Your memories make good stories

By the time you’re older than dirt you’ll probably have enough material in your mind’s memory banks to write a shelf full of novels. Unfortunately, you’ve probably also forgotten enough stuff that could have turned into another shelf full of novels. Write it before you forget it.

My memorites of time served in the navy, working as a seasonal employee in Glacier National Park, Boy Scout camping trips, various jobs and all kinds of hobbies and avocation have provided the inspiration behind a lot of my work. The danger here is that when you’re almost older than dirt, the fictional version of those memories used in your novels and stories gets mixed up with what really happened. (I should have kept a diary.)

Some memories are almost universal and capture readers who’ve gone through similar experiences:

  • Young love. The first time you got dumped by the person you thought you were going to marry.
  • The cops: The various times you were caught for shop lifting, speeding, trespassing, or running guns or booze across a border.
  • Jobs: How you got fired from a job for something you didn’t do.
  • Travel: Crazy and wonderful things happen when we travel. Is there a story there? Probably.
  • Family: Maybe you were the black sheep in your family. Maybe it was Aunt Flossie or cousin Jimmy. There’s probably more stuff in this category than you can shake a stick at. You can always change the names to protect the guilty.
  • Daily life: Weird stuff (or wonderful stuff) happens every day. Sometimes there’s a story there even though your life might seem fairly normal to you.

I’ve used a lot of this in my stories, though I cannot tell you when and where because, well, the truth behind the stories is rather confidential.  Sure, there may be awkward questions from friends and family, such as “How did you write about these bar girls so realistically” and “You really did a good job with those drunk tank scenes; how did you know about all that?”

Imagination and research. That answers all questions even if your memories were part of the research.


Of course a lot of stuff in this novel really happened. That’s the beauty of having been there. You have an infinite amount of material. The ship in the cover picture is the ship I served on during the Vietnam War. There were hundreds of stories there because it was a large ship and had a large crew.


‘I Got it Bad (And That Ain’t Good)’

That’s my favorite song title, an oldie but a goodie that premiered in Duke Ellington’s Jump for Joy review in 1941. While the review never made it to Broadway, this song (which is jazz) was sung by dozens of singers.

Those of you who’ve read any of the novels in my Florida Folk Magic series, know that I’m partial to the blues. Jazz was a close second, followed by folk songs and a smattering of country music. Rock usually didn’t speak my language.

In yesterday’s post (Rainy Day Memories), I wrote about the kinds of events that add fuel to an author’s work over and over. We often write a story or a poem because we got it bad and that ain’t good. When an author’s feeling the blues (and great jazz), s/he’s connected to himself/herself at a deep level and assuming s/he’s not drunk, can often write some very good stuff. The emotion and power are there, and they fuel the story even if the story has nothing to do with the song the author is listening to.

Rainy day memories work that way, too. We replay them again and again. They may never appear in a story as they happened, but–happy or sad–they are the power that connects us to what our characters are feeling and living through. The memories in my previous post have snuck into many of my stories. When we return to such memories, we return for a reason, I think. As Dr. Phil might say, they were often defining moments. So they have power. So they’re something within us we still need to figure out, perhaps solve or get past. Our fiction helps us to that.

As an author, I often hope that when “I’ve Got It Bad (And That Ain’t Good,” that my fiction or nonfiction finds people who are feeling that way and helps them get past it–or, at least, understand it. You’ve probably heard stories out of Hollywood where child actors were told their dog had died in order to get them to shed real tears for the scenes they were about to film. I don’t think most authors need to conjure up the worst that’s even happened to them in order to write. When we connect with the characters as “real people,” we feel what they feel.

Nonetheless, rainy day memories often help us get to that point whether we feel like we got it bad or we feel like jumping for joy.


In addition to magical realism and contemporary fantasy, Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of the recently released satirical mystery “Special Investigative Reporter.”


Rainy day memories

As the rains come down and keep coming down and darkness settles into the house, I find myself thinking about things that happened long ago. I wonder, as I get older, how many of those involved in these little snippets of memory are still with us. I suppose part of the nostalgia is not knowing and/or wondering if any of them are wondering if I’m still with us. (So far, so good.)

