Random Thoughts

Here's to the writer -- and the Free Press

... Free Press social writer Arnold Koch talks about our profession

by Arnold Koch

Author and humorist Garrison Keillor once had this advice for potential authors "wary of showing their wares":
"Be bold, thrust forward, and have the courage to fail. After all itís only writing. Nobody is going to die for
your mistakes, or even lose their teeth."

Ernest Hemingway was a little more somber on the subject. In his 1954 Nobel Prize acceptance speech, he said,
"Writing, at its best, is a lonely life. Organizations for writers palliate the writer's loneliness but I doubt
if they improve his writing. Ö For he does his work alone and if he is a good enough writer he must face
eternity, or the lack of it, each day."

Prophetically, in a discarded version of the speech he wrote: "There is no lonelier man than the writer when he
is writing ó except the suicide."

For almost 20 years, a group of senior citizens, called the Melrose Silver Stringers have not hesitated to "show
their wares." They meet Wednesday afternoons at the Milano Senior Center to discuss their life experiences for
possible publishing on their website, the Melrose Mirror.

Globe editor Jack Driscoll was their senior advisor and is still "on standby" as needed. Don Norris is the current group
leader. New members are always welcomed. No need to fear "publish or perish."

The author I have always admired for her talent and perseverance was Margaret Mitchell, author of "Gone With The
Wind." On Jan. 29, 1979 while in the lobby of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution to deliver press material for a
Delta Airlines promotion in Peachtree Plaza, I stopped and visited an exhibit of the life of Margaret Mitchell.
Mitchell began her career as a reporter for the Atlanta Journal, before it merged with the Constitution. The
exhibit even included her reporterís desk and typewriter.

Of all the one-novel authors in the history of American literature, Peggy Mitchell Upshaw Marsh was the most
successful. Except for the Bible, "Gone With The Wind" still holds the record for sales of hardcover books. To a
world wracked by the Depression and war, the 1,037-page novel, first published in 1936, offered a fictional
escape into the past. Margaret described herself as a product of the Jazz Age, a modern woman who rebelled
against the shallow customs of the conformity of her time (sounds like Scarlett).

Only five feet tall, she once said, "I donít feel small. I feel as big as anyone else and twice as strong." She
was strong enough to once climb up a hotel fire escape and knock on the window of reclusive actor Rudolph
Valentino for an interview.

Like most good writers, young Margaret grew up as a reader. Most of her classical reading was done by the age of
12.

"It was aided," she once said, "by five, 10 and 15 cents a copy bribes from my father and abetted by the hair
brush or my motherís number three slipper. She just about beat the hide off of me for not reading Tolstoy or
Thackeray or Jane Austen ó but I preferred to be beaten." (Today, it would be called "child abuse." Back then,
it was "a career enhancer.")

Her childhood memories included sitting on the stony knees of Civil War veterans who had fought the battles and
endured the defeats and hearing their stories. You might call it "lap top" research.

As a teenager, she began writing stories of adventure about bandits, frontiersmen and brave young women. In her
senior year in high school, she witnessed an Atlanta fire that destroyed 20 residential blocks. She worked as a
volunteer at an emergency center for panicked survivors ó a
memory she used in describing the burning of Atlanta in "GWTW."

Her family had also witnessed the Atlanta race riots of 1906, when white mobs attacked the Five Points area,
killing blacks who could not escape.

In 1918, Margaret enrolled at Smith College to study medicine. She became engaged to an Army officer who was
wounded in WWI and died days before the Armistice. The next year, her mother died in the influenza epidemic.
Margaret quit school and returned home to keep house and serve as hostess for her father.

In 1922, she married Berrien Kinnard Upshaw against her familyís wishes. Upshaw was hardly a southern gentleman
and left Margaret and Atlanta in less than a year. Author Anne Edwards once revealed that the character Rhett
Butler was based on Upshaw ó "a charming, pathological character who raped and abused Margaret." Years later
when she was famous, she received threatening letters from Upshaw. She kept a revolver near her bed until
informed he fell or jumped to his death from a hotel in Galveston, Texas, in 1949.

The best man at the Upshaw marriage turned out to be her last husband, John Marsh, a true southern gentleman who
later joined the staff of the Atlanta Journal. The couple rented a small apartment. On the door were two calling
cards: "Mr. John Marsh," and "Miss Margaret Mitchell" ó a daring gesture for 1925, but typical of Margaret.       

She left the Atlanta Journal in 1926 but continued as a contributor. That year, she sprained an ankle first
injured in childhood and weakened by an earlier horseback riding accident. While spending weeks in a cast, then
more weeks in traction and crutches, her husband encouraged her to write a novel. She began writing in random
order, last chapter first. Practically completed in 1929, it was stored in a closet for several years.

"I didnít write to sell it, but only to amuse and occupy myself while on crutches," Mitchell later wrote.

Everything changed in 1935 when a Macmillan publishing editor heard about the manuscript while in Atlanta
looking for new talent. After some persuasion from her husband, Margaret delivered the manuscript to the editor.
Faced with the biggest manuscript heíd ever seen, he brought a suitcase to take it with him on the train to New
Orleans.

After some second thoughts, Margaret telegraphed the editor saying "Send the manuscript back, Iíve changed my
mind." The editor had begun reading her work and ignored her telegram. Days later, she received an official
offer from Macmillan: A royalty of 10 percent of the retail price of the first 10,000 copies sold, 15 percent
thereafter, plus a $500 advance against royalties ó half on signing, half on delivery of a completed manuscript.

After another six exhausting months of polishing, tightening and checking for accuracy, the novel was finished,
except for a title. After considering 50 different titles, Macmillan enthusiastically accepted "Gone With The
Wind." The movie version took three years, 13 scenario writers, three directors and close to $4 million to
translate the 1,037-page colossus of a novel into an even more colossal picture.

Unfortunately, Margaretís lifeís story had a sad ending: She died in 1949 at age 48. She had been struck five
days earlier by a speeding car while crossing Peachtree Street with her husband to attend a movie. The driver
already had 24 violations.

Tomorrow was not another day for one of Americaís most talented and admired authors.



Reprinted with permission from the Melrose Free Press March 21,2014..

April 4, 2014


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