An appreciation: Writing for Sister Maura was hard work

Many arguments later, a former student sees that she and her teacher were on the same side

(Handout )
November 22, 2009|By Diane Scharper | Special to The Baltimore Sun

By the time I entered the College of Notre Dame in the early 1960s, Sister Maura Eichner was already well known. Author of several books of poetry, she was friends with important literary figures like Flannery O'Connor, Karl Shapiro and Richard Wilbur - connections that were unusual for a woman teacher in the '60s - to say nothing of a nun garbed in a long black habit and veil.

I had applied to be an English major with a writing concentration. This required a portfolio and a meeting with the department chair, Sister Maura. I was sure Sister Maura would be impressed with my brown paper grocery bag filled with my poems. She barely glanced at my endeavors and instead began to recite the requirements for students who wanted to concentrate in writing. We had to take extra writing courses and write additional papers in all our other classes. We also had to write a senior thesis that would be a book-length collection of poems, plays, essays or stories. Could I do it?

Sister Maura considered writing to be work, and if nothing else, I was going to learn the value of that work during my numerous courses with her in our four years together. She said writing was 10 percent inspiration and 90 percent perspiration - although she didn't like the word "perspiration." She preferred "sweat," the Anglo-Saxon word, because she thought the Latinate word was pretentious.

An astute and picky critic, Sister Maura believed that good writing came from good reading, which for her meant the classics of Greek, Roman, British and American literature. We had to read and analyze the text to decipher what the writer meant - not what we wanted it to mean.

No matter that E.E. Cummings didn't punctuate his poems. We had to follow the rules before we could break them - if ever. No fancy British spellings. No exclamation points. Let the words show the excitement, she said. Choose strong verbs. Slash adverbs and adjectives.

We could use the thesaurus sparingly - to find the right word, not to show off our vocabulary. She disapproved of pretension and wordiness, telling us to follow the directions on the ladies room paper towel dispenser: "Why use two when one will do."

The lessons sound easy now. But I learned all of this the hard way after many arguments and numerous revisions of my poems, term papers, short stories, essays and plays - under Sister Maura's stern, ice-blue eyes.

In 1990, many years after I graduated, Sister Maura invited me and several former students to the WMAR television studio where she would read her poems. Tall, thin, with white hair, Sister Maura had an exquisite and melodic reading voice. She knew where to pause and what to emphasize. As I listened, I noticed new qualities in her work that had earlier escaped me. Certain metaphors made sense now; images resonated in a new way.

However, it was her poem, "What My Teachers Taught Me, I Try To Teach My Students," that stood out. As she read the familiar poem, which enumerates her rules for life and writing, I remembered our previous battles. Sister and I were now on the same side. I had been teaching her tenets of good writing. But it hadn't occurred to me until then that these weren't ideas that I discovered on my own. They - like so many other lessons - had come from Sister Maura herself.

Diane Scharper teaches English at Towson University and reviews local books for The Baltimore Sun.

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