Abstract digital art, suggesting a flower in a pond, by Tucker Lieberman
art, nonfiction

What’s a ‘commonplace book’?

“For nearly four decades, I’ve kept what’s known as a commonplace book,” Dwight Garner wrote in the New York Times in November 2020. “It’s where I write down favorite sentences from novels, stories, poems and songs, from plays and movies, from overheard conversations. Lines that made me sit up in my seat; lines that jolted me awake. About once a year, I’ll say something I think is worthy of inclusion. I mostly end up deleting those entries.”

I have always done this, too, since I was 18. In my first year of college, in 1998, I started my own website as a hobby, and I began filling it with my own mini-essays (“blogs” were not quite invented yet) and interesting passages that I found in library books and typed up. As my list of quotations grew, I grouped them by theme; and as the lists continued to grow, the themes multiplied and became more specific.

“Do you keep a notebook?” Prof. Lance Morrow asked my essay-writing class in my journalism program in 2004. He explained to the class that he meant writing down personal musings and interesting passages written by others that might fuel our own future essays. I answered that I did; I had multiple “notebooks,” organized by theme. (The class seemed to think this was a little over the top.) Also, my “notebooks” have always been digital, so that the information is readily searchable by keyword and copy/pasteable in case it needs to be reorganized or, at long last, incorporated into an essay of my own. (I do sometimes use paper and pen to transcribe information, but ultimately I type it up because that’s how it will be more usable.)

In 2020, I counted the number of themed files. There are two hundred. They include:

abortion, abstractions, activism, affluenza, altruism, animals, anxiety, art, attention and busyness, beliefs, bias and control, body, brain, caring, Cartesianism, celibacy, certainty, chance, charm, cheating, climate change, cloning, coaching, commercialism, compassion, conformity, creativity, death penalty, decision-making (and gut instinct), dialogue, dirt, disaster insurance, disgust, domination of nature, emotions, enlightenment, environment, epiphany, eternal now, ethics (business), evolution, faith-based charities, false memory and confession, food (and hunger), forgiveness, free speech, free will, friendship, gender, giving, God (and: anthropomorphism, atheism, biblical authority, faith, feminist theology, “on your side,” and “knows secrets”), grief, hair, handicapping agreements for games, healing, history, honor, human rights, humanism, humility, humor, immortality, integrity, Internet history, interpellation, Israel, Jewish, journalism, knowledge (and not knowing, deliberate ignorance, and ridiculous beliefs), language, liberty and security, literacy and numeracy, logic, love, lying (and rationalization), marijuana, marriage, math, memory (and the permanence of Internet publication), mind, money, monsters, mortality, myth (and political myths), names, natural disasters, “nature or nurture,” networks, nostalgia, oaths, organ transplant, Orwell, Panopticon, paradox, patriotism, peace, philosophy, pleasure, poaching, political polarization, politics (and unwritten norms), power, prayer, prisoners, procreation and parenting, prohibition of alcohol, race, regret, relationships, relativism (this one, dear reader, may be the longest, at 70,000 words), religion and science, religious experience, risk, ritual, saying no, self, self-sacrifice, sexuality, shame, skill, sleep, software design and testing, soldiers, solitude, success, suicide, technology, Thanatos, theodicy, time, tolerance, tree, trust, twee, utilitarianism, vegan, virtue signaling, weapon metaphors, werewolves, writing

Plus, of course, the indispensable catch-alls: “nice turns of phrase” and “miscellaneous.”

If I’m writing an essay and I suddenly remember a phrase I was once struck by, I can search any of these files (or my entire computer) by keyword. Then I can cite it in what I’m currently writing.

I recently told someone that I organize my digital files like this, and she asked if it was difficult to come up with these themes and stick to the organizational system. No, I answered. The themes were born from need, and they developed organically, as when one begins with a messy room and begins labeling the shelves as a response to appropriately accommodate all the material that already exists. Also, I stick to it only insofar as it works. I put the material on the “most correct” shelf because where else would I put it? So I use my files appropriately, and thus they work for me.

If I started with a blank slate, now, at age 40, my labels for these files would be completely different. They are what they are because they spun off of a system I kicked off, semi-consciously, when I was 18 and just starting to make a big proto-literary mess.

I suppose I could restructure everything, but there seems to be no urgent need to do so. And this would be a huge project; how would I begin to approach the 70,000-word file labeled “relativism,” a book-length document comprised entirely of other people’s statements on this subject?

The benefit of keeping the “old ways” is that they are embedded deeply in my brain. When I’m reading and a quote strikes me, I don’t have to ask myself, “Which of 200 themes is this best categorized under?” I already know “what I want the quote for”; my “themes” are just my shorthand keywords for something I already implicitly recognize and understand. It is a private, decades-long conversation I have with myself.

