Patricia O’Donnell-Gibson is the author of the recently published book “The Red Skirt—Memoirs of An Ex Nun.” She joins me to discuss her book, and her story. A teacher of English and Literature for 30 years, Patricia honed her skills and knowledge with a Masters in Arts degree from Western Michigan University in 1992. After retiring from her teaching career, Patricia wrote her book.
It is the winner of the 2011 Global E-books Award in the category of Autobiography/Memoirs Nonfiction. Previous works include a poem published in the “Language Arts Journal of Michigan” in their Fall ’97 issue and another in the “Michigan Reading Journal” in the Summer ’98 issue. Another poem was included in “The Grass Roots Review, Volume 10.”
Patricia is a member of the Author’s Committee for the Dowagiac Dogwood Fine Arts Festival. She serves as book club advisor for the “Ladies of the Lake Book Club” on Paw Paw Lake.
CWF: Thank you for joining me at EVE, Patricia. Reading your book was a pleasure. How did you decide to write it?
PATRICIA: I had always remembered many of the incidents from my convent days, and images would appear in my mind all the time. When that happened, I would explore all the parts of the image, in other words, the story that came back to me. I wouldn’t say that I was haunted by faces and places and certain experiences, but I knew that my five years as a sister had left an indelible mark upon me. I guess those experiences wanted to be seen and acknowledged.
When I attended a Writing Institute at the local university one summer, I began to write some of these stories from my training as a sister. I had written about a few of them in poetic form but never prose. My fellow students loved the ones that I wrote and encouraged me to continue to write them. I was shocked that they would find them interesting. Yet, I did just what they suggested.
CWF: How long did it take you to get from your concept to a published book?
PATRICIA: It took me 11 years! Yes! A very long time. However, I have a large family, and many of our children were raising their children. They needed help. I couldn’t and wouldn’t say no. My writing took a back seat to this decision to put family first. I have never regretted it. And, when I retired from teaching, I was able to write more often – two to four hours here and there. It worked for me.
CWF: What was the most difficult part of the writing process for you?
PATRICIA: My book is a series of vignettes. I worried that there would not be enough suspense to carry the reader on. I had wonderful editors. One told me that my struggle, which began when I was nine years old, was that necessary ingredient. I concentrated from the beginning on my feelings, the doubts and worries that assaulted me over and over. It seems to have worked. Readers say they have had trouble putting it down.
I also had difficulty beginning new vignettes as most writers do. After writing six or seven vignettes I began to go back to the story I had just finished and revise it. That process of revising put me right back into the writing mind. I was “in” the creative mode and could begin to think about my new piece.
CWF: Since you were an English teacher, I will guess you worked from an outline. Is that correct? And if so, how many times did it change?
PATRICIA: Do I dare tell the truth???
CWF: You must! You were a nun!
PATRICIA: I did not work from an outline. No. I began by brainstorming stories from my first year of training as a sister – the postulancy. I had a long list. Then, I starred the stories that I could see vividly from a story arc perspective, including bits of conversation. I could see from my list that my stories would give a good accounting of what my life was like in that year of training. When I was finished with the last story, I put them in chronological order. I know now, as I thought from the very beginning, that my book would not have worked if I had tried to write it as “one” whole story. My memories could not sustain a totally chronological memoir.
CWF: I think we all worry about making the right career choice when selecting an academic major. In your case, you had the added burden of a perceived calling from God, and concern over the consequences of turning your back on it. As I read your story that made me angry. Did you feel angry too?
PATRICIA: I did not feel anger. I felt frustration and fear. I had been formed into this child who listened to the priests and nuns. Other people questioned them, but probably due to my over-active imagination, I took the warnings to heart. It’s difficult to understand without putting my years growing up and going through school in perspective. I grew up in the '50s. I began high school in 1959. My life was sheltered both at home and at school since I attended only Catholic schools. No one in my family would have thought to be rude to our parents or adults (Except for those years spanning 6th to 8th grade; we were all a bit difficult then). We were taught to be respectful to everyone. We could not squirm at mass, complain about my mom’s food, our teachers or school. We were expected to say thank you for whatever we received, to adjust to what we might describe as an unfair teacher and to treat each other nicely.
CWF: I grew up Catholic and attended Catholic school in the 1960s. I was shocked at the conditions you lived with during your years as postulant and novice. Do you believe things have changed since your experience?
PATRICIA: Things have changed immensely. First, women who enter religious orders have to have some work experience or college before they enter. Second, whereas in 1963 when I entered, we had 108 girls, today, religious orders are fortunate to have one or two enter each year.
I am not real sure about the training of the Adrian Dominicans, but I am sure that it is less rigid and concentrated. The Adrian Dominicans are very forward looking and seem to be adjusting to cultural changes.
CWF: Had your living conditions and education been more humane, do you think you may have stayed longer in the convent?
PATRICIA: No. I left because in the end, I wanted my own family. I could not envision myself leaving one small family of friends at one convent, and if I were sent to another place, jumping in right away to find the next convent of sisters to be my new family. I wanted the stability of a nuclear group of people whom I could love and cherish for all of my life.
It made me very sad to think of the older sisters, whom I helped in the infirmary, living their days out in a small room away from those they loved. I was young and emotional, but I still feel that way today. And who would have thought that I would wind up with seven children and step-children and 13 grandchildren? It is what I always wanted.
