Arts & Events

Books: My Commonplace Book

By Dorothy Bryant Special to the Planet
Thursday July 10, 2008 - 09:42:00 AM

Back in my teaching days I required that my students keep a journal, covering at least one page a day with whatever was on their minds. Later, in Writing a Novel, written after I’d left the classroom, I insisted that aspiring writers keep a journal, and, whenever beginning writers asked me for advice, face-to-face, I said it again. And again. 

Time for confession: I stopped keeping a journal years ago. Not all at once, not as a conscious decision. What happened was that I skipped a day, three, a whole week. Soon I realized that, while I still scribbled on note cards now and then when I got an idea or overheard something interesting, my journal entries had shriveled to those bi-monthly 3 a.m. whines that come to everyone—probably out of indigestion or the residue of petty resentments. Such outpourings are, at best, therapeutic, but (for me) useless as a source of ideas, as a reference to the larger events of our times, or even as a portrait of the inside of my mind-except for one dreary, boring corner I occasionally had to clean out.  

That was when I started keeping a “commonplace book,” a term that means the opposite of the way we use the word “commonplace” today. The commonplace book dates back to Medieval days, a tebook in which students took lecture notes, public speakers copied striking quotations to use in speeches and sermons, and literate ladies, denied formal education, collected important writings for their self-education. 

As printed books became more widely available, the commonplace book was less of a necessity and more of a personal aid to thinking about part of a story, poem, essay, or lecture. It still is. Even though we can now photocopy excerpts from books, or print them out after an Internet search, the physical act of copying a passage by hand, in a notebook, is an intimate act that, I believe, plants it at a deeper level of my consciousness. (Reared with library books, I still can’t let myself write in the margins even of a book I own.) 

My model is W. H. Auden’s A Certain World, a compilation of writings from his commonplace book, published in the 1980s. Auden called it “a sort of autobiography ... a map of my planet.” He believed that a journal of events might suit “men of action,” but not us writers, who live in our minds—in thoughts about the actions of others—in words heard or read. Sometimes Auden added his own comments about the quotation he had copied. Sometimes he let the quotation stand alone, to “let others, more learned, intelligent, imaginative, and witty than I, speak for me.”  

I began to follow Auden’s example, occasionally copying a passage from my reading that struck me, crediting the writer, dating my entry, and sometimes adding my own comments. The date alone is “autobiographical” in that it reminds me of what I was thinking at the time, what moved, impressed, or infuriated me. (Unlike Auden’s, my comments on a copied passage are sometimes in opposition to it, which says something about me too.) Sometimes a passage I copied four years ago startles me by its freshness; other times I’m only puzzled about why I took the trouble to copy it. 

Sometimes I find myself copying a quotation of a quotation—an excerpt passed on through someone else who found it notable. 

One such entry comes from a posthumously published essay by Susan Sontag, quoting revolutionary socialist Victor Serge (1890-1947), who, to sum up a central theme of his life, himself quoted an unnamed French writer. In his autobiography Victor Serge traced his being welcomed into various political groups, then being rejected and hounded out of them, abused, his health and safety threatened. Sontag quoted his description of the reason for his troubles: 

“I give myself credit for having seen clearly in a number of important situations. In itself, this is not so difficult to achieve, and yet it is rather unusual. To my mind, it is less a question of an exalted or shrewd intelligence, than of good sense, goodwill, and a certain sort of courage to enable one to rise above both the pressures of one’s environment and the natural inclination to close one’s eyes to facts, a temptation that arises from our immediate interests and from the fear which problems inspire in us. A French essayist has said: ‘What is terrible when you seek the truth, is that you find it.’ You find it, and then you are no longer free to follow the biases of your personal circle, or to accept fashionable clichés.” 

I copied Serge’s words and Sontag’s comment: “The French essayist’s sentence should be pinned above every writer’s desk.” 

So, what did I write about the excerpt I copied? Here it is (slightly edited and tidied up for clarity): 


Sontag seems to tell us writers that when we run into trouble we’re just doing our job. But such encouragement is chilling. So is Serge’s explanation that when you find the truth “you are no longer free to follow the biases of your personal circle or to accept fashionable clichés.” He is not writing about the fashionable clichés of George Bush’s Rightwing supporters; they don’t read him or Sontag; they’re certainly not part of my own Leftish personal circle. So, the danger of “finding” the truth (if I understand Serge and Sontag) is that you might say or write something that is “politically incorrect,” or that could even be perceived as a betrayal of shared values. This is a test for all of us, not just writers. Do we fail to see the truth? Or when we see an unfashionable truth do we shut up, bowing to the pressure of the biases of our personal circle? 


A couple of weeks later, I reread what I’d copied and added the following:  


Just thought of Ernest in The Way of All Flesh. When he decides to commit himself to writing, he says, “I shall have to give up Townley,” his best, most handsome, admired friend, “because I plan to write things that Townley will not like.” I never plan to write things my friend won’t like, but sometimes, to my surprise, I do. But I refuse to “give up” any of them, I refuse any hint that I have to choose between them and “truth.” If I annoy them, they should argue with me and, if necessary, agree to disagree. 

Isn’t that what friendship is, tolerance of each other’s—  


Unfortunately, at that point I ran off the page. That was how I learned that I have to leave more pages between one copied passage and the next so I can write down second or third thoughts.  

I don’t know whether these copied passages, pasted-on cartoons, comments overheard, lines from someone’s poem, trace some kind of jagged, wiggly “map of my planet.” But I’m sure my commonplace book helps me to be a better reader. Try it. Next time you curl up with a book, keep a notebook handy and begin your dialogue with the writer—and with yourself. 


Dorothy Bryant is a Berkeley resident and author. Her most recent novel is The Berkeley Pit (Clark City Press, 2007)