The only bad life story is one that isn’t written

I never cease to be amazed at celebrity-hood in the late 20th century. It comes so hard, and yet so easily.
One day it seems a million miles away. And the next day a million dollars close.
And that’s the way fame arrived earlier this year for 97-year-old Jessie Foveaux of Manhattan, Kan.
One day, she was just a little old lady who had hand-penned her memoirs 18 years earlier. A book with 30 printed copies, read by a few close friends and relatives. The story of a spunky woman who survived a difficult situation.
The next day, the biggest publishing houses in the U.S. were battling for the rights to publish the two-decades old manuscript.
Bids started from a floor of $365,000 and ended with Warner Books paying more than a million for “The Life of Jessie Lee Brown, From Birth Up to 80 Years.” And Jessie was labelled “an overnight literary sensation.”
The excitement all began with a front-page article in The Wall Street Journal earlier this year by staff reporter Clare Ansberry. Her feature told of a near centenarian who 20 years ago took a writing class from Charley Kempthorne of Manhattan. At first, Jessie avoided personal writing but eventually she began to pour out her soul.
Jessie had grown up a favoured child and, at the beginning of World War I, fell in love with a handsome young doctor. The two wanted to be married but Jessie’s mother talked them into waiting until the war was over.
Tragically, the young doctor never came back. About the same time, Jessie’s mother died and Jessie herself developed encephalitis. It was the beginning of a life that would require great courage.
Jessie tells of her marriage to Bill Foveaux and how the dreams died and the despair set in. It was the last straw when Bill turned to alcohol.
Something in Jessie’s story seems to have struck a chord with all who have read it. Still, Ansberry wrote, “Her writings haven’t made her wealthy but they have enriched her life.” Ironically, it would be only days later that Jessie’s writing could make her a millionaire.
You might call it a miracle. But even as I read about the miracle, I began to wonder about that Manhattan teacher–Charley Kempthorne. Who was he? And how had he inspired an aging woman from the plains to write the next bestseller?
Who was this entrepreneur who first sent Jessie’s memoirs to Wall Street reporter Clare Ansberry? What was his magic secret?
Well, it turns out Charley Kempthorne is both a writer and a teacher of writing. He believes passionately that every life story must be told. And he’s written the book to help people do it–“For All Time–A Complete Guide to Writing Your Family History.”
Write your story for your family, says Kempthorne. Never write for publication. If you write to please some mythical editor, you’ll sound stiff and stilted. Even your family won’t like it. Write like you talk. But write.
And for five years, Kempthorne has published a how-to magazine called “Life Story.”
If Jessie Foveaux could write her life story, you can do it, too. Do it in your own style. Don’t expect a million dollars but do expect a family treasure.
“The only bad family history,” says Kempthorne, “is the history you didn’t write at all.”

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