Every one of them words rang true

We had an exciting visit to Kenyon by David Rosenwasser and Jill Stephen, authors of Writing Analytically. (Dave and Jill are absolutely charming and wonderful workshop facilitators; if you’re having a campus conversation about writing you should look them up.)

NotebookOne of their techniques is to have students keep a commonplace book. As a classroom assignment, the students are directed to find a certain number of quotes in the reading to copy into their commonplace book. These might be the most meaningful sentences; they might be the most beautiful; they might be the particular sentences which most grabbed the student’s attention or expanded their thinking. In their technique, the students are also asked to free-write a paragraph or so on why this sentence is not like every other sentence. A class meeting, then, might start by asking a volunteer to read something from their commonplace book – and then another volunteer to respond to that quote – and so on, until the class has revisited a set of seminal sentences from the work… leading into class discussion or another free-writing exercise.

This resonated with me, because I’ve made a couple of stabs at keeping a commonplace book. My most formal attempt was in college, probably inspired by sections of Thomas Merton’s Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander. I wanted to be able to quote better, and writing out interesting passages longhand seemed like a good way to practice. I also realize now that it was about practicing close reading – investing my reading with better attention to detail, both to the argument but especially to the sentence-level beauty.

Looking back and forward, I see other attempts. Growing up, my “commonplace book” was actually a Mickey Mouse poster which hung over my desk in my room. I’d never bothered to take it down, but I didn’t really care about it. (This probably started when I was 12 or 14, and way too old for Mickey Mouse, Mooooooommmmm!) And so, when I heard interesting songs on the radio, or good lines from those songs (or TV shows or books), I’d write them on the lower third of that poster.

Of late, I’ve been keeping a list of quotes in my GoodReads account. This is interesting, because it’s performative – my quotes are public, and (on the book and author pages) they’re displayed in the context of other people’s quotes. I can “like” the other quotes already in the database. I’m even asked to rank my favorites and tag them. I like feeling like my quotes are part of a larger project – and yet that reinforces that it’s not mine.

Joe’s quotes


“There are some upon this earth of yours who lay claim to know us, and who do their deeds of passion, pride, ill-will, hatred, envy, bigotry, and selfishness in our name; who are as strange to us and all our kith and kin, as if they had never lived. Remember that, and charge their doings on themselves, not us.”— Charles Dickens

And so this is as far as I’ve gotten on the portfolio structure task. One of the things I’d like to do here is to share my work commonplace book. I think it would be fun (and useful) to expose my professional reading, share particularly well-crafted passages, and reflect on then. I might even get around to playing with typesetting… or even making inspirational posters.

If I abandon this project I would be a man without a dream and I don't want to live like that.
-Werner Herzog, from http://herzoginspirationals.tumblr.com/

2 thoughts on “Every one of them words rang true”

  1. I really like the notion of a commonplace book/thing; I swore I wrote about it in my blog (which is my book) but search and memory both failed. I think I saw read about it in Steven Johnson’s “Where Great ideas Come From”, similar to

    So its not just about making note of the quote, idea, but also reflecting on it. It’s what I gleaned from Gardner Campbells approach of zeroing in on the “nugget” of a passage, chapter, paper, youtube video– paying attention to the things your mind and body react to.

    If your blog already did not have a stellar name, I’d suggest a variant on “commonplace book” 😉

    1. Yes, that’s the real difference from the GoodReads list of quotes – a commonplace book is reflective. It’s fun to look through the Google Image Search results for commonplace books and note how many of the top results show reflections aided by drawings, as well as text.

      I’ve been meaning to read more of Steven Johnson since hearing him on Radiolab.

      I’ll call the next blog “Commonplace Bookie.” Tagline “I’ll lay 8 to 5 you’ll remember this.” 🙂

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