Inside my commonplace book

10 December 2019

Recently on Twitter, I replied to this tweet about keeping a private anthology.

I got into a discussion about my commonplace book and why I keep one. I thought I’d follow that up with a larger discussion of why I find it useful and some examples from the book.

A commonplace book is an old tradition, with bits of knowledge stacked on top of each other. Ryan Holiday has a great explanation if you want to know further. I use it to note down quotes, photos I like and poems that speak to me.

I use a Leuctturm 1917 master notebook, which I like for the large pages (bigger than a4!) and the thickness of the paper. It’s also massive. I’ve been keeping the book for the last couple of years and I’m only halfway through.

It goes like this. Any quote or poem I stumble across that I like I make a note of or screenshot on my phone. Then when I can, I sit down and write my favourite ones out by hand.

I started with a poem or quote per page:

But that didn’t last long. I didn’t see much value in separating tiny quotes so I changed to add them all to the same page.

Eventually, I started adding pictures as well:

Now there are no rules, I throw everything at the page. If it interests me or speaks to me in some way I write it down.

This book has been invaluable for remembering the small quotes and poems that I would otherwise forget about entirely. It’s useful to look back and see the variety of poetry and words that have inspired me. I can also see links between them, some when I was looking for writing advice, others when I wanted some hope in the form of verse.

More than learning and studying, I find writing the words out by hand makes me pay attention to them. The slow roll of my fountain pen across the page focuses my attention to every choice of word that the author has made. It gets me inside a poem so I can study it’s construction closely. Take this wonderful poem by Dean Wilson:

Writing it out, I felt the impact of every word. Those last four lines pack a huge punch, because of the condensed line spacing. It’s the longest word by syllable count in the poem and writing it out made me realise how it was working within the poem. It also showed me that for such a ‘small’ poem, it takes up a whole page, reflecting the mighty/ insignificant duality within the poetic form itself. Also in writing it out, I realised how the form has the sound of the sea within it, with the small couplets separated like waves.

I would echo John McColloch and say keeping your own anthology is incredibly useful, whether you’re interested in improving your writing or not. It’s a record of what you’ve seen and what you were interested in and becomes utterly invaluable.

I hope this was helpful for you, Let me know in the comments.