Commonplace Books and Diaries: Their Place in the Writer’s Arsenal

Photo: Lynsey O’Donnell

Since the time of the Ancient Greeks, journaling has played a crucial role as one aspect of the writing life, allowing both the development of ideas and a cultivation of rhetorical prowess. The two main varieties of the journal have always been the commonplace book and the diary. Whatever its form, Ken Autrey observes, the journal is “a vehicle for invention and expressive writing” as well as a way of “exploring the mix of public and private impulses found in all writing” (74-75). Commonplace books are distinguished from diaries in that they contain the words and wisdom of others, time-tested insights which are meant to be incorporated into public discourse. Diaries, on the other hand, are far more private and internal than the commonplace book, with contents that are not divulged within society, but often remain with the writer alone. Nevertheless, the diary can be just as useful in the development a writer’s self-understanding (76). Autrey demonstrates that keeping a journal of any type has provided writers throughout history a tool for both improving composition skills and measuring one’s intellectual progress.

The diary remains an indispensable tool for improving composition because it enables the writer to record life experiences as they happen, making the writing that much more immediate and powerful. Autrey makes a valuable point about diaries, noting that they are not always necessarily written for oneself. Many diarists exhibit awareness that there is a potential reader on the other end. This is evidenced by Mallon’s anthology of diaries, many of which were clearly meant by their writers to be a “literary artifact” instead of “a means of personal development and learning” (81). Autrey, however, still sees them as both. The majority of these diarists, even while their discourse might have been originally considered private, tend to make their entries sound elegant or at least encase them within a conversational tone, writing conspicuously toward a certain “you” (84). Although a literary structure might exist to be privately appreciated by the diary writer, there is also the intention of having it noticed and cherished by someone other than the diarist. Keeping an audience in mind will help in improving diary content because it directs the journal’s focus. Commonplace books also assist the writer, but in a different manner, as a kind of rhetorical reference source. Their “lines of argument applicable to various subjects” (75) can certainly aid in sharpening the intellect and bringing out more effective communication.

There is one notable area in which Autrey’s analysis causes concern. He makes an accurate point by emphasizing how useful commonplace books have been in making those who employ them “better able to muster rhetorical support for speaking or writing” (82). Nonetheless, while Autrey offers a passing swipe at patriarchy by mentioning the over-prominence of male diarists, he still overlooks the vital question of why women have so rarely ascended to power. Autrey admits that the commonplace book’s “ultimate purpose was the attainment of power” (82). But since Autrey himself also acknowledges that “women have historically been more inclined to keep journals than men” (83), he seems to suggest that it was only the fault of women that they failed to attain as much power as men; in other words, they failed by not utilizing the commonplace book as often as they could have. He oddly implies that more women might have been in power if only they had relied on that particular journaling medium instead of the diary.

Ultimately, for students who utilize journals in particular as a means of improving their writing, one of their greatest benefits is that they allow one to look back on his or her work. Journaling quite simply provides a solid framework by which a writer’s evolution of ideas and conceptual understandings can be tracked. Like any other “tool for invention” (88), the journal stands on its own as an indispensable weapon in the writer’s arsenal, regardless of background.

Work Cited

Autrey, Ken. “Toward a Rhetoric of Journal Writing”. Rhetoric Review 10.1 (1991): 74–90. Web.

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