Archive for July, 2010

Edna Nichols

A scientist named William Osler apparently once said, “No bubble is so iridescent or floats longer than that blown by the successful teacher.”

I’ve been lucky enough to have several teachers like that.  One was Edna Nichols, who taught English and creative writing at my high school.  She also was the advisor (inspiration, fearless leader, drill sergeant) for the little literary magazine we published.  She may not have realized it, but she was terrifically important to me.

In some ways, my memory is probably suspect.  My time with her was long, long ago, that infamously self-absorbed age—the hormonal teenage years.  I was young, diffident, easily embarrassed, terrified of being conspicuous.  I’d been newly transplanted to this high school, having just left the part of town where I’d been born, and where all my friends still lived.  I had just adopted a new nickname, in the hopes of sounding confident and breezy instead of the prissy former convent-school girl I really was.

I was, I think, a bit lost.

She wasn’t.  She owned her classroom, and, for that hour, she owned us, too.  She was middle-aged and she looked tired, but wiry.  She wore her curly hair short, and it was the color of a night with lots of clouds.  Her eyes watched you with the sharp, restless attention of a bird.  A hawk, not a sparrow.  A hawk with lasers.  She saw everything, and one look into those eyes made it clear that trying to fool her was a waste of time.

She wanted your best, and it irritated her when you didn’t give it.  When she was irritated, the eyes sharpened, and she made a wry comment that didn’t quite sting…but almost did.  Like a warning shot, into the wall beside your head.  Close enough to change your attitude without hardening your heart.

The year she taught me, she was recovering from surgery, and she needed to lie down.  She brought her patio chair into the classroom and taught from a reclining position.  Looking back now, I can’t believe she held control of a room full of seniors that way.  But somehow—perhaps with those eyes alone–she did.

I teach now, too, though just part-time, and never with her brilliance.  But when I recently broke my foot and had to teach from a ridiculous knee-scooter for seven long, embarrassing weeks, I remembered Mrs. Nichols and the elan with which she carried off her “chaise lounge.”  I knew it could be done.

I wish I remembered more of her magic.  I wish I knew how she maintained such strict discipline without blighting the confidence and enthusiasm necessary for reading poetry or writing from your soul.  Many, many times I’ve wished I could go back to my high school, and sit like a ghost in one of the empty chairs, watching Mrs. Nichols teach.  I could learn things now, I’m sure, that I was too young to understand back then.

How did she convince me that my silly, self-indulgent poems were good enough to publish for the rest of the school?  How did she inspire me to take the infinitesimal seed of talent and grow it into a lifetime career?  How did she blow the bubble of writing joy into my life, a bubble that still floats through every day?

Perhaps it was that, in the end, she liked us.  She believed in us.  And she kept her message simple.  She had one writing rule, stressed over and over until we finally got it.  “Begin in media res,” she’d say.  Begin in the middle of things.  Begin where it matters.

And she had one life rule, too.  She signed my yearbook with this Jonathan Swift quote, and I’ll bet I could find that same message in a hundred other yearbooks, too.  “May you live every day of your life.”

I just learned that Mrs. Nichols has been struggling with some health problems.  I hate that.  I hate that she’s not still standing in a classroom, aiming a wry joke just beyond the ears of some teenagers who need to settle down, so that she can teach them the joys of books and poetry…and life.

But I know the bubbles she created in all these years still survive.  And I want to thank her for mine.  Be well, Mrs. Nichols!  Thank you.

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I’m blogging over at Tote Bags and Blogs today, being swoony about celebrities with great voices.

Ah, a beautiful voice! I can’t help it. That’s always what I notice first about a guy. Come by the blog and let’s talk about it! I’ve included some great video clips, and a list of my absolute favorite voices of all time. Tell me if I’ve forgotten anyone wonderful! And if a voice isn’t what hooks you, tell me what does! As I said in the blog, romance writers are always busy, busy, busy researching new hunky heroes. It’s a tough job, but someone has to do it, right? *wink*

Hope to see you there! At the end of the day, I’ll pick my favorite comment, and that poster will win any one of my books she chooses!

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I just read my first book on my new iPad.  I don’t know how I feel about it.

I have to admit up front that I got the iPad for free–sort of.  It came along with a graduate study program I’m taking, so my relationship with it is less demanding than it would be if I’d paid cash straight out.  I had to cart it home from Pennsylvania anyhow, and I’d finished my most recent book (THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO….wonderful!).  So I decided to test-drive the iPad on the plane.  I bought Harlan Coben’s new mystery, CAUGHT.  I love Coben, but I don’t usually keep his novels when I’m done.  Bookshelf property in my house is at a premium, like beachfront acreage in Paradise.  It can be acquired only by fabulous artists (like KY CRAFT) or word-geniuses (like DOROTHY DUNNETT).   Coben goes into the library box, so that the next guy can enjoy.

So…the pros:  Reading on the iPad was convenient on the plane.  The page is big enough that I could see even with these weak eyes of mine, but small enough that it didn’t seem to annoy the guy in the seat next to me.  The backlighting worked in the dim atmosphere of a late-night flight.  Flipping through pages is kind of fun (I’m easy to amuse), and the bookmark feature is nifty.

But…the cons:  When I got home, and I crawled in bed at night, ready for my lovely ten minutes of reading before passing out, I looked at the cold, hard metal device and…I didn’t really want to finish the book.  It seemed uninviting, more like a robot than a friend.

It’s a machine.  A machine.  You see, I’m old-fashioned in a lot of ways, one of which is my love of the printed word on paper.   I love the look, the feel, the smell of my eclectic personal library.  I get a warm fuzzy from just glancing over at my big, battered bookcase and seeing the jagged-tooth line of novels, how-tos, histories, poems and childhood leftovers.  I take them for granted far too often.  I don’t organize them properly.  I use them for coasters and paperweights, and, once or twice, to hold open an irritating window.  I tilt them and stack them haphazardly.  I tear their dust jackets and dog-ear their pages.  But, in spite of all this, I love them with the kind of love I ordinarily reserve for family members and old friends.

They stand for so many things: for love and wisdom and laughter, for my heritage, my comfort and my memories.  I grew up in a home with a library that held thousands of books, and my father’s bookplate, faded and curling at the edges, turns any book into a treasure.  No dwelling becomes a home to me until the books are on the shelves.  When I first visited Trinity College’s exquisite library in Dublin, I practically burst into tears, as if I’d finally landed on my home planet.

And yet…I don’t want to be the narrow-minded old bore who won’t embrace the future.  I love learning and changing.  I have been dragged, growling, to a hundred things (Facebook, iPhones, iTunes, tofu) only to end up addicted, unable to imagine life without them.  So to my more-evolved friends out there, I pose the question.  What’s wonderful about reading books on machines?  Help me see the light!

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Finally…a winner! Thanks so much to everyone who entered my “What is it About Texas?” contest, here on the website, on my various blogs, and, of course, in my private email. I absolutely loved reading all your great ideas about what makes this state so perfect for romance novels.

The winner has been drawn at random–by my wonderful writer friend and fellow Superromance author, Ann Evans. Ann’s got a great new book coming out this September, and it’s called “That Last Night In Texas.”  I know all you Texas lovers will want to get hold of that one, too!  Here’s the cover.  Doesn’t it look fantastic?  Really captures that Texas flavor…big skies, powerful horses and…naturally…super-sexy cowboys!

Thanks so much to everyone who entered.  And a special congratulations to Linda Bass, who has won the $50 gift certificate! I’ll be sending it out to you very soon, Linda. I’m so glad you entered!

And of course a new contest will start soon, so be sure to stop by again soon and check it out!

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