University of Minnesota Alumni Association

The Last Word

Lessons From the Commonplace

In praise of commonplace books

In my senior year of high school, my creative writing teacher had us keep a commonplace book as an assignment. The idea was to collect interesting quotations from our everyday lives that we could use later in our writing. As usual, I attacked my homework with enthusiasm. I enjoyed the project so much that I kept it up through the rest of high school and most of college. Three years post university, when I returned to my parents’ house after a stint teaching English in South Korea, I was sorting through some old school things when I found my commonplace books. Rereading them was like watching a highlight reel from my undergraduate experience. 

Illustration by Miguel Gallardo

The thing about keeping a commonplace book is that, like most writing, it’s often a reflection of the author’s immediate place in time. In my case, just before my Shakespeare course, I’d been so swept up in a sudden and inexplicable infatuation that I blushed when Theseus asserted in A Midsummer Night’s Dream that: “The lunatic, the lover, and the poet/ Are of imagination all compact.” When I was grappling privately with perfectionism, my advanced drawing instructor told the class just to “Do [the project] wrong and move on.” In a single offhand remark, she’d given me a reason to ignore my anxieties about failing to do my best work on the first try. 

Some quotations appear more than once. One line, from the film Lost in Translation, was repeated three times over seven years: “The more you know who you are and what you want, the less you let things upset you.” Through pages collected in my past life, I also saw hints of who I am now. In the spring of my sophomore year, one summer before I would decide to drop everything and study abroad, I jotted this down from Neale Donald Walsch: “Life begins at the end of your comfort zone.” I wrote very little during the semester I spent in Germany, but I’ve got a line from Mae West that says: “You only live once, but if you do it right, once is enough.” 

Of all that I’d assembled, there was one passage that pulled me with particular force. Reading Elizabeth Gilbert’s memoir Eat, Pray, Love, I’d copied a lengthy section toward the end of the book about how a sapling is encouraged to grow by the tree it will become, “which wants so badly to exist that it pulls the acorn into being.” What I heard Gilbert suggesting is that we all have a destiny—a great person we are already meant to become—so long as we choose the paths that lead us there. 

Looking through my commonplace books, I felt as if I could see the strands of my current self weaving together. Who can say, really, what gets us to be the people we become? Is it our education? Our experiences? Or is there someone within us who knows who she wants to be, and, once she’s been made aware of it, decides to become herself?  

Caroline McHugh says that “When you’re young, you’re great at being yourself [and] when you’re old, you’re great at being yourself,” because on the early end of life we don’t know how to be anyone else, and in the later part we haven’t got time to pretend. But the middle is a continuous process of reconnecting—of turning one’s ears outward to hear the reverberation of our personal truths throughout the universe. So this sapling continues to grow, reaching ever upward and outward.

Maureen Vance (B.A. ’13) is completing a master’s degree in creative writing at Newcastle University in the United Kingdom.