Insta-poetry and Insta-piration

I’m sitting in the Phoenix airport waiting for my sister’s plane to arrive. We’re spending a long weekend together, living it up in Sedona with a little side trip to the Grand Canyon, a present I gave her months ago for her 50th birthday.

I’ve been so torn about this trip.

I adore my sister and absolutely don’t get enough time with her. (This will be the first time I will spend more than a couple of hours alone with her in more than 25 years.) I love the desert southwest and am in sore need of some exercise and some serious stress relief.

But I feel so much anxiety about leaving my husband.

He’s been very supportive of me going and wouldn’t even entertain any talk of cancellation or rescheduling. And I know he’s probably needing some alone time and normalcy himself. He’s tired of my fussing and worrying over him — I’m sure he is because I’m sick to death of it myself. But who goes on vacation while their husband is in chemo?

And then as I’m sitting here waiting, feeling this tension about allowing myself to enjoy anything when things are so seriously fucked up, this quote surfaces in front of me like magic.

judgment

Elizabeth Gilbert had posted it on her Instagram feed at exactly the right moment for me. Eat, Pray, Love wasn’t my thing but in general I’m very fond of her (I loved last year’s Big Magic). I have a whole collection of quotes and short poems saved on my Instagram feed.

I love poetry but do not read or know enough of it. It’s a surprisingly hard thing to dabble in. I have my favorites for sure — Mary Oliver, William Carlos William*, Sharon Olds. And over the years I’ve tried to explore more. Looking at websites, browsing the poetry section in bookstores, buying collections. But it’s been hard to find things that really speak to me. The best thing I’ve found, surprisingly, is Instagram. I’ve found three poets I really love there: Nayyirah Waheed, Yrsa Daley-Ward and someone named Atticus. I’m going to start putting these into my commonplace book.

 

* Oh my god, did you see the movie Paterson yet? Love, love, loved it.

Tighty-Whities: A Tangent

I’ve been editing books for coming up on twelve years now. And I like to think that this far into the game, I’m good at it. Strike that–I know I am. Editing is one of the few things in my life   I am strongly confident about. (Yes, it’s okay to end a sentence with a preposition.) I am a nitpicker, a noticer of the tiniest details, two qualities that are essential to the job; one might call me a grammar Nazi, though I hate that phrase with all my heart. I can see extra spaces between words without visible spacing turned on, I know the difference between affect and effect, and I know when to use who and when to use whom. If there’s a plot hole, no matter how small, I will find it. If there’s a shift in tense or point of view, I will root it out.

However, I can’t do all of this without support. First and foremost among my resources is the Chicago Manual of Style, which lays out all the rules and standards for everything from when to use italics to when to spell out numbers to when to use US as opposed to United States (former for adjective, latter as a noun). It is a compendium of minutia regarding the English language and how to present it, and I love it more than almost any book on the planet. It is logical; it is dependable . I am constantly amazed by the depth to which it covers the subjects of grammar and usage. Seriously, it dives very deep.

Tied with CMoS, however, is the dictionary. Merriam-Webster, to be exact. Specifically merriam-webster_dictionarym-w.com. I would say I use it more than any other site, perhaps second only to Google, which is another essential site to have at hand when doing an edit. One of the most basic practices for an editor is keeping a running style sheet–a list of words and phrases built as the edit progresses to keep track of when the author uses unconventional capitalization, for example, or how to spell a character’s name. On my style sheet, in addition I always keep track of all the words I look up in the dictionary, in case they appear in the manuscript again. In fact, often my sheet is nothing but a list of such words. For example, during about forty-five minutes of editing tonight, I compiled this list:

barefoot
runoff
walkie-talkie
tree line
seat belt
newspeople
shoulder blade

Now, I didn’t look up these words because I didn’t know what they mean. In fact I rarely look up a word to find its definition. Usually I’m looking to find out whether a word is hyphenated or capitalized, if it’s one word or two, and so on. I need to know not what it means but rather how it’s supposed to look. This, I believe, is the secondary purpose of a dictionary: not to define but to dictate the standard appearance of each word. That standard is important in editing, where consistency is the number one rule; it’s even okay not to follow a rule, as long as it’s done consistently.

