|The LifeStory Institute
The writer's workshop for memoirists, autobiographers and family historians.
LifeStory was founded in 1991 as a how-to newsletter/magazine and also as an over-the-road workshop
travelling North America teaching and coaching new and longtime writers of all ages how to write about
their lives and the lives of their ancestors. The premise is that everyone can, and probably should, write
their life story to pass on to their family,friends,and others interested, including and perhaps especially,
All material on this website unless otherwise indicated is Copyright 2016 by The LifeStory Institute.
Hi, I'm Charley Kempthorne. I write every day here, usually first thing in the morning. This isn’t the only thing I do all day (wish it
were!) but it’s the work of my life: I write here 500 words or more in order to encourage you to do the same or something like it.
In fifty years plus of journaling I have written 10,000,000 words a few hundred every day, one day at a time. On February 24,
1962, wanting to be a writer, I sat down and wrote in longhand in a college notebook that I was a writer because I wrote every
day. For a few days I did, and then I lapsed into now and then. But I did stay with it: it was always in my thoughts and I wrote
five or ten or twenty thousand words a year—“whenever I felt like it”—but I didn’t start really writing daily until just 30 years ago,
when I bought a Brother Word Processor on impulse at Sears and went home and started writing at least 500 words per day.
And so it has been ever since. What I did was make it into a habit to the degree that if I didn’t do it, or tried to, I felt so awful that
I did it. My wife would say, seeing me out of sorts, “Haven’t written in your journal today, have you?” And I’d slink back to my
computer and write the 500.
I invite you to join me and, if you feel like it now and then, send me a page or two, or send me a comment. Life is for the living!
Let’s do it. This is the way to get the writing done. My hope is that if we do this together for 28 days, you'll form the habit of
writing every day too.
The 21st LifeStory Journalong.
Mon., February 8, 2016
June and I have been married for more than forty years and in all that time we have had only one argument.
It’s the same goddamn argument over and over. Hhahahaha. That old joke is funny because it’s true, or has its truth.
June and I had an argument early on about beekeeping. We talked it over (I thought) and we decided (I thought) that we should get some beehives and
bees. I said, Okay, June, you get the bees and stuff and I’ll pay for it. Charley the big spender. I had probably twenty dollars to my name, and I was
going to front the beekeeping thing and June was going to carry it out. Or so I thought. She said she would—I thought. She didn’t say no, she wouldn’
t. She seemed to be saying yes, she would-- if by not saying anything she was saying yes. Wasn’t she? Dammit, why couldn’t this woman be
straightforward? When I said yes, I said yes. When I said no, I said no. What a good boy was I! But June, this flaming red haired long and lovely lady in
her cowboy boots and jeans, just dripping with style and grace…why didn’t she say what she meant? I mean, were we going to do the bees, or weren’t
And so we went through our day. The pot was on the stove, and it was simmering.
So here I am, Monday morning. If not bright-eyed and bushy tailed, I’m up and I’m here. Someone said the other day that we could do worse than take
Meister Eckhardt’s advice and just get up in the morning and say, Thank You. I don’t know anything about Meister E but maybe today I’ll google him. I’
m sure he’ll be honored. That’s pretty good advice: just say Thank You.
Or maybe Thanks for shopping at Walmart. Or Oh, what a beautiful morning! Everything’s going my way…
I have lived out here now for the past six months, and last year we spent three or four months out here, and I have never gone up in the Space Needle. I
am never going to go up in the Space Needle. What if it fell over while I was in it? What would I do then?
Years ago, I did go to the top of the Empire State Building, then the tallest building in the world. And it wasn’t then enclosed with glass at the top.
There was a little iron fence there, but you could climb right up it and jump if you wanted. I didn’t like it. I didn’t like looking down. It was windy and
cold. I left and went back downstairs as quickly as I could. June loves these things. Once in Birmingham, Alabana, she went up in the iron statue that
overlooks that steel-making city, the statue of Vulcan. It was windy and cold that day, too, even on the ground. I sat in the car and read. I wasn’t going
up in it. “How was it?” I asked her when she came down. “Wonderful,” she said, and told me all the stuff she saw. “Let’s get out of here,” I said. ###
Sun., Feb. 7, 2016
Life is the weirdest thing I’ve ever lived through.
