Archive for the ‘Teachers’ Category

I think maybe being a writer has made me a bad reader.

I still love to read, of course—nothing short of a brain transplant will ever change that. But I don’t read the same way I used to. I’m afraid I no longer read the way “normal” readers do.

First of all, some insecure part of my psyche is always weighing the book I’m reading against the books I write. Deep inside, I’m whining something like, “Rats…I couldn’t ever think of something this clever!” or “Arghghghgh! Why can’t I write like this?”

But every writer I know does that. We learn to tune that annoying little voice right out.

What really worries me is that, because of my years as a writer, I focus on all the wrong things in a book. I am afraid that I’ve forgotten how to just sit back and enjoy the magic.

Here’s what makes me think so: The other night, my daughter and I went to see Agatha Christie’s play, “The Mousetrap.” My son-in-law had a role—he was terrific in the part of silly Mr. Paravicini—and we had a wonderful time.

But on the way home, I began thinking about the plot, and I began saying things like, “Didn’t Christie use too much coincidence, though? Why was she staying in the hotel, in the first place? Why was he there, too? I just can’t buy that much coincidence!”

Was I wrong in my criticism? Maybe not, technically. The play does rely heavily on coincidence, something all writing teachers, editors and contest judges tell us is a huge no-no.

But does that mean the play isn’t well written? Does that mean the play isn’t good? Obviously not! As Agatha Christie’s own site tells us, this is the longest-running play in the world. In the world! Since it opened on the West End in 1952, it has never been out of production.

Clearly something powerful happens when audiences watch this play. They are entranced, and they don’t give a darn about whether Christie followed the so-called writing “rules.”

The same is true, for instance, with J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series. It’s filled with adverbs, what the writing teachers like to call “LY” words. “LY” words are lazy writing. “LY” words are literary dead weight. “LY” words must be hunted down like zombies and have their heads lopped off.

And yet, all the “LY” dead weight in the world can’t sink a Harry Potter book. I bet most readers don’t even notice them, and if they do, they couldn’t care less.

So, bottom line is…I’m afraid I might have worked so hard to learn the “craft” of my profession that I’ve forgotten how to enjoy the magic of it. No one jumps onto Amazon, eager to post a review that let you know “This book has perfect punctuation!!!!” No one calls up a friend and says, “OMG! This writer hasn’t used a single LY word!!!!”

It’s a lot easier to pick apart a book and see where it might have broken some rules than it is to pinpoint what the author did right. And, in truth, it’s easier to weed out your “LY” words than it is to seed in some enchantment.

What about you? Do Rowling’s “ly” words bother you? What about Christie’s coincidences? Do your bookshelves (or Kindle lists) hold some story that is mocked by snobs but still warms your heart? Have you ever had to defend a beloved book from the naysayers?

I have a feeling that, in a duel between the rule-maker and the magic-maker, the magician wins every time!

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I’m so excited. Terri Backhus, one of my best writing buddies, has just finaled in the Golden Heart! She’s written a wryly funny romance about a washed-up guitar player getting a chance to take his revenge on the columnist who sank his career. Appropriately, it’s called GETTING EVEN.

Terri had entered the Golden Heart before. She had not finaled. Most people don’t. But the amazing Terri, who is a lawyer by day, a drummer by night, and a writer…God knows when…isn’t a quitter. Here’s her story about how she tried again:

My father used to say, “Terri, even a blind squirrel sometimes finds a nut.” So, it shouldn’t have been such a surprise when I became a Golden Heart Finalist for my single title manuscript, Getting Even. Was it because of talent? Hardly. Luck? Not so much. Perhaps editing? Yes. Yes. Yes.
I’ve seen the light. I’ve sipped the Kool Aid and become a true believer. Repent sinners and kneel at the altar of the red pen. The secret to success is in the edit.
It took a friendly wager before I finally realized the value of killing your manuscript darlings, their spouses, offspring and pets. You see, my critique partner bet me $100.00 that she could edit my first few chapters so that they would final in the Golden Heart contest. Mind you, the partial had finaled before at the Moonlight and Magnolias contest a few years before. But, the ultimate prize…the Golden Heart was always beyond my grasp…until the bet.
I should have known. Kathleen O’Brien had taught me the value of the edit long ago. My friend, Donna Pruneau, and I sat in her romance writing class gobbling up bits of wisdom she tossed our way. When Kathleen kicked us out of the romance nest, we were too young (figuratively speaking) to appreciate what she meant in class. Finishing a manuscript was such a huge accomplishment for us that re-writing it seemed unthinkable. The manuscripts were safely tucked in our hard drives while we suffered rejection after rejection. We remained editing non-believers.
Still, we didn’t quit. Donna worked hard and became skilled at composing a kick ass partial. She finaled in almost every contest she entered; the Golden Heart, Daphne Du Maurier and Moonlight and Magnolias contests.
I procrastinated. I never met a botched tense or sentence fragment I didn’t like. And, I finished one book for every two Donna completed. Contests were not my friends, until manuscript number three– Getting Even. It was a story about Cadillac Carl, revenge and romance on Wilde Mountain in Nashville, Tennessee. What made manuscript number three a Golden Heart finalist?
The edit.
Donna’s $100.00 edit. Kathleen’s teaching, and despite my best effort to cover it up, Ann Evans’ faith that my writing had a voice.
The takeaway is that editing by someone you trust is not an option. It’s a requirement. A good editor can see the tense problems, the renegade commas and the logic blemishes on your beautiful baby. Like a moyle at a bris, it’s essential to have a steady hand on the red pen.
Whether I win the Golden Heart for Getting Even or not is almost irrelevant (I said almost). I learned a lesson…finally. What’s important is that, win or lose, Getting Even is a good story. It’s better because I had good editors. Yes, even the lowly unpublished need the best editors we can beg and bribe into helping the cause.
If I don’t get a chance to say it on July 1st, I’m a better writer because of Donna, Ann and Kathleen. If I win, I’m planning a tent revival for the faithful believers in the red pen at Ruby Foo’s on Broadway. Sake and green tea sundaes for everyone. Donna’s buying. After all, she won the bet.

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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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