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How I Learned to Write

By November 25, 2011May 26th, 2019art, Art History, Paris, Rome, writing
Writing at Breakfast, Paris, 10th Arrondissement, July 2011

Outlining and Eye-Rolling
I was required to outline my U.S. History reading every night for homework when I was in High School. Our text for the yearlong course was Garraty, which I found to be the driest, most uninteresting History book imaginable. It included little Social History, simply listing wars, strikes, elections, and laws in a crisp unending chronology. There was none of the messiness of daily human life, no anecdotes or conversations. Garraty was dryly unemotional.


I took delight in making connections between things, in creating little histories, but the class seemed to consist solely of taking in and spewing back, which was fairly boring to me – more of a memory game than anything else. I couldn’t wait to escape and make my way to English class, to Art, to French Lit class, and Philosophy – anything that involved subjectivity, interpretation, craft, and beauty.


Despite my teen eye-rolling, the daily process of cramming history into outline form heightened my awareness of writing’s organizational structure. Overriding ideas were the Roman Numerals, big ideas were the A-B-Cs, and details were the somewhat more interesting (to me) 1s and 2s. The name of a Constitutional Amendment was such and such A or B.  Fact. The debate raging around this Constitutional Amendment was a slightly more curiosity-inducing 1 or 2.


This outlining practice transformed my way of thinking, reading, and writing. A year later I found myself in my college Art History 101 class, in which I rapidly scribbled elaborate ink notes in outline form, highlighted with rapid sketches of every major artwork. My Art History Professor and mentor, John Hunisak, told me I should find some way of marketing them – both the notes and my insane yards-long timelines that I wound around my compact dorm room walls and finally brought in to show him. I wasn’t sure if he was serious, but I never forgot the complement, for I decided to take it as such.


My Art History 101 Timeline-detail from somewhere in the 19th Century

Rewriting Myself
Another thing transformed my writing that first year in college. I had always been a good writer – taking delight in the look and sounds of words combined in different ways, confident in my abilities, and writing for my own pleasure. I had not been challenged for a long time.


My usual writing pattern was to ruminate over my topic as I moved through my day until I had more or less written the paper in my head. I would then pour it onto the page with a minimum of revision, and be done with it. At this point I was so adept at outlining previously-written work that, when required for my freshman writing course to hand in an outline along with each of my papers, I would hastily slap one together after completing the paper itself. It didn’t take more than a couple of assignments for my English Professor to catch on. It was at a point in the term in which I would listen to anything she said, because she had just introduced me to one of my lifelong literary loves, MFK Fisher.


She pulled me aside after class one day to talk to me about it. I readily admitted my process, explained my history of outlining and we both laughed about it. She said – “You’re a good enough writer to pull it off, but don’t you want to be better than good enough? I listened, because the answer was yes, and because I knew that she was right about so many things.


Sometimes when something comes easily we don’t push ourselves past the point of complacency and a perfectly polite sense of accomplishment. What I had not yet done in my writing, or what I had not yet done at this phase of my writing (for this is a cycle that we move through again and again and at different stages of our lives), was to shift my definition of who I was in it, and who I wanted to be, and therefore recalibrate my habitual patterns in order to do the dirty work that was required to rewrite my new self into being.


Visiting Bernini’s Ecstacy of St Teresa, Rome

Choosing Beauty
I can remember several years after college walking through the Baroque churches in the heart of Rome with my Art History Professor, mesmerized by the Berninis and Caravaggios exploding passionately from their dusty, dimly lit corners. John happened to be visiting Rome while I was passing through en route to Apulia for a wedding, so he, my boyfriend, and I planned out several hedonistic days of incessant eating and art.


Over dinner he told me that what he most remembered about having me as a student was not my obsessive outlining and intense commitment to my timelines, but rather that from day one, I sat in the front of the room, enraptured by every image cast upon the giant screen. There was a heat, a feverishness that I would physically feel and still do when looking at a really great painting or reading an exquisitely written sentence. It was the sensation of beauty experienced bodily.


Looking at Rubens at the Louvre

At that point in my education, I had not yet been to Rome, to Berlin. I had not yet lived in Paris. I had not stood in the ruins of Caligula’s Palace on the Palatine Hill or wandered through the deliriously unfolding rooms of Goyas and El Grecos at the Prado. I had not seen Venetian canals, Gothic Cathedrals, or Renaissance Palaces. I had images and words that craved an architecture of experience on which to mount them. For a few hours each week, I wrote madly in the screen’s reflected light, as the projected slides glowed with the promise of new worlds, slowly opening gateways into vast fields of beauty that I was just beginning to realize were available to me.


Staring up at the ceiling of St Severin, Paris


Susanna Harwood Rubin

Author Susanna Harwood Rubin

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Join the discussion One Comment

  • Susanna, I love that you comment about “the sensation of beauty experienced bodily.” I’ll never forget the first time that happened to me: I was 16 and looking at a Bierstadt painting on the wall of an impending storm hanging on the wall in the Corcoran Gallery of Art in D.C. First, it was as if I could feel the air in that landscape. Then, I got a rush of energy that went up my spine and out the top of my head. Emily Dickinson describes it like this: “If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry.” I still experience this feeling with certain pieces of writing and art.

    Also, thank you for your comment about “recalibrating habitual patterns in order to do the dirty work…required to rewrite my new self into being.” Helpful!