|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 2017 by The LifeStory Institute.
THE LIFESTORY JOURNALONG
28 days to writing more or less happily for the rest of your life!
PROMPTS are what you need to get past the problem of not having anything to write about. It leads to writer’s block, which is 100% fatal for a
writer. The only cure for writer’s block is to deny you have it and go on writing. Otherwise, you’re not a writer, you’re a wannabe writer. There
are numerous causes to writer’s block but prompts are the way to avoid it.
So make a list, a long list, of prompts to get you going and keep you going and keep it handy at your writing desk. Make the prompts in
advance. Have 10 or 20 at hand when you sit down to write, and don’t walk past the first one and say, Oh, I don’t feel like that one now. Start
writing with the next one that comes up.
Your prompts aren’t always mine. Your best prompts are those that come to you unbidden in the course of the day. Write things down. Make
a note and stick it under your keyboard or clip it to your monitor. Don’t say, Oh, that’s a good one, and then expect to find it there on the tip of
your fingers when you sit down to write. You’ll draw a blank.
I tend to have my ideas for writing come at me at the oddest moments (driving, bathing, always I seem to be doing something that prevents
note-taking), and so I cease what I’m doing just as soon as I can and start writing. The ideas usually come in batches. I have “idea attacks.”
Prompts are specific. They are not things like “write about Mom.” They are things like “write about the time Mom told the policeman she was
going to take his badge number and call the county.” Make a list of these narrative prompts. Make a written list!
DAY 26 OF THE LIFESTORY JOURNALONG.
Sun., March 26, 2017
The more you remember, the more you remember. And memory is specific. It’s not general: you don’t have “the years you lived in Kansas
City” pop into your head. What pops into your head is “that time I crashed a wedding party with a friend just for the hell of it.” You see images
of pretty girls, or of a band playing, or you taste the starchy and sugary wedding cake. Memory is sensory and specific. And thank God it is,
because otherwise memory would be very boring.
And when you remember the taste of the cake, it’s likely you’ll remember that the coffee served with it was very bad. You’ll remember saying to
Dave, “This coffee is terrible,” and then his laughing and saying, “I hope the bride didn’t make it.”
By all means make a note of such memories. Better than that, write it up, dialogue and tastes and all. Open the little notebook you carry with
you and write until the memory runs out.
For if you have made the decision to write about your life or your family’s life (they really are one and the same, it’s just a matter of which part
you’re looking at) the first thing you should do is buy one of those little pocket notebooks and a good gel pen and carry them with you wherever
At home I have pad and paper in every room. Thoughts can be so fleeting they are lost by the time you get from one room to another. That old
school idea that if anything is important, you’ll remember it? Ha! In older life that is not true, and it’s often not even true in earlier life because
some of the memories that come to us, some of the most important ones, we repress. Part of us wants to remember, part of us doesn’t.
I don’t want to push anyone into a psychosis at remembering that as a child they were kidnapped by a band of pirates, but I have to tell you that
searching your memory can sometimes bring up something you may not want to remember. You can push it aside, of course, and if you feel
like you should, you probably should. Maybe your mind is telling you you for your own good that you can’t handle that right now. That’s okay.
Don’t make writing a memoir into standing trial.
Dave and I only did that wedding crashing thing a couple of times. We were roommates in a 3rd floor apartment out on Gilham Road, not far
from the Plaza, and once on Friday night, neither of us had anything to do, but we came home from work and dressed up—and then had
nowhere to go.
No doubt we were going somewhere to look for girls—I mean, what else do young men in their 20s, footloose and fancy free—what else do we
do? So we got all dressed up and just aimlessly drove around until we ended up downtown and there was the famous Hotel Muelhbach, and
there was a parking place and we parked and walked in, swept along by the crowd, and suddenly someone offered us a tray with food, and
DAY 25 OF THE LIFESTORY JOURNALONG.
Sat., March 25, 2017
I said to a friend the other day that I had “broad experience.” And I have, I guess. I have travelled a lot, gone to a lot of schools, been married a
lot, had kids a lot, jobs a lot… Is that what we mean by broad experience? (Some guys I know would answer that by telling about their
experience with the broads.)
I don’t know. Emily Dickinson, one of America’s greatest poets, famously stayed home in Concord, Massachusetts and wrote some of the
wisest poems of her time. She didn’t travel, studied at home, never married, no children…no job…
So it depends on what we mean by experience. It’s what you do in your mind, I would think, with the experiences that you have. True, travel is
broadening; but you and I both know many narrow-minded world travelers—just for openers.
I dunno. I don’t know where to go with this. I have reached one of those streets where a yellow sign says NO OUTLET, or, less politely put,
DEAD END. Wouldn’t it be funny (not funny) to reach the end of your life and see a sign that says DEAD END?
But I do think that it’s what you do in your mind that is, finally, most important; and that may or may not be a willful act. It may just happen.
Really a journal is a history of your own mind, whether you want it to be or not. I would think that if you kept a journal for some years it would be
hard not to come to know yourself, your own broad—or narrow—experience.
When I started my journal something like 53 years ago, however, I didn’t have that in mind. I kind of thought that keeping a journal would be a
good idea since I was going to be a great writer and the world would want to know what I thought. People would read my complex
masterpieces of literature and naturally enough want to know more about their deep meanings, and so literary scholars and others would
descend on my personal papers and journal in order to discern the many nuances of my cerebral hemisphere, you know?
And then one day early on I realized that the many nuances of my hemisphere were not so explorable as my kids’ lives were, and so I began to
write about them.
I imparted a bit of wisdom to my son Danny when I gave him a dollar to spend as he might: Remember, I said, “A fool and his money are soon
parted.” A little later in the store he waved the dollar bill in front of me and said, “Look Dad, a fool and his money are soon going to part.”
Or my daughter Leslie who, a year after her mother and I had divorced and both of us had re-partnered--just driving along and out of the blue
she said, “Dad, when are you and Mom going to get back together?”###
DAY 24 OF THE LIFESTORY JOURNALONG.
Fri., March 24, 2017
Last night I watched the University of Kansas, the main university in my home state and the university where I spent three happy years of my
young life, garnering there a BA and an MA—I watched them play Purdue University and win by a wide margin. In the first quarter Purdue
looked very, very good and KU lagged behind as many as 8 points, but then the men of KU began to drop in baskets left and right and they led
handily by half-time and then in the last half turned the game into a blowout, winning by thirty points.
