On becoming a writer….
Introduction: World Lit Survey II, Spring 1988 I’d seen him long before I had him for class; I doubt I could have helped it. He was that very tall man, head and shoulders above most of us, moving through Calderwood Hall between classes. His was that head of wild, graying hair; his the thick, graying beard. These and his large glasses made his facial expression inscrutable, and I was frankly intimidated by him.
As I was by the first class I took with him, during the second semester of my freshman year. The syllabus was clear, well organized, and literally all over the map: Japanese literature, African literature, the literature of the Caribbean; novels, short stories, poetry. The reading schedule was ambitious, and discussion proceeded with the obvious assumption that one had carefully prepared for class.
I think I didn’t participate much. I was a freshman, for starters, and an intimidated one at that. There were students older than I in the class, people accustomed to deep literary analysis at a college level, people familiar with the looming figure seated on the desk at the front of the room. I didn’t want to say anything for fear it was the wrong thing; and besides, the students who spoke up in class–the ones who seemed comfortable with Dr. Donnelly–were so Interesting.
This much was clear about Dr. Donnelly: he liked Interesting–and from what he said, he apparently found it difficult to come by. I could see his point: most of my cohort–most of the people I knew–were the preppy sort, the kind that colored inside the lines. And while preppy clothes are classic, comfortable, and safe, and while coloring inside the lines can make for a nice picture, I didn’t think Dr. Donnelly had any real interest in safe or nice or, therefore, in me.
But Dr. Donnelly was incredibly interesting. For starters, he led brilliant discussions of literature. He asked compelling questions and pointed out rich passages for discussion. A well-written line could bring analysis to a halt while he regaled its beauties. And he had a wealth of knowledge, it seemed, about the culture under our gaze: for twenty years, he’d been pen pals with a Japanese woman; he had a Jamaican wife.
Outside of class, I heard rumors about him, all of which I found fascinating and believable: He had been raised by missionary parents on a native American reservation in Wisconsin; Yes, he was married to a Jamaican woman, but she was one of a long line of wives, all of whom were from different cultures, all of whom he had married for the express purpose of learning her culture; His exotic past included a stint living in that remote outpost known as New Mexico. And it was that last one that was perhaps the most unbelievable, as the ambitions of most students around me were destinations far more tame: New England, maybe, or some exalted suburb of Cleveland.
My guess then and now was that New England’s quaint traditions held nothing for Bill Donnelly. He had that wild hair. He wore a navy blazer with a Salvation Army badge on the breast pocket. I thought I heard him confess that he did all his clothes shopping at the Salvation Army– a habit that, now, seems wise to me on many levels but that, at the time, was plainly weird.
Once, he told us, he purchased an umbrella at the Salvation Army. It was in a plastic sleeve at the time, but shape, handle, structure–all of these were in order. He had every reason to think it was an ordinary umbrella. He didn’t take it out of its sleeve or open it until one morning after he had served chapel duty and it had begun to rain. What he hadn’t realized when making his purchase, what the clear plastic sleeve hadn’t declared to him, what he decided was amusing and obviously worth using despite any embarrassment (was he ever embarrassed?), was that the umbrella had a huge brim, like a baseball cap, and it said “Hulkamania” in dramatic letters across the front.
It was on a rainy morning in his class that the beauties of the Japanese aesthetic came home to me–to me, who had lived two years of childhood in Japan, whose house in Pittsburgh was decorated with many Japanese things my parents brought home with us. But it was Dr. Donnelly who opened my eyes to the potential, stunning beauty of Japanese simplicity; how Victorian profusion (which was, at the time, all the rage) could crowd the mind.
It was in his class that, for me, the haiku moved beyond an exercise for middle school language arts. He read aloud a haiku and then let silence hang around us for a moment. It was a poem about heartbreak and loss, and it was one of the most beautiful poems I’ve ever heard.
I have no idea now how to find it.
We read Cry, the Beloved Country, and for the first time in my reading experience, I discovered the poetic in prose. Did Donnelly point it out to us? Or did I discover it, in this book, for myself? I know that I fell in love with this passage. I read it aloud to my roommate. I also read it to unwitting visitors to our dorm room, not caring whether they’d like it; certain that they would:
There is a lovely road that runs from Ixopo into the hills. These hills are grass-covered and rolling, and they are lovely beyond any singing of it.
Learning Donnelly: World Lit Survey I, Fall 1988 I sought him out after that, registering for his World Lit Survey I class. This one was immensely popular, as it apparently filled a requirement for the host of communication arts majors.