  • The ship we were restoring

    Speaking broken Dutch, while part of a volunteer group restoring an old ship to serve as a school for the children of shippers, one duty was selling lottery tickets at that summer’s sailboat races, I approached many people and hoped for the best. Each ticket cost one guilder, so we weren’t asking for a big commitment. I saw several college-age girls and thought they probably had extra cash. Their response to my questions (in Dutch) was, “Spreekt u Engels?” You can probably figure out what that means. I said, “Sure,” and when they said they were on vacation from Florida in the U.S., I said, “I hope y’all are having a good time” in my best Southern accent. That surprised them. I confessed that I, too, was from Florida and was in a volunteer group restoring and old ship. I don’t think they bought a lottery ticket, but the encounter was somewhat surprising.

  • Once while I was in a sailor bar in the Philippines, one of my shipmates came over and asked if a particular bar girl could sit at my table for a few minutes of animated conversation while he left the bar. Her boyfriend was there and they couldn’t be seen leaving together.  I have no idea what she and I talked about while sipping San Miguel beer. Well, she probably had tea. After a while, she left. Several days later I saw my friend in the so-called “VD line” on the aircraft carrier. Everyone in the line caught something in town. He shook his head and said, “Things happen.”
  • While growing up, I was part of a Boy Scout troop sponsored by my church. Many meaningful experiences came out of this, not the least of which were camping trips in the Florida Panhandle that would later serve as raw material for the novels I would write. At some point, long after I left town for college and the navy, the church gave up its sponsorship. I didn’t find out until many years later. When I e-mailed the church, nobody seemed to know that it had ever sponsored the troop and, if it had, why the relationship ended. This always bothered me. I kept wanting to find the culprit and ask what the hell they were thinking.
  • Two Swedish girls and two U.S. male students were part of that international group restoring the boat in the Netherlands. As lame as it sounds, the other guy from the U. S. and I ended up dating the Swedish girls. When the girl I was dating invited me to Sweden to live with her in her parents’ house to keep me from being drafted into the Vietnam war, I came very close to accepting her offer. If I had, I might never have seen my parents or brothers again. Nonetheless, I almost did it. For years, I thought that not going to Sweden with her was the biggest mistake I ever made. Such thoughts, though, make me pause when I think that if I had gone with her, my daughter and granddaughters wouldn’t exist. It’s a sobering thought. Even so, I wonder where Anna is today.
  • When I attended the University of Colorado one summer, I spent most of my time with the university’s mountain recreation department climbing mountains every week. My father had done it before me. We summited some of the state’s 14,000 peaks and my skills improved more every weekend outside the classroom than inside the classroom. I met a lot of great people and wonder what became of them after the summer session ended. We hiked and climbed a lot of miles together, but they’re all gone with the wind.

Like most of you, I have hundreds of memories like this, memories that are gathering dust in the recesses of my mind. I capture some of them in my fiction, but the others fade away. It’s part of growing older, I suppose and knowing that when each of us in my generation is gone, a lot of memories will be done, too.


Isaac Mizrahi on a Love of Old Things, and Surviving the Nightmare of the Present 

“When I look back at my life, I think about what a wonderful, happy, satisfying life I’ve had. It’s so funny. It’s like living through things is a nightmare. The present of things is a nightmare—the not being gratified by things in the moment is a nightmare. But then when you look back at the decades of your life, like in your twenties, or your thirties, or your forties, you go, “Wow, it was so great living through that and gosh I got so much out of that, and gosh this and gosh that.” And yet living through it is never as satisfying.”

Source: Isaac Mizrahi on a Love of Old Things, and Surviving the Nightmare of the Present | Literary Hub

I have often felt this way. At the time, life was just life. Fortune was always slinging it’s outrageous arrows. Guardian angels were slinging miracles like hash house oatmeal. Yet later, all these “gosh this” things turn into our stories and our inflated tall tales and remember whens.

Some people tell these stories to their children and whoever else risks visiting them on the front porch or the nursing home. Some people put put their stories into memoirs that read like (and probably are) fiction. And some people put their stories into fiction that read like (and just might be) a bit of truth wearing a mask to protect both the innocent and the guilty.

Click on the link for a few minutes of potent thought that will–depending on your age and current state of mind–remain with you only as long as you’re reading the article or for the rest of your life. (though you may not know that until later).


Incidentally, if you live in the U.S. and hang out on the GoodReads site, you have a chance to win a paperback copy of my new novel Eulalie and Washerwoman in a November 6-14 give-away,

Write down your memories for your kids. . .

…but you better have something extraordinary to say if you want to convince me a published version of those memories will be a bestseller.