All three of the games they have played so far in the NCAA this year have been won by 20 points or more—all blowouts, as they are called.
KU is now in the Elite Eight, as the eight teams left standing are called. If they win Saturday night against the University of Oregon, they will go
to the Final Four.
I have watched basketball since I was a boy of 10 or 11, when I didn’t really watch it, I listened to it on the radio. An earnest and compulsive
little boy, I made my own chart on paper of the box score, team players and the like, and I sat there all by myself in the parlor and wrote down
everything. I was a fan, though I don’t know if they had that word then.
In fact in those days, the late 40s and early 50s, basketball was different. It was considered rude to run up the score on your opponents. It was
of course wonderful to win, and the games were played to see who would win; no doubt about that. But once you got 15 or so points ahead, it
was usually considered rude to run up a big score.
It was also considered rude to boo the other team—unless of course there was a really good reason. When the other team had a free throw, it
was required that the audience be respectfully silent. It was even sometimes considered to be the right thing if you applauded when the
opposing team made the free throw, even if you felt sick at heart that your team was one point closer to defeat.
All of this was done in the name of good sportsmanship. After all, it was felt, that was why the boys out there were playing: to learn good
Times have changed.
A few years ago KU played Kentucky in regular season play—two great rivals—and KU beat UK 150 to 95. I think that stands as a record in
NCAA basketball for high score and maybe also the score spread of 55 points. Kentucky, of course, was humiliated.
Some years later I went down to Louisville, Kentucky to give a talk about LifeStory writing at the biggest bookstore in town. For some reason I
still do not understand, the first thing out of my mouth was to tell about that defeat of their team and then stand there and laugh about it.
Southerners are extremely polite people. And so they were. They listened, took notes, and presumably learned a few things from me and from
each other about writing memoir. But when at the end of the workshop and a short space of polite applause and I announced that I would be
happy to autograph any copies of my book on memoir writing, from an audience of 60 or 70 people, I sold all of two books. Two. ###
DAY 23 OF THE LIFESTORY JOURNALONG.
Thu., March 23, 2017
Maybe if they had had the phrase “Livin’ the dream” back in 1955 I would have said that was what I was doing that evening when another sailor
and I hitch-hiked into DC from where we were stationed at the Naval Training Center at Bainbridge, Maryland. Mike was from Hackensack,
New Jersey and I was from Manhattan, Kansas and we were besieging the great liberty town of Washington, DC that Friday night. I was all of
17 and Mike was the older guy, all of…18! Neither one of had our sea legs, neither one of us had ever been on a ship. Together we didn’t
have much over six months in the Navy.
We knew how to hitch-hike though, and in those days it was fairly easy if you were in uniform. You just smiled and stuck out your thumb. On the
busy freeway into the city were hundreds, thousands of servicemen or families of servicemen, and in those innocent days, believe it or not,
there weren’t a lot of ax murderers out there roaming the streets. So we did our thing and in fifteen minutes we had a ride all the way into
downtown and just a couple of blocks walk from the Willard Hotel—only two blocks from The White House.
The Willard as a patriotic service, I guess, and to fill those empty rooms charged just $3 for a bunk in a room with half a dozen other
servicemen. You had to be in uniform, you had to show your ID.
We didn’t know exactly what we were going to do that evening but we knew we were going out on the town and tilt a few (or more than a few)
and scare up some women. No pretty girl could resist a man in uniform.
As it happened on the way up to our room on the elevator with us were two very pretty girls. Mike, the more suave of the two of us, actually
struck up a conversation. I don’t remember what he said to them but they conversed willingly and Mike actually suggested that they join us for
an evening’s revelry.
I couldn’t believe this was happening. Problem is, the prettiest one said—a cute brunette with thick shiny hair I wanted to dive into—“we have
a date for the evening already.” Both of them nodded solemnly and looked so sad. “But we’re free afterwards,” the other put it quickly. They
looked at one another and giggled at their own audacity. As if asking one another permission, one said, “Just give us a call later…say ‘bout
A midnight date! That could only mean one thing…I mean, where could you go after midnight except…my head was spinning. In front of my
unbelieving eyes, the brunette was writing down their hotel room number on a slip of paper that she gave to Mike. They got off, tittering
goodbyes and Oh-you-handsome sailor looks at us, on the fifth floor. We looked at the paper on the way up to the top floor, where we were:
Never did an evening pass more slowly…we ate dinner somewhere…we had a few drinks…we opened negotiations as to which one was to
be his and which one was to be mine, and then finally it was midnight sharp and we were in our room dialing their room. We didn’t even get
their names, but that didn’t matter. Mike dialed the fated number.
A woman’s voice answered. Hi, this is Mike, he said. I could hear it all, my wagging ear up close to the phone too. Mike? the voice said.
Then again quickly. Mike? You have dialed the manager’s apartment. May I help you? ###
Wed., March 22, 2017
I was in the Navy on active duty for 3 years, 5 months, and 27 days. That’s about 1200 days (and nights!) in, at that time about 20% of my
entire life…oh, my young life!
John F. Kennedy famously said, Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country. And he gave his life for his
country! Think of that! Just think of that.
I gave such a small amount by comparison.
I often wear a Navy cap, and sometimes people will stop me on the street and thank me for my service. I appreciate their saying that, but the
truth is—and I tell them this—the truth is that I got far more from the Navy than I gave to the Navy.
In the days before July 20, 1955 I was occupying my life by attending in a desultory way the college in my hometown, Kansas State. I was living
at my parents’ house. I was 17 years old. Somehow I had managed to finish high school, not because the study was anything like arduous but
because of my teenage rebellion and sloth.
So there I am, a summer session student, a little boy in his parent’s home, sleeping in, the morning sun in my eyes, 9 or 10 o’clock, and maybe
not even waking up on my own—my mother yelling at me after my alarm clock went off and I pushed the button in or covered it with my pillow
and drifted back into dreamland.
