By Sarah Williams, Staff Reporter
Esteemed UMF Professor and award-winning writer Patricia O’Donnell read from her memoir, ‘Waiting to Begin,’ to a packed audience on a recent Thursday evening at The Landing. It was indeed a full-house as students and community members scrambled to find seats in the packed room for this popular event.
Professor of english Gretchen Legler gave a warm introduction for O’Donnell, naming her an esteemed colleague and friend. Legler explained that the book spanned six decades including the 1960’s culture of San Francisco that O’Donnell had experienced. She quoted O’Donnell from the book, “Like a butterfly on a tongue, happiness arrived.” Legler raved about this beautifully crafted book before handing the microphone over to a beaming O’Donnell.
O’Donnell began by saying she was trying to uncover the story that was already there. “Just me and the two kids going to grad school and trying to write,” she explained. Her memoir brings her back to her home in Iowa where she spent her childhood years. When her home town was hit by a devastating tornado, she went back there with her daughter who wanted to see her father she had never met. Realizing she had a story to tell, O’Donnell started drafting this novel.
With sophisticated black spectacles and her shiny silver bob, O’Donnell was both open and commanding as she read in a clear bright voice from her fascinating book.
Neither of her parents went to college, and she herself dropped out at 19. O’Donnell spoke of smoking pot, writing poetry and moving across the country to San Francisco with her then boyfriend, Daryl. They lived in an unheated attic in the city. “I went from a hippie, dropout, single mother to a grandmotherly college professor,” she said, adding that she went back to college to earn three degrees.
She described her younger self as lawless and braless to the audience’s delight. O’Donnell talked about going to parties and everyone having a graduate degree and had traveled, and she had not. There were typewriter parties where everybody had to type a line or two and created a group story. “Poetry mattered to every person there,” O’Donnell explained.
On her experiences in San Francisco, O’Donnell said, “If I found the right metaphor everything would be clear.” One night she had woken up to find a strange man with his head in her refrigerator. When she asked him what he was doing, he replied that he was looking for a book. She talked about her nakedness and her lack of fear to the spellbound audience.
O’Donnell also talked about her boyfriend’s alcoholic tendencies, saying that he drank a bottle of wine and a bottle of scotch every night. Often she would find herself alone with him gone in his mysterious social life. She started waitressing to make money and fill the time. “I scribbled my thoughts in a journal,” she added and explained, “words describe this life didn’t come, I didn’t know them yet.” Eventually she found out about her boyfriend’s inner life, finding gay porn and brown eyeliner among his belongings.
When she was growing up O’Donnell had felt a tornado would hit them eventually, and explained she, “had expected the tornado in the way we expect death, not now, not today.” She had no compelling reason to return to Iowa with both her parents dead, she confessed, “I am who I am because of that place.” She talked of her teenage years there, about how “parking” was a euphemism for sexual activity, and that there was a minefield of sexual opportunities in that small town.
O’Donnell spoke of the fertile soil and agriculture in that western town. She added as a side-note, that poet, Robert Frost had once commented on wanting to eat the rich soil.
Legler asked O’Donnell what was most difficult when writing memoirs. “I didn’t want to wreck my marriage,” O’Donnell replied, explaining she was conscientious of her husband’s feelings when writing the book. In addition, she sent the book to all her siblings to make sure nothing offended them in it. An audience member asked O’Donnell what made her write a memoir as she quipped to the spectators laughter, “Basic egotism.”
To a student’s comment on how they had to have two or three jobs and a roommate to afford an apartment today, O’Donnell agreed that living expenses are higher now, and reminisced on how she was able to have a cheap rent and work as a waitress in San Francisco, but that a similar path would be difficult today.
As she wrapped up the question and answer session O’Donnell confessed, “I would have been more worried about publishing my book if my parents had been alive.”
O’Donnell’s book, ‘Waiting to Begin,’ is available at the local bookstore Devaney Doak and Garrett Booksellers. She also has a short story collection coming out next year.