The Summer of Margaret

I have been a professional writer for nearly twenty years. Talent and desire only get you so far. Many, many people have helped and encouraged me along the way, but two stand out in particular, being in the right place, at the right time, to give me the encouragement and guidance I needed.

 Jeff Fairbanks was the late, great editor of the old Telegram-Tribune who gave me a break in August 1989 despite my flimsy journalism resume. He nurtured and inspired me to want to do my best, seeing something in me that I’d yet to see in myself. He made me want to do my best work.

I pushed myself a bit too hard. Late one night, pre-home computer, I drove in from Los Osos to change a single word in a story that I had submitted.

One word.

Sounds crazy, but I always thought about Jeff reading over my copy in the morning and I wanted him to be impressed, never regretting taking me on. Jeff’s growing and constant approval gave me confidence–I had made the right decision in following my dreams to California. I was writing. I was being paid to write. And I had an editor who loved my work, encouraging me to try new things.

Then Jeff, his wife Ann, and one daughter all died in a fiery automobile accident on Hwy. 46 over Thanksgiving weekend in 1995. I felt like I had lost a supportive, but demanding, older brother.

The other influence would unquestionably be Margaret Mehring of Los Osos. The artist Libby Tolley introduced us around 1990. Libby knew that I wanted to write screenplays. She thought I should meet her friend who taught screenwriting at USC. “I think she’s written a book about screenwriting,” Libby told me.

Indeed she had. Margaret had a long and distinguished career as a documentary filmmaker before founding the Filmic Writing program at USC. At the time we met, Margaret was still making the grueling commute to LA weekly; Los Osos had been her refuge since the ‘70s.

I wasn’t quite sure what to expect when Libby and I went to the house in the small forest off LOVR.  But the connection was immediate and heartfelt. I remember being excited when I described the conversation afterwards to friends.

 When I think of Margaret, I think of her long gray hair, a barking dog somewhere vying for attention, and always an urgency for conversation. Margaret’s passion, honed by years in the classroom, was about engaging the mind and asking questions. Margaret is constantly asking questions.

But in 1990, I wasn’t interested in the esoteric. All I wanted to do was to write and sell a Hollywood screenplay. Margaret became my champion, critiquing my material and introducing me to agents she knew. Still, it wasn’t enough and I eventually stopped trying, much to my friend’s disappointment.

Margaret taught me some basic screenwriting mechanics. However, her greater influence has been as a role model. This is a writer who has spent summers on Indian reservations in South Dakota, teaching young people how to shoot video.

In the 1950’s, Margaret and her late husband spoke out against the Hollywood Blacklist. She was the driving force behind a memorial to the First Amendment that now graces the USC campus. Political activism runs in her blood and Margaret recently published a book on grassroots campaign organizing

The writer has a greater societal obligation. It can’t just be about the money. It can’t just be about the success. When I look at Margaret’s extraordinary career of service, the message sinks in. This is what I learned from her.

So perhaps rescuing all these dogs and cats over the years made the creative gods reconsider my plight. I have a screenplay slowly inching into production. I wanted to wait until everything was finalized until sharing the details with my mentor.

But this summer, Margaret had news of her own. She has acute leukemia. First my dog, now my dear friend. Doctors have promised her a few good months, followed by a few rough weeks. “I intend to live until I die,” was how Margaret reacted when I called her hospital room.

So this will be the Summer of Margaret in Los Osos. She’s back home in the house amid the trees and barking dogs. Friends check in on her daily, bringing over meals. Others will visit in small groups to engage in conversation and say that which must be said.

But for the legions of us who know and love the always inquisitive Margaret Mehring, it is now our turn to be asking the questions. Why Margaret? Why now?

SLO City News (July, 2008)

Published by Dave Congalton

Writer. Radio Host. Screenwriter. Enjoying the Good Life on California's Central Coast.

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