Michael Blake, the writer, likes the feeling of creativity. He likes waking up in the morning, putting words on paper, watching characters come to life in front of his eyes.
“The feeling of creating people--that is the best of all,” he said.
Michael reads voraciously, and when it’s time to read, he usually picks up anything by John Steinbeck. He likes “the elegance, the precision and compression” of Steinbeck’s writing and finds “The Wayward Bus” the best example of a style he can’t resist.
Michael sees himself as a professional writer, a livelihood he intends to follow the rest of his days.
He may have a few days left.
Michael Blake is 14.
Last year, when he was 13, he entered a short-story competition sponsored by KPBS television, the local public broadcasting affiliate. He won. Michael wasn’t surprised, since he had won short-story competitions before. Two years ago he won a similar competition sponsored by the San Diego Reader. He has developed a confidence that some older writers never gain.
“Winning contests is great, very, very nice,” said Michael, who has since moved to Waterloo, Canada. His father, an electrical engineer, was in San Diego for only a year. And during that sabbatical, his son won each of the short-story competitions he entered.
“Winning,” said the son, “makes you long to keep going.”
The KPBS “Reading Rainbow” Write-a-Story Contest brought entries from more than 185 children, ages 8 through 13. Michael’s story, “The Parting of Jeffrey and Monty” symbolized a rite of passage--the time in a child’s life when bad-dream monsters go the way of Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy.
The monster was surprised, at first, but then sighed. Jeff was all grown up, now. And as he felt his body dissolving, scales becoming immaterial, legs disappearing, claws flaking onto the dusty carpet, he almost smiled. Tomorrow, he would be under the bed of a new child, perhaps even a baby. It was time to leave ... he just managed to squeak out a goodbye before his entire body became a wisp of smoke under a familiar bed.
Children’s author Clayton Bess was there Thursday night when Michael Blake and the other award winners were honored at the KPBS studios at San Diego State University. Bess didn’t judge the contest--local writers did that--but he read the stories carefully and was, he said, amazed.
“I thought they were terrific,” he said by telephone from Sacramento, his home. “I’ve dealt with kids before, but these were far-better stories than most kids do. They put a lot of themselves into these stories. I imagine they had either parental help or help from teachers--in most cases the spelling and grammar were remarkably good--but that isn’t what I found impressive.
“The imagination is what intrigued me. Some of the stories were truly inventive, and the innocence behind them all . . . I actually liked some of the runner-up stories better than the winners.”
One of Bess’ favorites was “The Long Fingernails” by Elizabeth Rich, 9, a fifth-grader at Miramar Ranch Elementary School in Scripps Ranch. Elizabeth finished third in the 8- and 9-year-old division. Her story was about a woman who tries too hard to flirt with a man.
Maria got mad and let her nails grow wild so Jim would notice. The nails grew and grew and grew. They never stopped. A month later they were three yards long.
Jim and Maria went out to dinner. The whole restaurant stared at Maria. Jim noticed Maria’s nails but didn’t say anything.
That night Jim went home and told his family about the ugly fingernails. He said, “I’m going to teach Maria a lesson some day, for trying to flirt with me.”
And teach her he does, but it all turns out as a funny/sad dream--a lesson on wanting something too much. “I thought her story very funny,” Bess said.
He also liked one about a bird that flies into the future, by Brandon Barker, 12, a seventh-grader at Emerald Junior High in La Mesa. “There was a sense of humor there that was wonderful,” Bess said.
One reason he gives credit to the runners-up, he said, is that in competitions for children, who won and who finished second doesn’t particularly matter--only that they all sat down and crafted something honestly, from the heart. Bess was surprised by the literate polish of the stories.
“Kids have a clearer idea, at an earlier age, what they want to do and be,” he said. “A lot of these kids want to become professional writers--they’re talking of it already. I’m 40 now but didn’t start writing until I was in my 20s, and then it took years to get published. It never occurred to me as a kid to become a writer.”
Bess showing up in person only seems to make kids who aspire to professional writing yearn for the dream even more. “They get excited about an author coming to school,” he said. “When the writer turns out to be a real human being, it gives them great pleasure. It makes the goal of becoming a writer seem all the more attainable. Judging from everything I saw in these kids, they read, and write, a lot. I can’t see that they’re harmed by television at all. Maybe in some cases it’s whetted their imaginations.”
Charity Montes de Oca, 11, admits she watches television but finds it “boring after a while. I’d rather read books and write about cats and people,” she said. Charity lives in Ramona, where she attends the American Gymnastics and Ballet Academy, a school founded by her parents, who are former New York City ballet stars.
