"Hi Alan, I am Anikó..." These words were downloaded from Budapest (GMT +1 time zone) into my eMail box (GMT -8) on a cold, blustery December Wednesday, and they changed my life.
I had impulsively posted a personal ad for a correspondent on the Internet, and several folks responded, from all over the world. Half of them were certifiable crazies, and I didn´t reply, hoping they´d give up. Most of the rest weren´t really interested enough to keep up with my messages. After they realized that my idea of "correspondence" meant exchanges of more than twenty words at a time, they soon fell silent.
Anikó was different. She made her living as a financial manager, but anyone could see that a shy writer was in hiding underneath, waiting for encouragement. Although her English was not fluent, it was comprehensible, and an obviously fine mind operated that keyboard so far away. For every message, she struggled to find the right words in her Magyar/English dictionary, but her simple phrases always contained thoughtful insights. Every now and then, they approached the level of poetry.
For the first few eMails, Anikó used an Internet connection at her workplace. During the Christmas holiday, I was touched when she trudged through the snow and ice, halfway across Budapest, to send her replies. Compared to this determined woman, I was downright lazy: my morning "commute" consisted of stumbling sleepily down the hallway from my bed to the computer! Later on, when the script´s logistics were stalled at Buda´s funicular, she ventured out to ride the railway in those biting winter winds, even though she was deathly ill with the flu. Her commitment to our screenplay was overwhelming, and she wanted the descriptions to be absolutely accurate.
We learned to trust each other by exchanging background information, and some of my eMails included short stories which had been published in magazines or anthologies. But I was mostly showing off, for my new pen pal. In return, a few of Anikó´s messages contained powerful recollections from her childhood, during the Hungarian uprising of 1956. The cumulative impact of those intense and violent memories jolted my sense of scale. Suddenly, the hardships in my life seemed quite insignificant.
I urged her to consider preparing this material for publication, but she didn´t feel up to the task, claiming her anecdotes had no worth, and that she possessed few writing skills, especially with her imperfect knowledge of my language. I giggled at the irony in her misgivings, because I knew many American writers who were desperate for a mere whisper of the raw writing talent which Anikó was beginning to display, broken English and all.
Gradually, her reminiscences from 1956 started haunting me. I dreamed about the Russian soldier who had left the print of his boot upon her tiny leg. I clearly imagined the senseless massacre which ended a gentle poetry reading. Worst of all, I could see that tank commander vividly - his infernal machine tearing up the neighborhood streets - in the bull´s-eye of my rifle.
She had to write these stories. She MUST.
I casually suggested that I might be able to help, hoping that my prodding would release her own creativity. Instead, she immediately accepted my offer: "How do we begin? What comes next?!"
Hm. I´d experienced a few small successes with my screenplays, when they placed well in competitions, so I proposed to embed her stories as flashbacks in a contemporary movie plot. I hoped she would rebel against this idea, and write her authentic, heartfelt remembrances in defiance of my loutish commercial instincts. But when she agreed to this sketchy plan, I was floored. Uh-oh. Now my pride was on the line. Somewhere deep in my brain, a little voice warned, "You´d better not screw this up, Al. Her childhood memories are much too precious for the likes of you."
So that´s how we began an informal one-on-one screenwriting seminar and workshop, consisting o