Commonplace Books

I read a piece this weekend by Charley Locke about what he calls a “commonplace book.” (Sometimes simply known as “commonplaces.”) That’s a term new to me. His is a collection of quotes, lines from songs, poetry, and other things that are not his own thoughts. It’s not a diary or journal but he says it is a kind of diary but without the risk of “annoying yourself.” His criteria for inclusion is just that the things struck him as meaningful when he wrote them down.

By that definition, I have been keeping a set of commonplace books for decades. Mine have been more collage than words. I clip things that appeal to me from magazines, newspapers, advertisements, brochures. I add stickers, some photographs, ticket stubs, and sometimes I write some words on the pages. (Some fragments from over the years illustrate this post.)

I thought of these books as scrapbooks because that is what I bought to use for them. I started this in college and I have an entire shelf of them now. If I page back through them, they are records of where I was at that time. The college volume is full of actresses and movie stills, articles, and photos from the college newspaper (the Rutgers Targum is a daily, so there was a lot to clip). I filled the pages, collage-style. Some things are just nice images, patterns, backgrounds. As far as words, there are headlines that sometimes act as titles, a clipped poem, a good paragraph, or line.

Looking through them this weekend to grab a few images, I notice that they have less writing and are more visual as the years pass. Perhaps because my writing goes into other places – like online.

I also have a book that is full of quotes I like. And a travel journal that records some notes from my trips, those we have taken as a family and as a couple.

Commonplaces are used by readers, writers, students, and scholars as an aid for remembering useful concepts or facts.

In the article, Locke says he was never a journal person, though he tried and has elementary school diaries and like-new Moleskine notebooks with a few sad entries. His commonplace book is one he writes in, so it’s not like my scrapbooks, though it might serve the same purpose.

It turns out that commonplace books go back to the Renaissance. People would mix fragments of published writing classical and contemporary with their own writing.

Jonathan Swift said: “A common-place book is what a provident poet cannot subsist without, for this proverbial reason, that ‘great wits have short memories;’ and whereas, on the other hand, poets being liars by profession, ought to have good memories. To reconcile these, a book of this sort is in the nature of a supplemental memory; or a record of what occurs remarkable in every day’s reading or conversation. There you enter not only your own original thoughts, (which, a hundred to one, are few and insignificant) but such of other men as you think fit to make your own by entering them there. For take this for a rule, when an author is in your books, you have the same demand upon him for his wit, as a merchant has for your money, when you are in his.”

Some of these books are records of famous folks’ reading. John Milton did one in 1642 after his wife dumped him and he went on a binge of reading about bad marriages. Arthur Conan Doyle copied out criminology theories in one. I like that he gave fictional Sherlock his own book.

E. M. Forster wrote in his commonplace book from 1925 through 1968, stopping 18 months before his death. It has quotations from his reading, musings on his life and times, and random odds and ends (such as the plan of a large garden he kept.)

Wikipedia’s entry says “Commonplace books (or commonplaces) are a way to compile knowledge, usually by writing information into books. They have been kept from antiquity and were kept particularly during the Renaissance and in the nineteenth century. Such books are similar to scrapbooks filled with items of many kinds: sententiae (often with the compiler’s responses), notes, proverbs, adages, aphorisms, maxims, quotes, letters, poems, tables of weights and measures, prayers, legal formulas, and recipes. Entries are most often organized under subject headings and differ functionally from journals or diaries, which are chronological and introspective. They became significant in Early Modern Europe.”

Why are they “commonplace”? It’s not the commonplace that means “ordinary” today. It is a translation of the Latin term locus communis which means “a general or common topic,” such as a statement of proverbial wisdom. I think of my commonplace books as where I collect things in one common place. I’ve used notecards too, but there is something satisfying about having it all in one place where it is easy to find, re-read, and perhaps use somewhere else.

Journaling By Hand

“To me, typing is like work. Writing with a pen is like playing.
And you can write on planes when they’re taking off and landing.”
– Neil Gaiman

Journals over the years in various forms of degrading handwriting.

Though I spend a lot of time on a computer writing in places like this site, my journaling has never moved away from a bound blank book and a pen.

There have always been writers who opposed new technologies. I know pretty big-time writers today who avoid email, computers, social media and having their own website. But all of those things are essential somewhere down the line even if you start with a pencil and a legal pad.

One of my favorite writers,  John Updike, said word processing made producing text “almost too easy.” In a letter to his editor at The New Yorker, Updike wrote, “I’ve bought a word processor and we’re slowly coming to an understanding. It’s quick as the devil, but has very little imagination, and no small talk.”

I’ve been down some parallel paths in past posts: writing by hand in general, my lousy typing, and the reported death of handwriting, but here I’m focusing on journaling.

