|The LifeStory Institute
The writer's workshop for memoirists, autobiographers and family historians.
Founded in 1991 as a how-to newsletter/magazine, LifeStory, 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 2014 by The LifeStory Institute.
The LifeStory Institute
Mon., September 22, 2014
You can’t judge a book by its cover, it is well said, but in fact people try. People do judge a book by its cover.
At least at first. People pick up a book based on the front cover. Then they flip it over and look at the back
cover. They may read the blurbs thereon, and then they may look at the inside back cover and read about the
author and look at his or her picture and size them up. Maybe they’ll toss it back on the rack but maybe they’ll
thumb through it. Maybe they’ll read a page or part of a page, or even more. Or maybe they won’t.
Someone said once they judge a book by reading page 100 of the book completely. If that’s good, they take the
book. If it isn’t, they don’t.
I have a problem with that in that my just finished book, Narrative Journaling: 28 Days to Writing More or Less
Happily for the Rest of Your Life, is a large size book and doesn’t have 100 pages, only 80. When it is
reformatted as a paperback it will have more like 200. But right now…here we are.
There aren’t a lot of books on journaling, and the ones I know of aren’t adequate. None seem to even come
close to the idea, which I think is extremely important, of narrative journaling. Most seem to be about half or
more DIY psychological investigation of oneself. They try to be inspirational and tell the reader how much they
will benefit from journaling if they do it.
The big problem is if they do it. That’s like the famous recipe for tiger soup: it’s easy to make once you catch
My book addresses the problem of doing it, day in and day out. I try to remove all the barriers to not journaling
or to quitting it soon after starting. I try very, very hard to help the reader cement the habit of journaling.
Narrative journaling means you narrate, you tell stories rather than writing essays. This comes naturally to
most of us. In my book I encourage people to write not (say) an essay or article about what they think Life is
meant to be, but rather simple little everyday stories about their life. It’s more fun to write, easier, and more
fun to read—for sure.
My book is unique among other books on journaling also in that it has large chunks from my own journal. In
fact, the book is an invitation to journal along with me as they work their way through the book. I have also
printed a number of sections from my past journal…my “ancient journal,” I call it. At the very least this shows
the reader that I really do journal, have journaled for 50 years and I’m still (more or less happily) at it. I didn’t
just dream up the idea of keeping a journal a couple of months ago. It has been part of my life for most of my
It is certainly autobiographical, not so much for its own sake, but to show the reader how a journaling habit
can work for them to create an autobiography. ###
Sun., September 21, 2014
Undoubtedly to some extent the memoir movement and the triumph of memoir in the literary world has been
fostered by the inability of the writers of fiction to give us what we as a society need rather than, in the words
of Samuel Johnson, what is possible. Artiness is not literature. But also there has been (and paradoxically) a
great increase in creative writing.
When I was a young man and a college student there were three universities in the country that offered a
graduate degree in creative writing: Iowa, Oregon, and Cornell. Three! This was in the mid-60s.
Now there are hundreds. You can get your degree online, on campus or, probably, under a bridge—maybe the
best place of all.
And thousands have gone to these hundreds of schools and gotten their various degrees. What have they
done with them? Probably gone to teaching, for the most part, but many have gone to work in business doing
something creative like advertising and thousands more have taken up (as I did) farming, plumbing, carpentry,
or maybe just lit out for the territories and were never seen again.
But what happened to their need for self-expression, an absolutely legitimate and genuine emotion? I suggest
that many have gone to private journals and memoir. They are the ones who took up the natural music of the
Memoir Movement and have played it fully, segueing into the growing need for a real history of our world
instead of the artificial and rarefied drivel about Clinton and the Roosevelts and Clemenceau all the way back
to Ramses III.
The internet has become a huge sponge to soak up a great deal of this memoir, and what a wonderful thing
that is! God bless all engineers and mathematicians, say I!
This is the way life works, I think.
We are born and have experiences. Of course we know now we’re not born tabula rasa as old John Locke
said, but we are born with tons of information already in our bodies in the form of genes. Then we add to that
throughout out lives. I don’t know quite how all that happens but I’ll let you know just as soon as I invest
wisely my Nobel Prize money for figuring all that out.
But we do. We live, love, hate, work, play, goof off, go to jail, get out, run for president or dogcatcher or we
just quietly retire. But what has happened in all those years is we have developed a cast of mind (or a
sensibility if you want to call it that), and maybe quite a bit of it is stored within us genetically—maybe all of it.
Maybe in the future all we’ll have to do when we are born is press enter and when we die click on delete. I
don’t know. But meantime, I suggest, we need to record it by telling the stories of our lives. At least in the
short run. And practically speaking, our grandkids aren’t going to go for us dandling them on our knees and
reciting some genetic codes.
And so we must, or should, write. That in my opinion, is how it all works. ###
Sat., September 20, 2014
I am starting to feel pretty good about being an old man. Maybe it started when I turned 75 nearly two years
ago and I didn’t notice it. I mean, I noticed being 75, of course, but I didn't notice that certain feeling. Just
today, though, just this morning, for the first time consciously I began to think, Hey, I've made it! And then I
realized that many of the old people I have worked with over the years had the same attitude. I noticed it
especially in those in their 80s and 90s and beyond.
Years ago in the late 70s I interviewed an old man in a nursing home who had just turned 100. He was joyous.
“I can’t believe I’ve made it!” he said happily. His name was Earl Lord and this was in a home in Council Grove,
Kansas. He looked just fine but he was quite deaf and I had to shout.
Then he told me about his long life as a bank teller, including a story about being held up by a gang of robbers
in the Bonnie and Clyde mold, though not Bonnie and Clyde, when he was a teller in a little bank somewhere in
southern Kansas. He was ordered to stick up his hands, to reach for the sky, and he did. As the robbers left
the bank with a bag of dough, one turned around and took a shot at him. The bullet missed his body but went
through the back of his coat, which was winged out because his hands were in the air.
