My most embarrassing moment

When I was 10 years old, I won second prize in my school’s annual “prose and poetry” competition and got to read my entry in front of an all-school assembly.

I nearly always use those words in my biography to get a laugh, but the truth is, the prize was for me a life-altering event.

Like most children, I wanted very much to excel at something, and my greatest fear was that I would never distinguish myself at anything. My piano teacher didn’t think I would ever amount to much in music, and she was probably right. My baseball coaches were not enthusiastic about my athletic abilities. So, I became a writer in the fifth grade.

The first-prize winner in that “prose and poetry” competition was Randy Vandermey, now a professor of English literature and a teacher of writers. He was a year older than I was, and his winning entry, as I recall, was really good – a whimsical piece of science fiction, written with actual dialog. My own entry was a great deal funnier, I thought, and quite a bit darker, and it wasn’t fiction. It was drawn from the raw experience of my own life.

I titled it, “My Most Embarrassing Moment,” and it is now gone forever, thankfully, unless my mother saved it somewhere.

With that second-place finish, I realized that I had been given a kind of power. I could express myself. I could put feelings into words. I could make people laugh or cry just by putting my thoughts on paper.

I did not take my new-found gift for granted; I cultivated it and learned to write with semi colons. I would practice by writing in notebooks and experimenting with tone, mood, and voice. I once wrote for an entire summer using only the third person to refer to myself because I had seen Norman Mailer do it in Armies of the Night and Miami and the Siege of Chicago.

What I was going to do with my gift wasn’t clear until I found myself at seminary preparing for ministry. I made a conscious decision then that I would write sermons. That would be my life as a writer.

And for nearly 40 years that’s what I’ve done. I’ve put my thoughts into words, making people laugh and cry just by expressing myself. Even better, I did what I had always been taught that I should do with my gifts – namely, use them to serve God. If I could have learned to play the piano or hit a curveball, I would have used those gifts in the same way. Where I grew up, that’s what you did with the gifts you were given. That’s what they were for.

In 1999 I became for the first time a published author. My book not only had my name on the front cover, but it also had my picture on the back. I was thrilled. A publisher I had respected all my life bought my book, printed a few thousand copies of it, not knowing if anyone would buy it, and put his name right there next to mine. I autographed those books at book-signing events, and I even went on a book tour – of sorts – to places like Fort Wayne (Indiana), Toledo (Ohio), and Las Vegas.

In June my fourth book with the same publisher will be released. I confess that I worked as hard on that book as I have worked on anything in my life. I sweat and agonized over every word. If I could get the manuscript back right now, I’m sure that I could make the whole thing even better, maybe changing to the third person to refer to myself.

More than 50 years after I started, I’m still writing funny and sometimes dark pieces drawn from the raw experiences of my life. And of course I’m happy to say that I’m still serving God with my gifts. I hope he’s pleased.

(Photo: Taken not long ago near Two Harbors, Minnesota, on the shore of Lake Superior.)

About Doug

I have been a writer ever since fifth grade when I won second prize in a “prose and poetry” contest. I am also a Presbyterian pastor, and for several years toward the end of my career I lived and worked in Zürich, Switzerland. I am now retired and live just north of Holland, Michigan, along the lake.


5 Responses to My most embarrassing moment

  1. Phil Goodchild February 26, 2017 at 8:43 am #

    Doug, I give thanks that you found your voice and keep using it. It’s surely one way to know that God is at work in the world.

  2. Andrew Gifford February 27, 2017 at 11:05 am #

    I still have my signed copy of that first book, and have referenced it in wedding homilies. I wonder what it’s worth? Thanks Doug.

  3. karen parkinson, wheaton March 1, 2017 at 11:19 am #

    I was thinking about you today as I drove to work. It was 24 years ago that I attended an Ash Wednesday Service. Gary has just died, and it was the first time I had been to an Ash Wednesday Service at First Presbyterian Church in Wheaton when ashes were placed on the forehead. It may have happened previously, and I was not in attendance. It was not the first Ash Wednesday Service I had attended. I did not go up for Ashes, and I remember thinking, I will go home and tell Gary about this and let him know that Bill Sheppard and I were the only ones not to receive ashes. I will not go up this year either. As a child I have memories of Catholic children coming to school on Ash Wednesday and letting all of us who did not have ashes on the forehead that they were better than us. Well, the world has changed, and I should change too. I look forward to your book. Betty Strunk and I talked about your blog when you talked about the fire in the kitchen as you burned the Palms. Know there will be many in the Service tonight thinking about you.
    Karen Parkinson

  4. Paul Vanderzee March 15, 2017 at 12:30 pm #

    I have no doubt that God is pleased! I believe He looks at the product, but moreso at the heart!

    • Doug March 15, 2017 at 1:01 pm #

      I didn’t know that you read my blog, Paul. Good to hear from you!