I remember the day FDR died. Thursday, April 12, 1945. Evidently someone got word to the school and told the teacher, who probably dismissed class. I’
m not sure. But I do remember walking home alone, walking along in the grassy ditch beside the road to the house where we lived near Poland,
Indiana. I walked and I cried. I thought my father had died. When I got home Mom was there, of course, and (I suppose) told me differently and I
The only means of communication then was radio. I don’t think we or anybody had a phone, not even one of those old fashioned crank ones. Maybe
we did. But this place, Poland, Indiana, was pretty primitive. We didn’t even live in town, though we did live across from the school. (But now I think
about it, if lived across from the school..and I’m pretty sure of that…why was I walking home alongside a road, when I would have just walked across
the road and to my house? Maybe I was down the road at the house of schoolmates, Jimmy and Babe Birkbeck? Maybe I was.)
Wow, I just googled her—Babe, real name Isabella, and up came her obituary…she died three years ago. Babe was my first girlfriend. I was a couple of
years older. I have pictures of myself with her and her brother, Jim, who lives in Florida, according to the obituary.
Why does all this matter to me? Live in the present, Charley! But my past is my present…isn’t that goofy?
Just to prove that I’m living in the present, I’m sitting here in our living room which is also the family room, as our son and daughter-in-law, the owners
of the house here in Olympia, live upstairs with their daughter, Adah, our granddaughter. It is, unbelievably, 2016.
After we met with our friends yesterday morning and on the way home we stopped at Goodwill. I bought a couple of books and June bought some
textiles and trinkets. Oh, I bought a nice white cup that says something about Olympia on the side. “Wooden Boat Fair, OLYMPIA, 1979.” Good hot
coffee. June makes it every night just before bed. Very occasionally, she’ll forget, and I get up in the darkness and turn on the coffee and nothing
happens and then I have to make it and I barely remember how. I don’t know how many beans to grind, for one thing, or where to pour the water, for
I do the dishes. June is a messy cook, but a good one, and a willing one. I’ll be sitting here reading the newspaper or writing and June will come over
and ask me what I want for lunch. We always go through this little thing, well, not always, but sometimes, I’ll say something like, Oh, I’ll have the
Lobster Newburgh with a side of fried bananas with Thousand year old egg sauce and then… So we have grilled cheese sandwiches. But she is willing
if I’m not teasing her. Just yesterday she wanted to feed me tabouli for lunch, one of her specialties. I’m a little tired of it and so I asked, Could I have a
couple of tortillas? And she made both of us tortillas, and an excellent meal it was. We had tabouli in the evening, which was fine. An old boyfriend
taught her to make tabouli, and she’s been making it ever since. I don’t know what happened to the old boyfriend except that he’s long gone. He was
part Lebanese, I think. I never met him.
Sat., February 6, 2016
Just after ten and the news, what we could stand of it, which wasn’t much, we got into our wide bed—June had turned the blanket on earlier, the
highest setting, and so it was like sliding into a marsupial pocket, so warm, oh, so warm. June picked up her ten millionth Nora Roberts novel and
started to read. I picked up some novel or other, read about three lines and put it down, took off my glasses, and snuggled down even deeper. June
looked at me and smiled. I don’t read anymore, I said. I read stuff from contributors, I read email, you know, I mean I read all that, Facebook and all. I
just don’t read novels anymore. I’d rather write. June smiled and nodded, patted me on the head and turned back to her novel.
I should be writing a novel, I mumbled, maybe to myself more than to June. And with that I closed my eyes, yawned, and fell headlong into darkness.
If you write 500 words a day for a year, that’s 365 x 500 = 182,500 words, or thereabouts (I’m doing this in my head), and that’s the equivalent of three
novels. Three novels! This is what I say now, and these days I’m writing 2500 to 3000 words a day or nearly a million words in one year, the equivalent
of 15 novels…or one Seattle phone directory!!
If you take an infinite number of monkeys, and you give them an infinite amount of time and an infinite number of typewriters, then they will eventually
write all the great books! Just imagine that! It’s an actual problem in statistics. And of the late great Bob Newhart, who made us all laugh and laugh,
there is a televised segment where he and a lab assistant are overlooking an infinite number of monkeys doing just that, which somebody has put on
Some days I feel like one of those monkeys, pecking away at the keyboard, wondering if my keeper has any more bananas. Or, as T. S. Eliot aka J. Alfred
Prufrock, put it, I should have been a pair of ragged claws, scuttling across the bottom of the sea.
Mom told me there’d be days like this.