I didn’t know this was called a “commonplace book” until I saw Dwight Garner’s essay in 2020. I have since heard that Ryan Holiday discussed the concept in his book The Obstacle Is The Way. Update: Cory Doctorow also used the term in a May 2021 essay in which he said that he’s been writing digitally since 1979 when he was eight years old, although such notes tend to be valueless for him unless he blogs them, in which case he puts in enough effort to make them readable for an audience who may stumble across them, so they are easier for him, too, to refer back to.

“I have endless running text-files from the 1980s and 1990s in which I jotted down notes to myself. These are better than my actual notebooks in that they are searchable and I don’t have to decipher my handwriting, but I can’t really say that they generate much value for me as a writer. I couldn’t tell you the last time I referred to them.”

It feels like a commonplace activity within my own life because I’ve always done it. I don’t know if others consider it a normal thing to do. I have never had any other word for it. Sometimes I write “QUOTES” at the top of a piece of paper so that I know the material has to be typed up. Apart from that, it has been a nameless activity for me.

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Letters A through P in an unusual font.
art

Experiencing the feeling of typing

Without a mechanical keyboard, some people’s fingers still like to go through the motions of typing.

B. J. Hollars recalled:

“When I was in the first grade, I snuck a glance at my teacher’s ‘teacher edition’ of a writing book called Writing Express. I’m not sure why I did it; I suppose I figured it held all the answers to the universe. I leafed through it, and near the end, came across a pair of pages that served as a two-dimensional keyboard. This was before my family had a computer, and since I knew we likely wouldn’t get one for a few more years, that Christmas, I asked my parents to buy me that book, instead. I wanted that two-dimensional keyboard to write stories on. No matter that my stories were being typed into thin air, I just wanted to experience the process of writing. After a year or so of typing stories into air, my parents opted to buy an actual computer. I traded in the two-dimensional keyboard for a three-dimensional one. And I’ve been writing ever since.”

B. J. Hollars. “No matter that my stories were being typed into thin air, I just wanted to experience the process of writing.” Interviewed by Speaking of Marvels. September 26, 2019. 

In 2020, engineers at Purdue University are inventing a way to convert an ordinary surface like a paper book to (really, truly!) function as a computer keyboard. It’s called a triboelectric paper keypad.

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art, listening

Telling your story through music

Music is important in most people’s lives, and so references to music can be an important part of telling a story.

Rick Moody describes this excellently in his essay “The End.” He remembers when, at age eight, he learned that his parents would divorce:

“My feeling was that there was nothing I could do about it. My feeling was that I was about to be an item on an itemized list of marital property. My brother wept.

Here’s what I have often found in my moments of keenest disconsolation: that music has an unexpected power to console and to transmute what is most grievous. The layers of imperviousness that smother a song when you listen to it a lot, these layers are sundered away, and music is apparent in its most elemental guise, full of mystery and passion and awe. Things that you haven’t heard in a fresh way in a thousand listens are suddenly bright and new, when you really need them most.”

This can happen even when the music is “adjacent” to the action and not playing as a simultaneous soundtrack.

“It’s not that Abbey Road was playing that night. It’s that through some metonymic action, in which a work of art becomes a symbol of all that is adjacent, Abbey Road, with its bright, glorious production, its elegant string arrangements, its strange and elevated moments, its harpsichord and Moog synthesizer, has become the sound, for me, of my parents separating.”

“The End.” Rick Moody, Brown Alumni Magazine, September/October 2017.

I’ve written a fictional story built around a pop song.

If you’ve written something—fiction, nonfiction, poetry—involving a significant experience with music, or if you’ve made visual art about music, tell me about it in the comments!

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Abstract image. Light streaks on dark background.
art, avoidance, nonfiction

The term ‘writer’s grievance’

Here is a term coined by Minna Salami describing the weariness or frustration in noticing that other writers—because of their dominant race or gender—can adopt a particular tone that you could never take or can get away with less effort, less serious attention, or less critical analysis on issues that are central to you.

This grappling [with the impact of Europatriarchal dominance] has not led to writer’s block but to an equivalent sentiment that I refer to as writer’s grievance. Writer’s grievance is when you become starkly aware of the constant, howling objection in your words. It is when you wish that you could write about trivialities in the way that white male writers can. Or that you could be cool and impartial in writing about gender, as black male writers are. One cannot even single-mindedly write about a classic feminist issue such as the gender pay gap, as white feminists do, without that other issue spilling its Rs and As and Cs and Es onto the pages.

—Minna Salami, in her introduction to Sensuous Knowledge: A Black Feminist Approach For Everyone

Insofar as black women, in Salami’s analysis, never quite feel that they have the space, permission, freedom, or opportunity to view the world purely from their own point of view without the awareness of how white people and/or men perceive them, this “writer’s grievance” resembles what W. E. B. Du Bois called “double consciousness.” Their work tends to reflect how other people view them or constrain them. And it takes its personal toll. Salami says that “never placing myself (however constructed that self is) at the center of my worldview is the most harmful way for a black woman to live. I remain the ‘other’ even to myself.”

