Guntersville—we are hurricane evacuees in upper Alabama. The destruction from Hurricane Michael is all over television. It’s sobering to see. If the storm would’ve moved a few miles west, it would’ve ruined our home on the Choctawhatchee Bay.
The woman who cleans our room this morning brought her daughter to work. Her daughter is in sixth grade.
“My name’s Samantha,” says the girl. “I’m helping my mom clean today.”
Samantha holds a basket of cleaning supplies. I introduce myself, but before I can finish talking she says in a shy voice:
“I already know who you are. My friend reads your books.”
And it takes all I have not to cry in front of this sixth-grader. Maybe it’s becasue I’m a softy. Or maybe it’s because of the storm. Or maybe it’s because in this child’s eyes I am a writer.
A real writer.
About me: I wanted to be a writer ever since before Samantha’s age. And it was a ridiculous idea for a kid like me to hold.
After all, I didn’t have the confidence God gave a turtle. I was shy, lazy, slow, I made terrible grades in school, and I was a lousy first-baseman.
As it happens, Samantha and I have a few things in common. My mother was a cleaning lady many years ago. She toted vacuums, carpet cleaners, laundry bags, and spray bottles by the metric ton.
She scrubbed toilets, washed windows, mopped floors, and emptied crumbs from toaster ovens.
My mother was our family’s champion. She was a college graduate; a hard worker; she could grow anything in container gardens; she could make quilts from old clothes; she could bake fresh bread that attracted people from four counties; she could read an entire novel in two sittings; she could memorize entire passages of scripture—mostly pertaining to being nice to your sister.
She was above no task, and beneath no one. She taught me to appreciate art, music, and literature. She taught me to hold the door for anyone who bore the title: “Ma’am,” “Miss,” or “Mama.”
And when times were lean, she cleaned houses.
My mother also threw newspapers for the Northwest Florida Daily News when she wasn’t cleaning. My sister and I helped her.
We spent our mornings in my mother’s old Nissan, weaving through residential streets before sunrise. I would hurl papers like footballs at elderly men who checked their mailboxes wearing only their underpants.
And it was in that same passenger seat, after throwing newspapers one morning, that I decided I wanted to be a columnist. It was here that I fell in love with written humor, and the art of the six-hundred-word story.
“Mama?” I asked her once, “you think I could ever be a newspaper columnist?”
She stared at me with warm eyes. “You can be anything you wanna be. You hear me? Anything.”
And even though I was an under confident, below-average kid, this woman told me that I was a special. And I half-believed her.
The truth is, I’ve never felt like a writer. No matter how many columns I write, I can’t seem to feel like a columnist. Instead I feel like an imposter.
After all, writers are poets, masters of prose, literary artists, and thinkers. They use large words, sip fancy bourbon, and wear clawhammer-tail tuxedos to cocktail parties
People like me, however, write about things like ear wax, domestic squirrels, bloodhounds, our parents, and occasionally, baseball. It’s hard to feel like a writer. No matter how old I get, I’m always going to be someone who threw the paper with his mother.
Don’t get me wrong, I am proud of this. People like me come from strong stock. The world might not always notice us, but we bear the genes of heroes.
Our forebearers were men who worked overtime, fighting sleep deprivation and fatigue. We come from brilliant women who hold their spines stiff in the face of life’s torrents, and scrub toilets.
From parents who paid bills with peanuts. Who ate heartache for breakfast, disappointment for lunch, and still managed to wear a smile for supper.
People who work in the background of the Great American Masterpiece. People who take their kids to work with them. Who show them how to clean windows, how to throw newspapers, and how to dream big even though they are afraid to.
They teach their children things you can’t learn in man-made institutions. They teach us that even though life is not pretty, it certainly is beautiful.
They teach us that we are above nothing, and beneath no one. They love without asking questions. And in the wee hours of the morning, after throwing newspapers, they tell their boys that they can grow up to become writers if they want. Columnists, even.
Sometimes, I go through life not knowing exactly what or who I am. But today, a sixth-grader made me feel like a writer.
Thank you, Samantha.
Mike Perez - October 13, 2018 5:57 am
Fake it until you make it. You faked me out many stories ago. You’re a greater writer Sean. Thank you.
Suzanne Hill - October 13, 2018 6:50 am
Maybe u don’t work for The New York Times but you are still a writer. Your stories have made me sad. They have been that good. Thank you, Mr. Dietrich. Come write about our little town. We are two states & four counties about seventy five miles from Guntersville. Ardmore. You won’t know where you are once you get here-Alabama or Tennessee. ? 256 423 3437 Thanx !
Susan Self - October 13, 2018 7:17 am
No one but a talented writer could make me grab up my cell phone at two o’clock in the morning to check my emails on a bathroom run. Said it nicely. But I do and you are. We am so thankful that you share “you” with us.
Judy Kate - October 14, 2018 4:47 am
When I first read Susan’s comment, I rejoiced that I’m not the only one who reads your posts during ‘private’ time in the wee hours of the morning. As I read through the other comments, I discovered Susan and I aren’t the only ones who ‘read you’ in the middle of the night, The way I see it… if those of us who ‘fessed up are any indication, there’s probably a right many … hundreds… heck, maybe thousands… of us who are so anxious to read your next story, we cannot wait until a respectable dawn’s early light. I would say that makes you quite a captivating writer. I would like to hang around and expand on the many ways your writing captivates me, but since I’m still up, I’m going to make myself a cup of decaf and prepare to read you in about 30 minutes from a proper spot… my favorite reading chair. I can hardly wait!
