When it comes to romance writing, the Golden Heart competition for unpublished writers is about as good as it gets. Sponsored by the Romance Writers of America (RWA), the competition is a giant stepping-stone toward earning a publishing contract. And last month, Cedaredge resident Barbra Campbell got word that she has been selected as one of the national finalists. Not bad for her first romance novel.
Campbell didn't start out to be a writer, far from it. She was creative but her passion was music. She played the violin in high school and later the cello. But when it came to writing, her least favorite high school subject was English and the worst part of that class was creative writing.
"I even wrote non-fiction sentences for my vocabulary word assignments," she laughs.
In college, she studied science and her writing grew increasingly technical. She earned a bachelor's degree and started graduate work in genetics. It began to look like she was on a predictable path to a scientific career until life -- like well-written fiction -- became unpredictable.
In 1998, her doctoral work ground to a halt. Her infant daughter lived only four and a half months before the child died of undiagnosed cystic fibrosis and Campbell lost her focus. "You kind of have to think when you're pursuing your Ph.D.," she recalls, "And to put it mildly I just wasn't thinking straight."
She changed her focus then and concentrated on matters closer to home. Ten years passed during which she devoted her time to the everyday challenges of raising a family. She was content with her new life and it began to look like she was well on her way to a predictable role as wife and mother.
Until, once again life -- like fiction -- became unpredictable.
She was sitting in her car at a red light and when a speeding car rear-ended her. She regained consciousness to learn that she had a traumatic brain injury. It was serious but the doctors were optimistic. At first they predicted she'd be back to normal in a couple of weeks. Then that prediction stretched to two months. Then the two-month estimate became six months and six months became a year. After a year and half of missing recovery landmarks, the doctors delivered the bad news in three succinct words: "permanent brain damage."
Of all our human organs, the brain is the most complex. It is the source of everything that makes humans unique: communication, personality, learning, and creativity -- to name only a few. When the brain works, life is a marvel; when the brain is injured, life is a challenge.
"At first, I couldn't read music or regular print. I had a personality re-set and lost a sense of self-awareness," she says, remembering those early days. "I just didn't think like in the past."
And then there were collateral issues as her family tried to adjust to someone who had essentially become a different person. "There were marital challenges -- I didn't know my husband, he didn't know me, and sadly I had to be 'evaluated' to make sure it was safe for me to be with my kids."
Before the accident, when she was working on her Ph.D. her family used to tell her "Oh, you're so smart. You're scary smart." After her brain injury they started telling her "Now you're just scary." She laughs about that now, but the need to start over was not only challenging, it could be downright frightening. At one point, her brain began arbitrarily shutting down one of her five senses, including an alarming episode of temporary blindness.
The family was living in Grand Junction when Campbell was injured. Her recovery therapy called for peace and quiet so the family decided to move to Cedaredge to escape the hectic city life. After relocating in 2010, Campbell began to accept the new normal of her changed existence. "I still remembered that other woman," she says "But I needed to grieve the loss of the old me so I could learn to accept the new me."
Her brain injury primarily affected her left hemisphere, the side of the brain where logic, science reasoning, math ability, or other such functions reside--so much for a career in science. The frontal lobe was also injured--so much for planning and organizing. The right hemisphere, the creative side, seemed undamaged. Science faded but there was always art to fall back on. So one day, she picked up the cello again.
It did not go well.
"I tried working with a beginner music book but I had lost too much coordination," she recalls. She quit for a time but missed the music so she decided to try an entirely new instrument. She switched to the flute. "Miserable," she laughs.
After two years of struggling, she put music aside for a time until one day she sensed that her brain had recovered enough to re-learn the cello. She tried again and it all came flooding back. She plays the cello now, performing in the Grand Junction and Valley symphonies as well as the Grand Junction Rockestra -- an alternative classical rock orchestra, the only one of its kind in the nation. She has worked her way back to becoming a gifted performer although her style is completely different. It's more natural now, less automatic. "There's that new me again," she notes.
Then, at last, came the writing. Campbell started writing fiction five years ago as a personal challenge -- part of exploring her new personality. After experimenting with historical fiction and drama, she fell in love with screenwriting. Then she read her first romance novel and began writing in that field. Like most beginning writers, she wanted to publish, not only for the honor but also to entertain readers and to create something new.
She began entering competitions. At first she received no recognition, then honorable mention, then second place, and so on. "I was trained to extract RNA from a cell, not create something out of nothing. I found out there was a lot to learn in creative writing where literally every word you choose has an impact--especially if you choose poorly."
Some aspects of the creative writing craft eluded her at first but one thing that came naturally was character development. "Like a good fictional character, I've had my share of internal conflicts over how to prioritize my life."
Her priorities nowadays are pretty clear and she's keeping busy. She's homeschooled three children: her daughter now serves with the U.S. Air Force in Kuwait; her oldest boy plans to be a professional golfer; her youngest son is a budding writer who just won a Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) essay competition. "He likes to remind me that he's already won a writing contest," she laughs.
There's her work with the symphonies and, as if she wasn't busy enough, she also serves as a regional exchange student coordinator for the Council for Educational Travel (CET-USA). She helps place visiting international students with families throughout Delta County and neighboring communities. She has placed around two dozen students and her own family has hosted eight students.
How does she like her chances for Golden Heart honors? The winner will be announced in July at the RWA's annual conference in Denver. Nationally there were about 1,400 entrants before the field of finalists was reduced to 45. "If you look at a map of the competitors, both coasts are highly represented and in the middle, there's me."
Considering those statistical odds, the former scientist in her would probably be pessimistic. But she'd be the first to admit that she's not that person anymore. So win or lose she has no plans to stop writing.