocket Notebook. in which it is argued that carrying a notebook is as essential as a pocket knife, or a handkerchief, for the modern man.
- A commonplace book of epigrams analytically arranged By Charles Stokes Carey- a dated yet amusing read, especially the section on ‘Ungallant Epigrams’.
- Thought Catalog’s online Commonplace Book (it’s actually a Facebook Page but don’t let that put you off…)
Let me know in the comments if and how you collect words, let’s start a commonplace revolution!