CWF: I don’t think I’ve seen a nun in habit in years. Have habits been dispensed with?
PATRICIA: No, habits are still around. Some sisters have chosen to keep their original habit with the veil and the headgear around the face. Others have changed to a kind of suit with a shorter skirt, a jacket and a small veil. Many, however, do not have any kind of suit or uniform that identifies them as a sister. They wear clothes like many people in society.
CWF: Congratulations on winning the 2011 Global E-books Award! What can you tell us about that?
PATRICIA: My husband urged me to try for this award for e-version books only. I do have both the Kindle e-version and the Barnes and Noble e-version so I thought, why not give it a try. I was quite surprised when I saw that I had won.
I’ve entered three other contests, which will be determined in spring of 2012. I think it’s good to challenge one’s efforts this way. In my case, I haven’t heard criticism about my book. It has to be out there. This is a way for me to measure my work with others who have written similar stories, either memoir or auto-biography.
CWF: Did you have an agent, and do you recommend having one?
PATRICIA: I didn’t have an agent. I tried for three years to find one. Finally, I told my husband, I do not want to be 75 years old when I publish this book! I’ll be toddling around, well, maybe. So, we decided after looking at places like lulu.com and createspace that we would start our own publishing company. We have never looked back. I am so happy that I had someone who wanted to do the business side of this process because I definitely did not want to do that part.
We have been pretty successful so far. I work on the marketing and my husband manages the business. After 2 and a half months, we’re on our third printing. We feel very fortunate to have the friends and bookstores that have been willing to give us a chance.
CWF: Your success is wonderful, and I’m sure very encouraging to othe writers we hope to get their stories told. What is the best thing about being a writer?
PATRICIA: The very best thing about being a writer is that writing is the only activity in which I am able to be fully involved, fully within the moment. An hour or more can go by when I have been so intensely focused that outside stimuli and time are forgotten in my creative state. It’s exhilarating!
CWF: Are there any down sides?
PATRICIA: I felt perhaps a bit of guilt and worry when I had gone too long without writing. I have a strong work ethic, and when I was away from my desk for over a week, I would feel anxious to get back at it.
Writing is a singular pursuit. It is both the best and the hardest part about the job. I love the hours spent finding just the right word or image, but then, I sometimes want an ear to hear what I come up with. Usually, I have to wait for that part.
CWF: I know that feeling! How has your life changed since being published?
PATRICIA: Well, I am not writing! The book has only been out two full months, so I’m now engaged with the marketing and promotion. It takes all my time now. I do veer from this job, but not for long. If I want the book out there, it has to get to bookstores, to book clubs, to clubs and organizations. It has to get on social media, and this one is perhaps most difficult for me. I am on facebook and linkd in, but I have not yet begun to use them effectively. I’m looking for a YOUNG kid to tutor me. Really. I have so much more to do.
Now, for another view. I love the signings I have had. First, it is great to meet the people who buy your book, to talk with them and find a bit of connection. When I have spoken at a club or organization, I get terrific feedback when my talk is over. The questions give me a wonderful window into what type of issues or stories are affecting my readers, and what parts of my story they are curious about. My experiences here have been great highs.
CWF: You’ve always had a flair for public speaking. I’m not surprised to hear how well you do with that aspect of your marketing campaign. What advice would you give to writers just getting started?
PATRICIA: Keep a journal. Try to write in it every day. Read often and challenge yourself to read more difficult books. Watch and listen to people. Be an observer of all kinds of people, of nature and of situations you find yourself in. Of course, get on all kinds of social media as soon as possible. Start a blog (haven’t done that yet, but I am thinking about it). If you can afford it, go to a few writer conventions. Keep emails of friends, acquaintances, business contacts and peers; all those whom you know, even if not very well. Each email will be part of your first contact list. We all want to make that grow. Find a writing group with people who have a commitment to writing and will listen as well as respond to your work when you want it.
CWF: The ground is shifting underneath the publishing world. Do you have any predictions about where paper books will land when the tremors settle?
PATRICIA: The trend is definitely going toward e-books, but I do not think the paper book is a thing of the past yet. I have had an e-reader for 2 years now. Our cottage is small and we were spilling out of our bookshelves. There was nowhere to go. I liked reading on my Nook, taking it on vacations and having a whole list of books to choose from. Now, however, I am back to real books. My nightstand is full of them – about 8 in all. I like that just as well, the stack of them sitting there waiting for me. So, it is difficult to predict, yet I think the huge publisher and the hierarchy of agents, editors, promoters, representatives, marketers – the middle men/women – will be thinned down, and the structure of “publishing” will be more innovative, less cumbersome and more user friendly to a larger scope of writers.
CWF: Patricia, thank you for sharing your story and your wisdom with us. Where can readers find your book, and how can they contact you for speaking engagements?
PATRICIA: My book is on amazon.com in both paperback and e-book. It is on Barnes and Noble in e-book right now, and in hardcover at B & N stores nationwide. A big break for me. The Red Skirt, Memoirs of an Ex Nun can also be ordered on our website. www.theredskirt.com.
And here’s a LIMITED TIME OFFER: For two weeks, beginning January 10th of 2012, Patricia O’Donnell-Gibson will be offering a special price of her E-book, The Red Skirt, Memoirs of an Ex Nun. It will be $4.99 on both amazon.com and barnesandnoble.com.
EVE Readers, I recommend grabbing this deal while you can!