I think sometimes when I’ve told this story I’ve added that Mr. Lord showed me the coat with a bullet hole in it,
hanging in his closet at the home. But I think I might have concocted that memory. I do recall that I told this
story to my father and he said Mr. Lord had been a patient of his.
Yesterday was a happy day that ended with my working more than two hours doing some heavy manual labor
moving some junk from one place to another. I had not done manual labor like that in a couple of years, and I
felt exhilarated—and sore and weary. I ate some ice cream and I fell into bed and slept like a…a 76 year old
I have always loved to talk to old men and women, beginning I guess with my grandfather, my mother’s father,
who lived with us for a few years before he died at 80. In the Navy on board the USNS Rose, a civilian-manned
ship that had a military department on board (of which I was a member), an old timer from Brooklyn, New York,
told me about growing up in rural Brooklyn when he was a child: they had a milk cow in a barn in their
backyard. He also bragged that even though he and his wife had eight children, he had never seen her
This was the late 1950s, so Mr. O’Connell was describing Brooklyn in the 1880s. What a long reach our history
Fri., Sep. 19, 2014
I read a good article in AARP about clutter and how to get rid of it, control it, cut down on it. I thought, Well,
clutter isn’t just physical: what about the clutter in our minds? And of course I related that to journaling.
I am a clutterer among clutterers. The four of us who live here cannot resist a give-a-way, a bargain, a yard
sale, garage sale, auction, found on the street…we pick it up, figure it might be useful or beautiful, and move
on with it in our possession. When we get home we put it…by the door, of course. Eventually it may get
moved to a specific room, though often it sits in the living room like some kind of quarry or piece de resistance
or trophy of the hunt.
We realize we are the prisoner of junk, but we cannot stop.
I have to say I have slowed down. Old Mortality is teaching me a few things, like You can’t take it with you, and
maybe even, Who would want to?
But that mental clutter I took care of fifty years ago when I started a journal. Actually I am so proud of myself for
having done that and stuck to it all these years I capitalize it: Journal. And sometimes I call it (to myself) my
Blessed Journal. It has saved my life. Mental clutter was and still could overtake me. It's stuff I just can't
I am careful about my journal. The organization is simple and straightforward. Every day I write and I save it
both as print on paper and electronically, by date in order and by month in a folder. At the end of each month I
print it out. And put it in a 5 inch wide 3 ring binder. At the end of the year I make sure all 12 months are there
and then I put it upon a long shelf, about twenty feet long, that runs from 1964 to 2014.
At one time I considered indexing the journals but time and technology have made that unnecessary, even
redundant. All I have to do is open the files and click on Search and Find and I am escorted through the entire
thing. I have used this feature to write beaucoup articles and a few books. I am just now working on a memoir
about my time in the Navy. All I’m doing at present is hunting and gathering. I go to Find and type in Navy and
each entry that comes up I highlight, copy, and paste it to a new file—White Hat, the name of my memoir.
To the extent that I have succeeded in my life, and that is not to say it is to a very great extent, I have
succeeded because I have followed some kind of crazy rules. One, I came to believe the “infinite
monkey/infinite time/infinite typewriter” theory of writing: that if I wrote enough, sooner or later I would write
something pretty good. Two, that if I persisted in my madness long enough, it would become sanity. Why that
is true I do not know, but it is. I guess that’s a cousin, at least, to what goes around, comes around. ###
Thursday, September 18, 2014
Tuesday at Meadowlark Prairie Star writers I asked the dozen or so present to begin writing with an action line
and having faith (if that is the word, I said, a little leery that they would close their minds to me because they
thought me too spiritual and too nutty) that the next line will come. Write something like, I said, something like,
I walked into the room and there was Hilda and I said hello.
I gave a couple of other examples. You phoned the bank and asked for Teresa, I started the car and backed out of
Sentences like that, and maybe like a lot of others, suggest action to us. We are much better off, I think, when
we write action rather than explanation. I have no explanations for my life, really. I do do things, though, and I
can relate those. Maybe action is the humblest—and most effective—way to begin any writing about your life. I
was born and then…
Yet clearly some days go better than other days—writing wise, everything wise. I don’t know why, maybe some
deep anxieties, or maybe it’s the old dictum of Two steps forward, and one step back. That is to say, that things
tend to lapse after going well. If you’re a brain surgeon, well, two brain aneurysm repairs go well, and then the
third one—well, maybe there are some problems, or maybe (we surely hope) they’re just a little harder to make
go well. And maybe it’s something in the water, something in the air we breathe…it just is.
I remember the sound of my grandfather’s breathing as he lay dying. It was massive, it took over the whole
once silent house, as he breathed in and out, in and out, long, labored breaths that were to be his last. He lay
with the rifle on his lap, and a tiny red hole in between his eyes. For twenty minutes, or so it seemed, he
breathed like that, in the full majesty of death, and then it stopped.
The men came and gently put him onto a stretcher and carried him away. My father came home from work. My
mother cried. I stood there. I don’t know what I did. My sister, two years old, looked lost, clutching our mother
with whom she had been taking a summer afternoon’s nap with when Gramps shot himself.
I had been in my bedroom next door, quietly fiddling with one of my hobby collections, stamps, autographs…my
pennants. And then the gunshot, perhaps in the windiness of the day sounding like a door blown shut. But I
stood up. Mom came out of her bedroom, followed by Kathy. Oh Charley, she said, looking into her father’s
room, he’s shot himself.
And so it was that this man, Lewis Clinton Isaacs (1870-1950), ended his long life, miserably sick with asthma
and probably what we would today call COPD, chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder. Born in Kentucky, living
there and in Indiana and then Kansas, he had been essentially a happy man, laughing and dandling me on his
knee while he made up poetry about old dogs that slept with one eye open and mules that kicked, and crows
that went right down the row eating the seed corn even as he planted it. ###
Wed., September 17, 2014
ROAD CLOSED, I read. What the…?
The road is closed, June said.
I know but…
Turn around. The road is closed.
Okay. Okay. I backed up and turned around and start going back the way we came.
Turn left, June said.
But you said…
Turn left, she said, more emphatically.