Lately, since we’ve started this commonplace book project, I’ve been paying a lot more attention to my lists of words and keeping them more diligently, with the intention of at some point copying them into my CPB. I don’t know why; I just like words, I guess, and the more of them the better. And I’m always interested in interesting spellings or capitalizations, in learning new things about words that might already be familiar to me. For example, I’ve recently learned that stand-alone, as in a stand-alone novel in a series, is hyphenated. I’ve been not hyphenating it for years. Now each time I get to hyphenate it (which is fairly often, given my job as a copy editor of book descriptions), I get a little excited about it. Yes, I really do. I tell you, I am made for this job.

I’ve also recently had an epiphany about my dictionary habits–or, rather, about other people’s lack of them. I don’t mean the average person on the street; I don’t expect everyone to love looking up words as much as I do. But I mean fellow writers and readers, and particularly fellow editors. I oversee other editors’ work on a daily basis, and I’m always surprised and a little disheartened by how much they let slip by: missed hyphens, two words that should be one, unnecessary capitalizations, all things they could correct if they just thought to look them up in the dictionary. When I’m editing, it’s my strict practice to look up any word I am unsure about and even ones I am sure about, just to double check (in fact I just looked up double check to make sure it’s not hyphenated). I look up words I know I’ve looked up before; I’ve looked up tighty-whities at least three times–check out the comments at the bottom of that page–and been amazed and tickled each time that such a phrase is in the dictionary.

I also look up all words with hyphens, words without hyphens that look like they should be hyphenated, compound words, and words that look like they should be compounds but aren’t. And I do this not just because it’s my job to do so but because I am curious. On top of wanting the text to be error free, I simply want to know how these words are supposed to look. That other editors don’t feel this sort of intellectual curiosity actually saddens me. I don’t mean to sound superior, but I can’t understand how any good editor could be so uninterested.

So that’s what it comes down to for me: intellectual curiosity. I really believe that people–readers, writers, editors–who don’t look up words in the dictionary, whether for definitions or hyphenations or whatever, lack intellectual curiosity, and their reading/writing/editing suffers for it. I feel like a big snob saying this, and I would never say it to someone’s face (not a grammar Nazi, remember, nor am I some sort of dictionary fascist). But I can’t imagine being so uncurious. I can’t imagine not wanting to know if man-made really is hyphenated (it is) or if Cretaceous period is capitalized correctly (it is). I guess this is what makes me good at what I do. I like to think it’s also part of what makes me who I am.

​The Dunning–Kruger Effect

This weekend we were driving down to Tacoma and because it’s a long and boring ride we listened to a This American Life podcast on the way. Ira Glass talked to two researchers, David Dunning and Justin Kruger, who conducted some very cool studies. They gave a bunch of college students some quizzes — on grammar and logic and humor — and then asked them how they thought they did. They found that students who did poorly consistently thought they did better than they did. If a student was in the bottom 20% in terms of scores, they almost always thought that they did much better, sometimes as high as 80%. From the interview: “in short, there seemed to be a direct correlation between incompetence and an overweening sense of self-confidence. It wasn’t apparent in every poor-performing student, but it was in the majority of them. Most people who did badly thought they did just fine or even great. They had no idea.” This in itself is funny to me but the research said something else really interesting — this doesn’t happen because these people are assholes, it’s because they answer the question of how they’ve done with the same base of knowledge they used to answer the questions. Meaning you don’t know what you don’t know. And that happens to all of us sometime or another.

So, anyway, I’m with you — I keep hemming and hawing about organizational structure and categorization but in the end, I just decided to get started and learn as I go. Admittedly I have an advantage over you here — because I’m choosing a digital route, making course corrections is much easier for me. I decided to use Evernote for my CPB.

I’ve used Evernote for years and years now, but never to its full advantage. I mostly use it to keep track of accounts and logins but I know that it’s capable of much more and I figured if nothing else this testing would help me better understand how to utilize Evernote.

Why Evernote? I like that it’s always with me. I can access it on my work computer, on my home computer, or via the app on my iPhone. Evernote also has pretty cool Optical Character Recognition (OCR) scanning so I can take photos of text and it will recognize the text in a search. The downside is it is kind of unattractive, so that’s one of the things I’ll want to solve for.

