On Keeping a Quote Book

Maybe it’s just my milieu, but just about everyone I know has read Joan Didion’s iconic essay “On Keeping a Notebook.” I keep many notebooks, which means they all have a different purpose, all spend much of their lives half-filled, and all fight for space in my (very heavy) purse or my (very crowded) shelves.

But of all of these, my quote book is my favorite.

It started as a Word document on my computer nearly a decade ago, a collection of lines I loved from the books I read for English class. The first entry came from The Sorrows of Young Werther. Later, full passages from Sense and Sensibility, The Virgin Suicides, and The History of Love. Movie quotes began to sneak their way onto the (figurative) page. I tucked these phrases away like a squirrel with an acorn, storing them for when I needed them most.

But as I added and reviewed and reread my Word document over and over again, it began to feel like I hadn’t taken all the care these words deserved. And so I started a quote book, painstakingly copying the lines I had collected over the years into a somewhat standard notebook I owned. I used colored pens, a different color for each source, my cursive loopy.

I am both careful and impulsive with my entries. I have added lines from movies, musicals, articles, even Tumblr I cannot get out of my head. I have included every phrase I’ve highlighted from a particular book read on my Kindle, even if I can’t remember why I called it out in the first place. There are months where I make a dozen entries; there are many months where I make none.

But I always feel better after copying those words down. Some of the quotes have begun to feel like old friends.

Sometimes, my quote book feels like an extension of my diary, an odd charting of my moods and ages, my successes and disappointments. Reading over some of my favorite passages take me right back to where I first read them; I recall my emotional response to them as much as the words themselves.

There’s a line from Almost Famous (which, conveniently I copied into my quote book):

“I always tell the girls never take it seriously, if you never take it seriously you never get hurt, if you never get hurt you always have fun, and if you ever get lonely just go to the record store and visit your friends.”

I feel that way about my quote book.

Reading is, in my ways, a radical act of empathy. For a successful reading experience, you have to step outside your self and connect with someone else. Writing, too, requires the same effort. You never know what could resonate.

On a Kindle, you can see the phrases people highlight most often, which is sometimes fascinating and sometimes annoying. In either case, the underlining draws your attention. In a few cases, I wonder why anyone would mark that portion. Other times, I’m grateful other readers have pointed out a beautiful line I might have otherwise missed. It feels like cheating, like I am just going along with public opinion.

Mostly, though, I love that my quote book feels sometimes like a scrapbook of my life, all these past version of me accumulating into a whole. The lines I loved 10 years ago aren’t necessarily the lines I love now. I can see myself change, see myself grow, within these pages. I make sense of the world in words, and sometimes the only way I can work through a problem is by repeating the words of someone else. These lines are like a magnifying mirror, something that reflects your image in a way you might not have seen it before.

There’s something beautiful about having a physical manifestation of the things you loved, the people you were, the ideas to bolster you as you move on to other things. I have lines I can recite from memory and lines I can’t remember copying. Every so often, I’ll reread a book and find new phrases that knock me out. So I’ll grab my pen and write them down in the same color as the original.

I’m a big believer in everyone having a quote book. Not just because I am a person who loves to remember, not just because I have an odd fascination with the subject of permanence, but because I believe that words provide comfort, and I like to see how that translates and transforms as the years go by. I may not be sixteen any more, but I can flip to the front of my quote book and remember exactly what that feels like.

4 Quick Tips to Improve Your Writing

In my day job, I spend a lot of time getting into the nitty gritty of a writer’s prose. Here are habits I see all the time that can be easily avoided to strengthen your writing.

1.Prune adverbs

This is advice novice writers always hear. It’s sometimes mistaken for “use no adverbs,” which is not what this suggests. Take a look at your adverb usage and look for places where adverbs compensate for weak writing. For example, “she said softly” could become “she whispered” or “she murmured.” Make sure that the adverbs you use are necessary to your meaning. The same advice goes for adjectives.

2. Take a closer look at was + ing

The was + ing (was walking, was talking, was writing, etc.) can often be replaced with a past participle. Unless it’s vital to the understanding of a timeline, this should be rendered in past tense. Many ongoing and continuing actions can be understood in past tense. For example, “he was looking at her throughout the night” can become “he looked at her throughout the night” with little loss to the meaning.

