There Is Then Creative Reading as Well as Creative Writing *

February 6, 2010

Journaling sounds so simple, doesn’t it. Get onto the computer, buy a diary or notebook of some kind and just start writing, right? Write! It sounds easy, but isn’t. What to write about and why bother? Without purpose, enthusiasm wanes quickly. There’s only so much you can say about what you had for supper (although there are entire books devoted to just such records) or the difficulty of finding good teevee timewastery to occupy your extra hours while you send out countless job queries (although other job seekers would likely commiserate). Even something as simple as keeping a daily photographic record of your socks can get lost in the push of daily living.

There are many kinds of purposeful journals that people keep. One kind of journal I’ve found meaningful is the commonplace book, another kind of autobibliographic reflection. In a commonplace book, you record passages from books that have particular meaning for you. You may respond to them or you may just record things in order to “save” them. This personal-choice recording is different from the kinds of reading logs you may have kept for school since the passages can be from books you are reading for pleasure or from websites or magazines or signs you see or—well, whatever. It may also include quotations or lines of poetry or other things you find pleasing. Be sure to note page numbers and bibliographic information in case you want to reference something from your collection later.

Lines from poems sometimes inspire my art and poetry, and quotations often spur me to think beyond the words on the page and into creative possibilities. For example, at the top of the page I’m word processing right now is a quotation from Kim Hubbard I want to use with The Amuseum of Un-Natural History: “Come good times or bad, there is always a market for things nobody needs.” Visit any thrift store and you’ll be visually bombarded by racks and shelves of things nobody needed that are now for sale to others who don’t need them either but want them anyway. This is another of the many things that fascinate me since I am often a victim of the I-don’t-need-it-but-I-really-really-really-want-it sydrome. Yes. I am the woman who just paid $2.69 for a Bakelite adding machine that is frightfully heavy and pretty much useless but incredibly cool looking. But once again, I digress.

Commonplace books have a long history, dating back to times when books were not as easily available and when people might wish to have a record of wisdom on particular topics of interest to them. I will not bore you with these details. Suffice it to say that you could begin now to collect information that interests you from your reading, or from your life if you aren’t doing much reading. You could keep these snippets of interesting information in a journal of some kind, even cutting and gluing in things that you find amusing—or not. Commonplace books figure prominently in Lemony Snickett’s Series of Unfortunate Events and thus can also be used to record and ruminate on the disasters that befall you and the comfort provided by the words of others.

Hard Times (1853) is my favorite of Charles Dickens’ books, and on December 11, 2002, I copied this quotation from the book in my commonplace book. Mr. Gradgrind says, “Louisa, never wonder.” The book goes on to say, “Herein lay the spring of the mechanical art and mystery of educating the reason without stooping to the cultivation of the sentiments and affections. Never wonder. By means of addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division, settle everything somehow, and never wonder” (p. 36).

As an educator, I often wonder why school does not do more to engage students’ interests since interest-building activities would nurture skills useful in life after school. Inquisitiveness—or curiosity—was linked to innovative thinking in a six-year study of 3,000 creative executives. The study found five discovery skills that these creative people possessed: associating, questioning, observing, experimenting, and networking (“How Do Innovators Think?” Bronwyn Fryer, Sept., 28, 2009, Harvard Business Review). In this article, Jeff Dyer, one of the researchers, explains why people don’t think inquisitively, saying that “the problem is that even the most creative people are often careful about asking questions for fear of looking stupid, or because they know the organization won’t value it.” This too is in my commonplace book.

Of course, if you’re in school, you can prepare for class by reading your textbooks and related materials, recording references and reflections in a course-related commonplace book. Imagine an instructor’s delight should you do so.

Consider beginning a commonplace book to capture things that interest you.

All genuine learning is active, not passive. It involves the use of the mind, not just the memory. It is a process of discovery, in which the student is the main agent, not the teacher.
• Mortimer J. Adler,
The Padeia Proposal

* Thanks to Ralph Waldo Emerson for the title quotation: “There is then creative reading as well as creative writing. When the mind is braced by labor and invention, the page of whatever book we read becomes luminous with manifold allusion. Every sentence is doubly significant, and the sense of our author is as broad as the world.”


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