Tuesday, August 9, 2011

A Commonplace Book of One's Own

For many years I've been intrigued with the idea of the "commonplace book," a type of journal- or notebook-keeping system that dates back to the seventeenth century.  Two of my favorite examples from more modern times include E.M. Forster's Commonplace Book and A Writer's Commonplace Book by Rosemary Friedman. 

Basically the idea behind creating a commonplace book is to have a written record of meaningful or important instructions and reminders that you would not ordinarily find in any one place.  The two books I've mentioned above concentrate on the art of writing, but I've read others that are a wonderful hodge-podge of obscure and fascinating factoids, from graveyard inscriptions to medieval recipes for swan pie. 

If you're like me and have kept any kind of journal at all, you've probably unwittingly been creating a kind of commonplace book without even knowing it.  When I re-read many of my journals I'm always discovering notes on recommended book titles or a writing friend's best advice on how to create a scene or write a pantoum.  One of the reasons I've been reluctant to part with my journals is the fact that if I tossed everything out I'd be losing several volumes-worth of good advice.  Finding that advice when I need it, however, can be a major headache, especially when most of it is hiding between old morning pages, drafts for long-ago published novels and poems, and all the rest of the usual stuff that goes into a journal.  So here's my plan for separating the sheep from the goats:  Create a dedicated commonplace book! 

This first attempt, I've decided, is going to center around an art theme.  Some of the things I want to include are:
  • Information on new art supplies—with pages that give me a place to try them, record how to use them, or paste in the manufacturers’ suggestions and instructions.
  • Artistic quotes and phrases I like.
  • Colors and palettes I want to try. 
  • Lines of poetry about art.
  • Other people’s art—whether from magazines, exhibition catalogs, or postcards.
  • Museum/gallery notes and flyers. 
  • Wish lists of supplies. 
  • Lists of ideas and themes to work on in the future. 
  • Art-related books I'd like to read or buy. 
  • Notes from these same books. 
  • Notes from workshops I've either attended in the past, or will be attending later on.
  • Business and marketing tips and resources for artists.
A commonplace book is an excellent item to turn into a gift for someone special, either for now, or to be passed down through the generations.  You can include anything you want--there are no rules.  For instance, you might want to insert family recipes, favorite poems, or vintage photographs.  I'm defintely looking forward to starting my own book and seeing how it evolves.  Recently I received some gift cards from local bookstores, so there's no excuse for not finding the perfect journal to be my starting point.  Once I begin, I'll be sure to post some pictures to let you share in my progress.

Tip of the Day:  What subject interests you enough to start a commonplace book?  Keep in mind that you can mix subjects, too, sometimes this makes the books even more interesting to read.  If you're stuck, brainstorm a list of topics, e.g., genealogy, the paranormal, sewing, French cuisine.  Who knows--you might want to start and keep half a dozen!


chandra said...

This is highly energetic and helpful info! thanks a lot!
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Dawn Herring said...

I love this post about a commonplace book; I've never heard of one before, but it sounds fun and fascinating. I, of course, love the idea you'll be starting one with an art theme.
I will link to your article in The Artist column of Refresh Journal! You can sign up here: http://www.refreshwithdawnherring.blogspot.com/.
Be refreshed,

PJ said...

Nice post, Valerie! I'm not much a journal-keeper, but i have had a few journals over the years. One that strikes me as the closest to a "commonplace book" is the journal that I kept while I was living in Mexico. I started it when we first got there and I kept all manner of things in there. Names, phone numbers, directions, information about specific organizations, schedules, travelling tips, etc. Navigating there was quite a job and the directions were the most vital part of the book - for the first weeks we were there, i couldn't get anywhere without having my little red notebook at my side. Your art project sounds wonderful - good luck!

Chris said...

What a lovely idea! And now I have a name for my assorted travel journals, garden journals, writing journals...I'm going to follow your project to see what ideas you have for organizing the info you put into your commonplace book. That seems to be my biggest problem. I usually go back later to annotate, index and highlight so that I can find specific info again. Doesn't always work though.

Enjoy your new project!