How I Learned to Write

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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.

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.

St Severin, Paris


NOTE – I am delighted to be teaching  Writing Your Practice, a writing course for yogis through the Yoga Teacher Telesummit

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About Susanna Harwood Rubin

Susanna is passionately committed to finding beauty in everyday life. She is a yoga teacher-writer-visual artist, which means that she rarely stops moving except to meditate. She is ERYT-500, has been teaching for over 12 years, and travels regularly to South India to delve into the traditions of Rajanaka Yoga that inspire her work. Her spiritual home is the great Nataraja Temple of Chidambaram. She teaches internationally, but is based in New York. Find her weekly classes at Twisted Trunk Yoga and Abhaya Yoga . Susanna's artwork is represented in collections such as the UCLA Hammer Museum, the Berkeley Museum, and the Addison Gallery of American Art. She lectured and wrote for MoMA for years, including co-writing the book "Looking at Matisse and Picasso," and she will still happily talk about Picasso for hours if you ask her. Susanna currently writes on yoga, writing, art, and life for a number of publications, including The Huffington Post , Mantra Yoga+Health , Rebelle Society , and YOGANONYMOUS . She gives talks on yoga, Hindu myth, and philosophy, and created the popular Writing Your Practice workshops and telecourses for yogis, applying yoga philosophy and myth to the practice of writing. Overall, she is amazed at the richness of her life. Find her on Twitter , Facebook , & Instagram


9 Responses to “How I Learned to Write”

  1. Tanya Lee Markul says:


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  2. Randall says:

    I love this and the photos. They remind of the Art History classes I took. I loved them. I loved looking at the slides and learning about the artists, the music, the culture, and the times that produced them. One final test was just looking at slides and a blank space to write about them. That was the best test I ever took. I thought, I'm going to forget everything I "know" and just write what I see and feel for each slide. I didn't know the phrase then, but "being present" was what I was doing. A couple of days later, the professor, who was struggling to keep her job, called and left a long, sweet message about my exam on my answering machine. I think she felt like she had actually reached someone. And she had. Thanks for your post.

    • Randall, Thank you so much for sharing that story. I spent many years lecturing and writing for the Museum of Modern Art & one of the main things that I did was direct discussions about art, meaning to really look closely and analyze the artwork BEFORE looking at the information – to let the painting or sculpture speak & to refine people's skills in critical thinking & in analyzing visual information. It was cool. 🙂

  3. Shig says:

    Your story reminds me that my delight of finding a strucure in those stories in history classes. While I despised memorizing anything, I liked linking different historical events such as ones in the West and the East. Outlining and composing a presentation with images and words is something I do as a part of my work, I don't get to rewriting myself from that. Thank you for reminding me that vast fields of beauty are all still available for me to rewrite myself.

  4. Thank you Shig! I'm with you on the linking of stories & narratives – it is so much more interesting that flat memorization. And when we do the linking we create our own narratives…we write our lives…

  5. Myriam says:

    Love this Susanna! I love your writing….read all I can find of it!

  6. omsusanna says:

    Thank you so much, sweet Myriam!

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