Excellence: A process, not an event
by Bill McDonough
Associate Professor of Theology
I have never read an excellent anything that was written once. It is probably true that really smart people can write competent papers in a single draft—though I’ve not been able to pull that off myself. No doubt students even receive A’s for work they’ve completed in one sitting. But real excellence, in writing as in life, is the outcome of a process to which we must show up but are never able to control.
A student I’ll call Sylvia showed up in our “Weekend College” program about ten years ago, ready to engage. In her late twenties, she was the first person in her family ever to attend college. Her parents, then the teenaged children of eastern European Jewish laborers, barely made it out of Nazi Europe alive—and never did complete high school.
Sylvia showed up here wanting to understand her background and the anti-Semitism she was recently experiencing in her rural town west of Minneapolis. She declared a history major and added a second major in theology after she fell in love with the writing of Jewish philosopher-theologian Martin Buber (1878-1965) that she encountered in an introductory theology course.
By the time I met her, in THEO 3752 (Christianity, Judaism, and Islam), she was president of the Theology Club and busy arranging interfaith conversations with students from the Muslim Student Association. She had found a synagogue she loved, and was doing an internship with the Jewish Historical Society of the Upper Midwest. She said she wanted to think through how one can engage in interfaith dialogue while deepening one’s connection with one’s own tradition. Her first paper for the course was a review of Muslim American interfaith youth activist Eboo Patel’s book Acts of Faith. She liked the book but wanted more. She re-worked and extended the review over the course of the semester into a twelve-page term paper: Is Interfaith Dialogue Anything More Than ‘Tea and Sympathy”? (In her research, she had discovered a major Jewish thinker who critiqued the lack of theological substance in much interfaith dialogue as “tea and sympathy.”)
She re-wrote the paper a third time in order to submit it to the Great Plains Undergraduate Theology Conference. Her presentation there drew a crowd, and was so well received that the conference organizers asked her to come back the next year and organize an interfaith dialogue among all conference participants. She did that, too. And, by the time she graduated from here with her double major, Sylvia had won a Women’s Center leadership award and a scholarship that helped her enroll in a graduate program at Maastricht University in the Netherlands. She is scheduled to complete her research project on inter-religious cooperation in refugee re-settlement there in December.
She did not even know she wanted to work on inter-religious dialogue and cooperation when she came to St. Kate’s, but she opened herself up to a process that has shaped much of her life over the last ten years. But back to writing—its excellence and the process that achieves it. I think a major criterion for excellent writing (the major criterion?) is that it must address a question to which we do not yet have a full “answer.”
Listen to one contemporary genius describe her writing process. Novelist Marilynne Robinson won the Pulitzer Prize in 2005 for her novel Gilead, written entirely in the voice of a dying seventy-year-old clergyman, and I do mean man. The novel took her over twenty years to write. She told a St. Kate’s audience on a visit here that she began hearing Rev. John Ames’ voice in her head after she had completed another novel in 1980: though she could not get his voice out of her head, “it took him all those years to explain himself to me.”
Sure, much of what we write is not that involved. But that only means that it is not important enough to be excellent. Moreover, maybe we are all attending to so many unimportant questions that we cannot even hear the important ones in our heads. I do wonder about that in light of all the time I spend writing and replying to emails, and watching all the tweeting and texting going on around me.
The questions you have in your head for which you don’t have answers are waiting to be turned into excellent writing. Not-knowing is our writing’s best friend, if we show up to questions nagging us in our heads.
The writing process goes on for the rest of one’s life, just like the questions to which we don’t have answers. My student Sylvia is now ten years into living this truth—all because she came to St. Kate’s wanting to understand anti-Semitism and was willing to engage in the process that her question opened up to her.
- Robinson, Marilynne. “Conversation with St. Kate's Community about Writing.” The College of St. Catherine. St. Paul, Minnesota. 12 Oct. 2007. Lecture.