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