My commonplace notebook (aka my idea/self-analyzing tool)

For a long time, my relationship with notebooks wasn’t that smooth. It’s not that I ever disliked them. On the contrary, I’ve always been irresistibly drawn to them. There must be kryptonite hidden inside clean, blank pages. An empty notebook just conjures up pure possibility. It could hold the first draft of a story, or scribbled down memories, or lists of tasks that represent snatches of your life.

So for a long time, notebooks would suck me in with their black hole-ish pull, and then I would have too many notebooks with not enough to write in all of them. That resulted in way too many half-started notebooks. (Actually, one-percent-started notebooks are probably more accurated.)

It took me a long time to learn how to finish notebooks. This is truly a skill I had to figure out. My parents are going to be like what in the world when they read this, but one of the things I think they did most right while raising me is not banning me from buying more notebooks even when I had such a terrible track record. I’m sincerely grateful for this.

Last year in April, I wrote an overly detailed guide to the notebook I use for basically everything, and therefore this is a post about the rest. Well, most of the rest.

In August, I broke in my first commonplace notebook. I’m not sure where exactly I heard about the term “commonplace book,” but it’s been years. One of the first places I heard about it from is from this post. Basically, it’s just a notebook (or index cards! that’s what the author of the linked post does, and also Ronald Reagan) where you copy down any interesting quotes you run into, from books to movies to conversations.

I had no idea how it was going to go when I started, but I’m pretty surprised by how much I like it. I think I might even need to order a new notebook in one or two months.

I’ve settled on a system, and like I did in the first notebook post, here’s an overly in-depth guide of what I do.

For each entry, I write [article/podcast/book/song name] by [creator]. All of that gets underlined. Then I put the date of when I’m making the entry. (If the article is from an Atlantic magazine, I put which month the issue is from.)

For quotes, I do a bullet point, like the last one in the picture above. If it’s from a book, I write down the page number. (If there’s words in italics in the quote, I underline the words individually when I write it down.)

For anything besides quotes—words/terms I don’t know—I use a star, like the first three in the picture above. Aha, they look more like weird blobs than stars, but that’s what they’re supposed to be.

I skip lines just so there’s some quieting negative space.

Finally, there’s some lists with either numbers or dashes.

Okay, overly in-depth guide over and out.

In the post title, I called this my idea/self-analyzing tool. This is what I went back to look at when I wrote about what I’m want to say.

As for self-analyzing, I haven’t done much of this, but I’m guessing I’ll be able to by looking for the threads between the ideas and feelings that keep halting my attention.

For example, I keep writing down quotes about people just getting along.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s Advice for Living (NYT):

“we ultimately agree far more often than we divide sharply…we genuinely respect one another, even enjoy one’s company. Collegiality is crucial to the success of our mission.”

He Calmed Gaza, Aided Israel’s Arab Ties, and Preserved Hopes for Peace (NYT):

“But he did notch at least one achievement that qualifies as eyecatching: He earned the respect of just about everyone he dealt with, many of whom view one another as enemies.”

This is How To Change Someone’s Mind: 6 Secrets From Research (Barking Up The Wrong Tree):

(I love this post. It’s a bit too early for this to hold much weight, but I think this could be one of my favorite articles I read this year.)

Back in the 1970s, Portland State University psychology professors Dr. Frank Wesley, looked into why some US prisoners of war defected to North Korea during the Korean War. And it wasn’t because they were torutred. It was because they were shown kindness. Unexpected kindness, not restraint, changed minds.”

Have you heard of commonplace books before?
Do you have a way of recording quotes you love?
What kind of sentences stick out to you?
Have you read any potential best-of-year articles/essays recently?
Oh my, I read too much good writing this weekend. This made me cry. Read it until the end. This made me irrationally happy.

4 thoughts on “My commonplace notebook (aka my idea/self-analyzing tool)”

  1. I’m pretty sure the first place I heard of commonplace notebooks was from Quagmire triplets in A Series of Unfortunate Events (but they were used more for trying to investigate secret organizations and arson and such). I love the idea of having a notebook where you can write down random quotes and facts that strike you at any given time. I started a notebook where I wrote down quotes from books that I read once, but it didn’t last very long. It would be cool to start keeping a commonplace book!


  2. Annie I really enjoy reading your posts!! They are always so unique and thought provoking. I, myself, have fallen victim to the same thing. I have so many notebooks with only the first few pages written in. Ideas scattered throughout others on the back page or in nonsequential order in a few too. There is just so much I want to learn and remember but I have to work on getting all that information I collect in one location!! I’m glad you found a system that works for you 😀


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