I came across this book online –  The Yellow Wall-Paper Sanity Journal: What to Do In Your Own Four Walls
by Sara Barkat. It’s an illustrated journal (based on the earlier The Yellow Wall-Paper: A Graphic Novel.

All I need to journal is a blank book (sometimes lined, some years not) but if you need some inspiration and prompts, including some poetry prompts and instructions for several form poems like the villanelle, pantoum, catalog, and limerick.

I also read an article about the benefits of writing by hand. The benefits might be greatest for those of us who spend most days in front of a screen reading and writing.

Some of the benefits are surely for your brain and creativity, but your eyes will benefit from the rest.

Regions of the brain associated with learning were more active when subjects completed a task by hand instead of on a keyboard. As Updike noted, there are benefits to slowing down when you are writing and allowing some thinking along the way.

Writing by hand could promote “deep encoding” in a way that typing does not. I’ve read that before including a study that compared students who took notes by hand with those who took notes on laptops. Researchers found that the students using laptops tended to write down what the professor said word for word, while those who took notes by hand were more likely to listen to what was being said, analyzing it for important content and “processing information and reframing it in their own words.” When asked conceptual questions about the lecture, students who had taken notes by hand were better able to answer than those who had typed their notes.

So fast typing is a blessing and a curse. Maybe I’m prejudiced because I never learned to type. I am still a two-finger typist and although I am pretty fast, it’s pretty slow.

I moved about 25 years ago from writing my poetry on paper to composing directly to the computer. I changed my writing. The older poems always ended up being typed anyway and seeing them in a printed fashion helped me.  I also began to revise more because it was easier and neater to do. For a time, I saved multiple versions and drafts,. I don’t do that anymore. Too many pieces of paper and second thoughts about what I wrote.

While there will always be things you want to write quickly, there are others that can benefit from the time it takes to write them out by hand.

It would be daunting to try to type up my twelve volumes of journals. (I’ll leave that to some graduate students working for my biographer.) But I actually enjoy looking at my old journals – the changing handwriting, marginalia, occasional illustrations, bad teen years spelling and grammar, and the predictions that 99 out of 100 times turned out to be wrong. Ah, youthful optimism…

Okay, this post is finished. I ran Grammarly on it, revised and now I’ll click the schedule button and send it on its way. Then, I’ll make a cup of tea and take out my current journal and write about mid-December 2020.

Think Like Leonardo

One of da Vinci’s lesser-known paintings Salvator Mundi  (see note at bottom of this article)

It is easy to take the opinion that Leonardo da Vinci is the world’s most creative genius. You can debate that opinion but you have good evidence on your side.

I was fascinated with Leonardo when I first encountered his notebook drawings as a child. I know I did some biography book report on him in elementary school and built a model of his helicopter. It didn’t fly, but then either did Leonardo’s.

In my adult life, I came across How to Think Like Leonardo da Vinci by Michael Gelb, and that got me thinking about Leonardo’s approach to thinking and creating. I taught several workshops using that book. They were fun to teach and participants always seemed to enjoy them too. (Gelb also published an actual workbook version of the book too.)

When Walter Isaacson’s biography, Leonardo da Vinci, was published I eagerly read that too. It’s excellent and gives you much more about da Vinci’s life and it changed my ideas about him.

One thing that we sometimes overlook about Leonardo is that for all the ideas, drawings, models and theories he had, he actually produced very little work.  He was probably an easily-distracted genius and might even be labeled today as having attention deficit disorder. This is another thing that makes me feel closer to Leo. I too have many more ideas for poems than poems, more sketches than paintings, more outlines for novels that will never be written and more To-Do lists of things I will never do.

Leonardo da Vinci was a painter. He created two of the most famous paintings in history –  The Last Supper and the Mona Lisa. But his lifetime output of paintings (as far as we know) was only a few dozen. Enough to make him a great painter, but certainly not the focus of his life.

If you were to engrave his headstone with “painter” I’m sure he would prefer that you add scientist and engineer.

Actually, he might suggest making it larger and including his interests in anatomy, fossils, birds, fluid dynamics from the heart to water pumps and viaducts, flying machines, botany, geology, and weaponry.

He is a great example of someone who blended the humanities and the sciences.

He certainly received some acclaim and patronage in his life, but he was also somewhat on the outside. He was born illegitimate, which in his time carried a harsh undeserved penalty.  He was gay. Even that he was a vegetarian and left-handed made him odder than others. He was heretical which didn’t help in a church-ruled place.

But he was brilliant, inquisitive, imaginative and all his oddity probably made him even better at thinking differently. Think out of the box? I doubt that Leonardo had any idea that there was a box.

