I have here an email from a high-school senior in Texas who told me he wants to become a writer. He asked if I had any advice. Here is an excerpt from that letter:

“...Please help! I want to know how to pay my bills with writing! Any advice on this career path is appreciated.”

For starters, I have no advice. I’m terrible with advice. I’m even worse at paying bills, which is why my face is on posters at the local post office.

But I can tell you a story. And this story opens on a drizzly night in Atlanta. I was 24 years old. I sat in a little cafe, after hours, with an old man who I’ll call Moe. My band had just finished playing at a nearby beer joint. Moe had filled in as our substitute guitarist that evening.

In the back of the diner, a waitress was trying to force feed an elderly man in rags who was barefoot and shivering. Merle Haggard sang overhead.

Music is what I did before I became a writer. I played guitar with no-name bands. I did construction before that, but I quit that job to pursue music fo a while. Which was a huge mistake. This meant I had to “pay the bills” with music.

I was suddenly forced to take every gig that presented itself, from Chiefland to Timbuktu. So for years I played in ugly joints your mother warned you about. Occasionally, I also played at the Moose Lodge on bingo night. Or I played piano at revivals.

I quickly started to hate music. I discovered that the professional bar-musician life was not the carefree experience I once thought. I slept in crud-covered motels. I ate fast-food. I missed my wife.

I learned that the easiest way to kill what you love is to treat it like a career. I know this sounds painfully trite, but…

On an empty neighborhood street near my home a father teaches his son to ride a bike. The boy sits on a tiny two-wheeled machine wearing a helmet roughly the size of a prize-winning watermelon. The father balances the bike and offers reassuring advice.

“Keep your head up, and just keep pedaling, and…”

Scattered on the driveway are disassembled training wheels which have been removed from the kid’s bike. The nuts and bolts lie on the pavement like memories of a bygone infanthood.

This boy is about to be one of the big kids today.

The child sits on his saddle wearing the face of Neil Armstrong before blastoff. It is the same facial expression Chuck Yeager had before breaking the sound barrier. The same look I once wore when I realized my income taxes were considerably late.

“I’m scared, Dad,” says the kid.

“You’re gonna be fine.”

“What if I fall?”

“I’m here.”

“What if I can’t do it?”

“You can.”

Meantime, I’m watching from a distance. They don’t see me eavesdropping.

Right now I am having a few

memories return to me. Not memories of bicycles, but of times I once sat in the proverbial saddle and asked myself similar questions.

Can I do it? Can I withstand failure? How about rejection? What about embarrassment? Or pain? Will I make a fool of myself?

There was the time I worked up the bravery to ask Dorothy Lynn to couple skate at the fifth-grade roller-rink party. I was nauseous about it. I felt as though I would vomit all over my shoes.

Dorothy was the most popular girl in fifth grade and I was a chubby redhead whose T-shirts always seemed too snug. Boys like me did not ask Dorothy Lynn to couple skate. Boys like me held the regional record for the most rice puddings consumed during a single cafeteria period.

But I asked Dorothy anyway. I ignored…

A newsroom. I was in my mid-20s. Unruly red hair. Big nose. A necktie that was suffocating me. Don’t ask me how, but I had a job interview. I was pure nerves.

I had no business being there. But then, I have a well-documented history of being in places I shouldn’t be.

“No journalism degree?” the editor said, squinting at my resume which read like a Hardee’s breakfast menu.

“No ma’am.”

“So, what’s your degree in?”

I explained that, at the time, I was in my ninth year of community college. And I was showing true potential as a promising liberal arts major.

“Aren’t you a little old to be applying?” she said. “What exactly is it you want, here?”

Her question paralyzed me. I didn’t know how to answer. She waited. I made no human-like sounds. She asked me to leave.

Goodnight, John Boy. Thanks for playing.

I loosened my necktie. I ordered three tacos from a Mexican dive downtown. The tacos came doused in a red sauce that would forever burn the protective lining from my lower gastrointestinal tract.

I sat

on a curb. What DID I want?

I saw a group of young men, walking the street, wearing suits and neckties. They did not look like me. They were cleancut, perfect teeth.

They probably had vocabularies which did not contain words like, “y'all,” and “twelve-pack.”

It was at this moment that I was interrupted.

Across the street, I saw a young woman struggling to lift a wheelchair from her trunk. I approached her and offered to help. She asked if I’d lift her sister from the vehicle and place her into the chair. I did. I sort of had to bear-hug her sister to lift her out of the passenger seat.

And this did something to me. I discovered what I wanted.

And I’ll share it with you, if I may:

First: I want my friends to…

His name is Moose. I don’t know much about him. We were first introduced yesterday evening when he pressed his cold nose against my skin, which is the age-old gesture of friendship between dogs and humans.

Moose is roughly two-foot tall with a short tail, black muzzle, wide-set eyes, brindle coat, and linen-white paws. He’s a boxer, and he has a temperament so calm he makes the Pope look like a troublemaker.

Moose belongs to our friends, Steve and Elvira. My wife and I were at our friends’ house celebrating New Year’s last night. All evening I was transfixed by Moose because, judging by the look on his face, he didn’t understand what we were celebrating. I guess Moose has never heard of New Year’s Day.

“It’s New Year’s, Moose,” I explained. “Are you gonna wish me happy New Year?”

Moose blinked once. Then he licked himself and left the room.

Because, hey, he’s not here to participate in our weird human holidays. No, Moose is merely an observer within frantic People World.

Although from

the corner of my eye I could see the old boy paying attention to our peopleish conversations with genuine interest. He looked like a spectator at a tennis match. His head would move left, then right. Left. Right. Left. Then he’d pause to do more intimate grooming.

We humans were having some animated discussions too. We were talking about things like pandemics, and problems the virus has created. And we talked about the New Year, and how 2021 is going to be a better year.

The whole time, Moose just watched us. Because for dogs, you see, there is no such thing as pandemics or New Year’s Day. In fact, to a dog there is no yesterday, no next week, and no 2021. There is simply right now.

A dog’s world involves no clocks or calendars. It’s nothing but food, naps, and visits to the…

I don't like endings. I hate goodbyes. I dislike the last day of vacation, the morning after Christmas, the final slice of pizza. I am sad when I finish a carton of rocky road, the last biscuit makes me weep, I grieve when baseball season ends. Endings are the pits.

Then again...

The end is also the best part of a good book, or a timeless song, or a movie. Take “Casablanca.” The final scene of this classic film shows the hero, nightclub owner Rick Blaine, delivering his gut-punching poetic lines to the lovely Ilsa.

The last dramatic minutes between him and Ilsa make the whole movie worth it. The entire film has been tediously mounting, building, climbing, and leading to Rick’s tearful farewell in which he tells Ilsa:

“...Ilsa, I'm no good at being noble, but it doesn't take much to see that the problems of three little people don't amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world. Someday you'll understand that. Now, now... Here's looking at you kid.”

Here’s looking at you kid.

Boy. What a finish.

So endings are vital. Just think about it. The ending of a ballgame is when Sid Bream’s teammates smother him on the infield after he slides into home plate. Where overjoyed ball players dogpile atop each other until they break each other’s ribs.

The ending is the crescendo of a Brahms symphony, swelling to unsurmountable heights. The ultimate few bits of a masterwork which represent the fruition of a composer’s entire career boiled down to 120 seconds. The crashes of cymbals, the sustained whole notes from a string section. La fin. Das ende. Finis. конец. 終わり. The end.

Which is why I want to share something with you that might gross you out, but it’s kind of important. So hang in there.

I speak of a recent study that was done wherein volunteers were taken off the street to…