Thank You Campbell’s Soup

As much as it feels like I’ve been writing all my life, I didn’t come out of the womb demanding paper and pen to write down a sentence before I lost it. The writing bug didn’t hit until sixth grade, by my memory. My family lived in West Bloomfield, Michigan, a suburb of Detroit. At this point I attended Abbott Middle School, notable in the late sixties for not enough class rooms to educate the baby-boom kids. Not so important here in California, where I now live, but in Michigan a trek out to a mobile classroom unit in the winter was miserable.

My teacher, whose name I’ve unfortunately lost, had us cut pictures out of magazines for several months. She’d bring in a wide selection of periodicals and hand them out. We’d page through and cut out any pictures that caught our eye. Without a purpose in sight, we were free to pick anything. The cuttings were carefully stored in a manila folder with our name on the top. It seemed the most pointless thing I’d done in school. Between math, science, and history, cutting out pictures seemed soooo kindergarten.

Warhol Campbell Soup Can

Then one day she handed back our manila folders and told us to pick out one or more of the cuttings, and write a story about it. Now with a defined purpose, my structured mind wished I’d cut out different things. Interesting things, I could clearly see a story inside.

This was 1969. Andy Warhol had been painting Campbell’s soup cans for seven years, and in 1968 the tomato soup can screen print was released, among others. In my cuttings was a large Campbell soup can, whether it was from an ad for Campbell’s or his art I can’t remember. Of all the images, it is the one that struck me the hardest, and the only one I remember now, many years later.

I remember the empty hole in my thoughts that soup can picture created. What kind of story could I come up with that would get me an A? My academic career at that point (and for all of it really) was about getting good grades. The other kids were writing away, and I just sat staring at a picture of a can of soup. I put my pencil on the paper and hoped. As a rule, hope isn’t a strategy, but it worked. Words started to flow out of the pencil. Okay, I know that is a cliché, but that’s how it felt. It still feels that way sometimes when I’m writing and I’m not sure where it’s going. I can close my eyes and let something flow through, call it my muse, the creative force, or good luck. Yes, I edit heavily afterwards, because not all the words are needed, or eloquently state, but at least the idea is there.

In this case, the story that came out would foretell my interest in fantasy and science fiction. I wish I could say I have the story now, but it has been lost to time. What I do remember is that it was a tale of a society of very small people, who lived in a used tomato soup can, in the middle of a field. They rarely ventured out of the soup can because that was “out there” where danger lurked. I can’t walk a modern shopping mall without thinking about this story, as each store looks like a home. Come to think of it, old shopping malls might make great homeless housing. As I grew up, this story became an allegory for me of the narrow ways we tend as humans to view the world. Not realizing that there is a big “there” outside our view, whether it’s another county, country, planet, or metaphysical dimension.

So, I’ve been writing intentionally since eleven. I won’t do the math for you, but that is quite a few years, and I still find joy and frustration in the act. I know that’s what keeps me coming back to it.

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