Ten Past Noon: Focus and Fate at Forty, published in 2020, is Tucker Lieberman’s hybrid nonfiction work about “war, racism, gender, time, mortality, free will, money, argument, information architecture, and why a writer might not finish a book.” Now, you can read the introduction, which explains what fuel the train runs on. I’m pleased to share the introduction online, and I hope you’ll be curious about the rest of the book, too.
Reviewing one of my high school papers I saved from over two decades ago, in which I discussed King Lear, I note my original paragraph:
Some people are able to maintain their goodwill to others despite personal insult and tragedy. Edgar says, ‘[I,] by the art of known and feeling sorrows, / am pregnant to good pity.” The context is not optimistic, but his philosophy is clear, and it is more promising than the idea that people are born evil and misfortunate. Edgar says that when bad things happen to you, you can make something good out of something bad or at least grow as a person.
The teacher’s feedback in red pen on that last sentence: “Don’t use you.”
The teacher was correct. “You” was a bit too informal here, especially as my paper about human nature was otherwise written in third person.
“…when bad things happen to you, you can make something good out of something bad…”
Similarly, several years later, in college, I wrote in a classics paper on Lysistrata: “Therefore, if most of the women don’t pretend to be deeply committed to a political agenda…” and the professor circled “don’t” and wrote in the margin: “Avoid colloquialism.” Maybe that, too, was the correct guidance to conform to the habits of the scholarly genre at the time.
“…if most of the women don’t pretend…”
But when my inner self-critic finger-wags at me, even today, “Don’t use you,” “Don’t use don’t,” I’d do well to remember where this teacherly advice came from. These were shorthand comments that applied to specific papers. They may not apply to whatever I’m writing today.
“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.
“In Pharaonic Egypt at the time of Akhnaton, in a now-extinct monotheistic religion that worshiped the Sun, light was thought to be the gaze of God. Back then, vision was imagined as a kind of emanation that proceeded from the eye. Sight was something like radar. It reached out and touched the object being seen. The Sun—without which little more than the stars are visible—was stroking, illuminating, and warming the valley of the Nile. Given the physics of the time, and a generation that worshiped the Sun, it made some sense to describe light as the gaze of God.”
—Carl Sagan. Billions and Billions: Thoughts on Life and Death at the Brink of the Millennium. Ballantine, 1998. p. 31.
“Here is a graphic demonstration of what Jung usefully called the work of the archetypal shadow: we cannot encounter directly what we have repressed, what we cannot face, because it is by definition unconscious; and so we encounter it indirectly, as if it were outside us, cast like a shadow out of the unconscious on to the world.”
—Patrick Harpur. The Philosopher’s Secret Fire: A History of the Imagination (2002). Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2003. p. 54.
“It could be that I had the kind of childhood full of absences, and yours happened to be the only one that hurt so good. It could be simply that suicide does tricky things to people. It is a bizarre kind of loss, full of answers and empty of ways to access them, much like the series of Magic Eye posters taped to the walls of our junior high school. Despite extended periods of squinting and eye-crossing, I repeatedly failed to detect the hidden images, available only to those with the ability to skew their vision. I grew to detest those posters with their cloaked dinosaurs and sailboats, constant reminders of the limits of my perception.”
—Candace Jane Opper. Certain and Impossible Events. Tucson, Arizona: Kore Press, 2021. p. 13.
Halloween is coming. You need a book on fictional villains.
If you haven’t had a chance to read Painting Dragons, now the ebook is on a flash sale! Starting right now, Painting Dragons: What Storytellers Need to Know About Writing Eunuch Villains is only 99 cents for Kindle!
The price goes up the longer you wait.
Right now, at October 15, 2020 at 8:00 AM (PDT) $0.99
As the week progresses, the price will gradually rise back to the original list price: $5.99
I would love to eventually make this book available outside Amazon. That will take some time and money. Right now, I’d like to share it this way, and since it is very-cheap-nearly-free in this Kindle flash sale, Amazon gets only a few pennies if you download it on Kindle today. https://amzn.to/2pU7lo1