Yet in 1975, as exciting a year as I’ve had in my life, the birth of one of my sons, a great year in our new career of farming, back living in Kansas again
after eight years in Iowa and Wisconsin, living the university life, living through the Sixties…there I was eight miles out in the sticks with nothing to do
but chase the pigs through the woods and I wrote all of 2,500 words that year—1975—or the equivalent of about 8 words per day. Yes, count ‘em!
Eight words per day.
And they weren’t interesting words. They were, in fact bo-ring. I either had nothing to say or I had so much to say that there was a wordjam and they
just wouldn’t come out—stuck.
The great poet William Stafford, asked what he did about writers’ block, smiled and said, I just lower my standards and keep on writing. ###
Fri., Feb. 5, 2016
The hell of it is we live life from one end to the other without really understanding a single damned thing. We don’t know what hit us. We are like
insects on the world’s windshield. We live, then splat! We die. For years I believed with MacBeth (wasn’t it?) that life was a tale told by an idiot, full of
sound and fury, signifying nothing. I loved that sentence. I still do. But I’ve come to disbelieve it. We’ve been asking the wrong question. Not, what is
the meaning of life and where do I look to find out what to do with it; but rather, what meaning am I going to give my life?
And it looks like helping others—Saint Julian—there, that’s the ticket. Help the lepers across the river on your bleeding ferry.
I’d help more old ladies across the street except that I can’t find any older than me. And the young ones don’t want my help. There comes a time in life
when you can’t help others anymore. You need more help than you can give.
The great George Carlin once—or maybe twice—said, “People tell me that positive thinking really works. But I don’t think it’d work for me. No, I really
Old dead George. With Popeye the sailorman (who said I yam what I yam), one of the great philosophers of our time.
[An hour and a half later.]
I went back to bed, the wisest decision I’d made all day. When you wake up with the kind of stinking thinking I had above, and if I can’t write myself out
of it, the best thing to do is to go back to bed. Younger years, I’d have gotten up and physically worked my way out of it: cut firewood, moved that pile
of concrete blocks from where it’d been for eight years over to the place where I wanted it (probably for the next eight years).
I smile. I’m happy. I’m happy! Oh, yes, I’m so happy!
My dad played basketball in high school (Rewey, Wisconsin), and also in college (Platteville, Wisconsin). He was known to be a great dribbler. In sports
he was a four letter man, a track star, lettering in that sport, lettering in basketball, football and baseball. He was for years holder of the state record in
the pole vault. Somewhere around here I have a picture of him vaulting. He loved sports and physical activity and when he got olde and had Parkinson’
s he didn’t want to live any longer, and so at 80, he took his own life. It was the logical thing to do and, the minister at the funeral services said, the
kindest thing he could do for us, as he was becoming a basket case.
It was my honor to find him. I was painting with my crew that day in the spring of 1983. But it began raining and wasn’t going to stop, I thought, and
so I gave everyone the day off and stopped by my folks’ place. Mom had gone off to the bowling alley, her usual practice on that day. (She was only
74.) I nudged the back door open and called out. Of course there was no answer, and my heart sinking (for he had tried suicide just a few months
before), I walked through the house…and found him in the closet. He had hanged himself.###
Thu., February 4, 2016
A thousand years ago this morning, one of my ancestors, Um-gluk Kempthorne, graduated from Ice Age High School, last in his class…
Izzat so, Charley? Well, no, it’s not. But it came into my mind and so I thought I’d write it down here. Just imagine what a nice world it would be if we
had personal and family history that far back. February 4, 1016. Way before my time. Would we not have a much stronger sense of who we are and
what we do?
I once met a man at a retirement community in Topeka, Kansas, who had sat behind Albert Einstein at a lecture at Princeton University. In the course of
the lecture, this gentleman had the honor to accidentally touch Einstein’s coat, which the eminent physicist had removed and thrown across the back of
I knew another guy, my friend Jerry, who was walking down a street in Paris and saw Jean Paul Sartre walking along, probably on his way over to visit
Simone de Beauvoir.
I once accidentally bumped into Richard Widmark on the stairway of a movie studio in San Francisco. Widmark shifted the toothpick in his mouth with a
flick of his tongue and snarled Uhhh, watch it theah, kid! and walked on.
My mother knew John Dillinger’s girlfriend. She also knew Hoagy Carmichael.
My first father-in-law changed a tire for Al Capone one dark night in Chicago and Capone gave him a five dollar tip.