In Gelb’s book, which reads like a workbook for the reader, he discusses what he calls da Vinci’s 7 principles that explain how his thought process worked.

From da Vinci’s notebooks, inventions, and works of art, each of Gelb’s principles is a lesson.

My favorite of them is connessione, the term for the appreciation of the interconnectedness of all phenomena and probably all things. To me, that is the greatest gift that a student, teacher, artist, writer or anyone in any profession can have.

It’s not a fair coverage of the principles or a workshop to list here the other principles, but as an introduction, these are the other six.

  • Curiosita – an insatiable curiosity
  • Dimostrazione – testing knowledge through experience
  • Sensazione – the continued refinement of the senses
  • Sfumato – a willingness to embrace ambiguity
  • Arte/Scienza – developing a balance between art and science
  • Corporalita’ – cultivating fitness and poise

Sfumato, the willingness to embrace ambiguity, is interesting because we usually think of ambiguity as a bad thing.

For Leonardo, it was firstly a painting technique which involves blending the edge between colors so that there is a soft transition. “Sfumato” in Italian translates to soft, smoky, vague or blurred. It was popularized by the old masters of the Renaissance in order to almost dreamy depictions. In the notebooks, da Vinci described it as “… without lines or borders, in the manner of smoke or beyond the focus plane.”

If you took art history, it might have been grouped with the painting techniques used by the old Renaissance masters, such as cangiante, chiaroscuro and unions. If you look closely at the Mona Lisa, you see the soft transitions between light and dark tones and the lack of hard edges around her eyes and in that famous ambiguous smile that still has us wondering what she is thinking.

But in the Gelb book, we move via metaphor from art or science to everyday life thinking. Do you embrace ambiguity? I know I am guilty of jumping too quickly when I have a question to a Google search or when I can’t recall a film title or actor or the name of that series about da Vinci I check IMDB.

Michael J. Gelb has further gone down the path with another book Innovate Like Edison that carries the subtitle “The Five-Step System for Breakthrough Business Success.” But business success doesn’t appeal me to in the way that I find creativity intriguing. Still, in a light reading of this book in the library this past week I did find crossover.

One of Edison’s secrets is no secret at all. The idea of keeping a notebook to capture creative thinking and including drawings and doodles (you don’t need to be da Vinci to draw) in order to capture ideas for later has been used by artists, writers, scientists etc. for centuries.

Still, I am guessing that the majority of people do not keep notebooks after they leave classrooms, though they may scribble notes and drawings on paper. Somehow, collecting them together and saving them is much more powerful. I have shelves of journals of life events, dreams, garden notes, quotations, poetry and poem ideas, and many other topics. I love starting a new blank, bound book whether it be some grand one bound in leather (a retirement gift) or one of the many Moleskine notebooks from pocket-sized to tablets that are on my shelf, on my desk and even in my car.

There is something about ideas, words, and sketches being bond into what feels a “book” that gives them greater importance. My personal journals started like diaries when I was 13 with almost daily entries but over the years have become monthly essays made from notes I make day to day about events and impressions.

I can look back at what I was doing or concerned with back in April 1971 (high school graduation and heading off to college dominated) and one day I will hopefully be around to reread my timeline of the coronavirus pandemic that I’ve been recording the past three months.

Looking back at old journal entries makes thin synapses fire up again (most of the time) and is nostalgic. My major observation in the teen year journals is how much I lied in my writing. Was it wish fulfillment, magical thinking or the thought that someone else years later would read it and believe it? Was I thinking about my children, grandchildren – a biographer?

My garden notebook records the first and last frost dates, which seeds and plants did best in the vegetable garden each year and notes on houseplants, pests, fertilizers and green things.

My dream journals record dreams that even when written down often seem like someone else’s dreams and writing to me after just a few weeks or months.

Finally, all my online writing may have a longer shelf life than those journals. It certainly has more readers!

A page from the notebooks of Leonardo’s studies of a fetus in the womb – (c. 1510), Royal Library, Windsor Castle via Wikimedia

A note on the painting at the top of this article, Salvator Mundi.
This is generally considered to be by Leonardo da Vinci from about 1500. Art historians think it may be a copy of a lost original. There are many other versions, some certainly done by students and followers, but we also have chalk and ink drawings of the drapery that were done by Leonardo and indicate his preparation for the painting. It has much overpainting and has been restored, so the original may have been quite different. The painting shows Jesus Christ in an anachronistic Renaissance outfit. He is making the sign of the cross with his right hand and holds a transparent, non-refracting crystal orb in his left. That is supposed to indicate that he is Salvator Mundi, Latin for ‘Savior of the World.” The crystal symbolizes the “celestial sphere” of the heavens.