So here’s my basic set-up:

Within Evernote I have two notebooks for commonplace books, one for quotes (the actual CPB) and another for the construction of a commonplace book (blog posts on how other people have set up their CPBs, for example). Both of those together make up a Commonplace Book stack (this doesn’t really mean anything other than it looks tidy when I view my notebooks).

In the CPB Quotation notebook, each entry is for a single body of work. This is easy to do but kind of ugly. ​
The body of each entry is just a long listing of everything of note I found or thought about the work.
Here’s an example of the OCR: I read an excerpt of Alec Baldwin’s new memoir in Vanity Fair and took a photo of a quote I liked (I, too, find making a good hire pretty damn satisfying.)

There are surely still lots of tweaks to make but this is where I am today.

PS: Love the convention of listing something from a recent CPB entry as the title of a post. I’ve obviously stolen it from you and will probably use it a ton.

PPS: Tell me more about looking things up in the dictionary. One of my favorite things about my Kindle is the ability to easily look words up but I always feel like I should do something with those words. I’m sure I don’t remember most of them after only looking them up once.

PPS: I think the question of quantity or quality is much clearer when you’re using a digital CPB: you definitely want quantity. There’s no downside to having too many quotes or entries. Search and an easy copy and paste solve for that.

Human Wreckage

 That was my entry in my commonplace book today. I heard the phrase in a song and liked the sound of it, so I wrote it down. Morbid, yes, but to quote Lydia in Beetlejuice, “My whole life is a dark room. One big dark room.”

My point here is that I think my commonplace book is going to be strange and unusual because, to quote Lydia again, I myself am strange and unusual. Some of my entries will be comprised of whole sentences, others just phrases. Sometimes they will be just words, strangeas I have a strange (there’s that word again) fondness for keeping track of words I look up in the dictionary while I’m editing. Spoiler: I look up a lot, so my lists are long. I also have a lot of thoughts and opinions on the practice of looking up words in the dictionary–really, I do–but I’ll spare you.

I am struggling with–or at least pondering–two issues as I embark on this endeavor. First, organization. Something is telling me not to worry about it at this stage, to just start writing things in the book, and maybe an organizational system will become clear over time. I’m going with this, but part of my brain is stuck on thinking there has to be some sort of organization, and index or something. But I also think if I wait until I figure that out to start, I will never start. So I’m starting and hoping this issue will work itself out at some point.

Second is what to actually write in my commonplace book. I looked back over my Kindle highlights from pretty much every Kindle book I’ve read, and I copied a few into my book, but I also found myself reading all of the quotes very critically: Is this worthy of the book? Will I want to remember this, really? If it doesn’t particularly speak to me right now, should I included it anyway, as it might at some other time (as it obviously did while I was reading the book)? This is one I have to decide fairly soon, as it will affect how I approach this project: Should I be highly selective of what I write in my commonplace book, or should I just write down anything that sounds interesting or that I found interesting in the past, regardless of if I think it’s interesting now? I’m leaning toward that–just writing it all down. Quantity over quality to begin with. But I’m not 100 percent decided on that yet. Any thoughts on the subject?

-ev

A Kick Ass Commonplace Book

Picture

An early mind map from Vic

I’ve been dreaming of a commonplace book for quite some time now, ever since seeing a fantastic exhibit at Seattle’s Henry Art Gallery by Ann Hamilton that featured gorgeous vintage commonplace books.

These books have been around for centuries and they vary greatly in design and use, but ultimately they are a collection of quotes and ideas that a user gathers over time. Historically they have been handwritten but there are many instances of digital commonplace books online these days. As a voracious reader, I often come across lines of text so beautiful or so poignant that I expect them to be forever imprinted on my brain, but they are relegated to the gutters of my leaky memory pretty quickly.

An important question to start with is what will I use commonplace book for? Three things immediately come to mind:

  • A way to improve retention of the things I’ve read.
  • Inspiration for idea development and writing of all types.
  • A record of my reading that I can reflect on or share with friends.

I mentioned this obsession to my good friend Elise a while back and she loved it, too. We immediately started digging into the idea, going back and forth a bit. While we both love the idea of a commonplace book, we have pretty different ideas on the execution of the book, starting with the format. So we decided to test out a few prototypes and compare notes right here at http:www.thecommonplace.net.