One time in Brooklyn, New York, in my Navy blues but wearing green and white argyle socks, I passed in a hallway a two star Admiral, who was walking
along and talking to an aide. He scowled at me and walked on.
And, to close this out, I can speak any language except Greek. Say something in German, my kids would yelp. Oh, that’s Greek to me, I’d say—quite the
wit was I.
Amazing and horrifying to admit that about 85% of the time, my mind is filled with junk like this. Yes, only 15% of the time am I thinking about the Infinite,
stuff like e = mc2 , or To be or not to be, or life is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.-
Now this is actual history. My father, an eye surgeon, would in the morning just before going to the hospital, stand in the kitchen looking out the
window and suddenly look at me and say, Around the rock the ragged rascal ran! And then he’d get in his car and go do an iridectomy or something.
Sometimes at such a moment he would instead say, unaccountably, As I was looking back/he was looking back/to see if I was looking back.
Just a little more history. My late friend, Alice Mireault was walking down the street on the way to church and here came President and Mrs. Coolidge,
unattended, walking along on the way to their church. Good morning, ladies, the President said. ###
Wed., Feb. 3, 20o16
What’s left? I asked June, leaning on the cart. I was getting tired of standing up. We were standing by the ice cream. June had asked me what kind.
You choose, I said. She did not like to choose. Then it would be her responsibility if it wasn’t great. I’ll go get the…what’s left? Bleach and tuna fish,
I’ll meet you at the front. June’s back was to me and she was trying to choose the ice cream. There are only four or five flavors, I called after her, and I
rolled off with the cart there for me to lean on. I got the bleach and was looking for the tuna when June came up behind me and slipped the toffee
praline ice cream into the cart. Is that okay? I love it, I said. My favorite. Mine too, she said. She looked down at the cans of tuna. Don’t get Chicken of
the Sea, she said. Any other kind but that. Why not? I asked. Because they catch dolphins or something, she said. Dolphins? I said. I reached down and
got Starkist. So we end up eating dolphins? Something like that, June said.
Check out? I said. Check out, she said. We stood looking at the twenty or so checkout lanes. June was looking for the shortest line. I was looking for
the prettiest check out cashier. One lane opened up and so June nudged me along and into it. This was not the prettiest cashier by any means, but she
was friendly and fast and had a big smile. I did the paying protocol because I could remember my PIN number. I did the little thing with the gadget while
June caught the grocs and sacked them up.
In the car and on the way June said, turn right. Right? I said. You mean left. Turn left, she said. Left. Sorry.
The guy who usually sits at the curb with the little sign about being over 65 and a veteran was there today, and he tried to catch my eye and look
soulfully at me but I wasn’t going to do that. I turned onto Martin Way and sped up. June started to say something. I know the way, I said. June got
her novel off the dashboard and began to read. Nora Roberts? I said, peering over at the book she was holding. Nora Roberts, June said.
How fast does that woman write? I said. She writes a lot, June said. Don’t you get tired of her? No, June said, already reading. Hmmp, I said.
Some guy, a kid in a Corvette or something that’d been modified to look, I’m sure he thought, cool, pulled in front of me and zoomed away. Good
riddance, I said aloud. What? June said. Oh, some dimwit pulled in front of me. Honk at him, June said. She looked up. Where is he? She wanted to
know. Gone, I said. Read Nora, I said, I can handle the driving. I was driving before you were born. I tickled her on the leg. June smiled. And look what
happened, she said. She was referring to the story I’d told her probably 100 times over the years about my folks being gone on a trip and I got in the car
and drove around, nine years old, and drove it into a ditch. Yeah, I said. You should have been there, but Nora Roberts wasn’t alive then. I looked at
June. She was back at her book, absorbed. What? she said after awhile. Nothing, I said. ###
Mon., February 1, 2016
We go to town about noon to see friends and afterwards we often drive out Martin Way to Winco Foods, the employee owned grocery store. We get a
few grocs and on the way back on Martin Way to home, we stop at the Good Will Outlet. I’m driving and I usually ask June if she wants to stop and
shop. I know she does. Okay! She chirps, as if she’d never thought of it had I not asked her. Only for a few minutes, though, I say, and she nods. It’s a
big blue and white building and the parking lot is nearly always crowded. Today I drop June off at the front and do a U-turn in the lot and drive around
back to find a parking place.
When I get inside June is already going down the rows of bins. There are six rows. The building is one huge room about half the size of a football field.