When I was a kid, I read books about explorers who kept journals about where they went and what they saw. Some of them happened to know how to draw and included illustrations showing where they went and what they saw.

memoirsecretsI was just an everyday kid going to school. Nothing unique there. In spite the fact most of the people who knew me at school would describe me as nondescript, I kept logs (I liked sea stories) and journals (because guys didn’t keep diaries with hideous phrases such as “Dear Diary, Jenny looked at me in between classes today like she wished we were alone in the dark”).

The thing is, I was already too much aware of the fact that writers’ journals and private papers often got published after they were dead and (hence) unable to stop greedy heirs from trying to make a buck off stuff that was supposed to be private. Practically speaking, what this meant was that I made myself look better in my journal entries than I was.

“How will this read in the future?” I asked. This kept my journals from being the cathartic process of self-discovery modern-day advocates of journaling claim is possible. You’ll heal. You’ll change your life. You’ll grow. Maybe so, but truth wasn’t for me.

Consequently, I saved the healing/growing process for my fiction where I tell a story about somebody else while including disguised secrets about myself that I would never dare write down in a journal. These days, everybody and his/her brother is writing a memoir, including people who’re still in high school. But why?

I can’t decide whether all these memoirs by “regular people” are a service to human kind or examples of arrogance run amok.

Maybe some day my kids and your kids will be interested in some of our best true stories about life in an era that will seem very foreign to them by the time they’re reaching middle age. Maybe they’ll want to know about their family and where there ancestors came from and what it was like to live during those dark ages times when telephones were attached to the wall with a cord and didn’t show movies.

But, should you publish those memories as a book? I have no answer to this because–being 37.5% psychic–I know that the moment I say that we shouldn’t, people will come up with a hundred examples of “regular people’s” memoirs that had a great impact on the world. That can happen.

I do like the idea of continuity, the kinds of things we read about in oral history projects that give folks in later generations a sense of what life was like for people in their parents and grandparents generations. Perhaps we can provide that kind of information for our kids. Maybe they’ll never read it. We may never know.

My folks used to send a Christmas letter out every year. Years later, my brothers and I would actually find ourselves referring to these old letters because we could no longer remember what year we saw Niagara falls or when our father received an award. If I’d kept a journal, I would know all this.

If I did know it, I find it hard to imagine that thousands of people would race to the bookstore to buy even a well-edited version of that journal, along with a snappy title and a jaw-dropping cover.

An author’s fiction already contains enough secrets in it than he dares disclose any other way.


VisitingAuntRubyCoverMalcolm R. Campbell is the author of “Visiting Aunt Ruby,” and Kindle short story that he’ll swear on a stack of Bibles didn’t happen in “real life.”



Throwback Thursday – Four National Geographics

1961NGMThis morning, I reached into one of the many boxes of old National Geographic Magazine’s storied in the garage and scooped out four issues at random, two from 1961 and one each from 1962 and 1964.

These will probably be thrown out as part of my getting rid of old stuff project. Looking online for the December 1961 issue, I see it for sale on Amazon at $4.00 and on eBay at $34.99. What a price range!

I doubt that neither copy will sell. I’ve never had much luck selling old magazines. Time was, they were seemingly more valuable if you cut them apart and sold the pages with the advertisements.

Funny how a Great Northern Railway ad would sell quickly on eBay but if the same ad (along with other vintage examples) were offered as part of a complete issue, it was a harder sell.

The only copies I’m saving are those that are especially historic—some early space exploration issues, a John F. Kennedy tribute issue, and the issues that came out during the birth months and years of people in the family. I’m also saving some ads, mostly those having to do with train travel. Or, a few that are simply “strange” by today’s standards.

1961JunengmThe December 1961 issue includes articles about “Life in Walled-Off West Berlin,” “Canada, My Country,” and “Australia’s Amazing Bowerbirds.” The West Berlin article includes a map of the city, now from almost another time and another place ever since the Berlin Wall came down. But as Russia rushed to annex Crimea, I’m reminded of those cold war days. When I saw Berlin, there was a wall there. That shows how long it’s been since I was there.

A Look at London

You can tell at a glance that the June 1961 issue includes an article about London. When I originally read the article about the city’s “Storied Square Mile,” I didn’t know I would see it six years later. The article includes a fold out map along with photographs of people, places, pomp and pageantry.

When this issue came in the mail, you could also read about the FBI, Thailand, rose aphids and whaling.

There’s also a cute ad of a boy leaving his house with a red wagon filled with all his stuff for Bank of America Travelers Cheques. I used to carry these years ago, but in time I got fed up with explaining to stores and hotels with clerks who said “we don’t take checks” that these aren’t the same as the potentially bad checks torn out of a check book. You’d think people in resort towns would know that.

