Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Fr. Francis Duggan, A Degreed Jesuit

I graduated high school, went away to have some life experiences (the usual: marriage, deaths, Vietnam, drugs, divorce, etc.), and finally made it back into school. On the G.I.Bill, I enrolled at Santa Clara University, a Jesuit liberal arts school, and among other classes, I had to take "bonehead" English. Our class was taught by Fr. Francis Duggan, a degreed Jesuit who, I'm certain, had survived the Holy Inquisition and, depending on your point of view, may have even participated.
To open the class, he read John Keats' "Ode ona Grecian Urn" to us. He read it with us. We read it independently. Then he told us to write a paragraph describing the scene on the urn that Keats had described so poetically. My paragraph got an F! It had mechanical mistakes, of course, but Fr. Duggan noted that I rambled. He suggested that I hadn't said anything new, that I wasn't descriptive, and that I needed to hone and polish my phrases. 
I felt terrible. This was my first quarter in college, and I was tempted to chuck it all. Instead, I made an appointment to discuss my grade with him. Fr. Duggan had me rewrite the paragraph. He corrected it again. It earned a D. He told me to focus, refine, and rewrite it again. I did, and again he corrected it. This time, I earned a C-. And so on and on until—and this will sound like an exaggeration—I had rewritten that paragraph seven times. The paragraph finally received a B+, but what I had gained, besides an excellent grade, was some inkling of what it means to be a writer. Writing, like reading, is a process not a product, and it is a process of constant revision and refinement. Fr. Duggan didn't tell me not to rewrite the paragraph again (I probably could have gone on indefinitely); what he did say was that at some point a writer lets go and allows the piece to be "finished." I guess I still haven't let go of "We were twelve days out of Auckland, New Zealand, when it struck" but somewhere along the way, along with the detritus of failed marriages and career redirections, the manuscript of that story has been discarded. Interestingly, the final revision of "A Paragraph on `Ode on a Grecian Urn,'" is still among my papers. 
Link (here) to the National Writing Project

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