We all have carts, just like a grocery store, or any kind of store. The old pros wear gloves as they sort more or less wildly through the long bins on
wheels, like feedbunks for cattle—we are the cattle and the junk is our food. In any given bunk you might find a toaster, a roaster, and maybe even a
rollercoaster, it’s so various.
People contribute, we can see them at the front backing up to the door, and the soldiers of Good Will in their blue aprons come out and do the intake
and toss the stuff in various bins—clothes in one, shoes in another, books, DVDs and videos, and the great miscellaneous. I do the books, June does the
clothes. Both of us look at the miscellaneous, and usually I walk down to the end and look at the furniture—bookcases, floor lamps, dressers, desks,
tables, chairs—appliances of every sort. There’s even a place to plug electrical stuff in to see if it works. Some of the stuff is pretty good stuff. Today
there are about twenty chairs out of a motel or hotel or some kind of business, all alike, all worn but not so worn they couldn’t be used for people like
me…and June. There are matching tables, very solid oak, four or five of them. But where would we put them? I ask myself. We are living with Joni and
Rip and they like junk too, but it’s their house and we live downstairs in a big long apartment that we’ve already filled with junk.
It’s recreation for us. June will go up and down the rows and fill her cart with textiles, shirts, scarves, baskets, and I don’t know what all. Then when I
tell her it’s time to go she’ll go through everything that she’s put in her cart and put most of it back. You have nothing to show for your time! I protest.
I have loaded up a half dozen books and I’m not putting them back, no way. But June will. She is like the fly fisherman who labors mightily to catch a
big one, catches it, and then throws it back. I don’t get it. I’m slow.
We go home for lunch and our afternoon nap. ###
Tu., Feb. 2, 2016
We drove into Madison early, parked just off campus and Betsy went to work in Bascom Hall while I went to the Union. It was dark and cold, and of
course lots of snow on the ground. October, 1960, maybe. I could look it up. The press conference was on the 2nd or 3rd floor. I’m sure I got there
early. I do not like being late to anything.
When Jack and Jackie came into the room—not much larger than the living room I’m in now—everyone stood up spontaneously and cheered, even the
press, which comprised most of those in attendance. Flashbulbs popped while they, with a few aides, eased their way through the crowd to the front of
the room where there were microphones. I heard questions from the reporters: Senator, What do you think your chances are…Senator, what about
the situation in Europe? Senator, your opponents suggest…
Jackie’s smile was frozen on her face. Jack’s was too but there was a delight in his eyes, in the middle of the fray, that she did not have—Jackie in her
fur hat and Jack removing his topcoat…the Kennedy’s.
I have no memory of the content of the press conference. It probably was over in a half hour. I think they had a plane to catch to West Virginia, some
place on the campaign trail. Jack handled the press as if he were born into it, laughing, joshing, shaking hands, calling people by name, some shouting
out Good luck, Jack! He had the capacity to make friends of everyone in the room, or at the very least, to charm them with his dazzling smile, good
looks, and quickness of speech.
As the conference ended and he eased out of the room the crowd surged forward. A cluster of Hungarian foreign students surrounded Kennedy and
peppered him with no-nonsense questions about the US dithering on the question of the situation there. Jack’s smile turned serious and with honesty
and intelligence he answered them. He was just a couple of feet away from me. I wanted to reach out my hand, as others were, and shake his, but
others were ahead of me, and Kennedy moved on, and the moment passed. I had seen the next President of the United States, and he had seen me. I
could swear his eyes fell on me for a split second, maybe he was waiting for my question, or maybe he was just looking at this speechless guy with the
Mid-summer we moved ten miles north to DeForest to the little town where Betsy had gotten a job teaching 6th grade. We registered to vote
immediately but a few days before the election the Town Clerk claimed we weren’t eligible to vote. I was pretty upset about that. This was the first
election for both of us, having turned 21 just the previous year. The Town Clerk, or whatever he was, the responsible official, happened to live just
across the alley from us and he was walking through the neighbor’s yard, as he always did, to go home and I stopped him and asked him about it. He
was a little gruff, but I was insistent: we had registered in time. It might have been just the day before the election. He said something like, Oh, hell,
come on down and vote. I’ll make sure they let you.
And we did. We cast our votes for John Fitzgerald Kennedy for President and Lyndon Baines Johnson for Vice President. And they won. Our guy had
But three years later, November 22, 1963, he was shot dead in Dallas. ###