SAN DIEGO — 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."
\f7 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."