You don’t have to yell, I said. I’m not that deaf.
Go around the building, June went on.
I know. I know, I said.
So we went around the back away.
Dr. Floersch has an office back here somewhere, I said.
Watch the road, June said.
I am watching the… Right over there, I said. See—Matthew Floersch. We rolled on slowly. Dr. Singh has an
office in Junction City, I went on.
Left, June said. Left. Now stop.
I stopped. Now what?
Left, June said. I turned left.
Stop, June said. Park.
Not yet, I said. I have to stop at Jane’s and leave a her a LifeStory. It’s in the back.
I’ll get it, June said.
I’ll get it, I said. Your arm…
I stopped, opened the car door, got out, opened the rear door and then reached in and took a copy of the mag
and stuck it in Jane’s mailbox.
Back in the car, I drove on. Where to? I said.
Park, June said. We’re here.
Oh, sure. But.
We’re here, I guess, I said.
Yes we are. Park.
I parked. We got out and went inside and did our LifeStory class.
The days go by. Quickly. Yesterday was as fine a day as we’ve had in years. High about 78, windless,
sunny…just perfect. I wish I had been home, working in the garden. When we drove off this morning I looked
wistfully at my first crop of fall potatoes. If only I had time to get out there and hill them up. New potatoes in
October. What more could one want in this world, this vale of tears? With some fresh green beans the way
June makes them. The first year we gardened here, the first year we were married, that spring of 1974, we had
everything. We had an acre of sweet corn, we had beans, we had tomatoes and tomatoes, we even had kale
and broccoli and squash and even, for the love of God, kohlrabi, which we’d never had before or since. The
next year we grew peanuts, a strange little plant that put out runners and they went into the ground.
What a life it was, back in the day.
Oh Frances, Oh Frances Oh please tell me why
Your mother is calling and you don’t reply.
The soup it is boiling,
The cow’s in the corn.
Your mother is calling for you to come home,I sang.
Then I smiled in the mirror and then I washed my face with warm water. I stood back and looked again. “Good
morning, God,” I said. “Thank you, sir.” And I saluted perfectly, my arm parallel to the deck, the tip of my
fingers two fingers above my eyebrow. And I was happy.
Tu., September 16, 2014
I remember saying years ago that the happiest day of my life was January 16, 1959, the day I got out of the Navy,
or—as I put it then—the day I was released from the clutches of the United States Navy. I was a veteran. I had
done my time. That could never be taken away from me. I felt just like a man who had been freed from prison.
It was glorious to walk up that Brooklyn street in the winter sunshine, get in a taxicab and tell the driver to take
me to Idlewild Airport (later John F. Kennedy). I think I had a cigar I’d bought in Cuba for a dollar, an El
something or other, and I must surely have lit it and smoked it like the big man I felt I was. I suppose the cabby
laughed to himself. It cost about $25 with tip to be driven all the way out to the airport. I got on the plane, flew
a mere six hours (a propeller driven plane) to go all the way to Kansas City, where my wife met me, and we
began Life. I was a civilian and an adult.
A couple of days later I was a student in a classroom at Kansas State University. I walked into a life I was to
love for the next twelve years.
I never regretted not staying in the Navy. Never. Though I came to love my time in the Navy rather than hate it
(as I did when I was in the Navy), I never regretted taking my discharge papers and getting out. I was a smart
kid, a good test taker and, truth be known, capable of kissing all the necessary asses--not even quite 21 (I got
out a week before my 21st birthday), and I knew what the Navy expected—by then I knew—and I probably could
have gone to some kind of officer school, OCS, or more like NROTC as I attended college while still in the
Navy—and maybe I’d have made Admiral or something.
It would be fun to be an admiral now, say a three or four star one, and get up in the morning and have an aide
or two waiting to drive me somewhere where I’d return a lot of salutes, looking like Jeff Chandler in Away All
Boats, and maybe get on a ship for a couple of hours and walk around with my white gloves checking out the
brightwork and putting a few bo’sun’s mates on report. But I probably wouldn’t have made admiral until the
70s, and how then could I have been the Hippie that I became?
“Good morning, sir!” How would that sound to the ears of a Hippie? It just wouldn’t work. As old Robert
Frost, more Hippie than Admiral himself, wrote, Two roads diverged in a yellow wood, and sorry I could not travel
Still, a funeral with full military honors sounds pretty cool. ###
Mon., September 15, 2014
The kid at the counter was only a little apologetic. A dollar seventy-nine, he said. For a refill? I asked. I had
already filled my cup and had it steaming in front of him on the counter. Usually I pay fifty cents for a cup. I
haven’t paid that much for coffee since I was in Canada, I said. I know that’s ridiculous, he said. But that’s the
price. I gave him two dollar bills and got my 21 cents back and thanked him and left.
In the good old days…ah, well. In the good old days I worked and worked hard for fifty cents an hour.
At Cedar Rapids we put the pedal to the metal and zoomed home. We stopped in Des Moines to spend an hour
with Scott and Shana at a picnic, hopped in the car and drove down the map to roll in here at 7 pm. Iowa,
I’m struggling to write these days. I’m not sleeping well and I’m getting up tired, that’s part of it. But another
part of it I feel I have nothing to say. Uh-oh. That means I have too much to say. Everything in me tries to get
out the door at once and jams up in the doorway. Time to make some prompts and/or look at my little book,
which I’ve neglected on the road. Where is it?
I can’t find it. I can’t find anything.
Maybe in my numbness induced by driving 2,000 miles, I have lost the power of observation. Everything is a
blur, everything is motion, no stillness.
So it’s back to the basics….
I got in the car. I stepped on the gas. The bottom dropped out and I fell on my…. Hahahhaha…age 9.
In Norman, Oklahoma, I lived at 765 N. Jenkins Avenue. Apartment no. whatever. Upstairs at the top of the
stairs, I don’t remember the number. Fumble for the key, fumble to find the lock, push open the door and there
I was…home for a year or more. I was all of 19 years old, and head of a household of two: she was 19 too. We
owned our clothes, a new TV, and a car. I wore a uniform every day to work. I was in the Navy. One day I got
my orders and we got in our car and drove to Brooklyn, New York. We stayed at the Mohawk Hotel, a
retirement hotel, the old people in the gloom of the dining room stared at us. They all looked like Abe Vigoda.
