What’s a ‘commonplace book’?

Abstract digital art, suggesting a flower in a pond, by Tucker Lieberman

“For nearly four decades, I’ve kept what’s known as a commonplace book,” Dwight Garner wrote in the New York Times in November 2020. “It’s where I write down favorite sentences from novels, stories, poems and songs, from plays and movies, from overheard conversations. Lines that made me sit up in my seat; lines that jolted me awake. About once a year, I’ll say something I think is worthy of inclusion. I mostly end up deleting those entries.”

I have always done this, too, since I was 18. In my first year of college, in 1998, I started my own website as a hobby, and I began filling it with my own mini-essays (“blogs” were not quite invented yet) and interesting passages that I found in library books and typed up. As my list of quotations grew, I grouped them by theme; and as the lists continued to grow, the themes multiplied and became more specific.

“Do you keep a notebook?” Prof. Lance Morrow asked my essay-writing class in my journalism program in 2004. He explained to the class that he meant writing down personal musings and interesting passages written by others that might fuel our own future essays. I answered that I did; I had multiple “notebooks,” organized by theme. (The class seemed to think this was a little over the top.) Also, my “notebooks” have always been digital, so that the information is readily searchable by keyword and copy/pasteable in case it needs to be reorganized or, at long last, incorporated into an essay of my own. (I do sometimes use paper and pen to transcribe information, but ultimately I type it up because that’s how it will be more usable.)

In 2020, I counted the number of themed files. There are two hundred. They include:

abortion, abstractions, activism, affluenza, altruism, animals, anxiety, art, attention and busyness, beliefs, bias and control, body, brain, caring, Cartesianism, celibacy, certainty, chance, charm, cheating, climate change, cloning, coaching, commercialism, compassion, conformity, creativity, death penalty, decision-making (and gut instinct), dialogue, dirt, disaster insurance, disgust, domination of nature, emotions, enlightenment, environment, epiphany, eternal now, ethics (business), evolution, faith-based charities, false memory and confession, food (and hunger), forgiveness, free speech, free will, friendship, gender, giving, God (and: anthropomorphism, atheism, biblical authority, faith, feminist theology, “on your side,” and “knows secrets”), grief, hair, handicapping agreements for games, healing, history, honor, human rights, humanism, humility, humor, immortality, integrity, Internet history, interpellation, Israel, Jewish, journalism, knowledge (and not knowing, deliberate ignorance, and ridiculous beliefs), language, liberty and security, literacy and numeracy, logic, love, lying (and rationalization), marijuana, marriage, math, memory (and the permanence of Internet publication), mind, money, monsters, mortality, myth (and political myths), names, natural disasters, “nature or nurture,” networks, nostalgia, oaths, organ transplant, Orwell, Panopticon, paradox, patriotism, peace, philosophy, pleasure, poaching, political polarization, politics (and unwritten norms), power, prayer, prisoners, procreation and parenting, prohibition of alcohol, race, regret, relationships, relativism (this one, dear reader, may be the longest, at 70,000 words), religion and science, religious experience, risk, ritual, saying no, self, self-sacrifice, sexuality, shame, skill, sleep, software design and testing, soldiers, solitude, success, suicide, technology, Thanatos, theodicy, time, tolerance, tree, trust, twee, utilitarianism, vegan, virtue signaling, weapon metaphors, werewolves, writing

Plus, of course, the indispensable catch-alls: “nice turns of phrase” and “miscellaneous.”

If I’m writing an essay and I suddenly remember a phrase I was once struck by, I can search any of these files (or my entire computer) by keyword. Then I can cite it in what I’m currently writing.

I recently told someone that I organize my digital files like this, and she asked if it was difficult to come up with these themes and stick to the organizational system. No, I answered. The themes were born from need, and they developed organically, as when one begins with a messy room and begins labeling the shelves as a response to appropriately accommodate all the material that already exists. Also, I stick to it only insofar as it works. I put the material on the “most correct” shelf because where else would I put it? So I use my files appropriately, and thus they work for me.

If I started with a blank slate, now, at age 40, my labels for these files would be completely different. They are what they are because they spun off of a system I kicked off, semi-consciously, when I was 18 and just starting to make a big proto-literary mess.

I suppose I could restructure everything, but there seems to be no urgent need to do so. And this would be a huge project; how would I begin to approach the 70,000-word file labeled “relativism,” a book-length document comprised entirely of other people’s statements on this subject?

The benefit of keeping the “old ways” is that they are embedded deeply in my brain. When I’m reading and a quote strikes me, I don’t have to ask myself, “Which of 200 themes is this best categorized under?” I already know “what I want the quote for”; my “themes” are just my shorthand keywords for something I already implicitly recognize and understand. It is a private, decades-long conversation I have with myself.

