It wasn't until I was taking photos of my most current commonplace book that I realized I've been keeping these notebooks for just over twelve years. It feels almost unimaginable that my notebooks would be middle schoolers now, should they have been children, which honestly, as people so often describe things they love and put lots of care into as their babies, they might likely be that for me. My dog-eared copy of Joan Didion's Slouching Towards Bethlehem reminds me that I was an undergrad when I first read her essay, "On Keeping a Notebook" - a piece that was offered to me by a kind professor who likely hoped I'd leave her office and stop my random dialogue on my discovery of these things called commonplace books if she sent me away with something to read that might make it all click. She was right, as she so often was - I read the essay, underlined over half of it, and it all clicked. I've been keeping a notebook ever since.
The truth is that I keep lots of notebooks - in part because I am a lover and collector of them, paper always being my poison of choice, and in part because they each hold something different for me. Notebooks, like loved ones and good books, can't be everything for us all at once, it's okay to need different ones at different times, to carry them close and love the for what they are, instead of what they aren't.
My commonplace book, however, has always remained my foundation, the one notebook that's always near, a collection of life's fragments, and a place to keep what's yet to make sense to me, but urging me to pay closer attention. The notebooks themselves have taken so many different forms over the years, from binders of scrap paper and ephemera, to hand bound books, to the gifted and ornately covered ones, and the most common slim black Moleskine cahiers. What remains the same is what they hold, or maybe more accurately what they do - they serve as a place to gather myself, the quotes I read, the lines I write that have yet to find a home as anything longer, small drawings, scraps of paper, bits and piece of artwork made by dear friends, magazine and newspaper clippings, and sometimes, though more rarely, photographs that capture what I could not put into words on the page.
What I love most about these books is what they are not - they are not always neat, or well designed, though their pieces, in images and words, are often so lovely and so important to me that I think them more beautiful than some of my best intentional work, but that's a personal matter, I guess. Sometimes the pages are filled with lines and lines of text with only the color of the varying ink to pepper the page with personality, and sometimes they are a collage of color, every little bit oozing vibrancy; I love both ways equally. They are not diaries, per se, and there are very, very seldom any dates beyond what I mark as the beginning of the notebook. These pages are not meant to do what my other forms of memory keeping do, and there's nothing within them that was added in an effort to remember a time of my life exactly as it was.
Instead, these notebooks offer me something more - something you can't know you're making until it's done, maybe even until time has passed, and you look back with a seeker's heart, and a scavenger's eye. Whatever the magic combination is, I know this to be true - keeping a notebook, continuing to keep a notebook, reminds me of where I was by showing me what caught my attention, what caused me to pause, to think, to take note, to be HERE.
What I've noticed lately after starting my most recent commonplace book is that it is evident in these notebooks when in my life I was looking for more from where I was, needing to find more from the world around me, because those years hold many more books that others, their pages brimming with bits. This might be one of those years, I suspect, one notebook started just before the new year already full, this new one finding me with more pieces to add nearly every day. I kind of love that there's room for both, that it's okay if after this one is full it might take me two years to fill the next, that I capture what needs to be caught, and let the rest go. There's room to participate in our lives in so many ways, room to do it all different every time we begin, and I'm grateful for all of it, especially what happens in these pages.
And now, a little bit of practical work: I mentioned that my notebooks take many forms, most commonly housed in the simple Moleskine cahier style, but any notebook will work - if you choose to start one, pick what's more comfortable for you (stitch bound, binder, spiral, lined, blank). My newest is taking the form of a binder, much like one of my earliest ones from oh, 2005, I think. I took a cheap small three ring binder from Target, covered it simply in fabric, filled it with a mixture of lined, blank, patterned paper, scattered in some bits and pieces of ephemera and envelopes that I'd been hoarding for way too long, and called it good. It suits me right now, all the fragments I'm working within and around, but I know that there's a good chance my next book will be back to the plain and simple style, because my head and heart are just perfectly indecisive that way. Here's a view of what's inside so far:
To make things easier on myself, I keep the supplies I use for my commonplace book close, which, because this one has been full of so many more pieces, means having practical pieces like glue, staples, tape, and of course, pens, but also all of the little scraps of paper, etc. that I've been collecting that I like to use inside.
I keep these supplies in three small pouches so that I only have to grab the one I need, with the most common being my basics (adhesives, core pens, etc.), and then one for my paper scraps and other ephemera, and one for my overflow writing utensils (markers, hi-lighters, pens, pencils, etc.).
Because I'm crazy, and organizing these bits of my life makes me ridiculously happy, I keep all three pouches in a large, slim zipper pouch so that if I want to take it with me somewhere it's easy to grab, and if i'm just using it at home, it's all in one place. Nobody's got time to search all over for supplies.
Here are a few images from some of my notebooks throughout the years - all very different from this current one, but all holding some of my most favorite scraps of life:
It seems like such a small thing, this act of keeping a notebook, but looking back through years and years worth of these volumes, I am so grateful I started, and even more so, that I keep them going.