Growing up in South America, Spanish was my strongest language. I had terrible problems with English, spelling and grammar. My handwriting looked like worms had mud-wrestled on the page. I thought this meant I was a bad writer. Yet I loved to hide under the covers at night with a flashlight in my mouth, scribbling ideas and stories on a piece of paper.
Not until college did the idea of actually being an author creep into my head. An English professor called me in after class to comment on an assignment I had written. He told me my grammar skills were those of a fifth grader. Fearfully, I asked if I should drop the class. “Oh, no, no, no!” he replied. “I just finished reading three hundred stories, and only one made me laugh and cry. That was yours. You”re a storyteller. That”s writing!”
What a great discovery. Now when I visit schools, I find other young writers having trouble with the mechanics of English. I encourage them to work on the mechanics, but more importantly, I want them to understand that writing is storytelling! The story is what holds the magic and power. The story is why we created language.
What is it that brings a tear or scares the tapioca pudding out of you? What makes you choke laughing? Much of my research finds me searching for those feelings — the heart of my story. In libraries I find wonderful facts and information, but only on the streets can I discover the haunted stares of homeless children digging through garbage cans. Only in forests can I find frightened bear cubs that have lost their mother to a hunter.
When students ask me how to become a better writer, I answer, “Go out and live! You can”t pour water from an empty bucket. Experience life. Then never quit writing about it!”
As a child growing up in South America, I knew early the sting of racist comments. I can remember being held down by bullies and having mud smeared in my face so I wouldn”t be a white “gringo.” My parents sent me away to a white boarding school where strict English matrons ruled with an iron fist. We wore uniforms — saddle shoes with bobby socks, and leather knickers with a blouse type shirt and bow tie. Not knowing any better I wore these clothes here in the United States on my first day of seventh grade. The ridicule was immediate and severe.
Luckily I never learned to conform. In high school I started skydiving and flying. Later, I rode a horse cross-country from Minnesota to Oregon. Being a bit of a loner, I enjoyed training animals. During college I raced sled dogs in northern Minnesota. After moving to Montana, I played horse polo and adopted a black-bear cub named Buffy. Buffy is now a 750-pound member of my family.
As a child I had been ashamed of who I was, but slowly I discovered that my differences were what made me special: they were my strengths. Now I grin when I see children proud of their differences. How wonderful!
One of the greatest discoveries anyone can make in life is that he or she is an author. Not only of words on paper, but also of reality. You can mold and affect your own life as surely as you can create with words on a blank white page.
I”ve been asked if it”s realistic to have my characters doing all the wild things they do in my stories. I laugh when I answer, “You bet it is!” I know a child can fly an airplane, parachute, survive storms alone, love the night, and much, much more. I know because as a child I did those things. With time, each experience and discovery became a stepping-stone to larger and greater things. Now when someone asks me, “Is it realistic for a bad student to grow up and become an author?” I say, “You bet it is!”
Author, Ben Mikaelsen, is winner of the International Reading Association Award and the Western Writer”s Golden Spur Award. His novels have been nominated to and have won many state Reader”s Choice awards. These novels include Rescue Josh McGuire, Sparrow Hawk Red, Stranded, Countdown, Petey, Touching Spirit Bear, Red Midnight and Tree Girl. His novels Rescue Josh McGuire, Petey and Touching Spirit Bear have been optioned for screen use. Ben”s articles and photos appear in numerous magazines around the world, and he has been featured on national TV with Jack Hanna”s Animal Adventures and in Boy”s Life magazine. Ben lives in a log cabin near Bozeman, Montana, with a 700-pound black bear that he adopted and has raised for over twenty years.