Against rules we did some eating in our single room upstairs. We washed our dishes in the bathtub. Soon I
was sent aboard a ship, the USNS General Rose, and I went to sea, and Betsy drove back to Kansas by herself
and finished college. General Maurice Rose was a World War II hero, killed in action. Another guy in yeoman
school, I forget his name, but I can still see him saying to me when I got my orders, “How come you got a
Jewish ship?” I laughed. “You’re not a Jew.” I didn’t know General Rose was a Jew.
This morning my life seems a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying…nothing. ###
Sun., September 14, 2014
So here we are in Cedar Rapids, Iowa and on our speedy way home. We should get there tonight. At this
moment, however, I am sitting here in the Red Roof Inn sipping bad coffee and writing this to all the world.
I note that there is no Bible in the desk drawer. Does this mean the Gideon Society has given it all up and
joined ISIS? Somehow I think not. And here I was just getting to enjoy reading it, a verse or two, every time I
stayed the night in a motel, Red Roof or whatever sort of roof. In my traveling years I have stayed in every sort
of motel, Red Roof Inns, No Roof Inns, you name it. The worst motels for the money in my opinion are Best
Westerns, always overpriced and loaded with ugly expensive furniture. Red Roof Inns and, sometimes,
America’s Valu (or some such name) are among the best dollar for dollar.
However yesterday late as we went through Madison, already tired, we stopped at one of those Valu places,
and really it looked pretty ratty but we were tired and all we wanted was a place to sleep a few hours so I pulled
up and June went in. She came back in a minute, smiling strangely. $99, she said. $99? I said. What’s the
deal? I asked her if it was for the week, June said. We drove off. Maybe it’s a brothel? I said. June
Years ago in my hometown of Manhattan, Kansas, Marian Anderson, the greatest contralto in the world, came
to sing at the college. I went to hear her, this beautiful black woman who had this great voice, and I was
forever impressed. Later I heard they would not let her stay at the Wareham Hotel downtown, that she had to
take a room in a motel in the south end of town that was more brothel than motel.
Everyone probably knows, of course, the story of her not being allowed to sing in Constitution Hall, which had
capacity of 2,000, in Washington, D.C., because she was black. Eleanor Roosevelt, God bless her, hearing this,
invited her to sing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, which she did, before 75,000 people, and the cameras
whirred and Constitution Hall, owned by the Daughters of the American Revolution, was forever stained. And
so it should be. The clip of her singing on the steps of the memorial is sometimes shown on Classic Arts
I was never allowed to sing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, actually. I did hear Eleanor Roosevelt speak
once in Topeka, but she took no notice of me there in the 27th row and no mention was made of my singing
So instead, yesterday in Milwaukee, at the opening of our workshop, I sang, honestly I did, My name is Jan
Jansen, I come from Wisconsin, I work in the lumberyards there! I go down the street, the people I meet, they ask
me my name and I tells ‘em, My name is Jan Jansen, I come from Wisconsin…
Okay, Charley, that’s enough.
Saturday, September 13, 2014 Milwaukee, Wisconsin
I lived here in Milwaukee part of one summer 61 years ago. I was a lad of 15, and I came here with my brother of 18, the
two of us being challenged by our parents to go out into the wide world and seek our fortune ourselves. This no doubt after
we complained and whined about having to live at home under their house and thumb. Milwaukee was selected because we
had an uncle living here and other kin a couple hundred miles away in southwestern Wisconsin.
And so we came, a few dollars to sustain us, and we got a tiny 4 or 5 storey walkup one room apartment at (I still remember
the address), isn’t that remarkable? 1624 North Farwell. And our phone number was (alas, I can’t remember the entire
number, I can only guess) BRoadway 2-8951. (I wonder if that was really it?)
We set up housekeeping, went to the grocery, probably we bought cans of beans and maybe boxes of Kraft dinner and, no
doubt, a huge jug of milk. They didn’t have fast food places in those days but they did have what were called hamburger
joints…but I don’t remember eating even in one of those. We were economical and disciplined.
We looked for work immediately: that was the whole idea. But as it happened Milwaukee was in the middle of a brewery
workers’ strike, and that at that time was the big industry in town. So all those striking workers were moonlighting doing the
kind of jobs that my brother and I were looking for. My brother finally got a job (I have told his story elsewhere) at Broan
Mfg. Co., and I almost got a job when I lied about my age at a printing plant as a messenger boy. It would have been
heaven and my subsequent life would have gone much better, I am quite sure. I have told this story elsewhere, too, about
trying to get that job and getting it and then being denied it because I was too young.
So I left my brother and went downstate—probably hitch-hiking—to my father’s ancestral home, Rewey, Wisconsin, where
lived my Uncle Pete and his family, and they took me in and I worked there the rest of the summer de-tasseling corn. I
found that job bor-ing, and the only fun of it was that there was a crew of us, ten or fifteen boys all about the same age,
working, and making the big bucks—as much as 85 cents an hour!
Toward the end of the summer Uncle Pete's oldest son and my bosom buddy, Gary, and I hitch-hiked to Kansas, joyously
arguing all the way about which state was best, Kansas or Wisconsin.
My Uncle Arthur—the one who lived in Milwaukee and worked at Seaman Body (?), or was it called Nash Motors then, and
who was a champion pool player—we never saw him. He was a bachelor and a loner and just a bit, well, weird. ###
Fri., September 12, 2014 ON THE ROAD near Stevens Point, Wisconsin
When you go looking for the old farmhouse where you used to live 43 years ago, you may have some trouble. Houses
close up and are demolished, roads change, people of course are dead and gone…even if I remember, they may not.
