Patricia O’Donnell, author of Waiting to Begin, is five years younger than I am. We met at the University of Maine at Farmington where I was a nontraditional student. When it was learned that I was a prose writer I was granted the opportunity to have her as my mentor. I did not want to enter the creative writing program, however. At that time it offered no degree, and I had been writing professionally for a decade since my first fiction story was published in a national magazine, Horse Illustrated.*
So I wanted to learn about other things, particularly about Maine. I thought it wise to study with knowledgeable professors in order to have something to write about. I had been living in Maine for a few years, living an interesting life, but writing from life did not interest my pen. I needed knowledge, details, history, understanding. Supporting and integrating insight into the work—this is what makes a journal interesting to work with. Research comes after the living is written down.
Having Pat, as we called her, as mentor, gave me a sense of establishment, of a guide I could come to, one I felt to be gentle but firm. Yet I could not articulate anything personal in speaking with her. If done at all, it had to be done formally in writing. The personal was not what I could talk about. Patricia O’Donnell does talk about the personal in Waiting to Begin. It’s what one does in a memoir.
To inspire students, she begins with hidden but flagrant uncertainties in speaking to them on stage about her personal life. She writes of being a youth belonging to a theatre cult in San Francisco. Following grave uncertainties concerning her architectural drawing studies and degree, she writes about struggles and breakdown moving with two kids in tow to take part in a creative writing program in New England. And, pleasant to me, this memoir is back-grounded with woods, lakes and writing places in Maine. In this place and inside this book, “as in worship, in love, in moral action, and in knowing, I transcend myself; and am never more myself than when I do.” (C.S. Lewis, An Experiment in Criticism.)
We’ve all descended from immigrants. This is the first thing we all have in common. Patricia O’Donnell reminds us of other experiences in common. These can include generational. It’s in the title. Waiting to Begin is about generation, and I’m thinking humanity is about generation. It’s also about the next generation to which Patricia and I both contributed. But generational culture is something we also have in common.
She went to San Francisco as a young college dropout. So did I. She walked the streets of Haight-Ashbury. In the spring before the summer of love, so did I. Differences abound in areas of self-discipline. I had none. She had it—continually worked—in abundance. Patricia would support herself and others all her life. I was going to say adult life but we see in her memoir that she worked while in high school, even as she studied, becoming valedictorian of her class. I don’t recall my grade average, but think it was somewhere around C.
Marriage was still a long way off for her but premarital sexuality produced two children. The presence of her daughter Emma and son Brendan played a big part in cutting O’Donnell off from adventurous waiting to begin. Children reshaped and channeled her self-discipline into a true maturity. It’s not enough to be able to provide for oneself. Maturation requires more. Pat left the man she was supporting before she met the fathers of her children, and still she wandered, trying out life. This life, that life. What was anything? What was life?
In the light I felt a mystery, some secret promise urging to be revealed. I tried to capture it in words or scribbled drawings, but how could I, when I didn’t know what it was, and the closest it came to language for me was, perhaps, a question mark? (Page 12)
Life itself had to tell her what it was.
*Making scant money, I was largely unpublished.