On Starting A Commonplace
The Workshop #03
After the 7th September ‘The Workshop’ will be produced exclusively for premium subscribers. Sunday Essays and Thursday reviews will remain free. Click below to either become a free member or a premium subscriber for $7/mo. Thank you.
We’ll start at the very beginning. If someone who had never written before approached me and asked ‘where do I begin’ I would say this: Read voraciously and start a commonplace. This and practicing via some sort of journal habit are the foundation. This is how you go from nothing to something, how you get the wheel in motion for the first time.
The practice of keeping a commonplace is an ancient one, and an obvious one, but today it goes largely neglected. Yet when done diligently, and done over a sufficient length of time, it can be quietly transformative. Allow me to explain…
What a Commonplace is
A Commonplace or Commonplace Book is a written repository of information. It’s an archive of knowledge that the writer has considered to be important or useful enough to write down for future reference. They are individually tailored and curated collections of wisdom, aphorisms, notes, commentary, marginalia, facts, trivia, titbits, quotations and so forth.
They are the autodidacts friend.
A commonplace is where you store what you learn, it is the raw material from where ideas and insights are synthesised and created. A commonplace is like a condensed library of material that is uniquely tailored to your own interests and obsessions. Because you are the one who has curated it.
Commonplacing as a practice, then, can be useful to anyone who has any activity that they want to improve at and study at depth. Athletes training logs are an example of this. Historically scientists, poets, generals, scholars and philosophers from Plato on down have used commonplaces to master their chosen fields. It is infinitely variable and personalisable (if that’s a word). No two commonplaces will ever be quite the same, in form and content both. This is a huge part of their appeal. For something that, on the face of it, can seem so rigidly systematic, commonplaces have a way of leading you to be an increasingly individual thinker with an individual viewpoint.
This is all well and good. But I suspect that though you may be intrigued about starting this practice, you are still not quite sure about what it is exactly and what it entails. Maybe explaining my own system will make things clearer…
My Commonplace Method
As I have said, there are many ways to approach this. I’m sure each week here I will endlessly repeat phrases such as ‘there is a lot of nuance to this’ or ‘there is more than one way to skin a cat’ and so forth. Because there is. People who offer the ‘one true path’ are more interested in your money than your improvement in your chosen field. Everything is contextual. Boxing is an ostensibly simple sport with a limited number of moves, but you don’t train a long, lanky southpaw the same way you would train a compact, aggressive orthodox fighter. Make sense?
So, with that being said what follows is how I approach commonplacing. It works for me and I have discovered the method based on trial and error. It may not work for you.
‘Absorb what is useful, discard what is useless and add what is specifically your own’ as Bruce Lee used to say.
So with that being said, here is my personal system, in easily digestible step by step format:
Read a book
While reading, underline interesting passages in pencil and write notes in the margin if the spirit moves you
Upon completing the book type up all of the underlined passages and marginalia into a word document called ‘Commonplace 2021 (or whatever year it is)’.
Set the pages to be numbered and have the first two pages be a contents page where you list the title, author and dates you read the book along with the page number.
Periodically print this out double-sided as you add to it and put it into a ring binder labelled with the current year.
Regularly skim through these paper notes at random.
That’s it. Now I’m sure that seems like tedious hard work. I’m sure that very few of the people who read this will actually follow through with it, especially not for long enough to notice any real difference to their creative work and their learning. I accept this fact. But in having a platform here to talk about the nature of writing, I want to tell you about what is useful and true, not just what is popular and conventional. There’s more than one way to skin a cat.
So you have my method now. You probably have questions. I will now try and pre-empt the most obvious ones and I can answer any that I inevitably miss in the comment section.
Questions and Answers
Why go to all of this effort?
Because I said so. But seriously, you can do what you want. For every writer who has used some variation on the commonplace I am sure their are just as many, if not more, who have not. Many great books were written by philandering drunks, so I think their is a limit to how useful mindlessly aping a great writers routine will prove to be. As long as you never stop writing entirely and you keep getting better according to the standards that you set for yourself then you are probably on the right track.
But. I personally think that the practice of keeping a commonplace is worth the effort. For one, knowing that you have to tediously type up/ copy and paste passages from everything you read will make you read better stuff. It will make you more selective. It will break the awful habit of grimly finishing a book that you are not enjoying rather than just tossing it to one side. It will make you read more of what you want to read. And being honest about what you actually like is the first step towards actually developing an aesthetic.