Nonetheless, we didn’t meet in an auditorium, but in a standard classroom with space for fifty or so students. I planted myself at the front of the room. I (still) wasn’t an eager participant, but I didn’t want to miss anything: I knew the discussion would be good, and I wanted to hear those funny little things he would say, those muttered quips which were, I’m sure, germane to discussion but which now, finding them in my old notebooks, I can make absolutely no sense of:
“They looked at that tuna salad as though it had fallen out of the nether parts of a quadruped.”
“Raw shrimp in shells and cooked shelled shrimp.”
“A mind like a pair of pinking shears.”
Who wouldn’t want to overhear lines like that?
And yet there was a cohort at the back of the classroom who, apparently, did not. I don’t know how many of them there were; I spent most of my time trying to ignore them, but sometimes it was nearly impossible. They probably started off whispering, but within a month or so, there was a downright din back there.
Personally, I found it offensive. And embarrassing. Why in the world were college students being disruptive in class? And in one of Dr. Donnelly’s classes? I couldn’t comprehend it.
One day, apparently, Dr. Donnelly had had enough. His action was swift and unheralded. I don’t remember his having asked them to be quiet before. But in one smooth gesture, he pulled an eraser from the chalkboard tray and hurled it at the back of the room.
I turned in my seat in time to see a cloud of chalk dust rising over the considerably tall hair arrangement of a girl in the back row.
They all quieted down after that.
He said he graded our papers by throwing them all down the stairs. The ones that reached the bottom earned an A.
I continued to be intimidated by him, certain I wasn’t interesting. This idea wasn’t born of nowhere: from time to time he might sigh heavily and express a frustration with his students, with all students in general. I always thought he was on the edge of decrying our conservatism, or even our faith. And I thought he’d have a point were he to criticize our vapid homogeneity, the middle class-ness of our ambition.
But he never said those things, and gradually it dawned on me that this was not what troubled him. The occasional muttering, the short, exhaled complaint was about students partying, about them wasting time. It was that, all too often, they lacked original thought.
Dr. Donnelly wanted them to be Interested.
Interesting: An Interlude I took Creative Writing and a poetry class, both of which I adored. Creative Writing, especially, had encouraged me. The professor had given me high praise for my short story, a project I labored over and feared. While I had first considered possibly wanting to write books when I was in high school, it was this writing course that made me want to “be a writer,” a desire I felt sincerely but also felt was sincerely misplaced: Interesting People are writers, and I could hardly qualify as Interesting.
And here, perhaps, I should pause (finally) to define my terms, or term: this “interesting” thing. To my mind, in those days, it wasn’t interesting to have come from a middle class family, to be fairly conservative in thought or belief. It would be infinitely better were I to rebel in some way, to take up smoking, perhaps. To try to become embittered.
But the truth of the matter was that I loved my family, my church, Jesus. I loved my school, my professors, my friends, my classes. I was vastly content–which isn’t terribly interesting.
As I researched my old notebooks to write this post, I found the following exchange. I had copied it down after a conversation with a friend–one of the Interesting ones, who wore a lot of black, and listened to angry music; who was clearly brilliant, and who smoked, and who might have worn eye-liner on the weekends:
He came in and asked me for a light. I didn’t have one. “What good are you?” he said. “I mean, you’re good to talk to and I know that I can count on you, but you don’t even have a light. What good are you?”
“Not much. But as long as I’m the first two things….”
“Oh, you are. You know it. I’d do anything for you. I’d put my hand in the fire for you.” Groping in jacket pockets. “If I could find it.”
The next class in the hierarchy of writing courses was Advanced Writing, taught by Dr. Donnelly. I was frankly terrified. I had managed to earn an A in Creative Writing, but couldn’t honestly conceive of where we’d go from here. From a curricular standpoint, I mean. What was there, to my mind, after Creative Writing? And that writing course had been hard enough. Would I do well in Donnelly’s writing course? Or was this one designed (and I feared it) to weed out people like me?
I tried to get him to explain it to me. I can’t imagine where I got the nerve, but I found him between classes and asked him point-blank to define his terms: What in the world was Advanced Writing? Would we be writing more stories? Longer ones, perhaps?
No, he said.
That’s all I remember of that conversation.
Fabulous Reality: Advanced Writing, Spring 1990 His class had three required texts, one of which was the dictionary. I bought the wrong one, because it was cheaper, and how could one dictionary be better–even different–from another?