I didn’t know this was called a “commonplace book” until I saw Dwight Garner’s essay in 2020. I have since heard that Ryan Holiday discussed the concept in his book The Obstacle Is The Way. It feels like a commonplace activity within my own life because I’ve always done it. I don’t know if others consider it a normal thing to do. I have never had any other word for it. Sometimes I write “QUOTES” at the top of a piece of paper so that I know the material has to be typed up. Apart from that, it has been a nameless activity for me.

Poems read Oct-Dec 2020

A closeup of the inside of a banana peel.

Poems that stumbled across my path online. You might like them, too.

Lisa Ampleman, “Gilding the Lily”
Molly Brodak, “Ok
William Bronk, “Deus Vobiscum”, “Questions for Eros,” “The Remains of a Farm”
Jericho Brown, “Another Elegy,” in The New Testament
Lauren Clark, “Illinois in Spring”
Lucille Clifton, “birth-day”
Cid Corman, “The Unforgivable”
Gregory Corso, “Hello”
Ansel Elkins, “Autobiography of Eve
Rhina P. Espaillat, “November”
Jack Gilbert, “Exceeding the Spirit”
Aracelis Girmay, “[strange earth, strange]”
Peter Gizzi, “The Present is Constant Elegy
Louise Glück, “The Pond,” in The House On Marshland
Linda Gregg, “God’s Places”
Paul Guest, “Post Factual Love Poem”
Alen Hamza, “Someday I Will Learn”
Joy Harjo, “She Had Some Horses”
Zbigniew Herbert, “Prayer”
Amorak Huey, “Lifespan of a Deer”
Laura Jensen, “Memory,” “Here in the Night”
Jean Joubert, “Brilliant Sky” (tr. Denise Levertov)
Dilawar Karadaghi, “[I’m not here]”
Joanna Klink, “On Mercy”
Ada Limón, “Instructions on Not Giving Up”
Moira Linehan, “My Great Blue”
Timothy Liu, “Survivors”
Audre Lorde, “Speechless
Sophia de Mello Breyner, “[You will never again feel]”
W. S. Merwin, “The Morning”, “How It Happens”
Malena Mörling, “Ashes
Sharon Olds, “I Cannot Say I Did Not”
Mary Oliver, “Fall Song,” in American Primitive
Charles Olson, “[I measure my song]”
George Oppen, “Psalm”, “World, World–“
Katherine Osborne, “[My son died.]”
Linda Pastan, “In This Season of Waiting,” “Go Gentle”
Rowan Ricardo Phillips, “Grief and the Imaginary Grave”
Rainer Maria Rilke, “[Only in our doing can we grasp you]” in The Book Of Hours
Theodore Roethke, “Memory”
Charif Shanahan, “Ligament
Natalie Shapero, “Not Horses,” in Hard Child
Izumi Shikibu, “[You ask my thoughts]” tr. Hirshfield & Aratani
Charles Simic, “Poem” [Every morning I forget how it is]
Maggie Smith, “Rain, New Year’s Eve”
Tracy K. Smith, “An Old Story”
Molly Spencer, “Most Accidents Occur At Home”
Matt Stefon, “A bent rainbow”
Timmy Straw, “Willamette”
Anna Swir, “Her Death is In Me” (tr. Milosz and Leonard Nathan)
Fiona Sze-Lorrain, “[Nothing in my song]”
Shuntaro Tanikawa, “Twenty Billion Light Years of Loneliness” trans. Wright
Chase Twichell, “Fox Bones”
Jean Valentine, “The One You Wanted to Be Is The One You Are”
diane wakoski, “the moon has a complicated geography”
Katharine Whitcomb, “Through the Window,” in The Daughter’s Almanac
Wendy Xu, “[Most things lose]”

On sun, shadow, and hidden images (three quotes)

Digital art by Tucker Lieberman. Pastel colors in abstract shapes.
Digital art by Tucker Lieberman.

“In Pharaonic Egypt at the time of Akhnaton, in a now-extinct monotheistic religion that worshiped the Sun, light was thought to be the gaze of God. Back then, vision was imagined as a kind of emanation that proceeded from the eye. Sight was something like radar. It reached out and touched the object being seen. The Sun—without which little more than the stars are visible—was stroking, illuminating, and warming the valley of the Nile. Given the physics of the time, and a generation that worshiped the Sun, it made some sense to describe light as the gaze of God.”
Carl Sagan. Billions and Billions: Thoughts on Life and Death at the Brink of the Millennium. Ballantine, 1998. p. 31.