The school offers an academic program with four teachers, and intense personal supervision. Good writing isn’t so much encouraged as demanded. Charity, who won in the 11- and 12-year-old category, pursues interests in writing, ballet and gymnastics, with the current goal of making the U.S. Olympic team in the manner of a Mary Lou Retton. Her story, “Ivan the Terrible,” is about a wise but lowly serf outsmarting a dull-witted, greedy master.
Dana Montes de Oca, Charity’s mother, says her daughter is an avid, almost obsessive reader. Her favorites range from Charles Dickens to Leo Tolstoy to Rudyard Kipling to Isaac Bashevis Singer. She has been reading since 3, and seriously, her mother said, since 5.
“When she reads a well-written book,” Dana Montes de Oca said, “she’s able to see what’s good about it. She’s able to see the humor that another person her age ordinarily wouldn’t.”
But Charity lapses into episodes of shyness that recognition only worsens. At several points during an interview, she turned and asked her mother for help in answering.
“Will she become a professional writer?” her mother asked, in a serious tone. “I don’t know. At this point I just try to encourage her, help her express her world in writing, and hope for the best.”
Molly Maloy, 10, was 9 when her story, “The Trouble With Twins,” first showed up, handwritten on pieces of lined paper. Molly, who has a brother and sister and an eye for the zaniness of an urban family, was the winner in the 8- to 9-year-old category. Molly said her best feat is visualization. She envisions each story in intimate detail while lying in bed, in the meditative moments before falling to sleep. First thing the next morning, she puts it all on paper.
It was a Monday morning, and the whole Yates family was off to a late start. Mr. Yates was running around yelling, looking for his blue tie, and Mrs. Yates was trying to get Mr. Yates’ tie out of Hillary’s mouth (Hillary chewed EVERYTHING). Mrs. Yates said in an irritated voice, “Honestly, Henry, can’t you wear your yellow tie, or your polka-dot tie?” Mr. Yates said, “Liz, you know only my blue tie will match this suit.” Mrs. Yates said, “I know Henry, I know,” and handed Mr. Yates the blue tie covered with saliva.
“I want to be an author,” Molly said. “I want to illustrate my stories. I like drawing a lot, too.”
Molly likes writing simply because “it’s fun. It’s really fun. I really get into it when I start to write, and I really feel good about it.”
Molly’s mother, Mary, said her daughter had chicken pox when she wrote the story, which is full of action, whimsy and insight. “She’s great at details,” her mother said. “When the girl in the story puts on a shirt that says, ‘Tom’s Tacos--the Best in Town,’ that’s the kind of thing I’m talking about, and that’s just a small example. Her drawings are very detailed. All three of my kids are very, very different. I never tried to stifle creativity with any of ‘em. If they want to dress up, put on makeup, whatever, I never hold ‘em back. They’re all very creative, Molly maybe more than the others. She’s also a bit more sensitive. She’s a very responsible kid, especially for 10 years old.”
Molly likes to write in longhand. Michael Blake, however, writes on a word processor, a trait shared with many of his co-competitors. “It allows me to change things very easily,” he said. Michael is working on his second novel, this one set in Canada. The first was set in La Jolla, where he lived for a “glorious” year. For that he picked surfers as the subject matter.
Bess, whose books include “The Truth About the Moon,” “Story for a Black Night” and “Big Man and the Burn-Out,” sets many of his stories in Africa, where he worked as a Peace Corps volunteer. He was surprised, even astonished, that neither Michael nor any of the other entrants chose San Diego or Southern California as the setting for some of the contest stories.
“In fact, I got the opposite impression,” he said. “It was almost as if they were avoiding San Diego or Southern California.”
Michael, while basing his award-winning story in another setting (a kid’s bedroom, in no particular place), plans to plumb San Diego County as the world for many of his future works. Though he lives less than an hour from Toronto, where the Blue Jays are one of baseball’s top teams, he fights off homesickness in the way someone older might attempt to come to terms with unrequited love.
“Even this year,” he said sadly, “I’m more of a Padres fan. I miss the land, the people, the climate of California. I miss the ocean. I miss Mrs. Margaret Danshaw, my English teacher at Muirlands Junior High in La Jolla, and the source of much of my inspiration. Without her, I don’t know where I’d be. I bet I wouldn’t be a winner of any story competition.
“How do I deal with this sadness? There’s only one way. I’m gonna sit right down and write it all out. Who knows? Maybe it’ll be a book. I can always use another one.”