‘Don’t use YOU’: Writing advice from a high school paper on Shakespeare

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.

Photograph of a college paper on the Lysistrata. Relevant sentence: "Therefore, if most of the women don't pretend to be deeply committed to a political agenda, this only makes them more honest than the men."

“…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.

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.


My writer’s desk is surrounded by death spikes

In summer 2018, Neologism Poetry Journal published my poem, “Readiness,” which begins:

Bits of wildflowers find their way
into my hand and into my dirt.
The purpose of the seeds: to become their parents.

They were morning glories.

Close-up of two purple bell-shaped flowers.
My morning glories, photographed October 4, 2020.

Yesterday, the apartment building manager said that contractors would come to our second-floor balcony to “install something.” To receive them with grace, I tidied the balcony by repotting those morning glories. One had grown long, and I seated the pot in the windowbox and tossed its vines over the side of the balcony like Rapunzel’s hair so that the passersby could enjoy them, too.

Afternoon came, and it seemed the handypeople were not coming. Then, while sitting at my writer’s desk at the corner window that faces east and south, a strip of metal weaved through my field of vision, as if alive, as if wrapping the house of its own accord. Moments later, the man who was holding it came into my field of vision, too. He was crawling backwards on his hands and knees through my compost in the windowbox. The strip of metal was to be installed on the perimeter of the balcony.

Here is the result:

Corner window on the second floor overlooking a busy urban street with many metal spikes on the balcony edge.
My corner window, showing my writing desk and the balcony.

They installed 178 three-inch, barbed, flame-shaped metal spikes on the edge of the balcony and windowbox. 13 on the west side, 106 on the south side, 50 on the east side, and 9 on the north side. I did not know this was going to happen.

(There are additional spikes outside the bedroom window, too.)

It is supposed to make me feel safer? It does not. It is not my backdrop of choice for my writing desk where I make poetry and anti-fascist essays. It offends me and makes me anxious.

I understand that millions of people are actually in jail. I understand that I am not actually in jail and that what I am complaining about is merely a carceral aesthetic. I understand that some people like this aesthetic and truly feel safer when surrounded by such a physical deterrent to break-ins. I understand that I am not trapped in my room, despite other kinds of real restrictions that the pandemic places on my movement. I understand that I am unlikely to accidentally injure myself because the spikes slope outward away from the person standing on the balcony and that I am not personally at risk for self-harm.

I understand that most writers do not have the privilege of their own quiet, sunny home office—spikes or no.

I understand that my complaint is significant mainly to me and may seem petty to others.

Of course, the construction worker also stole my potted morning glories. I’d like to believe the flowers were kidnapped in kindness and are alive somewhere, but broken Rapunzel vines were left behind.

The time I’ve spent in this apartment is the longest I’ve ever lived in any one place as an adult. As a kid, I lived in three houses for six years each; then I was in college dorms; after college, I had 12 consecutive addresses before this apartment where I have just completed three years.

So I’d like to believe the vines that spiraled slowly down my balcony did not suddenly, when I wasn’t looking, transmute themselves into barbed wire; that they were always only flowers, pure and innocent; that there was nothing else in their DNA.

My poem “Readiness” ended:

They sprout
tendrils that slowly unfold tinctured secrets.
You are becoming what you always were.
I water you. I do not remember what you are,
but do not let me stop you.

Letters A through P in an unusual font.

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.

fiction, nonfiction

Jane Alison: ‘Complex narratives are networks’

Physicists and novelists alike “strive to describe the universe and understand the relationships between all its components,” Lee Randall says in an essay for Crime Reads. She quotes Jane Alison as having written in Meander, Spiral, Explode: “All complex narratives are networks…your experience moving through them is never purely linear, but volumetric or spatial as your thoughts bounce across passages.”

Abstract digital art. You may see a human torso in it.

Interviewed for Randall’s essay, S. J. Watson (author of Before I Go to Sleep) said, “This interest in understanding why is one of the things it [physics] has in common with writing and especially crime writing. Not just observing why train tracks buckle under the heat, but understanding why. Not just observing that someone murders, but understanding why you’d do that.”

If you truly know why something happens, chances are you can write a narrative that integrates this information throughout, so that you are not presenting a simple statement to the reader but rather an information network through which they can follow various paths to find the answer they seek–or perhaps an answer you didn’t even know you were providing!