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Common Place Books and Homeplay

I’ve been creating Common Place Books for many years now. I began compiling them long before I knew they actually had a name. Some are in spiral bound books that I began in high school. These are fairly random collections of poems, quotes from movies, sayings of friends, lists of things to do…

Others date from my time when I was studying theology at Yale and are filled with the words of theologians, philosophers and prophets. More recently, my dear friend Andrea Savitri Dasrath Hazzard and I have been sending a book back and forth that is becoming like a Common Place Book. We’ve been writing poems and quotes and creating pictures that are related to the moment.

I turn to these books when I am looking for encouragement, inspiration or a distraction. All of the above is what takes me to them today.

It’s time for me to get ready to go back to school. I’ll be starting my fourth year of teaching full-time at the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts. I always look to the start of the school year as a new year, forget January 1st, the first day of classes is my new year. And what shall this year hold for me and my students? Hopefully loads of great experimentation, artwork and learning. I’ll also be juggling keeping PRESS open at the same time. Wish me luck.

So I went to one of my Yale books and found this lengthy passage from Madeline L’Engle’s, (who spoke at Yale while I was there and I got to meet her for like three seconds) Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art, MacMillian, 1995, pg 167.

I share it today as a reminder for myself and my incoming students the importance of discipline and work and how to look at it as play.

A life lived in chaos is an impossibility for the artist. No matter how unstructured may seem the painter’s garret in Paris or the poet’s pad in Greenwich Village, the artist must have some kind of order or he will produce a very small body of work. To create a WORK of art, great or small, is WORK, hard work, and work requires discipline and order. 
I learned slowly that, for me, this must be external as well as internal…One problem with the word WORK is that it has come to be equated with drudgery, and is considered degrading. Now, some work is drudgery, though it is not always degrading. Vacuuming the house or scrubbing out the refrigerator is drudgery for me, though I find it in no way degrading. And that is drudgery is a lack in me. I enjoy the results and so I should enjoy producing the results. I suspect that it is not the work itself which is the problem, but that it is taking me from other work, such as whatever manuscript I am currently working on. Drudgery is not what work is meant to be. Our work should be our play. If we watch a child at play for a few minutes, “seriously” at play, we see that all his energies are concentrated on it. He is working very hard at it. And that is how the artist works, although the artist may be conscious of discipline while the child simply experiences it. 

During my summer class we renamed homework to homeplay. I’m going to try to do that during the fall, too. Let’s see what happens.


  1. Thanks for that inspirational quote from Madeline L’Engle. This is such a good reminder as we head back into the school year cycle of teaching. I love your reframing of the work assigned for home learning: “home play”. I ,too, carry the tradition you call Common Books. What a lovely term for the collected thoughts we use to anchor ourselves in the reflective process! I am adding this inspiration to mine today. Then I am getting back to “seriously” playing in my studio.
    Good luck with your Fall Classes, MM.
    xo karen

  2. Tickled beyond measure to Google ‘commonplace books’ after Karen’s and my meeting today to find your name only 5 hits down the list Mel! Cool.
    “More more more said the baby,” Quote from my favorite baby book, with that title.
    xo S

  3. […] The quick definition? A collection of other people’s writings–like a common place book. […]

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