Pornography — there is possibly no other word that provokes a greater reaction, but that’s exactly what Oregon-based writer Kevin Sampsell was counting on.
“The word in itself is so strange because people have such different feelings about it,” Sampsell said. “Some people think it’s dirty and shameful, some people think it’s free expression and really liberating.”
But for Sampsell, pornography is a term he uses to capture a series of life experiences that are immeasurably common. In his 256-page memoir called A Common Pornography, Sampsell tells his tale in a series of vignettes, revisiting life in the quiet town of Kennewick, Wash., where he and his brother Matt played Nerf football and saw a spaceship.
From the easy heyday of being a kid to the awkward pubescent years of dealing with raging hormones and ill-fated romances, Sampsell’s prosaic tales charm the reader with a humiliating degree of truthfulness that is both poignant and heartfelt.
A shorter version of the memoir was published under the same title in 2003 as a way to test audience reception. Sampsell, who works at one of the largest independent bookstores in the world, Powell’s City of Books in Portland, Ore., started his own small press and published about 500 to 600 copies.
“A lot of people really liked it and wanted to read more,” Sampsell said.
But it wasn’t until a certain event in his life — which, in the end, proved to be both destructive and reparative — that he decided to pick up the pen again.
“Two years ago when my dad passed away … my mom set up meetings with all [of us] and told really weird stories,” Sampsell said. “A few weeks later, I was like, ‘I think I want to write about this stuff too.’”
For the following eight months, Sampsell breathed life into his past by compiling many more short stories, capturing his life in written snapshots. The work was finally released in its complete form at the beginning of this month. The result, Sampsell says, is “a mix of nostalgic childhood memories that are funny and weird, with dark family secrets.”
Sampsell realized the narrative shortcomings of his actual life, but he tried to turn its weaknesses into strengths.
“I thought people might be bored with me writing about my own life in memoir form,” Sampsell said. “I wasn’t hooked on drugs, and I wasn’t having sex at 12. It’s not like the usual memoir kind of hook.”
But it is exactly Sampsell’s scandal-free childhood that is the story’s primary charm. It isn’t a story of gang wars written from within prison walls, and it’s not a tale of recovering from a longtime addiction. Nor does it have a groundbreaking style of writing or an impressive list of metaphors and symbolism.
It’s the fact that the stories — stripped bare of pretension and fluff — touch on common experiences. Sampsell tells of his embarrassing moments with no apologies, and it is in this that his memoir shines above the rest.
“When people read the first version of the book, they said, ‘It made me think about what I used to do with my friends,’” Sampsell said.
In several stories, he recounts his expansive collection of porn — earmarked magazine pages and cut-up pictures that he hid in an old suitcase, describing how he later had to move it to a new spot above a loose tile in his bedroom ceiling.
Other vignettes deal with excruciatingly humiliating details about all things sex-related — from his encounter with a chubby prostitute who took his virginity to harboring dirty thoughts.
Sampsell said his courage to write about incredibly personal secrets came from his past fiction works, many of which also delved into uncomfortable territory.
“I’ve been telling people that there’s a statute of limitation on my shame,” he said. “I think if you show the most embarrassing or shameful things about yourself [to others], you’re a lot more likeable.”
Sampsell, who is now 42, regards the majority of these vignettes as illustrations of who he was more than 20 years ago. Yet, he retells his stories with such a matter-of-fact boldness that it gives courage to the reader to wave his own freak flag high.