Oh no: Somebody kicks open a classroom door and shoots the teacher

In these messed-up times of school shooters, one might believe an active crime scene is in progress if somebody kicks open a classroom door and shoots the teacher. It’s hard to imagine now that people kicking open the doors of an English or journalism class were doing it on the teacher’s behalf to prove how unreliable eyewitness testimony is.

I’d heard about the practice from my father who was a college journalism dean. So I was surprised when my college English teacher did it. I knew the minute the door flew open that the entire argument and shooting were a staged event, so I took notes while it happened rather than doing the natural thing by just trying to stay out of the way.

Eyewitness testimony seems like it should be flawless. English teachers don’t care about the science behind the reason why such testimony is usually terrible even though it puts a lot of people in jail.

After the “bad guy” left the classroom and the professor stood up and said, “No, I really didn’t get shot,” he asked us to spend the next 20 minutes (without consulting any other student) writing down what happened. Of course, the professor knew what happened: he had a script. The video camera in the back of the room “knew” what happened because it had a tape of the event.

Each of us was asked to stand up and read our account of the event. Suffice it to say, what we think we saw was wildly different. Then the professor played the videotape, proving–with a smirk–that most of the students didn’t have a flue what happened.

In “real life,” my professor didn’t have a globe.

My account was spot on. The professor was ticked off and asked how I perfectly recorded the sequence of events correctly. I told him that his little skit was as old as the hills so the minute it started I knew it wasn’t real. I took notes rather than reacting.

He wanted to give me an F for “cheating,” but he just couldn’t quite do it, and–in fact–he seemed relieved that I wasn’t calm and cool under fire because I was a macho cop but because I knew I was basically watching a play.

The other students were not astonished when I turned out to be the “perfect” eyewitness; they were not only embarrassed because they had not only been fooled by a skit but couldn’t even remember what really happened.

Naturally, no teacher would create such a skit today unless s/he left out the guns and the threats. So maybe some guy just kicks open the classroom door and says, “I ain’t got no bananas” and then gets into an argument with somebody who supposedly ordered them on his/her cell phone. Lacks punch, doesn’t it?

What the teacher proved, and what many defense attorneys would like to prove, is what effective authors already know: seeing is not believing. Knowing this, we can stage our short story and novel scenes accordingly. We can use to our advantage the characters’ probably faulty memory–as well as the readers’.


The tag line on Campbell’s website is “In Magic is the Preservation of the World.” That tells you all you need to know about his novels.

Does everyone re-imagine their past or is it just writers?

There are moments in everyone’s past that didn’t go well. Sometimes those moments grow out of our own mistakes and sometimes they seem like the so-called “cruel hand of fate” stirring perfect moments into swill.

Writers are used to saying, “What if.” So it feels completely natural to me when I happen to think of a bad moment out of the past to change it into a good moment. As if that moment is part of a novel, it’s as though I’ve changed my mind and I’m going to allow the protagonist to be happy rather than seeing them broken by criminals and car accidents and storms.

I like my re-imagings about such things so much, that they seem more real than what really happened. Does everyone do this, or is it just writers?

People say writers play God by moving their characters around like pieces on a chessboard. That’s not really true because my characters are more in control of their own destiny in my novels than I am. If a character wants to jump off a cliff, there’s little I can do to stop it.

Maybe a lot of us jumped off a lot of cliffs in our past and now we’re stuck with the memories of moments that didn’t go well–along with those that did go well. We can choose, I think, which group of moments defines us and what kind of attitude and belief system we project out into the world. Yet, playing let’s pretend is always tempting, like having Rhett tell Scarlett, “Actually, my dear, I do give a damn.”

So, too, I think back and pretend I didn’t hurt the people I hurt and that the people who hurt me changed their minds before they did it. To the extent that perception is reality, maybe our little games of let’s pretend alter the past in ways beyond our ken.

At any rate, that’s how writers see the world. I hope we’re not alone in this respect.


I’m sure you’re not surprised that I’m the author of magical realism and contemporary fantasy novels and short stories.

Don’t push the envelope, destroy it

Push the Envelope: To attempt to extend the current limits of performance. To innovate, or go beyond commonly accepted boundaries.

The Phrase Finder

As The Phrase Finder site reminds us, “pushing the envelope”–prior to Tom Wolfe’s 1979 book The Right Stuff–was a concept used primarily by mathematicians and engineers, including those exploring the idea of space travel.  Since then, the phrase has come into general use to mean going beyond the usual ways of doing things.

envelopeAs a writer, I focus on characters who either believe they are powerless and/or who seem to be powerless based on society’s perception of them.

If you have read my novels The Sun Singer, Sarabande, and Conjure Woman’s Cat, you have seen a common theme: protagonists in seemingly impossible circumstances who must go beyond the usual ways of doing things to survive.

The envelope, like the box, is a comfortable place. It contains our successes of the past and what we’ve learned from them. It’s risky to push it, much less destroy it. The envelope, like the box, is also a prison, cozy as it may be.

To change our situations and ourselves, we often have to destroy the envelope to get rid of the invisible restraints that keep us from finding power or even a simple solution.

This is a good place for storing stuff. It's a bad place for thinking.
This is a good place for storing stuff. It’s a bad place for thinking.

When Robert Adams destroys the envelope in The Sun Singer by stepping into an alternative universe, he doesn’t know who he is for a while. That’s a “real life” danger, too. But Robert learns and by the end of the novel he is much more than what he was at the beginning.

I’m not sure I would take the risks my characters take, but I can visualize what it might be like by writing my stories. When I read them later, my imagination takes off outside the envelope where I can explore the pros and cons of doing such a thing in my own reality.

My writing has changed me. No, it hasn’t turned me into a Gandalf or a Harry Potter, but it has made me very suspicious of people who say “we’ve always done it this way” and “doing what you ask is impossible.”


SarabandeCover2015Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of “Sarabande,” a contemporary fantasy coming out in a new second edition for Thomas-Jacob Publishing on November 1. Sarabande, like Robert Adams, must destroy the envelope to escape what has been haunting her.

If you read on Kindle, you can pre-order your copy today.