Commonplace Book (n): A book in which ‘commonplaces’ or passages important for reference were collected, usually under general heads; hence, a book in which one records passages or matters to be especially remembered or referred to, with or without arrangement

In my composition and literature course this spring I am having my students keep a commonplace book. As I told them on our wiki:

The tradition of keeping a “commonplace book” goes back for centuries. Through the process of gathering words, phrases, and quotations from the texts we encounter we are able to create an image of our thinking in the gatherings we put down on the page. Before the “copy and paste” ease of the internet, commonplace books were the storage containers of a reader’s thinking. Many authors and readers still keep commonplace books to this day, though some have moved their books to public forums like blogs, facebook, twitter, and social readings sites such as goodreads.

Sometimes (often) my thinking process is not very linear, so the concept of blogging is a little difficult for me sometimes — the ominous vertical stretch of post space to fill is daunting and lately I find myself resisting it because I think about linear narratives all day (well-crafted emails, assignment prompts, working with student essays, etc). That was a very long sentence.

I am going to try to get over myself, and take a lesson from my own lesson plan. Sometimes, in lieu of reviews, I will write a commonplace entry. There, I’ve said it. It is on the task of this blog, along with field notes and ramblings and event notifications (of which there are many I have missed as of late… my apologies).

The beauty of the commonplace book is that, by definition, it does not have a particular order. It is a gathering. My handwritten commonplace books are separate by project, and serve as some kind of physical reminder of all of the work I’ve done. Sometimes I write a lot of reflection on what I’ve gathered. Sometimes I just let quotations and lists stand for themselves, resonating in their own space by the mere fact that I took the time to write them down.

The first commonplace book entry my students are working on is for the essay Against the Grain, by David Bartholomae. This is my own commonplace entry on the article:

“How I write is against the grain” (192) — against the wood grain, opposite of the expected — but doesn’t everyone do this? I think so often we are TOLD what a writing process should look like, and the reason it takes so long for us to figure out what our own writing process is like is because those things that people told us to do didn’t make any sense. I often wondered, for example, how the hell I was supposed to write an outline when I didn’t know what I was going to write about yet. I never knew… so I wrote the essay and THEN wrote the outline.

“Writing gets in my way and makes my life difficult…” (192) — but I love it, even when it is hard.

“…I’m not making history, but… I am intruding upon or taking my turn in a conversation others have begun before me” (193) ahh, the conversation. Response is key. This is all I ever want to teach my students, is to enjoy the response, to find the compulsion to respond.

Words and phrases he uses to describe his writing process:

  • resistance
  • “help me speak”
  • historic moment
  • “letting the paper bounce around in my head”
  • things, never ideas or theses
  • discourse
  • conversation/confrontation
  • pressure
  • challenge
  • add, subtract, rearrange
  • “dump and revise”
  • interfering
  • multi-layered — adding layers
  • someone who speaks
  • “to borrow authority”
  • “struggle free from the presence of others”
  • “giving over and giving up”
  • “surrender and betrayal”
  • compelled
  • project
  • NOT invention or originality
  • “a most difficult grace”

“This [the personal confrontation with another figure] is the most powerful influence and it is the influence of another writer, a person represented by a verbal, textual presence — a set of terms, a sound and a rhythm, a sensibility — that I cannot push our of my mind or erase from my own writing” (194)

(His dissertation advisor REJECTED his dissertation!? It’s really incredible this guy became such a leading scholar in the composition world).

“The problem here was not so much what I had to say about Thomas Hardy but what I did with what I had to say and how, in fact, I went about saying it. It’s hard to learn how to deal with this — with the pressure of language to be so pat, complete, official, single-minded; with the pressure of language against complexity, uncertainty, idiosyncracy, multiple-mindedness — and it’s very hard to teach students to work against fluency, the “natural” flow of language as it comes to a writer who has a grasp of a subject” (196) — I think this grasp of a subject thing is key.

“I try very hard to interfere with the conventional force of writing, with the pressure toward set conclusions, set connections, set turns of phrase” (196) YES! I have been resisting convention for so long… but so often conventions are comforting, they tell us what to do. What they don’t tell us is WHY they are telling us to do the thing they are telling us, or HOW that convention makes logical, organic sense (often it does not).

“I often think of writing as multilayered, although not in the sense that there is a center, like the center of an onion, that can be revealed or discovered once the layers are peeled away and sloughed off. I think, rather, that I revise to add a layer, often discordant, over a layer that will also remain — so that there is a kind of antiphony” (196). Who told us that there was a “hidden meaning” in the first place? Why was it hidden? What amount of writing could uncover it? I like this — layers added, not layers surrounding.

“I revise… so that it seems to assert the presence of someone who speaks as more than the representative of an institution or a brand of research or a discipline” (196) — I do not agree with this. Writing is so different than speech. We think differently in written language. What about poetry? Poetry is not (necessarily) linear, narrative, even in grammatically correct sentences.

Western tradition of writers and theories “good writing is efficient writing” — resisting this (197).

“My academic life has been marked by people, not by ideas or theories alone or in the abstract” (198).

What he needed was a “project” (199) — what is the project for us in this class? What project might the students undertake in their college careers? How does this course fit into that? This is definitely the key motivating factor — how do I inspire that in my students? Can I?

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2 thoughts on “Commonplace Book (n): A book in which ‘commonplaces’ or passages important for reference were collected, usually under general heads; hence, a book in which one records passages or matters to be especially remembered or referred to, with or without arrangement

  1. Pingback: Academia (n): the world of university scholarship | WHY I THINK THE PhD IS WORTH IT, Part 2 | here now, myriads

  2. Pingback: Student (n): A person who is engaged in or addicted to study. Const. of, in, or with defining word prefixed, indicating the subject studied. | here now, myriads

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