Often as not the night before I had laid claim to a barstool. The legal drinking age was 18 in Kansas in the beer bars, the famous 3.2 beer, and
I was only 17 but I was almost never asked to show my driver’s license. I had been drinking in the bars since I was 15 or 16, and so it was just
assumed in those innocent days that I was of age. So I drank the dime draughts or I drank “my brand” of beer, Pabst Blue Ribbon—so proud in
my young life to have my own brand of beer—I drank them until I was broke or I fell off the stool. I told myself I was having great fun.
And, of course, I was so cool—this was before the word cool as meaning anything other than being chilly was in use. I wasn’t a square. That’s
what we had in those days in the great enlightened state of Kansas: square.
I elaborated the designations into (my own theory!) squares, blanks, and circles. If you just did the ordinary things, went to school or to your job,
went to church, and so on, then you were a Square. If, on the other hand, you maybe crossed the line a bit now and then, sinned just a little, but
were basically a goodie-goodie, then you were a blank, a nonentity, an unremarkable cipher. Blank.
But if—like me—you were outgoing, imaginative, brilliant, remarkable and—quite a bit of a loudmouth and show-off…then you were a Circle!
You were the well rounded man, a Circle. Oh, it was wonderful to be among the upper-upper echelons of adolescent society!###
DAY 21 OF THE LIFESTORY JOURNALONG.
Tu., March 21, 2017
Boot Camp was arduous, and for me it was the first (maybe the only) arduous thing I had ever done. I had more or less ignored my body from
childhood. I was a verbal kid, that’s where I excelled, and that’s what I liked doing: talking and writing. Physical activity just didn’t appeal to
On the playground I was the last kid to be chosen for the games. In those days (I don’t know what they do now), the boys went to one part of the
playground at recess and the girls went to another. We boys would gather and choose up sides for a game of softball…or whatever.
Two boys would acclaim themselves captain of a team and then they would choose who they wanted to be on their team until there were no
other boys left. Often as not I was left standing (malcoordinated shrimp that I was) and the captain of the team that had last choice would say,
Oh, come on Kempthorne, just keep out of our way, while others said something jeering. And I would endure.
The less successful I was on the playground, the less successful I became. I didn’t know the rules of the games, let alone the smart moves, I
wasn’t strong, and I certainly wasn’t fearless. If I had tried, I might have earned some respect. But the more I was jeered the less I tried, so I
was just kicked around like a soccer ball. I can’t say I was regularly picked on.
Everybody knew that once inside the classroom again—and after all, this was school—I was formidable, and I could be mouthy, and contrary to
the old saying, Sticks and stone will break my bones but words will never hurt me, words could hurt, and I was capable of that. Other boys (and
girls too) would hang their heads and blush furiously while I answered the questions that the teacher asked. I wasn’t really a teacher’s pet. I
was just a smart kid who usually knew the answer, and I had the teacher’s respect.
Probably more than anything else I hated in Boot Camp was PT, Physical Training. Usually this meant several hundred men in a gym spread
out in a kind of formation holding our arms out straight so that we couldn’t quite touch those of the guys beside us—the better to flail our bodies
about on command.
When the PT started on commands of some petty officer (i.e., Lord God to the likes of us) standing on a big box at the front and basically
playing Simon Says (which I was never good at, either), we did side straddle hops, pushups, and the dreaded butt-thrusts as the guy up front
called out by the numbers and a couple of his subordinates circulated among us and adjusted (kicked) as necessary so that no one sluffed
around and everybody did everything.
I particularly remember the guy up from once calling out to me: Hey, you with the headlights! Come up here! That was me—so blind I was
permitted to wear my glasses during PT—and I went forward, flustered and embarrassed as the 400 men in the took a momentary break to
watch me squirm and sweat. God put me through several repetitions of the exercise, everyone enjoyed the show, and then I was sent with a
push back to the anonymity, I hoped, of the ranks. But I was the guy with the headlights, and that was not forgotten back in the barracks. ###
DAY 20 OF THE LIFESTORY JOURNALONG.
Mon., March 20, 2017
I am finding it harder and harder to write here in the Journalong…after a long time of writing readily, it is getting difficult. I have run out of stories
to tell. At the end of the great novel, possibly the greatest American novel, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Huck says that he has “nothing
more to write.”
I’m not engaged in writing a great American novel here, or even a novel in any form, but I feel I am running out of things to say. I have after all
written millions of words about myself and my family and friends and my life and times…millions and millions. So it’s not surprising that I’m
running out of things to say.
But there is, I know, much more to say. I’m just running out of ideas. I have mined all the known veins thoroughly and now…. I have to stop and
think, and thinking, honestly, is a writer’s worst enemy. While writing, at least.
When I first began teaching writing to college freshmen at the University of Kansas in 1964, I soon found that giving students a choice in what
to write about in their themes resulted in their spending a lot of their would-be writing time as thinking-time, and often unproductive thinking-
time at that.
If I asked them to write a personal essay about “their life,” they would spend long valuable minutes trying to think of something in their life that
they thought would be a good subject to write about. If I asked them to write about their life so far in college, that was easier for them to find
something to write about, and sometimes within five minutes they were busily writing. If I narrowed the topic choice even further and asked
them to write about their dorm life, then they usually went right to work.
So I can apply this to my own situation right here, this morning.
“Life on the farm, 1971 to 2015.” I draw a blank, or I work myself into a tizzy of thinking of something and then dismissing it: No, not that. No,
that’s not interesting. No, not that either.”
So I narrow the scope. “Life on the farm in 1973.” I start to remember some things, maybe even things I’ve never written about.
Whoa, I’ve got a nibble. That’s all I need, is a nibble.
I bought a tiny chain saw, a Mini-Mac, it was called: a 14” inch McCulloch chain saw. It was really just a saw made for limbing and pruning but I
didn’t know that. The fact is, I had never heard of chain saws until someone told me about them. Honestly, my first thought was, Why would I
want a saw to cut chains? I was that dumb.
Maybe it was my brother who told me about such things, and that they were used to cut wood. Hal was informative and was often funny. “This
old farmer always cut his firewood with an ordinary bow saw,” Hal told me. “But had heard about these new-fangled chainsaws and so one day
he went to the hardware store and bought one.
"Yet in a week he was back, grumpy and complaining that the thing was even slower than his old method. He tossed the saw on the counter.