They probably still don’t know it.

The Holy Land and New Guinea

telestarThe December 1961 issue contains multiple articles about the Middle East. My father, who did some media consulting in the area in the mid-1950s probably liked the memories stirred up by this issue. If I had ever been there, I might be tempted to save this issue, though for what purpose, I’m not sure. I’m sure I still have this copy because my father saved it as part of his collection.

I haven’t been to New Guinea (or even the Canyon Lands of Utah), so the May 1962 issue isn’t tempting. It does have a space-aficionado article called “Telephone a Star: the Story of Communications Satellites.”

The article includes a picture of Telestar that would be launched that June. Teletar 2 would be launched the following year. At the time, this was BIG NEWS. Now, there are over a thousand operational satellites in orbit. The news media hardly even mention the launches any more.

They were still in orbit, though nonfunctional, as of last year. Big news at the time, telestarsongthere was even a hit song about it that reached number one on the Billboard Hot 100 list. It was a catchy song then, but I doubt it would get much play today–unless you’re walking (or flying) down memory lane.

Memory Lane or Ancient History?

If you were there, going through a stack of National Geographic Magazines that came out during your lifetime is a trip down memory lane. I remember the events, the products and the global issues. Otherwise, this is all “ancient” history. Most of the stuff that ended up in these magazines probably isn’t on the RADAR in a high school history class. Perhaps the Berlin Wall will flit by in a footnote to the paragraph about Cold War–assuming the Cold War is even in the course. In a college’s “Recent U.S.” history course, perhaps the Cold War itself will make it into the course for a one-hour lecture. When Russia marched into the Crimea, a lot of people who didn’t know what the Cold War was started doing a lot of Google searches about it.

1964DecNGMI saved these magazines, along with copies of noteworthy issues of Life, Look, Newsweek and the Saturday Evening Post because I though they would be important as keepsakes, as windows on the world as it was, and possibly (like old books) as antiques that might be worth money some day. The memories are wonderful, but I can no longer afford the space all these boxes take up. Plus, they’re heavy to move around.

Perhaps they’ll have monetary value in another hundred years–like original photographs of the Civil War have now–but not being a rich person with a Downton Abbey sized house, I don’t have the space for that kind of collecting. And, I doubt my daughter wants to see a U-Haul truck arrive with a garage full of dusty old magazines arrive. She’s been to the Middle East, but I think she’ll always prefer her own pictures to those in the January 1964 issue of National Geographic.

Plus, I’m one of many millions of people who seem to have saved these magazines with the idea in mind that one day they would be rare.


Perhaps True Grief Begins After All Has Been Said and Done

Yesterday afternoon, my wife Lesa and I attended the memorial service for our long-time friend Gordon Carper (May 10, 1935 – September 3, 2011) at the Berry College Chapel in Rome, Georgia. We listened to “You Raise Me Up” (Celtic Woman), “If I Can Dream” (Elvis Presley) and “Amazing Grace” (from both granddaughter Kallan Carper and Celtic Woman). We heard joyful, heartfelt and often humourous remembrances from Dr. Carper’s former Berry College colleagues (Richard Lukas, William Hoyt and Chaitram Singh) and from his former students (William Pence, Bert Clark, Timothy Howard and Greg Hanthorn). The memorial service, led by the reverend Paul Raybon, truly was the Celebration of a Life.

After the service, we spent time with family and friends at a reception at the college’s historic Ford Buildings before going back out to the Carper’s house. Lesa and I hadn’t seen some of those people in over 30 years. In the “Ford Living Room,” we continued what began at the memorial service, remembering and telling stories. A nationally known scholar, Gordon Carper taught at Berry College between 1965 and 2003, and those years overflow with memories from the untold numbers of colleagues and students impacted by Gordon’s teaching, mentoring and gregarious, you-oriented storytelling.

After a death, family and close friends are suddenly immersed in details. Doctors, funeral home directors, pastors, newspapers, florists, caterers, and others suddenly loom large in the daily schedule. While details steal away time for grief, they also provide a focal point of necessary busywork that can help friends and family cope with the loss during the stunning and confusing limbo of thoese first days.

Personal Notes

My wife Lesa was one of Gordon’s students at Berry College. I was one of his colleagues between 1977 and 1980. We were married at their house in 1987 with Gordon and Joyce standing beside us, and with their sons Noel and Todd and other friends standing around us. We can spin yarns about Carper-House Moments, Gordon and Berry College until the cows come home, and while staying with his wife Joyce for several days this past week, the stories we knew became intermissions of levity in between the tasks required to prepare for yesterday’s memorial service and all the guests who would arrive.

