“Favorable conditions never come.” ~ C.S. Lewis

If you’ve never heard of a commonplace journal, you’re not alone. While most of us have heard of diaries, travel journals, gratitude journals, etc, most people have never heard of commonplace journals.

Keeping a commonplace journal is less about recording your own ideas and more about collecting ideas that inspire you and you don’t want to forget. It’s non-narrative, non-chronological, and non-linear. It’s a notebook filled with quotes, random song lyrics, transcribed passages from websites and books, and anything else that you want to review later. The other benefit of handwriting things down is it makes things harder to forget.

Commonplace journals have been around for centuries, kept by all different types of people including the revolutionary Samuel Johnson and the authors Virginia Woolf and Jonathan Swift. They all wrote down passages from their favorite books, quotes by famous people, sketched things that interested them, and kept lists of events going on around them.

But why? What is the real purpose behind the jotting down random bits of information? I believe the real reason people keep commonplace journals is because making connections between unrelated ideas drives creativity. Bringing together disparate things–like a quote you heard on the radio during your commute with a Broadway song lyric from the play you went to the night before–may just give you that title you need for your presentation.

The other reason why some people prefer commonplace journals is because of the very thing C.S. Lewis mentions in his quote “favorable conditions never come.” To rephrase, many of us journal keepers are perfectionists. But in our quest for the perfect pen and the perfect paper in the perfect journal, we are often afraid of the mess. With a commonplace journal, the mess is the whole point! Use washi tape to add a cocktail napkin with a funny saying to a page. Grab that crayon before you forget the name you’ve been thinking about for days that just popped into your head.

It may never be the right time, or you may never have the right pen, to use the handmade journal your mother got your for your birthday. But there’s nothing stopping you from grabbing an old college-ruled notebook and diving in with that marker you found in the junk drawer. A commonplace journal gives you permission not to be perfect.

So how do you get started? First, find any notebook lying around your house or on sale at the dollar store. The cheaper the better. Grab that pen that’s been under your couch and the washi tape you’ve kept in your desk drawer since your daughter’s last birthday party. Once you have a few tools, you then have to make only one decision.

Are you going to divide your commonplace journal up into sections such as quotes, book passages, important dates, etc? Or is it going to be a free-for-all with taped-on dried flowers on the opposite page of a song lyric? The beauty of a commonplace journal is that there are no rules. If your mind is in constant chaos spinning with thoughts, so goes your commonplace journal.

And for those who prefer digital, there are so many options now such as Evernote, OneNote, Scrivener, and even your blog. But whatever you do, make it non-stressful and fun. Oh, and another tip? If you’re committed to a paper commonplace journal, keep it small that way it’s easier to carry around so you’re more likely to use it!


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