‘Well,’ said the dealer, ‘let’s take a look and see what’s wrong.’ He took the saw and pulled on the starter rope and fired it up instantly. The old
man jumped back. 'What’s that sound?' he said.
Hahaha. I wasn’t much better off. I really wasn’t. ###
DAY 19 OF THE LIFESTORY JOURNALONG.
Sun., March 19, 2017
When I was a student at KU in Lawrence in the early 60s I’d gas up my car at a cutrate station on the west edge of town for 17 or 18 cents a
gallon. (The name brands were a quarter or so.) I had a 1959 Renault then and I’d get 15 or 20 miles per gallon. It was 75 miles to my
parents’ place, 150 round trip. So for a couple of dollars or less I could go home for the weekend and come back, come sailing in on Sunday
night, sleep, get up next morning early and work a couple of hours on my home work and climb Mount Oread (I lived in a ratty one-room
apartment down on Tennessee Street) on foot and be seated in a class in old Fraser Hall by 830 am.
I was 25 and so I was older than the other students. I dressed always in a sport coat and sometimes I even wore a tie. Most of my clothes were
leftovers from my dad, who was a doctor and had to wear a coat and tie every day, and who just happened to be exactly my size. So I had
some very nice, if worn, suits…a gray tweed that I loved, I remember in particular, and I thought maybe I looked like Gregory Peck or at least
like my dad. I was often mistaken for faculty and that was okay with me. My ego needed that extra boost.
Had I gone to college right out of high school like a lot of my fellows I would have graduated by this time would be out there starting my career
in…whatever. But I did a little stop along the way and went to the Menninger Psychiatric Hospital for a couple of years, and I was still going
there three times a week, driving up in my little Renault to Topeka, 22 miles each way, to have a therapy hour with Dr. Bob Menninger, the son
of old Karl, who was famous and had started it all with some help from his father and his brother Will. The Menninger motto was “Freud and
friendliness,” and I needed plenty of both.
And then too I had spent four years, nearly, on active duty in the Navy. So, yeah, I was an old guy by college student standards. Which was
okay with me. I didn’t really want to be a frat rat going out on dates with sorority chickies and gathering with my fellows at dinner with the
Housemother every night and then afterwards going up the street to sorority row and singing the Whiffenpoof song ( ah-bah-bah) under their
windows of and hoping our best girl would throw us a bouquet.
I was happy then to be a student of literature and a comer, I thought and maybe one or two of my professors did too-- a comer in the world of
American literature. I was even writing, sort of, above and beyond my assignments. I had on February 26, 1964 started a journal. ###
DAY 15 OF THE LIFESTORY JOURNALONG.
Wed., March 15, 2017
Ah, beware the Ides of March! Wasn’t that said to old Julius Caesar, or somebody? Here in Olympia on the ides of march we have rain, rain,
rain—that’s what passes here for winter.
If nothing else we are now getting from the governmint lessons on how to get publicity. Maybe we’d get more LifeStory subscribers (it’s free!)
if we announced a nude photo scandal? I’ll do anything to get folks to write their memoirs, but that…I don’t know. People over 60 appear in
nude even in front of their own bathroom mirror at their peril.
Nor would my 2005 tax returns excite anybody. That might have been one of the many years we lost money. My brother, seeking to cheer me
up said, “Charley, think of it this way: General Motors lost millions more than you did!”
I was thus consoled.
As for the self-driving car, Tesla or whatever it is—named for the great inventor and sometime co-worker and rival of Thomas Edison—Nikola
Tesla, born in Croatia (don’t say you never learned anything from reading the Journalong)—as for the self-driving car, June and I would have
loved having one yesterday in the drive coming home from Seattle yesterday, a mere 65 miles that took two hours, nearly…bumper to bumper
at times and, by comparison with other times of day, not that bad. But it would have been better if we’d had a Tesla and could have hopped in
back and told the car to wake us when we got home.
When I was a boy--and I was, once--I’d climb up the back seat to the rear window, where a shelf was and sleep on that while Dad did the
driving. I would arrive, rested and ready to go while my parents were exhausted from the trip. Happy days!
My cousin Jerry, the patriarch of our family at 86, told me a story via email of our grandfather, known as G.R., going squirrel hunting with a box
of 50 .22 caliber bullets and coming home with 49 squirrels, all shot through the head.
That’s amazing, but it’s even more amazing that 100 years ago that’s what my ancestors ate all winter long in Wisconsin. Of course Grandma
had a larder filled with jars of everything from her garden, but for meat—and we were carnivores then—we ate squirrels and fish. Maybe if a
laying hen died or ceased to lay, or even the old rooster that crowed every morning from 3 am on—maybe there was some chicken soup also.
Now of course many of us are vegetarians. In Seattle you can’t eat meat within 20 feet of the city limits. (That’s a joke, but I’m always
impressed that when I tell that to folks back home in Kansas they believe me—what won’t those West Coast liberals think of next?)
Except for salmon, of course. Salmon runs are everywhere, you just reach into the sea and pull one out and kill the poor thing and have a ten
DAY 13 OF THE LIFESTORY JOURNALONG
Mon., March 13, 2017
When I was a boy on the farm in the late 1940s about this time of year my brother and I would start testing the waters down in Deep Creek,
which ran about half a mile across our land. Deep Creek started from a springs six miles or so above us and flowed down northeasterly
across others’ farms and ours and then some more where down just east of the town of Zeandale a couple more miles, it flowed into the
Kansas River. I always wanted to canoe from the springs down to the river, also known as the Kaw River. Now at 79 pushing 80 I don’t
suppose I ever will. It’s not that big a thing, it’s not exactly a bucket list thing; I know where it goes, I can see it on the map. I’m willing to take
others’ word for it that it joins into the Kaw.
Back to March and testing the waters. We were putting our big toe in our favorite swimming hole and usually in March it was still pretty cold,
but that didn’t keep us from stripping down to own skin and slowly walking in at least a few feet. We could hardly wait. Each time we went we’
d go in a little deeper. By April we were going in all the way and paddling around; by May we were playing for several hours at a time.
Kids in town had to wait until school was out—late May—before they could go swimming at the Municipal Pool. Then they swam wearing
suits…! And they had nothing to explore except chemically treated water. We didn’t have to wear suits—we didn’t even own suits so far as I
remember—and the creek was, if not endless, was an endless source of satisfaction. Millions of animals, fish, snakes, crawdads, minnows
nibbling at our toes…swirling pools of water, bends and turns in the creek itself, foamy rapids, flooding rains… There was no comparison.
