Continuing from last week’s post, here’s more on my nontraditional undergrad experience with the author of Waiting to Begin, who now holds the BFA chair at UMF. Unbeknownst to either of us at that time, she was helping me begin the MAINE METAPHOR series.
I was not meeting with other creative writers. I was designing my own major around Maine studies, topics of which abounded among course offerings, but formalizing such a degree was not an option at that time. So I asked my mentor to work with me, saying I wanted to study and write mythic literature in an independent study. Neither O’Donnell nor the chair of the English department would sign onto the project. If I had waited perhaps a semester they might have been more receptive because by that time Joseph Campbell’s groundbreaking studies in the power of myth were popularized. Public television had begun doing this series with Bill Moyers and Campbell. (Recently Pat told me she would not have felt qualified to work on this type of writing.)
Pat then urged me to begin a journal instead. She said I could study memoirists and writings both overtly or subtly journal-based. I saw no alternative and was disappointed. I pictured a slog and—except for readings and then writing about others’ journals—it was. There was nothing mythic about it. I refused the personal aspect, even to the point of decrying introspection found in some of my subjects’ journals. In writing my own journal, sometimes I could barely push my pen across the page. I was writing my day-to-day life as a new Maine person, leaving out introspection, the personal struggle involved.
I needed to learn what research was for and how to catalyze metaphor using it. I went here, there, saw this, that, did such-and-such. And was going to reveal nothing. Pat was bored with my journaling. This was softly implicit, however. It was also evident when I had something astonishing, violent, and impersonal to report. Something demanding swift and careful crafting. She let me know that was the best part of the semester’s assignment.
In O’Donnell’s Waiting to Begin, I don’t find paragraphs full of introspection. I find an interesting story, expressive and perceptive, involving a young but maturing person, searching, finding her way. The telling is done quietly but with such verve and startling imagery that one sees the world, the cosmos, even, afresh. To borrow a thought from CS Lewis on the reading experience, its prose is like a dance, full of unexpected movement. Yet paradoxically these movements, both lyric and plain-speaking, are felt as a fulfillment of some surprised expectation. In her pen, O’Donnell’s life takes on mythic tones.
One of these revolves around a generational turning, and the genealogy of a life—her daughter Emma’s life. Emma did not know her father but wanted to, felt his vacancy as life moved ahead. She wanted to know about the generations preceding her own through him. And she did not want him to forget the future—herself.
Having children with my spouse reignited my creativity and craft. Except in emergencies he was often earning enough to support us and there was also familial encouragement, as there had been for Patricia. I remember showing up at the University of Akron guidance office when I was heavily pregnant with our second child. There was no money for schooling. Looking at my girth, the counselors got it instantly (with smiles), and I remember the relief I felt that something somehow might be waiting for me. That I was waiting to begin.
But the finish of undergraduate education for both of us was not to occur for almost two decades. Eventually returning to school and supported by my spouse, I wrote. Now he worked an arduous job under difficult conditions making a living more than enough to support our family. I had learned to write fiction by reading and writing—as writers learned to craft before fine arts programs made it possible for many to have the collegial fellowship and encouragement of one’s practicing peers. There’s a negative as well as positive aspect to these programs. One can be too influenced by subtle undercurrents of peer pressure regarding what is good writing, what is good to write—and what is not. Community and individuality are best in tension with one another—balanced—if creativity is to happen.
I hope to write more on my reading of this memoir, finishing up next week with more of Pat’s own story.