I won’t presume to speak for Lesa or Joyce, but I felt that we were all too busy to truly grieve. Lesa and I have spoken of this before: the fact that the paperwork and details of a death are so often the full focus of attention until after the memorial service or funeral come and go that there’s little time to think of much else. Not that the paperwork ends there, but it begins to fall away and during the long nights grief is likely to become a close shadow in all those streets, parks, rooms and other places where the memorial service memories and the Ford Living Room reception stories were born.

Lesa and I were part of a close-knit group of faculty and students who came together in the 1970s out of mutual respect, friendship and to support each other during an era in the college’s history when labor troubles tried very hard to trump the process of education. The “dark time,” as we call these years had a huge impact on all of our lives. Time has healed most of the wounds. Perhaps the wounds made us all stronger. While there was much to be said and done during the past week and at yesterday’s memorial service and reception, major dark time stories did not occupy center stage. We all know those stories and they flavor our thinking and they are, perhaps, a subtext to the wonderfully humorous and inspiring celebrations of Gordon’s life at public gatherings and during one-on-one conversations.

Yesterday, we—as a group—were given an opportunity to celebrate and consider the impact of a teacher, mentor, leader, and friend in our lives and in the lives of Berry College’s graduates for over a quarter of a century. Now we personally have time for the grief that begins after all has been said and done.


Selling Lottery Tickets in Holland

Aboard Rambler in Holland
Aboard Rambler in Holland

I came across an old photo (I’m the one on the right in the row of those standing) of an international group of people who worked together for one month during the summer of 1967.

The first phase of our work consisted of traveling from Amsterdam to Gronigen aboard the motor barge Rambler selling lottery tickets to those attending the annual sailboat races. The lottery tickets supported the second phase of our work: the restoration of an old German ship as a school ship for the children of Dutch shippers.

The men lived in one hold of the ship, the women in the other. Since the holds were not intended as places of habitation, we got up and down with a movable ladder. Even so, this was a very relaxing way to travel and also a somewhat unique view of the country.

We quickly learned enough Dutch to sell the tickets. We had cheat sheets with us with answers for typical questions such as how much the tickets cost and what they were for. They cost one Guilder each (about a quarter) and supported work on a very unique schoolroom for children who moved around a lot.

We sold a fair number of tickets and, hopefully, made a good impression. When we got to our destination, the small town of Hoogezand (in the north, near Gronigen) we became front page news in the local paper. Since we worked on the old ship in a canal along the main road, we were an ever-changing local attraction. People stopped en route to work and, truth be told, were very impressed at the sight of women clinging to the side of the ship removing years old old paint with blow torches and jack hammers.

The ship, known as the White Swan, still exists, I think, but served its intended purpose for a while with a new life. I never saw the final result of the restoration, but always hoped I might one day travel back to the Netherlands and find the ship while the shippers organization was using it as a school.

This old photo stirs up enough memories for a Saturday afternoon and a long evening. But, I have current promises to keep and many chores to finish before I sleep. So, I write a snapshot of them here as I think back some 40 years and wonder how many children used the White Swan and where all the others in this old photograph are today.

Remembering Favorite Moments in 2008

Both the Internet and the print media are filled with lists these days, the best fiction and nonfiction, the biggest tragedies, the most important events.

I could make my own list and then dwell upon it as though the existence of the list somehow validates something about my life.

I would include the fact that my nephew took his own life and that my novel completed in March has not yet found a willing publisher. I would include the fact that I saw my daughter and her husband and my 11-month-old granddaughter and that I’m stepping down as the chair of our local historic preservation commission in two more days. My wife and I had a great time with family in Memphis over Thanksgiving and with my wife’s folks on Christmas day.

Yet, I can see that even if I took these events and listed them with numbers or bullets, the presentation would completely miss the joy and the pain they brought me and other people.

So, as the year ends, I’d much rather leave a photograph or two, each of which is worth a thousand words, and say that the moments captured in pixels will always bring a smile to my face when I think of  both the innocent deer and the sweet voice of the water.

Deer along the roadway between Lake Louise and Banff
Deer along the roadway between Lake Louise and Banff
My wife Lesa and I along the Bow River
My wife Lesa and I along the Bow River

Best wishes for a happy new year as you think back on your favorite moments of 2008.