One day well into summer my brother Hal said he’d give me a quarter if I walked naked from the banks of our favorite pool where we sat
among the rocks using the red hot tip of a cigarette to burn the leeches that had accumulated on our legs to the windmill. Now a quarter was a
lot of money in our nickel-dime world. For a quarter you could buy a huge malted milk, you could buy five large candy bars, you could buy a
ticket to the movies and have enough left over to buy a big box of hot buttered popcorn… so of course I agreed.
It was maybe a quarter mile through the past and up a dusty open road to the windmill. I walked naked as a jaybird in the bright sun to the mill
and back. I was far from the road past our farm but I was right on the only road we had from that road down to the creek. I made it without
being seen—so far as I could tell—and back, walking once again into the cool shade, barefoot and bare butt and all, to the creek where my
older brother was waiting and laughing. And when I got there he reached in his pocket and took out a small piece of paper and tore it into four
quarters, and gave me one of them. ###
DAY 12 OF THE LIFESTORY JOURNALONG.
Sun., Mar. 12, 2017
Among my many accomplishments in life I became quite skilled with a yoyo in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Others my age and older did
too, only boys, of course: for a young girl to be adept with a yoyo was considered unseemly. That time was known as the Great Yoyo Fad of
Manhattan, Kansas. Google it.
To this day I have a yoyo in a handy place on my desk. To use it now and then relieves the great tensions created by my high office. When
reaching a decision about whether to place a story on page 3 or 4 I’m very likely to at some point stand up, take my yoyo and run it up and
down a few times.
With this yoyo—not the one I had as a 12 year old, I’m sorry to say—I cannot walk the dog. “Walking the dog” is yoyo cognoscenti slang for
having a yoyo with a string so loose that the yoyo goes down and at the flick of a finger “walks” along the pavement or floor until the finger is
flicked again and then the yoyo returns to the athlete’s hand.
My friend Bernie in 8th grade English class, which was held on the top floor of the junior high building, had a yoyo that had a thirty foot string
and one day before class he was entertaining us all with it totally unfurled (you might say) and walking it on the ground far below. Unfortunately
just as Bernie had his mouth open calling for us to come watch he also flicked his finger and the yoyo headed home and hit him in the mouth at
top speed…thus breaking one of his teeth. To this day, Bernard, a respected citizen, has a false tooth in front to remind him of that time.
Contrary to the popular belief that the yoyo was a product of Ancient China where it was used by Confucius and other luminaries to facilitate
their philosophical meditations, the yoyo as we know it today was actually the result of a collaboration between Thomas A. Edison—the Wizard
of Menlo Park[--and Alexander Graham Bell. And that famous sentence of Bell’s to his assistant, “Watson, I want you. Come here!” was
actually spoken to Edison, Tom, come look at this! And Edison came into the room and took one look and said for all time, What hath God
And it was in fact a yoyo—two pieces of the finest New Jersey hardwood glued together and separated by a piece of ordinary string—that
God had wrought.
I wrote this four hours ago and decided that it was too bad to post. And yet, honestly, the Journalong is all about writing badly. It is not about
writing well, and especially not about trying to write well. It is about writing, period, and letting it go. That is very hard to understand, but it is.
Because if you do not allow yourself to write badly, you will become judgmental and then you will not be there writing when you find that
sometimes you can write very well—if you allow yourself to write badly.###
DAY 11 OF THE LIFESTORY JOURNALONG.
Sat., March 11, 2017
Life adds up. After you’ve lived 50, 60, 70, 0r 80 years—or more—it begins to seem like you’ve been alive forever. It begins to feel like you’ve
lived three or four lives. In my case that’s because I have.
I was married for the first time in 1957. That lasted five years and produced two children. Then I got married again in 1965. That lasted seven
years and produced two more children. Then I married for a third time in 1973 and that produced two more children. That marriage had lasted
to this day, some 44 years later. The children are all grown: the oldest is 55, and the youngest is 37.
I served in the Navy for three and a half years active duty and a couple more years in the reserves. I went from being a Seaman Recruit to
being a Yeoman First Class. I was in the Military Sea Transportation Service and we traveled all over the world.
I got out of the Navy and went to college. I attended six different universities and taught at four. I thoroughly prepared myself for a career as a
college professor, but when I made professor I resigned and walked away from tenure and that career. Always a smart ass, I told the president
of the university I was going to start my own university.
I became a farmer, raising wheat, sheep and hogs. Then in order to support the farm I became a handyman in town, then a housepainter, then
a contractor. This led back into teaching (don’t ask me how) and in 1976 I began teaching old people (I was young then, a mere tyke of 38) to
write memoir or, as we called it then, family history. When this looked like it might turn into a real career, I quit and returned to farming and
contracting. Eventually my wife took that over and made it into a business that supported us for many years.
I started another business, LifeStory, teaching writing and writing, that has continued to this day. My next issue of LifeStory is coming out in
about five days. It is no. 194.
I started keeping a journal in 1964. In it I have written something like 12,000,000 words, the length equivalent of 120 long books. I have
written and published three books. I have 29 more in folders in my computer.
I am asking for the time I need to finish them all. Some of these books are several hundred thousand words long, some are only a few
thousand…so far. Each day I read more of my “ancient journal,” as I call it, and I find material there to add to the 29 books. I’m asking God—I’
m begging God—to allow me enough time to finish a few more of them if not all 29 of them.
I think God has answered my prayer and said, Okay, Charley, you can finish a few more, maybe even all of them, but you’ve got to get your ass
in gear and do the work.###
DAY 10 OF THE LIFESTORY JOURNALONG.
Fri., March 10, 2017
I go into the bathroom and pee. That is always first, a full bladder waits for no man. Then I look in the mirror and I smile, if I can—and usually
anymore I can—I smile and salute my image and say, Good morning, sir! softly so as not to wake June. Then I dress and walk down the long
dark hall to here, turn on the coffee, sit down and I start to write. That is the happiest part of the day. A day pregnant with promise. This is
Friday, March 10, 2017, what a wonderful date!