“Here is a graphic demonstration of what Jung usefully called the work of the archetypal shadow: we cannot encounter directly what we have repressed, what we cannot face, because it is by definition unconscious; and so we encounter it indirectly, as if it were outside us, cast like a shadow out of the unconscious on to the world.”
Patrick Harpur. The Philosopher’s Secret Fire: A History of the Imagination (2002). Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2003. p. 54.

“It could be that I had the kind of childhood full of absences, and yours happened to be the only one that hurt so good. It could be simply that suicide does tricky things to people. It is a bizarre kind of loss, full of answers and empty of ways to access them, much like the series of Magic Eye posters taped to the walls of our junior high school. Despite extended periods of squinting and eye-crossing, I repeatedly failed to detect the hidden images, available only to those with the ability to skew their vision. I grew to detest those posters with their cloaked dinosaurs and sailboats, constant reminders of the limits of my perception.”
Candace Jane Opper. Certain and Impossible Events. Tucson, Arizona: Kore Press, 2021. p. 13.

My writer’s desk is surrounded by death spikes

In summer 2018, Neologism Poetry Journal published my poem, “Readiness,” which begins:

Bits of wildflowers find their way
into my hand and into my dirt.
The purpose of the seeds: to become their parents.

They were morning glories.

Close-up of two purple bell-shaped flowers.
My morning glories, photographed October 4, 2020.

Yesterday, the apartment building manager said that contractors would come to our second-floor balcony to “install something.” To receive them with grace, I tidied the balcony by repotting those morning glories. One had grown long, and I seated the pot in the windowbox and tossed its vines over the side of the balcony like Rapunzel’s hair so that the passersby could enjoy them, too.

Afternoon came, and it seemed the handypeople were not coming. Then, while sitting at my writer’s desk at the corner window that faces east and south, a strip of metal weaved through my field of vision, as if alive, as if wrapping the house of its own accord. Moments later, the man who was holding it came into my field of vision, too. He was crawling backwards on his hands and knees through my compost in the windowbox. The strip of metal was to be installed on the perimeter of the balcony.

Here is the result:

Corner window on the second floor overlooking a busy urban street with many metal spikes on the balcony edge.
My corner window, showing my writing desk and the balcony.

They installed 178 three-inch, barbed, flame-shaped metal spikes on the edge of the balcony and windowbox. 13 on the west side, 106 on the south side, 50 on the east side, and 9 on the north side. I did not know this was going to happen.

(There are additional spikes outside the bedroom window, too.)

It is supposed to make me feel safer? It does not. It is not my backdrop of choice for my writing desk where I make poetry and anti-fascist essays. It offends me and makes me anxious.

I understand that millions of people are actually in jail. I understand that I am not actually in jail and that what I am complaining about is merely a carceral aesthetic. I understand that some people like this aesthetic and truly feel safer when surrounded by such a physical deterrent to break-ins. I understand that I am not trapped in my room, despite other kinds of real restrictions that the pandemic places on my movement. I understand that I am unlikely to accidentally injure myself because the spikes slope outward away from the person standing on the balcony and that I am not personally at risk for self-harm.

I understand that most writers do not have the privilege of their own quiet, sunny home office—spikes or no.

I understand that my complaint is significant mainly to me and may seem petty to others.

Of course, the construction worker also stole my potted morning glories. I’d like to believe the flowers were kidnapped in kindness and are alive somewhere, but broken Rapunzel vines were left behind.

The time I’ve spent in this apartment is the longest I’ve ever lived in any one place as an adult. As a kid, I lived in three houses for six years each; then I was in college dorms; after college, I had 12 consecutive addresses before this apartment where I have just completed three years.

So I’d like to believe the vines that spiraled slowly down my balcony did not suddenly, when I wasn’t looking, transmute themselves into barbed wire; that they were always only flowers, pure and innocent; that there was nothing else in their DNA.

My poem “Readiness” ended:

They sprout
tendrils that slowly unfold tinctured secrets.
You are becoming what you always were.
I water you. I do not remember what you are,
but do not let me stop you.

Trans-Galactic Bike Ride

Detail of book cover: TRANS-GALACTIC BIKE RIDE

We have waited so long for the Trans-Galactic Bike Ride anthology, and it is finally, finally, finally here. This cover art is by Cecilia Granata. Look. Look. Look at it.

Subtitle: Feminist Bicycle Science Fiction Stories of Transgender and Nonbinary Adventurers

Ebooks and print books are available internationally from Microcosm. In the US only, you can order print copies from Bookshop. If you’re not ready to place an order, just mark it as “Want to Read” on Goodreads so that you will find it again someday when you circle back around the galaxy.