Using Commonplace Books as a Weapon Against Perfectionism

The last time I counted back to see how long I’ve been keeping commonplace books, I thought it’d been about twelves years or so, but since then I’ve found older volumes tucked away, proving that I’ve spent half my life as a collector and keeper of words. All these years of books also means years and years of transitions – seasons changing from one to the next, some volumes brimming with bits and pieces of creative flourish, other more text-filled tomes. I’ve loved every single one of them, and not because they were all pretty, or what outside eyes might consider good, but because they house the truth of what was catching my attention at the time. There is no pressure for them to be worthy of praise, and thus no room for me to feel like I’m falling short on any of their pages. These books are a bit like a breadcrumb trail of what mattered to me, or what will matter to me when I rediscover it later. These humble collections of words in the form of quotes, recipes, lyrics, poems, definitions, names, etc., are the way I pay attention to the world and then bring it home; they are the way I carry that shape of home with me, heavy and hopeful with all the new knowledge and inspiration I’ve found.

I am about to begin my next volume, as the one I’ve been using is almost full, and the process of getting a new book ready reminds me how good and important it is to move between them with very few expectations. There are no rules for what kind of notebook I can/should use, no limits to size, no parameters around style, no right, and definitely no wrong. I look at life as it is and I ask myself, what do I need/want more of, and let the answer guide me. For the past year or so the answer has been more time to read, and more time for work, and so because of that my commonplace books look more like they did when I was graduating college and preparing for grad school, thin Moleskine cahiers packed with words and little else, some scraps tucked hastily in along the way. This year I find myself craving more play, wanting to paint along the quotation’s edges, to record the words I’m falling in love with on lovely scraps of paper and puzzle the pieces together in something that feels more colorful and alive. What I love most is that one book absolutely gives way to the other, the season of simplicity fuels the more ornate, just as I’ll be ready again, I am sure, to return to the scrawl of just line after line and take a break from paper and paste. Here’s what I know that doesn’t change though: paying attention to the world around you is an artful act, taking note of what’s already been said is a way of continuing the conversation, and not letting the final look of what you make stop you from the act of making it is one of the bravest acts we commit every time we visit the page. I love that.

Action Steps


if you don’t yet have a commonplace book, start one today!

Dig deeper


check out Caylee’s Silva Rerum Art Journal on Creativebug


see a flip through of Caylee’s Silva Rerum


go through Johanna’s Pieces class


go through Vanessa’s Basic Bookbinding class that Brandi mentions


Brandi is an illustrator and collector based in Washington state. When she’s not gleaning words, old objects, or color from the world around her, you can find her at home with the three big loves of her life: Andrew, Augie Roo, and shelves and shelves of books threatening to take over the rooms. A fan of trying again, and again, and again, Brandi is a maker who believes I getting it wrong as much as we get it right.