So it was with driving north of Stevens Point yesterday. We couldn’t find my old place in Dewey Marsh. We did find Dewey
Marsh. The Marsh is still there. The tamarack trees were still there, the tall grass, some roads. We drove and drove. I
think we might have driven past it and not known we did.
I think of Sandburg’s poem, The Grass, isn’t it? “I cover all.” It’s a poem about the dead at the Battle of Ypres in World War
I, how they’re piled up, and then the grass covers them.
We milked two cows, Ethyl and Blackie. We had a cream separator. One of my jobs was to wash the thing afterwards. It
had a million parts, all those cone-shaped baffles, the big bowl…everything. We sold the milk, most of it, in town. I don’t
know why we did all that. I don’t even know why we had not one but two dairy cows. But we did. We had two dairy cows, we
had thirty or so chickens, we had an old workhorse named Molly…
I got on Molly, a gentle old white horse, and she walked under a tree and there was a low branch and she scraped me off
onto the ground. I don’t think she meant to. I think she was probably surprised to look down and see me lying there bawling
on the ground. I never got on her or any other horse again.
In the summer we swam every day (all day it seemed) in the creek. Deep Creek was a major creek. It flowed for about
twenty miles from its beginning at a springs a few miles southwest of us down just south of the little town of Zeandale and
thence a few miles more into the meandering Kansas River, onto to Kansas City where it was all dumped into the Missouri
and across that state and into the great Mississippi.
We had on our place a half mile or more of the creek, and in that half mile we had three or four swimming holes. They had
shallow places where we could wade in and feel the water getting colder and colder deep down until we pushed off and
began swimming, dog paddling, out to where the water was well over our head. I’d pinch my nose and raise a hand straight
up and drop down to touch the bottom and then shoot back up. It must have been eight or ten feet deep in places.
We’d get out after a couple of hours and play and there’d be leeches on our legs. Some were very small but some would
be big as a half dollar.
We’d light a cigarette and burn the leeches off with the hot tip. We’d smoke it too. In the warm sun we’d lie there on the
pebbly sandy beach naked and luxuriate and smoke a cigarette just like Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer. This was 1948
and life would never end. (543 words.)
Thu., September 11, 2014
Last night I watched a movie, Still Mine, about a man in New Brunswick who insisted on building a small house for him and
wife to live in. He built it on his own place, and he just went at it. The plan was in his head. He was building on his own
land. He was a lumberman and a carpenter of long experience and so he knew exactly what to do. The authorities, in the
person of the building inspector, intervened, or tried to. He had not gotten a building permit; he did not have blueprints for
them to look at and stamp with their approval; his lumber (which he made himself in his small sawmill) wasn’t stamped
lumber…oh, they were very upset. This was a true story, the man’s name was…I forget. The actor was James Cromwell,
and his wife, played by an actress I didn’t really know but who apparently is quite famous. They were well cast, the movie
was carefully paced, understated, the story just rolled out scene by scene. It was a good movie.
I liked the movie but didn’t really like the man, however. A few years ago I might have; probably would have. I was the guy
who admired Elvis for his singing of I Did It My Way—the message therein more than the singing—I was the guy who fought
the system to a draw again and again, at least in my own head.
But now this doesn’t work. The man was all ego, society and the government go hang. It was his land and his wife and his
land. For him, life was all about mine.
And I just don’t buy that anymore.
This isn’t my life. It’s ours. I am not here to take over or even to stake my claim. I am here to do the group’s will; or, if you
like, I am here to do God’s will.
I don’t know what think till I see what I say. A movie is good when it raises a problem to discuss. Some movies do that for
me; this one did. Maybe a great movie is beyond all probing and argumentation. Paths of Glory was such a movie. Billy
Budd. Maybe Roy Rogers’ The Raiders of the Sawtooth Ridge.
Still Mine not a great movie but a good one, is grist for the mill going in my head. Maybe in yours too.
Today looms. It is gloomy and cold here in Wisconsin, a reminder that winter is coming. Here the television meteorologists
are already talking unembarrassedly about first frosts. My thoughts are of warm sun and the South. I don’t want to spend
another winter pitching logs on the fire. Never again. I was born in January and I have lived through a lot of Januaries in
places like North Dakota and Wisconsin and Iowa and Kansas. But now I hear Southern California calling, south Texas,
Florida…the sun in my eyes all the livelong day.
Wed., September 10, 2014
I don’t have my notes for the past day or two at hand so I don’t know what to say. My mind is blank. I sit here taking it all in
at the home of friends in Wisconsin—the woods surrounding us, the quiet as we three diddle our respective computers, the
rain falling on the leaves of the trees…the beautiful old dog, Delilah, a white Lab of 11 years, padding around the house
wanting to be petted. What peace!
I tell my friend that if I had a dog like Delilah lying at feet my life would be so much enhanced, and I believe it. A dog is a fine
Years ago John Steinbeck wrote a book about traveling America with his dog, Charley, in a camper, a sort of early version
of a book like Blue Highways by William Least Heat Moon. Moon, whose given name was Trogodon, got fired from his job as
an instructor in the English Department at the University of Missouri. His wife dumped him. He had a Volkswagen Camper
and a credit card and a typewriter and he got in the camper and toured America and wrote the book, Blue Highways. He
then tried to sell the book, but could not. 22 publishers turned him down. Then—this was the late 60s, I think—he
somehow became inspired to change his name to Least Heat Moon, which, being a fraction Indian, was his name as an
Indian…I guess. And then he sent the book off again to a 23rd publisher and it was snapped up and published.
It became a national bestseller and he lived happily ever after.
My new book, Narrative Journaling: 28 Days to Writing More or Less Happily for the Rest of Your Life, has sold 27 copies, I
believe. They have all been sold at the workshops we’ve recently done in Marysville, KS, Beatrice, NE, Lincoln, NE and
Prior Lake, MN. So if we sell 4 per workshop and do 1,000 workshops, we will have sold 4,000 books…not bad, ten bucks a
book (a bargain of course), = $40,000. In the old days a man could live well on that much money.
