John Milton kept one, and I keep one. A commonplace book is a great method for taking notes when one comes across an interesting song lyric, a poem, a quote, a conversation overheard, something witnessed, a random idea that hits with little or no provocation or warning.
These bits can be put down in text form, sketches, or both. Whatever works best for the notetaker at that stitch in time. Referring to a commonplace book and its contents weeks, months, or even years after the ink was set on paper, can be inspirational and instructive. "Oh, that's what spurred me on."
I'm good at making mental notes, but more often than not, if it's "not written down" when the bolt strikes, it eventually, at times too quickly, gets lost with the storm as it moves on.
If you read a lot, a commonplace book is a good companion; for writers, this book is essential, or at least it should be.
In early 2015 I was going through another Bukowski phase -- barely a year after my previous such foray. "The laureate of American lowlife", as Time magazine famously labelled him, Charles Bukowski came from the streets, in a sense. Living for a time off one chocolate bar per day, washed down with whatever alcoholic beverage is at hand, while 'existing' in a run-down flat, inspires the creative brain. (I've never tried that nutritional plan since I very rarely have a taste for chocolate bars, and alcohol-leaden drinks are something I experience when there's someone sitting across from me.) Puttering through life as a "lowlife' definitely garners story material not terribly familiar to those who live off the backs of Bukowski characters. (Years ago a friend visited me in my abode and said: "Simon, I can see you're living the good life . . . but it's not really an artist's place." Nice that he referred to me as an 'artist', though.)
The poet, short story writer, and novelist, ran half a lifetime as an everyman: enlisted in the millions of Americans who just get by, financially -- in his case, as a worker for the post office. Eventually, an offer in 1969 from a publisher to write full-time allowed Bukowski to quit his letter-carrier job, and not long after this career change he completed his first novel, "Post Office". (Write about what you know.) This book, I should add, was my real introduction to the scribe... outside of "Charles Bukowski". During my read I got that buzz one enjoys when one tastes something resembling art mixed with the art of living.
The picture embedded above is a scan drawn from my commonplace book. I sketched those notes in May of 2015 while reading Barry Miles' outstanding biography, "Charles Bukowski".