The Commonplace Cloud

Nimbus II by Berndnaut Smilde

I love writing “by hand” (talk about a recursive phrase). I use my journals all the time, but I also use a grab bag of free services on the web to keep many of my “commonplace” notes.

Kelsey McKinney talks about how social sites like Pinterest are the descendants of commonplacing. Be sure to check out the article, which has pictures of commonplace books from one of my favorite places: the Harry Ransom Center
Saj Mathew over at The Millions talks about Tumblr as a Commonplace Book with a more in-depth look at the pros and cons of living in “an archival age.” As usual, I would argue with the hand-wringing tone of some of his concerns:  
“[W]e live in an archival age, in which memory has reached a point of near-irrelevance. With the right keyword, we can instantly recall any message, photo, or article instantly. That memory is never endangered by the specter of forgetting endangers memory more than ever.”
I think we go about our days remembering plenty, personal interactions and childhood experiences, for example. I would bet we keep a mental record of many more people, some we’ve only met on said social media. I don’t keep phone numbers in my long-term memory like I used to, but I have a collection of emails, web addresses and passwords. Our memory will change and adapt according to how we use it, but I hardly think it will wither away. It’s a surprisingly old argument, one that Socrates made against writing, as in writing by hand. David Malki over at Wondermark, points out that we wouldn’t even know about this opinion of his if someone (not Socrates of course) hadn’t written it down. 
But I digress! Social media sites can be a great way to commonplace. Actually, the ease of clipping, saving and sharing ideas, quotes and images has encouraged many people to commonplace without even knowing that it is a thing. Still, consciously using social sites to collect material for later use is a little different than using these media to curate your personal image for public consumption. Fortunately, as William S. Burroughs says:
“Everything is permitted.”
You can use these tools however you want. Here are some of the ways I commonplace on the cloud. 
I’m a highly visual person, so I use Pinterest to aggregate images for writing specific stories and for prompts. When I find an inspiring image on the web, I’ll pin it for later use. I follow other users who are busily collecting images that I find fascinating. It is also an excellent resource when searching for images on a particular topic. The open environment of sharing makes this a powerful tool of discovery both through searching and serendipity. I also use it for recipes. 
Evernote, while not exactly a social site, has the most diverse uses, and is really the core of my cloud commonplacing. It has powerful organizational tools like tagging, keyword searching and notebooks for sorting disparate information. I use it to collect quotes, notes, and research for this blog and for the fiction I write. I keep market research and copies of all my writing contracts here too. I have a list of books to read along with their local library call numbers. I’ll be adding a comprehensive index to all my journals here soon. Evernote works across all my devices so I can access or enter information at home, work, on my phone, or even my old iPod. 
I use Goodreads to keep track of the books I’ve read. I post very brief reviews/summaries, more to jog my own memory about the content of what I’ve read. That said I’m happy to socialize and meet people through these social tools.*
There are dozens of other places out there, Imagr, Instagram, Google+, Reddit, and new sites being built every day. Explore what they have to offer, but don’t forget to consider the ways that you can best use them to your own purposes.

* Certainly, I have nothing against being social! I use Twitter sporadically for random thoughts and links, and Facebook mostly with people I’ve met in real life or know through writing. Of course the ease of socializing 24/7, is terribly dangerous to artistic productivity.

Tools for Writing

It’s been a tough couple of weeks writing-wise. Halloween is a banner holiday around here and requires a fair amount of crafting and preparation. As I continue to squeeze writing into the nooks and crannies of my day I am paying special attention to tweaking my process so that I can be as productive as possible with the time that I have. And imma gonna blog about that soon, but today I’d rather talk about some of the various tools, apps and gizmos I  use to write.

I’ve always been a stationary store geek. There are cups of pens and pencils all over the house and pads of sticky notes secreted everywhere. Then there is my own *special* cup of pens, pencils and highlighters. While not under lock and key, I am very protective of it and whenever I spot one of my writing implements next to hubby’s crossword puzzle I switch it out of a normal pencil while muttering quietly to myself… But clearly that’s fetish territory. For practical purposes, I take a maximumilist approach and will write anywhere with any implement that comes to hand including pen, pencil, crayon, public terminal on the cloud, laptop, phone (Android), or iPod Touch. I believe you should work wherever you can whenever you can with what ever comes to hand.

Just because I’m willing to write with a sawed off crayon doesn’t mean I don’t have my favorites. Here are some of the tools I use:


For daily freewriting. I’ve been pursuing the practice of daily freewriting and it was getting gummed up because, I’ve come to believe, I was doing it wrong. I was trying to accomplish too much with it. I would try to get the next words of my work in progress out or suss out new ideas or work out a revision kink. But true freewriting wants to be – free. So for my daily ten minutes of true freewriting I’ve moved it out of my journal and switched to loose leaf paper. This writing is a warm up and a place where I write without stopping about anything, without a plan. Mostly it’s nonsense and loose leaf pages are easily tossed into the recycle bin. Of course if I happen to blurt out a gem during a session I can always transcribe it into a document or my journal.


I have these little pads at work, all around the house and in the car. This is for noting random thoughts, ideas and inspirations, some people go old school and use 3×5 cards for this sort of thing (e.g. Annie Lamott) but I like sticky notes because they are, you know, sticky. If I’m busy I can gather them up and just stick them on a page in my journal for later integration/transcription.


This is home base for most of my working stories, notes, research, outlines, freewritten drafts, ideas, quotes. I also try write down my dreams in the morning using a different color ink. I try to put something in my journal every day. I read through it a couple times a month for useful bits and to update the index/table of contents that I keep in the first pages. I’m a visual thinker and while I don’t spend a lot of time “arting” my journal up, I do keep a bottle of rubber cement so that I can glue images that I find or print out into the pages.


The electronic home for my work. I’ll compose stories from my journal notes, or do directed freewriting on the keyboard. I keep everything backed up on DropBox so that I can access it from my work computer if I should happen to get an extra few minutes there. I also use Google Drive for some drafts and projects. For random notes, ideas and web research there’s Evernote. I don’t pay for any of this as I’m well below their bandwidth limits. Once I finish a story I delete most of the research files and any online drafts. I usually save a couple print outs with my scribbled hand revisions for posterity. That’s the beauty of research for fiction. I’m not out to prove anything — just trying to juice my brain, so I don’t need footnotes.

I just bought Scrivener and have started to use some of the writerly features for my longer short stories. I’m going to be using it to write my novel come January. I’ll post down the road after I’ve given it a real test drive. When I am out and about and feel like noting something down with my thumbs, which is my least favorite mode of writing, a fact that just makes me feel old. I use iAwriter on my iPod, which is very straightforward, with biggish buttons and synchs nicely.

So much to write and so many ways to do it. Fun!