Years ago, more than 50 years ago, my dear father on a rainy morning like this, just after paying his taxes, said to me that “I
only made 97,000 dollars last year. Some of the other doctors made over a hundred.” He was quite wistful, a wistfulness I
cannot say that I shared, earning as I was then something like eleven cents an hour as a sailor in the U. S. Navy. The sad
thing really was that he, himself, measured his worth in money terms, but what a fine man he was, what a fine doctor, what a
The persistence of memory…as I’m writing, my hostess walks quietly past, the only sound the squeaking of her shoes. I
remember being in the Navy sleeping in the shore barracks in Brooklyn, New York, winter, 1958, and hearing such a sound
and thinking it was the Bo’sun’s Mate on watch walking, and then realizing it was a man bunking nearby grinding his teeth in
his sleep. He was a nice kid we called Pepe, from Springfield, Mass.
September 7, 2014
I have written probably more about the Navy than I actually lived it. I wasn’t even in four full years of active duty. I was
signed up with something called “Minority Cruise,” which was for people under 18, and I was to be discharged the day
before I attained “majority,” which I did not know then, meant the day before I was 21. I served a total (active duty) of 3
years, 5 months, and 27 days. Here’s another clip from those active years:
The Navy scared me this way: worship rigidity & authority or you’ll be shot. Be safe keep a tight asshole don’t smile during
inspection follow the letter of the law because if you do what it says they can never get you even if they decide you’re
drunk. Example: one of the moments I had in the Navy stands out, seems to comprise & explain a lot of my experience then.
That was a moment in boot camp at Great Lakes. I was assigned the job of “policing” an area in front of my barracks, i.e.,
picking up bits of trash from the lawn. I picked up the trash but instead of hauling it away I threw it under the barracks , a
naval version of the maid sweeping dirt under the carpet. I was doing this when some bo’sun’s mate spied me & came
“What are you doing, sailor?” His tone wasn’t conversational.
“I’m policing the area, sir.”
“When you police the area you throw the shit under the barracks?”
“I don’t know sir. I guess so, sir.”
“Don’t you know any better?”
“I don’t know, sir.”
“You don’t know whether to throw trash under the barracks or not?”
“I don’t know, sir.”
“You don’t know. You don’t know a goddamned thing, do you?”
And in complete disgust he stalked off.
So I learned then and there that ignorance was in some way an excuse. If you were willing to put yourself forward as a
complete boob, and I was, then you could get away with some things. This was one of the many things I learned in the Navy
that I’d have to unlearn later on.
It’s Sunday morning and I’m up v-e-r-y early and working my tail off to finish stuff I should have finished a week ago. At the
stroke of 10 or before, we have to get in the car and go. Going first to Lincoln, Nebraska, where this afternoon we’ll do a
workshop at The Walt Library, and thence north to Minnesota and Wisconsin in the coming week. We’ll be back home on
the 15th, late. The big workshop is to be the one in Wauwatosa, a big suburb of Milwaukee that the locals call Tosa.
I have by now done memoir writing workshops at every kind of venue: libraries, museums, banks, police stations, fire
stations, recreation centers, schools, colleges, restaurants, hospitals, retirement communities, senior centers,
coffeehouses, city halls, private homes…and even on streetcorners. I believe that I started the first Reminiscence Writing
Workshop in the world (nothing like modesty—why not say universe?) in 1976. I started doing them shortly after my wife
and I started LifeStory Magazine in 1992, first one at the Latin American Center (LULAC) in Topeka, Kansas. (547 words.)
Sat., Sep. 6, 2014
This is from a book I'm working on about my time in the Navy, which I'm calling White Hat:
July 20, 1955, a Wednesday morning, and my father is putting me on a train for Kansas City. It’s around 7 o’clock, very
sunny, “it’s going to be a hot one,” as we say to one another out here, and I see my father in a pin stripe dark gray (a few
years later we would call it charcoal gray) suit, dressed to go to his medical office and see patients, or stop by the hospital
and see the one or two patients he might have there; he says, probably, semi-ironically, Boy, don’t take any wooden nickels,
or Keep your nose clean. We stood there at the little station, the old baggage man pulling the big steel-wheeled wagon up
to the tracks to take off whatever's on this train coming west from Denver. I see the red brick pavement. I see the sign that
lists incoming trains and the one I’m getting on says OT. I see a few other people standing around, waiting to get on the
train coming now into the station, the only train, a few others maybe waiting to greet somebody getting off, or a few other
passengers like me headed into Kansas City.
Dad and I probably shook hands. You can be sure we did not hug, not that we didn’t care about one another, but that in
1955 men didn’t hug.
I was really not a man but a boy of 17 and a half, almost to the day. I’m tall and skinny: 6 feet nearly, and I weigh about
130. I have some acne, I wear glasses: I’m gangly. I’m not athletic but I’m built like one, I’m built like my father, who was a
champion athlete in high school and teacher’s college before he went to medical school. I have my father’s build but I did
not have much in the way of his habits. I was well on my way to being a dissolute youth, running away from home at 15 and
then coming back but refusing to go to high school for a full year, then going and finishing up and starting college even, at
Kansas State College in my hometown, running up to the campus everyday in summer school for a couple of months until it
was clear to one and all that I wasn’t serious about college anymore than I was about high school: I spent my evenings “out,”
mostly in Aggieville drinking at Kite’s, then maybe the next morning frantically doing my assignment in French I (taught,
inexplicably, by a Spaniard named Senor Ramirez) and glancing at the chapter in my general psych course. If I was taking a
third course, which seems likely, 9 hours then being a full load for the summer, I don’t remember it. I was of course a
Fri., September 5, 2014
My head is in a swirl. All kinds of stuff is going on in my life. Where we live, here at 3591 Letter Rock Road, Manhattan,
Kansas, once known merely as Rural Route 3, Manhattan, Kansas, a little farm southeast of town eight miles…we are
moving. I came here in 1971 and June came here in 1973 and we got married under the four cedar trees in our front
yard…and had children and lived since that time. Now we are olde.