I get up from my laptop and go to the end of the room that is our kitchen and I pour the coffee into my favorite cup. I have three or four. I LOVE
GRANDPA is still in the drying rack and I don’t want to waken anyone with the clatter of dishes so I take LIBERAL MEMORIAL LIBRARY and
fill it, careful to see that though metaphorically my cup runneth over, in actual fact I do not want to spill a drop of this most excellent beverage.
And here I am.
Jack Kerouac would go downtown to Western Union and buy paper by the roll—that large yellow paper roll that he’d hang on the wall and feed
into his typewriter so that he could write spontaneously and quickly without having to stop.
Thomas Wolfe (of Look Homeward, Angel, not the Kandy-Kolored Tangerine Flake guy in the white suit)—big tall Thomas Wolfe would stand
all night and write using his refrigerator top as his desk, writing by hand and scrawling the words on a page and brushing each one to the floor
after a few dozen or a few hundred words and then at dawn he would gather the pages up and fill a laundry basket with them, then chanting “I
wrote ten thousand words,” “I wrote ten thousand words,” he would walk from his apartment in Brooklyn to the offices of the great Scribner
publishing house in downtown Manhattan and place them on the desk of Maxwell Perkins, the famous editor who handled his work as well as
that of Scott Fitzgerald and William Faulkner and a few other great writers of that era.
I write a mere three thousand words a day, a couple of hours in the morning and a couple of hours in the evening. If I could edit a few hours
every day—someday perhaps soon—I might get them in the right order so that I could—doffing my cap and on bended knee—persuade
someone to read them.
Whether you work from a roll of paper on a towel rack or fill laundry baskets with your pages or whether you merely and silently carve out bits of
light on a screen as most of us do today, the point is that Writers write. That is what makes a writer—the act of writing—it’s not about anyone’s
perhaps warped idea of quality or having an editor in New York breathlessly waiting or anything but that. You and I, we write. ###
DAY 9 OF THE LIFESTORY JOURNALONG.
Thu., March 9, 2017
Five o’clock in the dark morning here on Puget Sound, West Coast, Washington state, USA. Here I am, ready if not raring, to go. Actually in my
heart I am raring. But, I ask, what exactly does it mean “to be raring” to go. How can I rare if I don’t know what it is? I think of a horse raring? Or
is it rearing, and raring is just cowboy talk? It is on such questions that my life has…been somewhat less than raring. I am more a Hamlet than
a King Harry. All my life has been “sicklied o’er,” as old Ham says, “with the pale cast of thought.”
I have often wished I had an on/off switch for what goes on in my head. I could just reach up behind my right here and toggle the little switch
A great actor, who as a matter of fact offered up one of the greatest Hamlets in theater history, Laurence Olivier, in his autobiography said that
the most important thing for an actor to do onstage is to “relax.”
In 1962 I was diagnosed at the Menninger Clinic with “chronic severe anxiety.” Four years in Topeka didn’t cure me of that, though I did learn to
control it a bit. A bit. Life helped me control it a bit more: wives, children, work, schools, failures, successes, Old Mortality and becoming a
member of the famed “greatest organization in the world that no one wants to join.”
And, may I mention also, God?
God came along pretty late in my life. I came from a long line of heathens, really, though I can only speak for myself, and rumor has it that on
another continent there is or was a member of my family who was a bishop. A bishop! A Methodist, I believe.
As a child of 10 or so I did go to church a few times, by myself. My dad went to town on Sunday mornings to see his patients at the hospital,
and he timed that visit so that he could drop me off at the big stone church on the corner. If he made any comment, I don’t remember. I imagine
that if he did, it was something gently ironic.
He picked me up afterward and allowed me to steer the car sitting on his lap as we drove back to the farm. After five or six Sundays of this, I
concluded my youthful investigation and stopped going. I don’t think I was much fazed by the experience.
Years later, prodded by experience, I came to believe that God’s voice was in my head. Where God was, exactly, I didn’t really know, nor was
it my job to care very much about that. My job was to calm down—relax—enough to hear God’s voice guiding me, telling me what to do, how to
live, how to go forth, how to make the world a better place.
So there you go. Others do what they need to do; I do what I need to do. And so on this morning I figure the best thing I can do is to write these
words and keep them in this little box of light I have on my lap.
When Gertrude Stein lay dying, it is reported that a friend leaned over her prostrate body and said, Gertrude, What is the answer? And old
Gert replied, What is the question? And then died. ###
DAY 8 OF THE LIFESTORY JOURNALONG.
Wed., March 8, 2017
Dave Irvin. His name just popped into my head. I haven’t seen him in years. My old pal circa 1974 to 1976 or so?
I learned a lot from Dave, who was an architect just out of school and a builder by nature and an ebullient guy and a happy camper. He was
very verbal, and of course I was too, and for a time we were partners in the wrecking business and then we “got a divorce,” as Dave put it.
Along the way we became good friends socially, his wife and mine and so the four of us-- as well as professionally.
Dave knew everything and I wanted to know everything about building and so it was a good fit. I knew about 17th Century English Poetry and
writing generally, but I knew nothing about building. Dave was moderately interested in that, maybe a little less than moderately, actually, and in
all the rest of the whole wide world (we were both Renaissance guys, Renaissance Hippies, you might say) but his passion was building.
One day as we were taking that house apart, way up on the top floor, the attic, and Dave observed that whenever he looked at space he
thought about what he could build in it…and I was different, I forget just how he characterized me, but it wasn’t entirely uncomplimentary and
was fairly accurate at that.
We painted a few houses together too, and built for some guy out in the country east of town -- from a kit a double garage together in 5 below
weather, but our big joint project was to dismantle piece by piece—to “unbuild” as we came to call it --a huge four storey house on the edge of
Aggieville that we’d bought in order to move but when we couldn’t get the permits to move it we decided to dismantle it and sell it.
Or maybe we didn’t buy it, I remember now, we got the contract to dismantle it or at least get it the hell out of there because our client wanted to
build, of all things, a doughnut shop there. It was a good commercial corner. They ended up putting a branch of the Kansas State Bank there,
and I think to this day—forty plus years later, that is what is there, a drive in bank and all that stuff, at a very busy intersection.
