During my senior year of high school, my AP English teacher assigned us to write a character development paper, two pages that presented a fictional character by way of a scene utilizing dialogue. Once the papers were completed, we were to read them aloud for the class.
I clearly remember my gnarled stomach the afternoon the papers were due. Our class was small, but I was terribly nervous about reading my work aloud even though I was proud of my writing. I kept hoping that maybe we could exchange papers and read each other’s papers. No such luck; if you write, you read it.
I wrote about Rose, a young woman who was outspoken, opinionated, confident, and bold…quite the opposite of everything I was at the time.
When I finished reading my paper for the class, there were raised eyebrows and smiles of disbelief. I didn’t know how to interpret these silent reactions. Was it that bad?
My teacher said, “You had someone in mind when you wrote that.” It wasn’t a question. It was obvious that there was inspiration.
“Yes,” I stammered, not knowing if that was allowed for the assignment. I was terribly concerned about following what was allowed back then. “Julia Sugarbaker…the character from the TV show Designing Women. I kind of wrote what she would have been like as a teenager.”
Who I was really writing about was the person I wished I was as a teenager; unafraid to speak up, not easily duped, a smart cookie.
Dixie Carter, the actress behind the Julia Sugarbaker character, died yesterday. Even though Designing Women hasn’t been around for almost 20 years, I was sad to hear this. Dixie’s Julia was an inspiration to me. Her ability to stop traffic with her eloquent yet biting soliloquies was magic to me. It didn’t matter that she had a team of writers behind her words…all I saw was an intelligent, elegant woman who could steal your breath with her words. She could conjure a fire in your soul and smack you with her wit. Love her or hate her, you never forgot her.
I know that somewhere in the stacks of notebooks I’ve saved from my teenage years there is a page of notebook paper with Rose’s scene written on it. I saved it as a memento for when I became a famous writer and was asked how I got started writing.
So today I drink a toast: to Dixie, to Julia, to Rose, and to the girl I once was. May you all live on as proud Southern women, unafraid to speak your mind, even if your voice cracks.