The desire for the freedom to make art and philosophy about “trivialities” is not itself trivial. There is a difference, after all, between being trivial and having the freedom to choose to be trivial. It is a reflection of the options that society makes available. People of dominant identities often criticize those of marginalized identities for “making the personal into the political” or “playing identity politics.” But do the people of marginalized identities have the full freedom to do otherwise, given how they must gain knowledge and make their way in the world?

Bertrand Russell, an early-20th-century white British philosopher, wrote this sentence 90 years ago which has been widely quoted. In unpacking it a bit, it sheds some light on the topic.

One of the symptoms of an approaching nervous breakdown is the belief that one’s work is terribly important.

—Bertrand Russell, Conquest of Happiness (1930), Chapter 5

Russell seems to mean, first of all, that it is healthy and necessary to be able to step outside one’s work now and then, if only for a necessary respite to be able to return to the work with a refreshed perspective. Perhaps he also means that we must be humble and realistic about our eventual unimportance as individuals within history. But there is an additional meaning embedded here which he probably did not intend: Much of white men’s writing is unimportant because they have the luxury of writing that way. The way they gain knowledge is not, as it is for so many other people, biased by survival mechanisms due to their race and gender; instead it is biased by the way they benefit from and participate in upholding Europatriarchal dominance. And if a white man enjoys and promotes an existing system in which he is treated as nobility, then, regarding that system, his work is not revolutionary or transformative and, in that sense, it cannot be terribly important. If he thinks that it is, he is starting to suffer from a kind of delusion that is a product of the Europatriarchy itself.

As Salami put it:

Men are just as enslaved by the social system—one that they hesitate to criticize because it amplifies an illusion about who they are. In fact, men are troubled with frustrated desires; they are caught up in the competitiveness of the rat race; they are sexually needy; they suffer from suicidal inclinations in disturbing numbers; and they possess an insatiable urge for power.

—Minna Salami, in her introduction to Sensuous Knowledge: A Black Feminist Approach For Everyone

Thus, maybe—to alter and repurpose Russell’s observation—when certain thinkers and artists feel that they are approaching a nervous breakdown, they should reconsider whether their work is designed to describe or achieve anything sufficiently important. Those who are always trying to achieve something important already know who they are; they more likely have the “writer’s grievance” than the type of stressful self-doubt to which Russell refers.

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abstract art
art, avoidance

Who’s going to write your book?

“Our disconnectedness from the [imagined] older version of us,” psychologists believe, is “a surprisingly powerful subconscious influence on our behavior.” So wrote Leon Neyfakh in the Ideas section of the Boston Sunday Globe on January 6, 2013, in his article, “Meet Future You. Now Be Nice.”

The conundrum is that, the more we imagine that we will change significantly as we age, the less we want to sacrifice today’s pleasure for tomorrow’s happiness because it seems to us that tomorrow’s happiness will belong—somehow—to a different person. Why should people feel motivated to save money, give up dessert, tell the truth…if the benefits will go to their future selves that they can’t yet recognize as “themselves” in their imaginations today?

Neyfakh quoted psychologist Anne Wilson as saying: “You have to find that sweet spot. You need to feel connected enough and care enough about [your future self] in order to pursue [your goals], but not feel so close and connected that you just reap the benefits before you’ve actually done the work.”

Based on how I understand this article, I identify another sweet spot: You need to feel distant enough from your future self to understand that there’s a goal you haven’t achieved yet and into which you must therefore invest effort if you ever want to become that imagined future self, but not feel so distant that you resent working so hard as if you were doing it on behalf of a total stranger.

Hal Hershfield, a professor whose research interests include decision-making, was quoted in the article as saying, “It’s fine to think about that future self as another person—it just has to be another person you feel close to and have a lot of overlap with,” since “the marriages that work best and the friendships that work best are the ones where people feel like the other person is almost part of them.”

Today—having happened across the saved newsprint in my paper hoard—I think about this advice in the context of how much time we invest in our artistic projects. When I make any piece of serious art, I grow as a person just from the process of envisioning it, discovering a way to express it, and seeing it through to the end. When I think of certain accomplishments as very distant, as in, Someday I’ll be the sort of person who can write this book, the book doesn’t get written because I’m essentially telling myself I am not yet the sort of person who can do it. But when I think of certain accomplishments as achievable by me—because the accomplishments are, let’s say, in my “zone of proximal development”—I’m more likely to sit down and write a first draft. I realize I’ll have to grow and change a bit to see it through to the end properly, but it is still I, and not some barely imaginable stranger, who is able to put in the effort and take credit.

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