Missouri-born writer W.R. “Gary” Benton recalls the Rolla High School English teacher who critiqued a story he wrote for class.
“She was a pretty tough old woman,” Benton, now a resident of Pearl, Miss., said in a recent telephone interview.
She suggested that he should quit writing and seek a career after high school that involved neither writing nor speaking.
“I grew up speaking Ozarkese,” Benton said. “And I wrote the way I talked.”
Although Benton enjoyed writing that story, he took her advice, and “I kind of gave up writing.”
Benton joined Air Force, and he learned survival techniques that he eventually was asked to teach. Keep in mind that he had been criticized for his “Ozarkese” in high school; now the U.S. Air Force was asking him to pass on what he had learned to other airmen. To do that he would have to do something about his perceived shortcomings.
“I had to overcome that,” Benton said. “I learned how to speak. I got over my shyness of public speaking, and I gained some self-confidence. I did that for 12 years.”
In 1983, at age 31, he was asked to cross-train into industrial safety.
“I did investigations of accidents,” he said. “It was much like looking at a crime scene.”
But after the investigation, came the report writing. That was another perceived shortcoming from high school.
Benton overcame that, too, learning to pay attention to details and write specifically.
“That got me to develop my thinking process,” he said.
Benton retired from the Air Force in 1997 after a full career that included wide use of the two skills he had been knocked for in high school, speaking and writing.
Two years after retiring, Benton was faced with a request for a divorce.
“I had been married 25 years and had three lovely children,” he said. “It was hard to accept, but I had to accept it. It was a real tough time.”
Benton soon learned he had a choice, drinking or “finding an option that was therapeutic.”
He went back in time to high school, remembered that he liked the freedom and creativity in that much-maligned (by the teacher) story.
“I started writing,” he said.
As does any writer, he called on all of his life experiences to create new stories. He used his survival skills. He used his past in investigation.
Perhaps most important was his use of his childhood experiences.
“We lived in Vida with no running water and no electricity,” said Benton, whose mother, Edna, lives in Rolla. “As little as we had, we had deep love.” And they had conversation, something many modern families do not.
Page 2 of 2 - “My great-grandmother was bedridden. She used to tell me stories,” he said. “We didn’t expect her to last beyond 100. She lived to be 103.”
He also learned Bible stories in church, and frequently in the evenings, his grandfather would fiddle and tell stories.
“He was born in the late 1880s, and he had a lifetime of Wild West stories,” Benton said. “Some of them may even have been true.”
All of those experiences, stirring around in his brain, came out fresh and new on paper.
“Thirteen years ago my first book was published,” he said. “It was pretty crude, and it’s no longer in print, but it motivated me.”
He kept writing.
Then in 2005, he met a woman, and she also motivated him and encouraged him.
“Something clicked,” he said. “She’s a Southerner and we fit together real well.” They married, and she continued to encourage him to write. Unlike the teacher, who told him to give up, Benton’s new wife’s writing advice: “You need to push yourself harder.”
Benton has done exactly that, writing several books, forming his own publishing company, and early this year selling the rights of his latest book, “War Paint,” to a movie production company.
“I’ve got half a dozen endorsements for ‘War Paint,’” Benton said, including actor James Drury (TV’s “The Virginian”) and several members of Western Writers of America. You can read some of those endorsements and find out more about “War Paint” and his other books at www.wrbenton.net.
Benton said, “More people are reading ebooks than paperbacks” and “War Paint” is doing well as an ebook. “As of March 31, it was 42 out of the top 100 westerns,” he said.
It has also sold well as a paperback, he noted. “Books a Million has it on the shelves,” he said.
In addition to writing and publishing, Benton operates a web design business. His wife is also a writer and photographer, and “we work well together.”
Benton’s advice to anyone wanting to write a book is to keep writing.
“The most important trait is determination,” said Benton, speaking from experience. “You can’t succeed if you’re a quitter. You’ll never get that book published if you’re a quitter.”