We were going to move the house down the street and make it into a rental but despite arduous efforts to get permits to move it and a place to
put it, we did not. You had to get a permit because it was so tall telephone and electric wires would have to be cut—turned out that would cost
something like $500 per cut, money we didn’t have, and then there was the problem of finding a lot to buy to put it on. Once there, we were
going to become slumlords and the money would roll in.
That was the theory.###
DAY 7 OF THE LIFESTORY JOURNALONG.
Tue., March 7, 2017
The Journalong need not be just one topic or just one story, all 500 words of it. When I want to change the subject I just put a dash and change.
I woke up thinking, Oh, I’ll bet it’s the middle of the night. I wish I could sleep another hour. I have to pee. There’s a clock in the bathroom. It was
nearly 4. Nearly 4. I didn’t think I could go back to sleep. Well, I had slept almost five hours. That wasn’t bad.
Today I’m going to get everything done. Everything on my list, that is. I have kept a list of Things to Do Today for one thousand years. Yes,
Methuselah and I both kept lists. I wonder if Jesus kept a list: 1., Talk to my Father, 2., Do what He suggests, 3., Practice weight-lifting.
I absolutely believe that Jesus was one of the finest men who ever lived. If he were around today, would he be up and tweeting? He might well
June was driving. Where are we going? I asked her after the meeting. We were sitting in the car, parked. Home, I guess, she said.
Mmm, I said, but I wasn’t sure what I meant by that. I half wanted to go somewhere and do something, buy something, see something, talk to
somebody about something; but then I too wanted to go home.
Home meant eating our lunch, which meant I sit on the couch and read the paper and watch CNN while June fixes the meal (after asking me
what I want).
After eating, of course, we reverse our positions: June relaxes and watches what she wants to watch on TV, usually Criminal Minds, or she just
reads from “her novel,” something by Nora Roberts, and all the while I clear the table, put the food away, and rinse and stack the dirty dishes for
my later washing that evening.
Then I sit down and read and watch a bit more TV. One of us says, Are you going to take a nap? And one of us says, Yes, are you? And then
we head “West,” as we call it. It is not clear to us whether or bedroom is exactly west, nor even as much as it was back home Kansas. But it’s
west enough for us.
Let it be recorded that yesterday it snowed for an hour or more. But nothing accumulated. Still it was disgusting to watch. I cancelled my
promise to myself that I would get out and dance.
I turned on the coffee. When it quit making I got up and poured me a cup. My favorite cup was in the drying rack. I didn’t want to make any
noise—I was so far the only one up—so I didn’t try to get it. I took a cup with a picture of a cat on it. I did not hate cats. But usually the cat cups—
there are several—are for June.
Well, I could advance the felinic cause, couldn’t I? Was it not a free country? And so I poured my coffee in a cat cup and sat down to write. ###
DAY 4 OF THE LIFESTORY JOURNALONG.
Sat., March 4, 2017
Dear God, I am grateful to wake up this morning; I could have felt worse. I am very congested and my breathing is labored. But it’s getting
better. I am working, I am right here at the computer, pecking away. I could feel better, sure. But I’m okay, I’m working. Today I hope you’ll
guide me through the writing of 3K words here in the Journal, and all the other daily stuff.
Thanks! And You have a nice day.
I taught Freshman English at four different colleges. My first time was in 1964 at the University of Kansas. The eighteen year old mind did get
a little tiresome, but basically I loved it. If some unsuspecting college were to offer me a job teaching Freshman English again, I’d probably
leap for it—well, not leap at my age, exactly, but reach…reach as vigorously as I could. It would be like having a roomful of grandchildren.
I almost feel like going back to bed. I got up way too early. I went to sleep at 1130, to bed then—maybe not to sleep for half an hour or so. I
didn’t sleep especially well, not solidly at all, woke up at least once to pee at 2 something, looked dismally at the clock, went back to bed and
slept till about 430. Not a good night’s sleep.
In the good old days in the morning I’d ask June how she slept, like a log or like a rock. And she’d think a minute and then say, Rock, or, Log.
Either way it was a pretty sound night’s sleep. In those days we only slept badly—or June only slept badly, my sleep has always been off and
on—June only slept badly when one of the kids was sick or, more often, the animals were out or some kind of disturbance in one of the pens.
We raised sheep, hogs, and kept chickens for eggs. We often had some ducks too, which we kept with the chickens. The ducks didn’t like
that, but they endured. They kept to themselves and quacked bitterly in low tones. The chickens, for their part, were uncomplainingly
I did go back to bed. I slept like a …log. I feel much better. However, there are some elemental functions that I have not yet been able this
morning to do, and this is weighing on me. After 79 years of trying to figure out my mind, and just about getting it all understood, I am now
faced with the fact that I am a body, and that I cannot figure out. My doctor, half my age, chirps water! Exercise! Water! Exercise! I hate water,
and I hate exercise.
I have had two cups of coffee, both illegal, and I ate last night’s dessert, one of June’s wonderful confection she calls Pear Bars. I gave June
the larger piece out of pure benevolence, and I skipped the ice cream. What a good boy am I! ###
DAY 3 OF THE LIFESTORY JOURNALONG.
Fri., March 3, 2017
I use Russian dressing on my salad, and Dostoevsky and Tolstoy are among my favorite writers. In fact, now that I remember, I took a course in
20th Century Russian Literature when I was in college. I much admired Russian literature and I admired the great heart of the Russian people,
but the guy who taught the course really didn't know much.
That was back in the days when it was hard to find people who even spoke Russian, let alone were schooled in their literature. Who reads
Tolstoy? this guy asked. --who had I think been a gas station attendant in Moscow. Well, I read Tolstoy and I thought this guy was so ignorant
and stupid (two separate qualities) that I quit going to class since he said he would grade only on the final exam.
I was in love, then, and so I larked around and enjoyed the spring. And then I went for the Final and, whoa, there were major questions about a
couple of writers--Mayakovski and some other dude-ski--whose work I knew nothing of. I mean, Nothing! And here I was in my (finally)
graduating semester, and I had to pass this course...
So sitting in the class I looked around...at the bluebook of the guy next to me. He wrote something I forget what about old Mayakovski and I
copied that and elaborated on it in some airy and meaningless (but impressive) way. I was good at giving the impression that I knew what I
was talking about. And so I got an A on the exam.