But we’re not really moving moving. Get it? We’re going to keep this place, go on the road for a year doing workshops,
lease out the place and spend a lot of time in and around Seattle/Tacoma Washington visiting our kids and grandkids
there---and working, doing workshops in memoir writing. We have done a number of workshops in that area over the years,
including two at the downtown central public library in Seattle.
It is so difficult when you olde to decide what to do, especially if you’re lifelong undecideds like us. What do you think we
ought to do, hon? I don’t know. What do you think? What do I think about what you think? I don’t know what you think….
and, as the King said, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. Things are decided and then, next day, they are undecided. Here’s
what we’re going to do…we think.
We want to continue of course the idea of the LifeStory Institute as a physical entity. But this coming year we’re going to
focus on building the virtual LifeStory Institute, online and in your town. Our theory is we’ll work our tails off (the said same
tails that are already dragging) for a year, bond with our kids and grandkids in the great Northwest, and then come back
here next fall to visit and invest some time and money into The LifeStory Institute in the Woods. How about that musical
group in England or wherever, I can’t think of the name just now…we’ll be like that. People will come and stay a couple of
weeks and walk in the woods and write their memmies and then go back to (say) 785638 East South Street, Apartment
1,578 in Tomkinsville, Staten Island, New York, New York, thus fortified by life here. And we will be fortified by them.
Now that I’ve finished the book I call Narrative Journaling: 28 Days to Writing More or Less Happily for the Rest of Your Life,
I can start a new book. It’s called Living It Up, Living It Down, LIULID for short, and I started on it September 1.
I have already from years ago about 65K words. Actually, I just looked, it is 66,338 words. That’s book length right there.
With a few photographs, and of course I’d want to put in a lot, I have a big thick memoir. All I have to do is roll it out, look at
it, reshape and edit it…and sell it for $20 a copy. Want to buy an advance copy, discounted to (say) $18? What a deal,
right? Yes, I accept credit cards, and I promise delivery before Christmas. ###
Thu., September 4, 2014
Okay, September 4, here I come! I am up and at ‘em and with the help of God and another cup of coffee, I’m ready for bear!
Actually, I have nothing against bears and have no desire to hunt them, scare them out of their dens or, above all, to mess
with their cubs in any way. I wish them all the best! It’s just a metaphor, right? Bear with me…ha ha ha.
Thomas Wolfe would trudge the streets of Brooklyn at dawn as he walked with his laundry basket filled with pages of his day’
s writing from his Brooklyn apartment over to the office of Scribner’s in Manhattan, and he would chant, I wrote ten thousand
words today…I wrote ten thousand words today.
God bless old Tom, who unfortunately died at 38 of tuberculosis contracting from a man on board a steamer, a stranger
who offered Tom a swig from his bottle, and Tom, being an old Southern boy who couldn’t say no, took a swig, caught the
TB, and died. Just 38.
We left Beatrice about 4. It was hot. I was dead tired. June was willing to drive the 110 mile drive home. I had driven up in
the morning. We stopped at a nice big grocery and I got us some stuff—a huge bag of cheddar cheese flavored potato
chips, a thing of milk for me, a big bottle of Pepsi for June, and an Almond Joy candy bar, milk chocolate, not the dark
chocolate. And so we pointed the car south and slid down the map. I ate. I helped feed June potato chip by potato chip. I
slept. June focused. I woke up. Was that Marysville? I asked her, as we left a town. I think she said yes but in all honesty I
didn’t hear her answer, I went right back to sleep. I did the same thing at Waterville, and again outside Manhattan, and then
we were in Dillon’s parking lot and June was going in to get a scrip. People everywhere. I put my head back and slept
more. When she came back she had some ice cream and I ate a huge portion of it with a plastic spoon right out of the box.
And then we were home. We talked a few minutes in the car sitting in the driveway, I don’t remember what about. We went
wearily inside. I’ll get the rest of the stuff later, I said. And we went inside and went to bed. I was so tired. That tired. I was
happy. We had done our best at two workshops and we had done some good. We had spread the Word to more than
twenty people. They knew now about summary and scene. They knew now the importance of writing every day. We had
spread the word. The Word of course is the Word of writing, to take the time in your life to write things down…
Now in the cool of the very early morning, just 4 am, I am here again, quietly clicking the keys and writing. I love to write. I
live to write. I write to live. Words, words, words.
Wed., September 3, 2014
In 1978 I wrote this 36 years ago,
And I do admit to a very strong desire to produce something tangible that would reflect the accumulated,
convoluted, time and experience and perception-shaped form of my own mind. It is almost a duty--to leave a
footprint behind, a fossil by which what I was, what I thought, what I felt, may be known.
Okay, a little pretentious. But true enough, right? What would the world be if everyone got up in the morning and spent
the first hour of the day doing this…? Well, maybe it wouldn’t be so bad. Maybe it’s better than everyone getting up in the
morning and loading their pistol so as to shoot their neighbor.
The kid at the checkout at Dillons was labeled Adam. He sacked up my half gallon of butter pecan ice cream and handed it
to me. “Have a nice day,” he said, and looked directly at me and smiled. He was a squirt of a kid, just 15 or 16 at the
oldest, but he seemed to really mean it. I smiled back, looked directly at him, and thanked him. “You too,” I said.
This is the simplest of human exchanges. I find it reassuring. Working alone all day, often seeing only my wife for a brief
time in the morning and in the evening, it is my outside contact with the world. Adam: good name.
I was in high school so long ago it seems only to exist as a movie I once saw.
I actually in high school worked for a movie theater chain. There were three theaters in Manhattan (Kansas) where I grew
up, The Campus, The State, and The Co-ed. There were also two drive ins as part of that chain but I never worked at
those. I was a ticket-taker. I took the ticket and smiled and said Thank you. Yes, just like young Adam, I took their ticket,
looked directly at them and smiled, and said, Thank you. I’m sure I didn’t say Have a nice day. We didn’t have that concept
then. Maybe I said, Enjoy the movie, or something like that. But even that was a little off-script.