He made me take it back to the bookstore and buy the one he’d assigned: Merriam-Webster’s 9th Collegiate Edition. And then I fell in love with it. Through Bill Donnelly, I learned that the dictionary is not prescriptive, but descriptive, that it will tell anyone who is paying attention which definitions are the oldest, which the most common and when (I was amazed; I still delight in this) a word came into use. I discovered the beauties of shades of meaning within a word, the (so many) contributing sources of English, the way definitions of words have changed over time.
This was when I took to reading the dictionary: propping it on my knees as I sat on my dorm-room bed, or in the library of a morning for hours at a time. Because words are beautiful and, while insufficient and, in the end, only signifiers, they are extraordinarily helpful.
Bill Donnelly: A great deal of the artistry in life is knowing what word to use, and How you say it is as important as what you say.
The purpose of the class might have been to teach us to find “our voice.” Not to write with “Engfish,” as Ken Macrorie, author of another class text, described most student writing. But to write in a style that is uniquely one’s own, that is honest, that invites the reader in.
Donnelly asked us to write daily, to fill our file in his office with writing efforts of all kinds. To submit when he assigned something and to submit when he hadn’t. To occasionally cull our files and examine them for what was–no longer–any good, because already we had learned to write better.
Meanwhile, he taught us about diction and parallel construction, the value of lists, the beauties (and potential horrors) of repetition. We read one another’s work and critiqued it, and he assigned us impossible things. Once he asked us what Calderwood Hall smelled like, what were the contributing elements of its unique scent. He asked us to choose five items from a given list of 6. We were to describe these common items–not based on their use, but on their physical appearance.
Assignment: If at all possible look at the item you are describing. Limit each definition to about a hundred words. Write the best description in the class. Afford yourself the luxury of an attractive format for your final version. In this exercise cleverness counts.
My description of a nail clipper was not very good. Dr. Donnelly did not like it.
We did an exercise called “free writing.” For a minute, for five full minutes: write whatever was in your brain. This was meant, I think, to loosen the mental tongue, to force us into honesty, into thoughts flowing to the page unfiltered. I remember sitting at my dorm-room desk, believing I had found a collective five minutes that would go uninterrupted.
I was terrified of this assignment. What in the world–if I let it–would out? Spilling the contents of my brain onto paper would mean… what? The empty-headedness that I feared? The ordinariness, the boring-ness of my interior world, on paper? and then submitted to my professor?
But I did my homework anyway, because that was part of being dutiful, of being boring. No surprises there, anyway.
From time to time, Dr. Donnelly would read our work aloud. He did it anonymously, and he always read work that he praised. This was enviable, and this was never my work–not that I could imagine it actually happening.
Sometimes he would create hand-outs that had student-written excerpts on them. These were, occasionally, for praise, but often, too, for critique. Had the writer found the best possible word here, the mot juste?
That little bit of French, the quest for the perfectly precise word, is at my elbow when I write always, even now.
And we learned about “Fabulous Realities,” another Macrorie term. Fabulous realities were, it seemed, all around us: occurrences and situations that, were one to take notice, have something to say. One needed only to open one’s eyes, to pay attention, to see.
Donnelly encouraged us to look around, to notice things and then write about them. And that’s when I noticed the senior wearing a suit on the way to an on-campus interview with his college book bag over his shoulder. That’s when I wrote a paper on the bizarre and manipulative and sometimes hilariously funny names that automobile manufacturers choose for their cars. That was the semester I spent full mornings in the library, from about 9 until my first class at 11:30. Something had happened to me, was happening, and it set my mind ablaze not just for writing, but for all learning in general: I wanted to be a student, I wanted to learn, and I wanted–more than anything–to write.
From a class hand-out: (Michael) Chabon’s best-selling novel was called Mysteries of Pittsburgh. To us that seems oxymoronic. But why should Pittsburgh be less a mystery than Samarkand?
I wrote a paper about writing papers, of all things. About loving being in the library. It was about having to do research, about sitting at a wooden table or at a carrel in the library, with assignments pressing on me while I was surrounded by so much I wanted to read. I wrote about looking up titles in the (now sadly abandoned, inefficient and always beautiful) card catalog and then making my way through the stacks, taking my time to find a book by Shelley, not racing to where I knew the book would be, but letting myself enjoy the process, the slow walk down the rows, my fingers trailing along the call numbers.
Dr. Donnelly read that entire paper aloud to the class. The Entire Thing. And when he had finished, he gave it the mark of Interesting, what I knew was truly the highest praise: Now there, he said, is a student who doesn’t party much.
