” . . . the tools we use to write, read, and otherwise manipulate information work on our minds even as our minds work with them . . .”
— Nicholas Carr, The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains

Inexpensive spiral bound notebooks -- I write in one nearly every day.

Inexpensive spiral bound notebooks — I write in one nearly every day.

“I believe I write to analyze, clarify, understand and perceive life.  I write in order to see more clearly. . . . It is my lens through which to see myself and the world.”
— Anne Morrow Lindbergh, Against Wind and Tide:  Letters and Journals 1947 – 1986

“Writing is thinking.  It is more than living, for it is being conscious of living.”
— Anne Morrow Lindbergh, Locked Rooms and Open Doors

I write in one of my cheap, spiral notebooks almost every day.  I call my notebooks “commonplace books” rather than journals or diaries because I rarely write out my own personal thoughts or reflections in them.  So my notebooks are not places to practice creative writing.  Rather, I use the notebooks to capture and collect passages from books that I read.  Writing out interesting quotes longhand slows down my reading so that I can spend a little time reflecting on themes that are important to me — travel, art, creativity, aging, death, nature, walking, silence and solitude, healthy eating, handwork, etc.

I can think best with a pen or pencil in my hand.  I like the tactile feel of a pen held in my fingers; I like the calligraphic thin black line of my personal handwriting; I like the smooth surface of the paper.  I do compose and write my blog posts directly on a computer, but why give up the pleasures of writing by hand for my personal notebooks?  They are just for me, and I don’t need to be efficient or tech savvy in this part of my life.  My pen and notebooks are tools to help me think.

“Wanting to write not with the idea necessarily of becoming an author — not necessarily with the idea of becoming even a teacher of writing — but with the idea of living a meaningful, reflective life:  that is a very superior motivation.”
— Carol Bly, Beyond the Writer’s Workshop: New Ways to Write Creative Non-Fiction




Pencil shavings and new, pristine notebooks

Pencil shavings and new, pristine notebooks

“It was the last day of summer vacation, and while it had been decades since he’d gone to school, he still felt the tug.  The mix of sadness at the end of summer, and excitement to see his chums again.  The new clothes, bought after a summer’s growth.  The new pencils, sharpened over and over, and the smell of the shavings.  And the new notebooks.  Always thrilling.  Unmarred.  No mistake yet.  All they held was promise and potential.”
— Louise Penny, The Brutal Telling:  A Chief Inspector Gamache Novel

The start of the school year holds the promise of a fresh start, even for those of us who no longer report to a classroom.   Here’s to new beginnings!

My work table, a mix of high and low tech

My work table, a mix of high and low tech

The Real Work
by Wendell Berry

It may be that when we no longer know what to do
we have come to our real work,

and that when we no longer know which way to go
we have come to our real journey.

The mind that is not baffled is not employed.

The impeded stream is the one that sings.

I get a bit anxious with the year-end reviews and resolutions, the tug between looking back (and feeling discouraged about lack of accomplishments and growth) and looking forward (and feeling hopeful about doing better this year).  Progress, if any, feels so slow, and I tell myself to be patient.  After all, it’s the journey that counts, and not so much the destination.  All of my little musings, struggles to draw and paint, wishes to take better photographs and to write better, flaws in my roles as wife, mother, sister, daughter, friend . . . everything all the time.  Yes, my mind is often baffled.

And that is why I find so much solace in today’s poem.  “The mind that is not baffled is not employed.”  Thank you, Wendell Berry.  Finding my purpose, figuring out what is important in my days — this is my real work — even when I don’t know what I’m doing or which way to go.

“The impeded stream is the one that sings.”


“It is in the doldrums that our talents are most needed.  The best training for desperation is to know early the feeling of no guidance.  In photography the squeak of intention destroys serendipity.”
— Dan Torop, Draw It with Your Eyes Closed:  The Art of the Art Assignment

“Only when he no longer knows what he is doing does the painter do good things.”
— Edgar Degas

“Sometimes confidence is overrated!  Questions and uncertainty are the stuff of artists! . . .  You need enough confidence to hold your paintbrushes, and to show up in the studio, knowing that you are not wasting your time — but after that, I would say uncertainty should prevail.  We can never be too sure.”
— Anna Deavere Smith, Letters to a Young Artist

My Commonplace Notebooks

March 3, 2010

“I set about filling my notebooks with odd facts, recollections, and all sorts of other things, including the most trivial stuff.  Mostly I concentrated on things and people that I found charming and worthwhile, but my notes are also full of poems and observations on trees and plants, birds and insects.  I am sure that when people see my book they will say, ‘It’s even worse than expected — now you can really tell what she is like.”
     — Sei Shonagon, in the epilogue of her pillow book, tenth century Japan

Some pages from my notebooks

Over a decade's worth of notebooks

My current notebook

I love the idea of commonplace books.  I have been keeping such notebooks since 1992.  Mine are collections of quotes and passages from books that I am reading.  They are also a catch-all for things I hear about that I want to research or remember, my regular “To Do” lists, clippings from magazines and newspapers, and for a time, a detailed record of every penny I spent.  Sometimes they resemble scrapbooks.

I like the idea of collecting quotes, poems, articles on a theme, but my notebooks are not that organized.  They are more of a hodge-podge.  I’ve always been more of a generalist than a specialist, and my notebooks reflect that.

My notebooks are not journals.  I rarely write about what I am thinking or doing.  Yet, I suppose you can tell what kind of person I am from these notebooks which are full of things that resonate with me.

I’ve found them a useful source for many of the poems and quotes that I’ve included in this blog.

I’d hate to part with my notebooks.  Now that I know how much I value them, I really should invest in better quality notebooks.  My earliest notebooks were written in pencil — I regret that as they are harder to read now.  I no longer keep track of every cent I spend.  I really admire people who keep nature journals, a combination of sketches and observations and reflections. I’d like to become a better journal writer, too, so I expect that my commonplace books will keep evolving in the years to come.

School Supplies for Grown-Ups

September 2, 2009

5-Theme Spiral Notebook

5-Theme Spiral Notebook

This is the time of year when parents and students go shopping for school supplies.  There is something tempting about virgin notebooks, pristine erasers, sharp-scented markers with sharp tips.  They symbolize a fresh start, I think. 

When I was in elementary school, I always coveted the big box of Crayola crayons, the one with close to 100 colors, standing like soldiers in stacked rows.  Of course, my frugal Mom nixed that purchase — 24 or 36 colors would have to do.

Now that I am an adult, crayons and new school supplies seem like a small indulgence.  There is no reason why I can’t treat myself to the big box of crayons, finally fulfilling my childhood dream.  I like the idea of school supplies for grown-ups.

A Spiral Notebook

The bright wire rolls like a porpoise
in and out of the calm blue sea
of the cover, or perhaps like a sleeper
twisting in and out of his dreams,
for it could hold a record of dreams
if you wanted to buy it for that,
though it seems to be meant for
more serious work, with its
college-ruled lines and its cover
that states in emphatic white letters,
a part of growing old is no longer
to have five subjects, each
demanding an equal share of attention,
set apart by brown cardboard dividers,
but instead to stand in a drugstore
and hang on to one subject
a little too long, like this notebook
you weigh in your hands, passing
your fingers over it surface
as if it were some kind of wonder.
     — Ted Kooser