The Commonplace Book as a Thinker’s Journal

Commonplace Book

For centuries, authors and thinkers have kept commonplace books: focused journals that serve to collect thoughts, quotes, moments of introspection, transcribed passages from reading – anything of purpose worth reviewing later.

Why keep a commonplace book today? When we are inundated by information through social media and our digital devices, it’s easy to overlook what drives and intrigues us. Keeping a journal helps, but keeping a focused journal is better, even if that focus is on self-fulfillment.

Continue reading →

On writing in the morning for night owls

blurry eyed morning writing

Why do so many successful writers insist on writing first thing in the morning? What about us night owls?

For years, I was a night owl. And by night owl, I don’t mean going to bed after Leno, I mean staying up until 4 or 5 a.m. Most of the time, I did important things: I’d write, play guitar, or study (who am I kidding: I played a lot of video games). Still, I got into the habit of staying up way later than what is considered “normal.”

Since then, I’ve had to do many big boy things, like work jobs that required me to be alert from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. I can’t stay up late anymore. My body and my paycheck don’t allow it. Even though my default mode is to do work at night (in fact, I’m writing this blog post in the evening), I’ve had to adopt early bird habits.

But one thing I don’t do is write in the morning. If I have time available, I like to write in the afternoon or in the evening right after dinner. Unfortunately, my work schedule doesn’t allow me to set up a daily afternoon writing habit.

I realized recently that the only time I available to me every single day is at 6 a.m. This is very early for me. If I want to write at the same time every day, I’ll have to get over the early morning thing.

The more I think about it, though, the more I realize how important it is to write first thing in the morning. After all, I believe you should start your day doing your most significant and most rewarding work. If I call myself a writer, shouldn’t I write first thing in the morning? Shouldn’t it be the reason I get out of bed every day?

I’d like to adapt the “morning pages” ritual advocated by writer Julia Cameron and others. Cameron explains the process in this way:

Morning Pages are three pages of longhand, stream of consciousness writing, done first thing in the morning. *There is no wrong way to do Morning Pages*– they are not high art. They are not even “writing.” They are about anything and everything that crosses your mind– and they are for your eyes only. Morning Pages provoke, clarify, comfort, cajole, prioritize and synchronize the day at hand. Do not over-think Morning Pages: just put three pages of anything on the page…and then do three more pages tomorrow.

As a writing teacher, I urge my students to do freewriting exercises when they are planning or brainstorming essays. The morning pages method is like a freewrite: it’s not supposed to be a draft of your next novel (although it might lead you to the next idea). It’s not even writing at the blog post level. It’s just to create the habit and to keep writing.

I’ve decided to try this method. Why not? I’ll have to get over the morning thing, but if it’s truly important to me, I’ll survive.

I can still devote my afternoons and evenings to *real* writing and sort out all the stuff that the morning pages might help me figure out.

Finally, I leave you with a quote about inconsequential writing, in this case journal writing (which is what the morning pages method really is), from Virginia Woolf:

But what is more to the point is my belief that the habit of writing thus for my own eye only is good practice. It loosens the ligaments. Never mind the misses and stumbles. Going at such a pace as I do I must make the most direct and instant shots at my object, and thus have to lay hands on words, choose them and shoot them with no more pause than is needed to put my pen in the ink.

[I am grateful to Maria Popova at for the Virginia Woolf quote.]

The future of the book: is it in apps?

Today I’m riffing on a topic that’s been the focus of this blog for a while now: what is the future of the book? Is this phrase already outdated or overused? Do e-books, as they are presented right now, really represent the future of books? Shouldn’t we just keep reading and writing and wait it out? Aren’t a lot of discussions about books focused on marketing and publishing instead of the future of literary genres?

These are all important questions, and they are questions I continue to ask myself as I move forward with digital media. My inclination is that, yes, discussions about the future of the book need to continue, but we might reach a point where the “future” of the book is the “present.”

Experimenting with literary form, whether in terms of genre or in terms of physical form, is not a new concept. In this way, a dialogue about the future of the book is not necessary because always existed, even if we now talk about it in a digital context.

However, when it comes to a discussion about digital forms of literature, there’s a lot that can and should be done. I’ve spoken about this at length, but there’s one area I’d like to discuss today: the smartphone/tablet app for literary works. There are some examples of new works of literature coming through in app form, but I’m more interested in remixing old literary classics through an app.

I read an article recently about iPad apps that provide immersive reading experiences. The article described an app for the T. S. Eliot poem The Waste Land, which to me seems like the right poem to turn into an app. Here’s how the article from The Washington Post describes it:

With the app, “The Waste Land” falls open before its readers. It’s something to be lingered over and digested — a private course on the poem.

This was its creator’s intention. Touch Press chief executive Max Whitby said he wanted to leave the original text intact but add elements to create an experience beyond the printed page — a discussion around the poem. The app is a collaboration between Eliot’s publishers, Faber and Faber and Touch Press, a digital publishing company well known for its science-books-turned-apps, “The Elements” and “The Solar System.”

Creating a discussion around old works of literature, or “enhancing” them in some way through spin or creative remixing reignites the work. That’s something that book lovers should embrace, whether you support the idea of a future of the book or not.

Then there’s my friend and colleague Jason Braun’s iPhone app “Paradise Lost in the Office.” This app takes Paradise Lost to another level by placing the text within a 21st century office setting. The reader can read Milton’s poem straight, or the reader can interact with the poem as if it’s meant to give sound advice about how to act in the office.

This idea of taking something established and completely tearing it apart and reassembling it seems so necessary in the digital age. It reminds me of what Eliot, Pound, and Virginia Woolf tried to do with literature in the early 20th Century: make it new. That’s what artists should do today.

Interview with Kevin Eagan in the Belleville News-Democrat

Critical Margins got a shout out from me in a recent interview with the Belleville News-Democrat.

Reporter Teri Maddox asked me some great questions about my reading habits and how they have changed now that I read on a Kindle more than ever before.

I mentioned my recent experiments with e-marginalia, including the current series that follows my thoughts on David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King.

Anyway, here’s the link to the article — check it out, you’ll learn a bit more about me and why I do what I do on this blog.


75 books in a year: Voracious Glen Carbon reader turns up the volumes

BND article: print version