Designing Women on Writing (and Teaching)

Douglas Ray
March 16, 2017
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Growing up in Jackson, Mississippi, I sort of thought that I would be a preacher, a plastic surgeon, or a Supreme Court Justice. All of these were concessions, though, after my mother let me know that it wasn’t exactly appropriate to answer “heir” or “Renaissance man” to the question, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” At thirty-one and now into my career as an independent school educator and writer, I see elements of preacher, plastic surgeon, and judge in my day-to-day for sure. I certainly have an audience whose thinking and doing I want to help shape; the suggestions I give on writing assignments are not unlike the lifts, reductions, augmentations, and reorganizations that plastic surgeons do (though cheaper and usually bloodless); and there’s a healthy amount of (hopefully) sound judgement that goes on when working with adolescents, texts, ideas, hormones, and expectations.

Since my mother was (and still is) an independent school teacher, I knew what that looked and felt like. I’ve spent my entire life in schools and around “school people.” But my image of a writer was ill-formed when I was very young. My down-the-street neighbor was Willie Morris, and I knew that he was a famous writer and editor, but I wouldn’t encounter his writing until junior high, with Good Ole Boy, North Toward Home, and My Dog Skip. And I knew that small woman with a shock of wavy white hair I saw in the Jitney Jungle (no. 14) in Belhaven was Miss Eudora, another famous writer. We passed her Tudor house on Pinehurst Street each morning on the way to school at First Pres., or, as we said, “The Day School.” Those images of writers didn’t resonate with me quite as powerfully as did the TV version from Designing Women, Dash Goff (played by Gerald McRaney), one of Suzanne Sugarbaker’s (Delta Burke’s) ex-husbands.

Though the episode first aired on October 1987 when I was two, I caught it for the first time (and remembered it) when it reran on Lifetime, which was a staple of my elementary school afternoons. My friends were into SportsCenter and Nickelodeon, but I opted for all that Lifetime: Television for Women had to offer: melodrama, shopping-intensive game shows, and Designing Women, the best education for a young Southern gay desperately yearning for truth, grace, progressive politics, power scarves, and perfect hair.

When the episode opens, Dash Goff just happens to show up at Sugarbaker’s, the Atlanta-based design firm run by Julia (Dixie Carter), Suzanne (Delta Burke), Mary Jo (Annie Potts), Charlene (Jean Smart), and Anthony (Meshach Taylor). His novel—Being Belled—had just gotten rejected for Book of the Month Club Alternate, which Suzanne, a veteran of the pageant circuit, suggests is nothing he should want: ”The alternate for Miss America doesn’t even get a convertible.” His novel had been marked as too Southern and, consequently, unreal. The writer on screen had a bag full of books, but felt rejected. Rejection, I realized, was as much a part of the writer’s life as anything.

Rejection looked something like this: Dash smoked cigarettes inside Suzanne’s mansion, splayed across her couch and making witty comment after witty comment about their former marriage:

Suzanne: Dash do you wonder why we ever got married?

Dash: I felt as if I hadn’t suffered enough yet.

Suzanne: What do you think now?

Dash: I think I have.

Just after this exchange, the phone rings, and after a short conversation, Dash reports that he’s just experienced “The Publishing World’s Triple Crown of Rejections: TV, movies, now paperback.” At forty-four, he deemed himself not just rejected, but now a failure.

But even though this forty-four-year-old balding writer in pleated pants experienced the Triple Crown of Rejection, he had all of the ladies in the palm of his hand, each one enamored by his words, which to elementary-school me seemed to recast the rejection as “not that big a deal.” While a book contract may have meant some sum of money, he got a better deal by far: a dinner date with Julia to discuss his novel. They come back to her house after dinner—Julia dressed in a white suit and a multi-strand pearl necklace. She poured a nightcap into two snifters from a crystal decanter (in a much classier way than daytime soap opera stars), and she used words like “panache and style” with a half-smile. He talked about stationery that was engraved. They agreed to start a book club immediately, and I wanted to be a part.

At a meeting of the book club, Dash leads the group through a discussion of Gatsby, which is a perennial journey for me in my adult life. Dash talks about dreams and desire, which appealed to me in elementary school in front of the TV and appeals to me in a discussion with my students, who both love and hate the vapid and beautifully flawed characters in Fitzgerald’s work. He asks if each woman sees herself in the novel and also has each person write about another in the group—a moment that showed me how important it is to see ourselves in what we read and also the place for personal narrative in the classroom. At one point, as they are writing descriptions of one another, Dash says, “The point is not to state but to illuminate,” and I’m sure that most of us who have spent any time in a workshop have heard something similar and that, too, the idea of shedding light through words (even as cliché and idealistic as it sounds) does not get old. This way of teaching and way of writing all seemed new and risky to me, whose elementary days were spent in rows, memorizing Bible verses, and reciting the Westminster Confession.

So while I realize the episode was meaningful for me in sparking an interest in writing and teaching, it’s also as ridiculously fabulous as every line Suzanne speaks. Let’s not overlook the fun of it all; the episode has a fantastic coda: Dash sends a thank you note (ever the Southern gentleman, ever the writer) to the ladies for the inspiration he’s gotten while among them. As Julia begins to read the most florid, overwrought language of heat, sex, the South, seduction, etc. (think romance novel with kudzu and bourbon-laced sweat), a pan flute plays “Georgia on my Mind” in the background. Then the scene ripples into a romanticized still shot in black-and-white of the four ladies in lacy 19th-century white gowns, positioned on a porch: parasols, pearls, and plunging necklines. Serious Southern camp, perfectly styled, and all to celebrate storytelling and writing—I was certainly sold.

This portrait (caricature is probably more apt) of a writer dealt with rejection and failure and moved on by creating community and loving words shared with people. Certainly he was flawed and antiheroic, but he set the agenda for conversation and inspired others to engage with each other. While my hometown writers—Willie, Eudora, Margaret Walker Alexander—continue to teach me with each engagement with their work, Dash Goff, the writer, made me turn my head twice. But I kept my distance from the pleated pants.

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