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.)