A major reason for keeping a commonplace book is to promote creative thinking. The strategies for this include:
- Random access—finding and using any piece of information from any source at any time.
- De-structuring—gathering information from many sources regardless of the way that information was originally organized.
- Re-structuring—discovering new ways to organize information.
Robert Pirsig (author of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry Into Values) used these strategies to write Lila: An Inquiry Into Morals.
Pirsig was on a grand philosophical quest to create new metaphysics. Yet his method applies to taking notes and creating ideas on any topic — no matter how lofty or mundane.
Pirsig recorded pieces of information on separate slips of paper. Then he gathered all the slips into a large box and looked for ways to organize them:
Periods started to appear when he just sat there for hours and no slips came in—and this, he saw, was at last the time for organizing. He was pleased to discover that the slips themselves made this organizing much easier. Instead of asking “Where does this metaphysics of the universe begin?”—which was a virtually impossible question—all he had to do was just hold up two slips and ask, “Which comes first?” This was easy and he always seemed to get an answer. Then he would take a third slip, compare it with the first one, and ask again, “Which one comes first” If the new slip came after the first one he compared it with the second. Then he had a three-slip organization. He kept repeating the process with slip after slip.
Eventually Pirsig sorted the slips — 11,000 of them — into several hundred categories, which became the outline for Lila. (Several of his categories may be useful in organizing your own commonplace book.)
The process that Pirsig describes above has been well documented. In fact, there are several names for it. People interested in quality control call it affinity diagramming. William Jones, author of Keeping Found Things Found: The Study and Practice of Personal Information Management, calls it “bottom-up” organization. I’ll explore both in future posts.