Writers are often told to write what they know. And Gary Paulsen is living proof that it works. “I always say that I write from personal inspection at zero altitude,” says Paulsen, who is the author of more than 200 books, primarily for young people. “Every book I’ve ever written has come from something that happened in my life.”
This is not to say that Paulsen’s books are only autobiographies—far from it. Most of the author’s works are fiction—everything from coming-of-age wilderness survival/adventure stories (for which he’s, perhaps, best known) to historical fiction and just-plain-funny reads. There’s often a lot of research involved, too. Nevertheless, says Paulsen, some portion of “every story comes from something I’ve experienced firsthand.”
In other words, he’s been there, done that. And it’s Paulsen’s firsthand experience that makes his books come alive in the hands of his readers.
Paulsen is not one of those people who knew at an early age what he wanted to do with his life. For most of his school years he was a mediocre student and a worse reader, more at home hunting, fishing and camping than sitting in a classroom. But when he was 13, a cold Minnesota night drove young Paulsen to take shelter in the town library, where a warm-hearted librarian handed the boy a library card and a book. “That book must have taken me over a month to finish,” recalls Paulsen in his introduction to Shelf Life: Stories by the Book.”
The truth was that his reading skills were pretty awful. “I’d struggle through a page but forget what I had read by the time I got to the next page,” says Paulsen. He remembers “a lot of flipping back and forth to make sure I was making sense of what I read.” Small wonder, then, that he didn’t exactly love reading … at first. Still, says Paulsen, “I felt honor-bound to get through the books the librarian handed to me.” And hand them to him she did, time and time again. “She’d hand-select books that she thought would interest me—Westerns, mysteries, survival tales, science fiction, Edgar Rice Burroughs,” says Paulsen in his introduction to Shelf Life. Later, after he’d read and returned the books, they’d discuss them.
“I wish I could tell you I remember the moment when it all clicked for me,” says Paulsen, “but I can’t—only that it did, and I’m grateful. And that I feel that same click every time I get lost in a book I’m reading or writing to this day.”
Finding His Passion
Paulsen’s early career choices had nothing to do with literature or writing. At 14, he ran away to join the carnival, which turned out to be but a brief interval during a difficult childhood. He did a stint in the Army and held a variety of jobs, eventually settling on a future in electronics. His big “Ah-ha!” moment came when he was working as a satellite technician for an aerospace firm. “I don’t know what it was about that moment,” recalls Paulsen. “I just know I realized I couldn’t do this anymore, and that I wanted to, no—I had to—write.” The idea had no sooner crossed his mind than he was on his feet and out the door. Today, nearly 50 years later, he’s still writing.
“Dancing with words,” says Paulsen of his writing. “Even after all these years and all these books, when a story starts to go right, the hair on the back of my neck lifts, and I am genuinely happy.”
“I love writing,” he continues, “and I’d do it even if I never got published again. I’ll write until I die, but knowing that people read my books is … well, it’s amazing, and I’m grateful.” Now that’s what you call passion!
Living the Life
The average workday for a man who shuttles between three homes—a ranch in New Mexico, a sailboat in the Pacific and a sledding kennel in Alaska—is anything but typical. “I write where and when and how I can,” explains Paulsen. “I write in airport waiting areas, on planes and on the back of my sailboat once I’ve set the autopilot.” He also pens his stories while sitting around a campfire after a day riding horses in the mountains, at the kennel while his dogs are asleep and—when he’s on a book tour—in hotel rooms.
Paulsen, it seems, is never short of ideas for a new yarn or the desire to spin one. His unusual writing habits, however, tend to result in less-than-typical literary submissions. “It’s not unusual,” Paulsen admits, “for me to send my agent a notebook with handwritten chapters and two flash drives, one from my office computer and the other from my laptop, with bits and pieces of a book for her to put together in one document.”
So it’s not really a surprise that the part of writing for a living Paulsen finds the most daunting is organization and keeping track of details. “Luckily,” says Paulsen, “my agent is part Border collie with an obsession for color-coded file folders and making grids and charts and lists, so she sends me updates and overviews and dates and figures. And,” he adds, “I’m going to read them, too, if I can just remember where I put them.”
Reaching His Target Audience
Paulsen loves writing for young readers. Adults, he believes, are too busy worrying about car payments, mortgages and the daily grind to get really lost in a story. Kids, however, are a different matter. Paulsen notes that the young people standing in line at his book signings “start to read to pass the time, and by the time they get to me, there’s this glazed look in their eyes. They’ve totally forgotten they’re standing in line, surrounded by people. They’ve surrendered to the story.”
“After one experience like that,” asks Paulsen, “how could I not want to keep writing for young people?”
Following Your Passion
It took Paulsen a while to get there, but he eventually found his passion in writing—“dancing with words”—and in the readers of his books. It is the perfect “cool job” for him.
So what about you? Do you have a host of story ideas racing around in your head and a keen desire to get them on paper? Maybe becoming a novelist is the “cool job” in your future—and maybe, like Paulsen, you’ll choose to write for and about young people.