I am excellent at not being excellent
Jaimy Gordon on her troubled relations with excellence @ Ascent.
There have been many profound exegeses of excellence in these halls. Mine will not be one of them. Mine will be all about me, not because I’m excellent, but because I’m not; or rather, I think I can claim, with no false modesty, that I am excellent at not being excellent, and finally made an art of it – that is, my literary art, such as it is, is all about that – not being excellent. Therefore I am going to take the confessional approach here, arriving in the vestibule of excellence via the non-members’ entrance. I’ll speak to excellence through its own bulletproof window, kind of like the window at the police station - at the police station but not inside the police station ‑ where you go to pay your fine.
When it first made its way to me, the subject of this talk had been narrowed down to academicexcellence. This was later corrected, but too late: The damage had been done. I had to wonder whether you should take (or I should offer) advice about academic excellence from somebody who wasn’t all that good in school. Was I any good in school? I was uneven. I was never in that line outside the professor’s office, waiting to ask, Why didn’t I get an A in the geography of Siberia? I knew why I didn’t get an A in the geography of Siberia. I would start reading a text on the geography of Siberia and I might come across the word podzol, and then I would waste the next two hours admiring its weirdness and scrutinizing its usages and etymology. By the way, I finally got the word podzol into a book only this year, 45 years later.
So I didn’t put the time I should have into learning the geography of Siberia, but I did learn things along the way. The dirty truth is, I worked hard, but only in areas that came easily to me. What were they? English and languages. At the same time, I was curious about (just for example) evolutionary biology, anthropology, political thought, the sociology of religion, and especially history, but I didn’t much care about getting an A in them. I did enjoy buying the texts and heavily annotating the opening chapters of them – so heavily that, as previously mentioned, I often ran out of time before I got to the assigned reading for the class.
Image: David Todd @ F-Stop Magazine