Idiocy: Teaching Assistant Around the same time as the Advanced Writing class, I was Dr. Donnelly’s assistant for a large, required course for all freshmen. My duties were simple: Dr. Donnelly collected students’ papers and put them in my mailbox. I was to read them and grade them for certain elements, then pass them back to him.
My role didn’t require much interface with Dr. Donnelly, but I did have to speak with him from time to time. And I remained so certain of my Un-Interestingness that I was sure he never had any idea who I was. Even for a quick comment in the hallway, even just leaving him an essential message on his answering machine, I always re-introduced myself:
Hi Dr. Donnelly. I’m Rebecca Brewster, your teaching assistant. And then on to whateveritwas.
It was a small school. I’d had him for several classes already. He was no fool; undoubtedly, I could have spared him the (re)introduction.
He never corrected me. I wonder if he never noticed, or if he thought I was an idiot.
Or maybe he considered my doing this a fabulous reality.
Lasting Impression: Introduction to Film, Fall 1990 I arranged my student teaching schedule around this course: teaching in the spring so that I could take this last course with Dr. Donnelly in the fall. As one might imagine, it was incredibly popular: the class was packed. Not only did it fill a requirement for the (again) many communication arts majors, but it was about watching movies. Win-win. And surely it would be an easy A.
Except that this was Dr. Donnelly, so of course it wasn’t.
I’ll tell you what I’ve always said about that course: You couldn’t help but learn. Donnelly was expert, his examples and demonstrations were precise. Every day he wheeled a television and its VCR into the room; every day we discussed readings and then studied clips.
We studied scenes from The Godfather. We watched (and studied, and studied) Citizen Kane. We learned it all, from mis en scene to editing, from storyboard to lighting to sound score. I designed and drew a storyboard that was very bad. And that class meant there was a time in my life when I knew and could distinguish the job descriptions of a gaffer, a key grip and a best boy.
For the final exam, Dr. Donnelly showed us a six-minute clip from Jaws. We watched it twice, and then he set us loose to write about it. We were to critique it all, on every level, touching on every element of film we had learned.
We didn’t have laptops; it was all pen and paper. I wrote college-ruled, back-and-front, several pages. I wrote until my hand went numb from cramping; I wrote until I thought my arm would fall off. Taking that exam, I discovered that I knew far more about film than I had realized.
And taking that class changed forever the way I watch movies.
Exit Interview: Fall 1999 It was a chance visit to campus, several years since I’d graduated. I don’t remember how I came to be there, or to be there alone, or to find myself walking quickly through the empty hallways of Calderwood. But I was hoping to find a professor or two, just to say hi.
And then there he was, pushing one of the carts with a television and a VCR, and I’m sure I introduced myself to him all over again. And,
“I’m writing a book,” I told him. “A novel.”
I think I thought he’d be pleased. Maybe he’d ask what it was about.
He said, “Are you writing what you want to write, or are you writing what you think other people want you to write?”
His question took me aback, but as I walked away, I realized that this was the right question. It was a question most decidedly Donnelly-esque. He didn’t want my work to be derivative. He didn’t necessarily want it to be publishable. He simply (always) wanted it to be good, which means, among so many other things, that it has to be honest.
So I was pleased to have been able to say it was the former. “I’m writing what I want to write,” I told him.
That’s all that I remember about that conversation.
Postscript In all my years as a teacher, I think I mentioned Dr. Donnelly at least once to every class. Sometimes it was the Hulkamania story, often the chalkboard eraser. I know I’ve described his final exam for the film class, and I’ve borrowed that evaluative method (one of the highest levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy of Learning) for a test or two or a dozen. It took being a teacher to fully realize that he was a brilliant one, but I suppose that, in a way, I had already noticed.
Sadly, the childish intimidation and certainty of my own insignificance stayed with me far too long. I only realized I’d outgrown it a few years ago, and I contacted a friend–someone I knew probably was in touch with Dr. Donnelly–to see about finally writing to him. That’s when I learned that I had waited too long: Alzheimer’s, in its terrible way, had overtaken his amazing mind.
Last month, the day after he died, I was offered a contract for my novel.
I posted that joyful news to my Facebook page, and there I thanked so many who have encouraged me over the years. But Dr. Donnelly never had a Facebook account. Once upon a time, I had checked.
So this is a letter of gratitude, Dr. Donnelly. And don’t tell me it’s too long. I’ve needed every word to begin to express the joy it was to know you, the wild ride it was–every time–to sit in your classes, to follow your syllabi and read and write for you and try to realize on the page what it was you were trying to show us.
I’m Rebecca Brewster Stevenson, and I’m a writer now, and I can’t thank you enough.