Some collect stamps or spot birds. John-Paul Flintoff collects good sentences
Is it madness, in this digital age, to copy out writing by hand? Too much like hard work? I used to think so, but I’ve now changed my mind.
As a young man, Hunter S Thompson typed out The Great Gatsby – the entire book. In fact, he did it more than once – because he wanted to know what it felt like to write a masterpiece.
A hundred years earlier, practically every writer did something similar – gathering verbal wonders in a “commonplace book”, to play around with, and rehash in their own work.
One who did that was George Eliot, whose commonplacing I inspected at the British Library while researching my latest book. (I drew her at it.)
Following her example, I filled by hand four narrow-lined notebooks – at roughly 200 words per page, over 488 pages. That’s more than 95,000 words, written by hand. If that sounds nothing like idling, please note that scraping it out in my spidery script turned out to be like carving it into my brain, and helped me to write my published book in less than four weeks. No digital archive has ever worked like that for me – because without internalising anything, I forget it as soon as I press click.
By tradition – going back to Dr Johnson, Shakespeare and beyond – commonplace books were filled with two kinds of content: rhetorical devices of various kinds, with examples; and stories or information relating to your own particular line of work or study. Taken together, these ensured the book’s owner would never be lost for material, and the best way to express it.
(About rhetoric, which has a bad name these days: it’s neutral. It’s a tool. What matters is the use to which you put it. To hate rhetoric is like hating a frying pan, just because it’s possible to hit somebody on the head with one.)
I learned about commonplace books relatively late, but instinctively, as a young writer I used to copy out sentences I admired, and adapt them to my own needs. I’ll give you an example. Take this opening sentence, by the great short story writer William Trevor, pulled at random from my bookshelf:
“He did not, he said, remember the occasion of his parents’ death, having been at the time only five months old.”
Here’s how I reused it, to apply to A Certain Person in my family (semi-fictional):
“She didn’t, she said, know how the glass got broken because she always hid in the loo when it was time to wash the dishes.”
I wrote this fast, changing the original as little as necessary, because the point of the exercise is to internalise the rhetorical structure.
The Greeks who first classified figures of thought and figures of speech didn’t invent sneaky new forms of discourse. They just zipped around the place taking note of what seemed to work and what didn’t, then popped labels on the various categories. There are hundreds. In my commonplace book I have allocated pages to a few dozen of the most useful. When I find something I like – in a book, or a newspaper, or the latest Idler newsletter – I write it in my commonplace book by hand. Others twitch for birds. Me, I collect brightly feathered sentences.
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