It was, honest, the only time I ever cheated in college or anything else. And so my BA is phony as Trump.
I tried to make up for it a little bit in my own head by reading some of Mayakovski’s work—he was a pretty good poet, but now it’s been so long
I can’t remember a single line.
In fact I read a lot of stuff that I can’t remember a single line of today. Does that matter? Have you ever found yourself reading a book and
thoroughly enjoying it until you get about half way into it and realize you’ve read it before? Doesn’t that beat all?
And if you’ve read something and can’t remember anything except that you’ve read it, does that mean you’ve lost whatever it is that you
learned from it? Or is it just rattling around down there inside your pancreas or something and it’s informed your life to such a degree that you’
ve absorbed it and it’s part of you?
Man, is life ever complicated! Nobody imagined that it would be this complicated!
That summer after graduating with my phony baloney BA I got a job working for some big company in Kansas City as a junior accountant. Talk
about being phony!
I couldn’t, literally could not, balance my own check book—and let me tell you, checks for $2 and $6 and only 89 cents are not all that
complicated to add up—but here I was being a junior accountant (I later was told that what I was doing was something to do with cost
accounting) for a big company in a big city and I did it all summer until, thankfully, I got a teaching assistantship and went back to school at the
University of Kansas in Lawrence. ###
.DAY 2 OF THE LIFESTORY JOURNALONG
Thu., Mar. 2, 2017
Think of your life as a series of scenes. The tendency in writing your life story is to try to summarize your life. It has been so long! How can you
do anything else but summarize? In face a summary can be a good place to start, as in making a timeline, just a list of dates and events.
1938, born in North Dakota. 1942, Dad goes off to War, 1946, Dad comes home from War, and so on.
What the timeline does is suggest scenes that you can write up. A problem comes up early on, though, in that some of the scenes that suggest
themselves you may have to reconstruct. Most of us don’t remember much about the first day or two of our lives and I am no exception. I could
just skip over that, or I could reconstruct to the best of my knowledge. Historians do this all the time. How many historians were present during
Caesar’s Gallic Wars? Not many—Caesar himself and maybe a few others whose works survive. But modern historians of Roman times
depend on sources and, in order to tell the story, they may have to invent—based on what they know. Call it reconstruction or call it making
Dad was at the office about to leave for the day when the call came in. “Hi Kempy. This is Tip. You’re about to be a father once again.
Want to come over?” “How’s Lil?” Dad said. “Oh, she’s sleeping peacefully. Can you get over here right away?” “I’ll be right there. Five
minutes.” Dad hung up and whistled his way down the stairs and into his 1936 Plymouth. It was cold but the car started right up. Dad
smiled to himself…
Or I could skip this scene altogether. Okay, my life is a series of scenes, but I wrote fully every scene from my life, my story would never
end—it would stop only with me falling over. And you and I both have other things to do than endlessly read much the same thing over and
So after you finish your timeline of whatever period you’re wanting to write, you can list the critical scenes—scenes that you feel must be
shown. My getting born could probably be summarized, and even the first few years could be. But I would want to write up as a critical scene
that day I saw my Dad when he came home from the War. I remember it very well, and it was an important time in my life.
When I woke up there was my dad. He had come home during the night. I had a vague memory of Mom talking to somebody during the
night. He must have come home after my brother and I went to bed. Now we were all up and there he was. I jumped up and hugged and
kissed him. “Here’s my little Butchie,” he said, hugging me. “All grown up!” “Dad!” I could only say, over and over, burying my face in the
rough wool of his army shirt….###
DAY ONE OF THE LIFESTORY JOURNALONG.
Wed., March 1, 2017
It is raining this morning. It rained during the night. I have slept late. I did my PT even before I got out of bed to pee. I still have my chest cold (I
don’t like the word “infection” though that’s what I have) and the first thing I felt was tight breathing. I worked carefully at my PT; I didn’t want to
start the day with a coughing session. I try to meditate during the PT but I don’t, really. If I live another 25 years I might become okay at
But for now I meditate more when I’m working. I don’t know if that counts or not.
The Japanese have something that I think they call muga, or something that sounds like that, where you sort of meditate as you are working,
and you are so focused on working your mind is empty, you become what you’re working, and maybe that’s meditation.
I don’t know whether that’s muga or what, but it works for me when I’m writing. I’m writing, I’m writing, I’m writing, but I’m not thinking at all, and
in and around my mind thoughts without words are flying around. Or not.
But now I’m just sitting here looking out at the raindrops dripping from the joists of the deck above our windows. We live in a long apartment,
what is sometimes called in the real estate business a “mother-in-law” apartment.
Our youngest son and his wife bought this place in the country ten minutes from downtown Olympia a couple of years ago. A mother-in-law
apartment, I asked right off the bat. What about me? Where’s the father-in-law go? And the answer came to me (this is what meditation gets
me): the father-in-law is in an urn in the corner of the living room. Hahahaha. My black humor.
Actually, June and I have re-thought our cremation plans. Our youngest daughter is going to undergo, soon we hope, a lung transplant. Not that
many parts of me are of much use to others, but if there’s any chance of any part of me going to another human being to help him or her live
better, I’m for it. We’re for it.
So now we have those lots in the cemetery back in Kansas. What’ll we do with them?
Meantime I am still alive. My father lived to be 80. My mother lived to be 88. I still have a lot of writing to do…I’ll opt for the 88, or even 89, or
90—90 has a good ring to it.
I remember reading in Elsie E. Egermeier’s Bible Story Book that Methuselah lived to be 969 years old. Now, how is that possible? I also
remember reading later on that the years were shorter then. Living almost a thousand years…that would be a good long time.
I wonder what his memoir would weigh in at? If you wrote 500 words a day for a thousand years, that would be…182,500,000 words. That
would be a long memoir.###
Write along with me every day for the next 28 days and you will form the habit of journaling every day, one day at a time. In one
year if you write 500 words a day you will write 182,500 words--the length of three books. If you write 250 words a day, you will
write 91,250 words, the length of one long book. Choose which you want to do, 500 or 250, then start in and stick to it. If you
have any trouble and need some help/support, please call me at 785-564-1118. Leave a message and I will call you back the
same day. This is important if you consider writing your personal and family history important to your descendants.