Also, commonplacing is one of those habits that- like all good habits- compounds. It scales. It feels largely pointless until you have spent six months or a year doing it. And then you suddenly realise what a formidable and utterly unique tool you have built for yourself (assuming you follow your whims and don’t just take notes from contemporary best-selling non-fiction/ self-help books).
Transformation does not happen all at once. Progress eventually skyrockets after months of nothing. It’s just the way it is. That commonplacing conforms to this dynamic should be encouraging. But as I said above, I accept that most won’t see it through. This is another thing that’s just the way it is.
How will this make me a better writer exactly?
How will diligently reading great novels/plays/poems/literary theory and reviews and collecting all of the passages that move me and intrigue me make me a better writer? Seems self evident to me.
Besides, by building an archive of great material to skim (a much better way to while away dead time than scrolling a social media timeline by the way) you are constantly interacting with great writing. Reading it, considering it, copying it out. Copywork- where a writer copies out whole paragraphs and passages of great prose- is a tried and true method of improving your own prose. It is the writing equivalent of athletes watching tape. You learn through imitation and example.
Commonplacing helps you focus on great prose itself. Everyone begins by being a consumer before they truly become a creator. Commonplacing naturally makes you an engaged, mindful and discriminating consumer of great writing. Which is a fantastic foundation.
Why print it all out?
Well, for me personally I am trying to absolutely minimise my screen time in life just as a general principle. I think nothing good comes of being a screen slave. But more specifically I have found that everything that I read on a screen is not retained in the same way that things that I read on paper are. The same goes for writing on paper versus typing in a word processor, although this is more time consuming and less practical.
So the compromise is to type for practicalities sake and then print out a hard copy. As well as helping minimise screen time (your commonplace will eventually serve as an internet replacement for the most part), this will give you a sense of progress seeing the physical archive grow. Conversely it will keep you honest and make you more discriminating as obsessive note taking to the detriment of living your life will soon make you feel a little bit like the Kevin Spacey serial killer in Se7en. A shelf full of notes but an abnormal way of living.
The preference for analogue might just be my prejudice here. I can cite all sorts of studies regarding retention via physical material versus screen based but I won’t waste your time. You can try it out for yourself. For me, the difference is night and day. Files on computers just sit their, trapped behind glass, ignored. I need thighs to be tangible. And bizarrely I find sorting physical clutter much less of an aggravation than sorting digital clutter.
Do I have to do this forever?
At the risk of sounding like a broken record, everything is nuanced. You don’t have to do anything you don’t want to do when it comes to writing. Just write, using whatever combination of tips, tactics, self-deceptions and esoteric nonsense that actually gets the pen moving.
But if you are going to try out commonplacing, I suggest you do it for a good while. A year minimum, maybe a couple. It compounds tremendously, as we discussed above. You can of course read certain things without takin notes, and you can take breaks from the practice. Up to you. This isn’t school anymore, no one is grading you. As long as you are learning, improving and enjoying life then carry on with what works.
Me, I commonplaces really diligently for four years and now I am a bit more sporadic. I lean much more towards reading fiction because as well as being more pleasurable, fiction generates a lot less notes. Besides, once you have read and taken notes on 6 self-improvement/motivation/pop-psychology books you have effectively read them all. Another example of how commonplacing compounds. This realisation alone is a huge time-saver in the long term. You will find other such examples as you persevere with the habit. Which may end up meaning that you never feel the need to abandon it entirely.
Why is this ‘commonplacing idea’ not more widely known/discussed?
No idea, to be honest. Again the compounding issue/ need for patience probably means that people don’t stick with it long enough to see the benefits. Second, as with many actually helpful things such as fasting, walking and getting fresh air, it is hard to make money by promoting them. Maybe the best things in life really are free.
If something is hard to make money from, you are unlikely to hear much about it in a Contentland. Which makes such things even more of an advantage, if you choose to look at life through a competitive lens.
I see people talk about note-taking systems, and apps and ‘second brains’ and so forth which are all ostensibly commonplace systems. And good for them. If it works for you, it works. Me, I just dislike apps and screens and systems that require updates and can crash. Pen and paper, pencil and book, printer and ring-binder are my friends.
Maybe that’s just me. But however you do it- analogue, digital, hard drive, cloud- I recommend giving commonplacing a good honest try. You might just find, given enough time, that it ends up transforming the way you think and write.
Feel free to leave any questions and notes about your experience with commonplacing in the co menus section below.
Until next time,