3. Keep an eye out for stage directions

When writing, authors like to visualize a scene in their head, parsing it out step by step. But sometimes those steps aren’t eliminated in the revision stage. A reader rarely needs all the detail about a character that strides to the door, places her hand on the doorknob, turns the knob to the right, pushes open the door, steps into the room, swings the door back, and shuts the door. Use only what’s necessary for the story.

4. Make sure you know whose head you’re in

If you’re narrating in close third person, don’t slip into another tense or POV without reason. I see many authors writing in close third person switch into first person italics without considering the perspective. If we are in a character’s thoughts, we don’t need tags like “she thought.” In the same vein, “I heard someone knock at the door” is not as strong as “someone knocked at the door.”

What I’m Watching: An Appreciation of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend

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My favorite screenshot from Crazy Ex-Girlfriend.

I’ve talked extensively on my previous blog and in real life about the increase in my television consumption once I started working in publishing. Since I read all day, sometimes I want to relax with another storytelling medium.

My TV shows have ebbed and flowed over the years. In college, my friends and I watched 30 Rock, then Parks & Rec. We committed to old episodes of Daria and Summer Heights High. But those shows have gone since then, and I had little to take their place.

For many years, I loved The Mindy Project, which I watched every week, but I stopped this seasons; the show lost some of its spark without Danny, and I felt like I kept watching Mindy in the same situations as she had been in earlier seasons. None of the characters seemed to be growing or maturing; the ones that did moved on (Peter, for instance).

Two of my favorite shows at the moment hail from the CW: Jane the Virgin and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. Apparently, hour-long comedies are now my thing. Jane the Virgin is pure fun: mystery, love, family, novel writing. I love the way it alludes to, pokes fun at, and upends the telenovela formula. And although a certain update this season was heartbreaking, it’s really reinvigorated the story. The three-year jump has been particularly effective, and reminds me of the last season of Parks & Rec, where it also worked so well.

But my favorite TV show–by far–is Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. I haven’t loved a show as much as this in I don’t know how long. There is not enough time for me to detail everything I admire about the show. I want to be smart when talking about television, but I’m not, so I’ll point you to this fabulous piece by Emily Nussbaum, which is what convinced me to give Crazy Ex-Girlfriend a shot.

Since I’ve become obsessed with the show (I watched the first five episodes over Winter Storm Jonas weekend in January 2015), I’ve made it my mission to proselytize. The title, coupled with the key art from the first season, had made it difficult for me to give the show a shot. It wasn’t clear that the show was mocking the term “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend.” The show opens with Rebecca Bunch, a successful and miserable attorney with mental health issues, who has a breakdown the day she’s offered the position of partner at her law firm. She runs into her camp boyfriend, Josh Chan, in the throes of this. He mentions he’s moving home to West Covina, California. Rebecca thinks that it sounds like a place where she could be happy. So she quits her job and moves there, much to the astonishment of everyone who knows her. At her new law firm, paralegal Paula suspects that Rebecca’s not being truthful about why she moved to town, and finds that Rebecca is obsessed with a guy named Josh Chan. Rebecca has been hoping to run into him, and meets his friend Greg at the bar where Josh had been sitting minutes before. Greg likes Rebecca; cue the love triangle. By the end of the pilot, Paula vows to help Rebecca get Josh, becoming her best friend.

But what really makes Crazy Ex-Girlfriend unusual is the fact that it’s a musical comedy. I always bury the lede on that point (for a former singer, I have an astonishing number of friends who dislike musicals). Rachel Bloom, who stars and co-created the series with Aline Brosh McKenna, is a writer and comedian. The songs cover (and sometimes skewer) everything from women getting ready to go out to female friendship to guilting mothers. If you’re unfamiliar, “The Sexy Getting Ready Song” from the pilot is probably a good place to start. The songs can be crass and sometimes hit a little too close to home. But I love that the show is unapologetic about showing how difficult it can be to be a young woman in our society, particularly one dealing with mental illness. The show has evolved over two seasons in a fascinating way, and the season 2 finale had me frantically texting everyone I know who watches (which is now a large number; perhaps I should consider becoming a missionary?). I cannot wait to see where the show is going in Season 3. It’s only getting more brilliant.

If you’re a Crazy Ex-Girlfriend fan, please let me know! I always love finding more people to talk about it.