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Remembering Margaret Mehring

Margaret Mehring of Los Osos died tonight, just short of her 83rd birthday. She was the subject of my final column for SLO City News which appeared last Friday. Part of that column in printed below. Rest in Peace, Margi.

“I have been a professional writer for nearly twenty years. Many people have helped and encouraged me along the way, but two stand out in particular.

Jeff Fairbanks was the late, great editor of the old Telegram-Tribune who gave me a break in August 1989 despite my flimsy resume. He nurtured and inspired me to want to do my best. I remember driving in from Los Osos late one night to the office on Johnson Avenue in order to change a single word in a story.

One word. Sounds crazy, but I always thought I owed Jeff my best stuff. He had seen in me something few others had, giving me the confidence to finally put words to paper. Jeff gave me permission, even encouragement, to look at things differently and find the unique slant.

When Jeff died in an automobile accident on Hwy. 46 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 Charlotte.

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 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 Margaret Mehring, it is now our turn to be asking the questions. Why Margaret? Why now?

  1. August 13, 2012 at 4:48 pm

    great article! margret’ s screenplay is my bible..

  2. August 13, 2012 at 4:49 pm

    sorry margaret.

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