The first time I heard anybody say Have a nice day was in Tucson, Arizona, about 1973. My wife had left me and taken the
children and I was pretty upset. I drove down to Tucson to see old friends and they lived in a communal situation and they
were having their phone disconnected for non-payment of the bills. The phone company man came and smiled and said
hello and explained why he was there to those of us who were awake. He went about his business removing the phone,
tucked it under his arm and left with a little wave: Have a nice day!
That time, too, seems like an old movie. My life is made up of old movies.
And that’s my footprint on the sands of time for today. (505 words.)
Tue., September 2, 2014
Fifty years ago, let’s see…mmm…I was 26, it was September 2, 1964. I squint and look into my dusty ancient anti-crystal
ball. Most of my future is behind me, after all.
I was living in Lawrence, Kansas. I had in June graduated, finally, nine years after I first matriculated into a university. I
probably had just started as a teaching assistant at the University of Kansas. I was pretty excited about that.
Yesterday I got up. Surely I got up. I drank some coffee. Surely I drank some coffee. I wrote in my Journal. I posted
something on the Net. I took my meds. I peed. I drank more coffee. Somewhere in there June got up.
Oh, I remember. The power was off. Oh, yeah. We drove to town just to see some lights. We went to Dillons and walked
around. I think I bought a peach and ate it. It wasn’t bad. Usually peaches in the stores are too hard and crisp like an
apple, and not therefore what I want in a peach. I want a peach I can bite into with just my lips. I want one that’s juicy, so
juicy I have to hold a napkin under my chin, or lean forward as I’m walking along. I know why Prufrock said, Do I dare, do I
dare to eat a peach? I’ll wear my trousers rolled and walk upon the beach.
Sooner or later you’re going to run out of things to say, or rather you’re going to think you have. Then you’re going to self-
parody, as I am doing now. You’re going to hate the sound of your own voice. So you’re going to do stuff like
ughhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh! And glare at your computer
screen—as I am doing now.
Do not succumb to the usual advice and get up and go for a walk. No. Write 500 words and then go for a walk, sure. But
write those 500.
That’s only one word. Someone asked the great William Stafford what he did when he was blocked from writing. “I just
lower my standards,” he said, “and keep on writing.”
And so I type on.
My father came home from the office and ate lunch. He wasn’t talkative. In fact he wasn’t in a good mood. He listened to
me grumbling about something…stupid. He took a couple of puffs from a cigarette he’d picked from the ashtray that
morning, and put it out. He walked up and down, went to the bathroom, came out, glared at me, and said, Some of us have
to get back to work, and left.
I got the message.
It’s six thirty and more, but it’s still dark. How can that be? When I was a boy we’d get up at 4 and walk the railroad tracks
hunting wild asparagus to sell to the ladies of the town for enough money to hitch-hike to Platteville and shoot a game or
two of pool at Mike’s. It was broad daylight at 4, wasn’t it? What has happened to the universe? Is this global darkening?
Mon., September 1, 2014
Good morning, I guess. I mean, where I am, here in eastern Kansas, electricity is hard to come by. Actually I'm sitting at a
cafe in town using their electricity.
This is the first day of the 9th LifeStory Journalong.
I went to a meeting in town. It really was a dark and stormy night. Everyone kept looking out the windows and several had
their IPhones on the table watching the progress of the storm. At 830 the meeting adjourned and I ran to my car to get in. It
was raining very, very hard. I shook myself off, started the car, and drove home, about 12 or so miles, from the west side of
town to the east side, then across the bridge of the Kansas River, then on the highway and then on the turnoff to the Deep
Creek Road. It took me half an hour. I had to go slow because of all the huge puddles. Last thing I wanted was to have an
accident and have to walk home in this rainstorm. When I did get home it was pitch dark. I thought I had a flashlight in the
glove compartment but I didn't. Then I remembered that I'd used it a couple of days before and left it by the door, inside the
house. I got out and guided myself in, making good use of the flashes of lightning to see where I was going. June was awake
in bed. She is recovering from rotator cuff surgery Friday. Her arm is in a sling and she is in considerable discomfort and
We sat in the dark, talking. The power had been off a couple of hours, June said. I had plenty of work to do, I said, and no
there was no electricity. I was pissed off, really, and anymore it's okay to say that in polite company, I suppose. don't mean
that you, gentle reader, are not polite company. I am sure you are. You're probably the politest company I've had all week. I
only mean that anymore we don't make such distinctions. In fact I'm discovering that almost everything I learned about how
to get along in the world has changed. Men used to open the door for women. Now they don't, or they might, or the woman
might open it for the man. This is just normal change. I'm not lamenting the good old days. I didn't really think they were very
good, anyway. I'm just saying that it is sometimes confusing to know what the score is.I guess the score is and has always
been 0 to 0.
When I started LifeStory years ago I had in mind--among other models--the Metropolitan Diary that appeared several times
a week in the New York Times. Remember that? I was a quarter page or so of sketches from everyday New York life,
submitted to the paper by readers. They were little snapshots, you might say, of life in the big city, often amusing but not
always. I loved reading that, though I did not then and do not now live in NYC or even any big city. The idea was that these
sketches, taken together, would give a more or less accurate account of the experience of living in New York City. The same
could be done with Wamego, Kansas or LA or, in fact, the entire world.
We could call it World Diary. I imagine there is such a thing now on the Net. There certainly ought to be. Because among
other changes, we are now One World. Old Wendell Wilkie had it about right. (I'm not able to count the words this morning
because I'm not writing this in Word--where there is a word counting feature-- but I'm guessing I have something more than
500, so I'm stopping.)
DAY TWENTY-TWO OF THE 9TH JOURNALONG
Hello! I am Charley Kempthorne and this is my website, my means of reaching out to you and all the wide world. I am a writer and a writing coach.
Mainly I help people by encouraging and enabling them to write regularly--daily if at all possible. Please join me in writing 500+ words this morning
about whatever is on your mind. You do yours at home and I'll do mine right here. We support one another by writing together. If you'd like to
share some or all of what you've written, send it to me via email, email@example.com