The commonplace book

A commonplace book is a book wherein you write bits of prose, poetry or overheard stuff that you want to remember. I keep a commonplace book, and have for some years now. I believe I’m on volume five.

I’d never heard of a commonplace book until sometime in the nineties when Bill Richardson, on his show “Richardson’s Roundup” (now, alas, gone the way of the dodo!) instituted a “Commonplace Book of the Air”. Listeners phoned in with things they found memorable from their reading – my contribution was a bit from Terry Pratchett’s book “Hogfather”.

All of mine have been handmade. The first two were quarter-page size, 4 1/4″ x 5 1/2″. The last three are half-page, 5 1/2″ x 8 1/2″. That way I don’t have to make another so quickly. When I read or hear something witty or poignant or poetic that I want to keep, I write it down in the current book. One of the first things I wrote was a quote from Charles Frazier’s novel “Cold Mountain” – far, far superior to the movie. The line describes the plight of the heroine, gently reared and abandoned to fend for herself after her father dies.

“She wanted a bowl of chicken and dumplings and a peach pie and had not the slightest idea how one would arrive at them.”

I’ve noted overheard bits of conversation (“A perimenopausal vagina is a very unpredictable thing!”), lines from stories or poetry (“Cats, no less liquid than their shadows,/Offer no angles to the wind./They slip, diminished, neat, through loopholes/Less than themselves, will not be pinned/To rules or routes for journeys…”), pithy bons mots like Duke Ellington’s “I don’t need time; what I need is a deadline.” I hear ya, Duke!

In another book I keep things people have said about my writing, things which bolster me. On a day when I feel like I’m running in place, Christopher Sutcliffe James’ remark that my writing goes down like an ice-cold beer reassures me that I must be doing something right.

In yet another (actually, in a series of others), I keep clippings and notes that I think might work as prompts.

Under laboratory conditions, carbon-rich materials like peanut butter can be made into diamonds in a matter of days.

The worst poet who ever lived is considered to have been William Topaz McGonagall. His works are, apparently, still in print, a hundred years after his death.

In London in 1812 a gambler, having run out of money, wagered his life at a game, agreeing to let the winner hang him if he lost. He lost. When someone came by and cut him down before he was dead, he was angry because he believed in paying his debts.

Oh, the possibilities!

Why keep a commonplace book? Several reasons occur to me. It’s a way to keep a small, personal record of memorable bits. It’s entertainment on a dull day, leafing through the book and seeing what struck you when, rediscovering little delights you may have forgotten. For a writer, it can serve as a jumping-off point for work of one’s own. Also, it’s fun.

I’ve never been able to keep a journal, but the commonplace book has no imperative to write in it every day – only when you find something that strikes you as worth writing down. Get yourself a convenient blank book – or make one, if you’re that way inclined – and start keeping your own commonplace book. Who knows what you’ll put into it, and who knows what you’ll get out?

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2 Responses to The commonplace book

  1. Norma says:

    I don’t know if you will read this since this article was written in August. But, I had to comment. I’ve been keeping Commonplace books for years now and did not realize they had a name. Thanks for sharing and thanks for describing to others what it means. My daughter acquired this habit too. One day she shared it with me. We were shocked we were doing the same thing. I love it, and I do newsletters and write press-releases etc. and I fall back on them all the time. I found your webpage in Hope’s newsletter. I belong to a writers group and I will pass your link on to them. Thanks for sharing. Hmmmmm! I do commonplace books. Love it!!! I’m writing this up for the writer’s newsletter. I had planned to share my books one of these days anyhow. Blessings, Norma

    • ecreith says:

      Thanks for this, Norma. How funny that you and your daughter, all unbeknownst to each other, were keeping commonplace books! I’ve met very few people, in person or on line, who even know what they are, so it’s great to meet another.

      Cheers,
      Elizabeth

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