Sunday, April 13, 2014

On Writing

I've always enjoyed reading and writing. My favorite class in elementary school was reading and then later in high school it was English. I devoured books as a kid and wrote stories. Lots of them. I even attended to a few young author's conferences.

Writing was an important part of my life from an early age.

When I first went away to college my declared major was exercise science. Being an athlete, I thought I wanted to be a personal trainer. (Hello? I never liked science class and in exercise science you take LOTS of science! Heck, I just wanted to work out.)

After taking a freshman comp course and then an exposition in writing course where the assignments were to read great books and write about them, I quickly changed my major to English. Mike Dolzani became my adviser and my first professor-mentor who encouraged me. To this day he probably has no idea how deeply he impacted my life in those formative years. (Dr. Dolzani, if by chance you are reading this, THANK YOU!) 

I knew I wanted to be a writer. Maybe an English and literature professor too. But definitely a writer. I was even working on a piece of creative non-fiction back then, though I wasn't aware of the genre at the time. I stayed up late into the night, tap tap tapping the keys of my laptop as the words poured out of me. Looking back, they were silly vignettes. Mostly about experiences with my friends, our drunken exploits, and the drama of our lives. I guess we all start by writing what we know.   

One thing I've learned is that life rarely turns out like how you think it will. I never finished my bachelor's degree in English. My father had been sick since I was a sophomore in high school. But no one could figure out what was wrong with him. During my freshman year of college, doctors did a heart cath on my dad and discovered he had cardiomyopathy. His heart only functioned at 17 percent capacity. 

It was a cruel twist of fate. A fluke, really. No high blood pressure. No high cholesterol. None of the typical heart disease issues. A virus had attacked his heart and killed the muscle. It happens. And unfortunately it happened to my dad. Doctors said he would be dead within two or three years. They were wrong. He lasted seven. 

I left college near the end of the spring semester of my junior year to come home and help take care of my dad. I think there were only two or three weeks left in the semester. I remember packing my red, two-door Ford Escort hatchback with the black trim on the sides and clean, grey interior. I loved that car. 

It was a sunny but cool day. The sky was deep blue and with a hint of grey overcast looming from Lake Erie. The sweet smell of spring was in the air. It was the promise of new life. But instead it felt like the end. 

My friends and I cried as we hugged and said our goodbyes. This was before everyone had cell phones, before Facebook, Twitter, Skype and FaceTime. Returning home, five hours from school in another state, might as well have been the other side of the world. 

In my heart I thought I'd be back. And while I did manage to visit friends back on campus a couple times, I never did make it back as a student. I never finished my English degree. I still regret that. Not the decision to come home. I've never regretted that for a moment or had a second thought about it. But I do regret never finishing the degree.

Despite not having a degree, I was able to get a job as a reporter at a local newspaper. I worked my way up and then got hired at a larger local paper. Although I wasn't writing the great American novel or anything remotely close to what what might be considered literature or creative writing, I was getting paid to write. 

I loved chasing a story. The deadlines. The pressure. Seeing my byline, especially if it made front page of the section, or on a few occasions, front page of the entire paper. For a few short years it was glorious. And sometimes not. 

Eventually I moved on to other things. I worked construction. I worked in the parts department of an RV manufacturer. And I finished my degrees. Three of them over nine years. I worked full-time and went to school part-time. 

All of that seems like another lifetime ago now. Was that me? Did all that happen to me? Did I do those things? Who was that person? I'm not sure I know. 

Life happens. Life changes us. Choices are made. Providence takes us in new directions. We find ourselves doing things we never thought we'd do and perhaps never wanted to do. But the whole time we're becoming who we are. 

Like Annie Dillard famously said, "How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives ... What we are doing with this hour or that one is what we are doing."

Today I'm a pastor. How the hell did that happen? Long story. Maybe I'll tell you someday. Here's a secret, a confession maybe: I never wanted to be a pastor. I never thought I'd be a pastor. 

Except maybe I did. Maybe I was a pastor-in-training all along, the seemingly disparate strands, false starts, missteps and mishaps of my life forming me and shaping me into who I had been all along but without consciously realizing it. Maybe I was a pastor before I was ever officially called a pastor. Maybe I was a pastor before I ever knew I was a pastor. It seems so now.

In his memoir, The Pastor, Eugene Peterson describes his own circuitous journey of self-discovery to full-time vocational ministry as a pastor. He writes, "I had never planned to be a pastor, never was aware of any inclination to be a pastor, never 'knew what I wanted to be when I grew up.' And then -- at the time it seemed to arrive abruptly -- there it was: Pastor" (2).

When I first went to college they told us during freshman orientation that no matter what our major we would probably change careers five or six times. Being a pastor is my fourth career move. I've been a pastor longer now than anything else I've been in my adult life.

Through it all one thing has remained constant: I still write. I also still read voraciously. And the writing. And the writing. 


Doug Connelly said...

Good post, Sam! Keep writing!
Doug Connelly

Sam Ochstein said...

Thanks, Doug! Hope things are well in your neck of the woods. Blessings!