Bev - October 13, 2018 7:55 am
It’s 2:36 AM and I, too, checked my email to read your life story! I love the memories you share that remind me of my parents and younger years! You are a writer and more of a columnist than many who call themselves a columnist but who, in all likelihood, snuck in through the back door! Keep observing and continue writing! You’re in a beautiful area, Guntersville, and I’m sure you’ll find good people to write about! If you have time, come up to Huntsville! A lot of Alabama history began here. Visit Harrison Brothers Hardware, downtown on the square, the oldest continuously operating hardware store in the state! Also, there’s Maple Hill Cemetery where many Alabama historical people are buried to include Tallulah Bankhead!
Karen - October 13, 2018 7:57 am
I think the best writers use their words to describe the things they know well, things that have universal appeal. They write about the things most familiar to them. They usually have vivid childhood memories and relate life events as they experienced them. You do this. Your details make us relive moments that mattered to us, using all of our senses. You are a great writer.
Carolyn from Georgia - October 13, 2018 8:10 am
Looks like alot of us read your stories in the middle of the night!!! We all look forward to it that much!!! So happy you & your family are safe!!! ♡♡♡
Jess Rawls - November 29, 2018 3:38 pm
I read Sean’s stories early in the morning before I get busy with other things. Then if time allows I read some stories from the archives to catch up since I’ve only been reading Sean’s writings for a few weeks. My Sunday School teacher mentioned Sean at least twice; the first time he mentioned Sean I didn’t follow up and let his name escape my memory. The second time he mentioned Sean, I looked him up as soon as I got home, read a few of his stories and was hooked like a bass grabbing a popping bug on a fly line. Sean, you’re a fabulous writer and so many of your stories touch my heart. Your writings bring back so many memories of my life from childhood to the present day. Thanks for what you’re doing. Keep it up and continue to bring joy, thoughtfulness and happiness into a world that sorely needs YOU.
Dot Wells - October 13, 2018 9:50 am
You are a great writer! It is 4:50 in the morning and I am reading YOUR words! Everday…probably should be reading my Bible but you make the world ok. Don’t stop writing and YES you would lower yourself to be a newspaper columnist!
Marilyn Vance - October 13, 2018 9:51 am
Hope my hometown was good to you and I understand that you spoke at Snead while you were there. Loved reading about your haircut and about Samantha who told you TRUTH….you are a writer of the best kind!
Cheryl Clem - October 13, 2018 9:54 am
I love your writing. You touch so many lives, including mine. Never stop. Thank you Dean for my daily lift
See you tomorrow.
Josie - October 13, 2018 9:59 am
Wonderful, Sean! And I hope you & Samantha took a break to enjoy the wonder of the beautiful
mountains & lake at Guntersville. Few places on this earth are as breathtaking, and they apparently inspire heart-touching writers for you touched mine again.
GaryD - October 13, 2018 10:05 am
I want to tip my hat to your mama. Early in my marriage I delivered the Pensacola News Journal twice a day. My route was from Fort Walton Beach to Navarre and all of Hurlburt Field. Not a high paying job but it bought a few groceries. It’ll wear your car out. Did it for a few months….it wore my car out! ?
Jan - October 13, 2018 10:33 am
Awesome! Love your writing – especially your line about parents “who ate heartache for breakfast, disappointment for lunch, and still managed to wear a smile for supper.” So true for so many!
Sharon Schwalbach - October 13, 2018 10:48 am
Oh Sean, you surely are a writer. You are a great writer, a passionate and caring writer. A writer who loves people, a writer who loves dogs, a writer with a wonderful and very large heart. You are a writer. Thank you for that.
Janie's Jottings - October 13, 2018 11:25 am
Yes, thank you Samantha. To my way of thinking a writer is someone who uses words to make others think and feel. Sean, you do that so beautifully. I love this!
Dianne Rathje - October 13, 2018 11:29 am
Yes, another one of your best-est!
Norma Norton - October 13, 2018 12:00 pm
Thanks Sean- you are a true inspiration.
Ruth Edens - October 13, 2018 12:24 pm
Oh you sweet man. So many people can put pen to paper, words on a sheet and call themselves a writer and nothing happens. The world goes on as before. But the real writers, the true writers, do this same movement and they touch people, people’s lives are changed, the world is changed. You my friend are changing lives, touching people with your words every day. You are a rare and beautiful Writer. Read the comments people leave. People are moved, affected by your words, at 2:30 am no less:-) keep it up please!
Dan Wise - October 13, 2018 12:46 pm
You had me from ‘toted’…don’t hear that word used. much these days!
Patrick - October 13, 2018 12:57 pm
You inspire me with your writing. Most of your stories make the good come out and I find myself having better days becuase of them. There are good people in this world like in your writings, but you sir, are one of the greats!
Jo Ann - October 13, 2018 1:02 pm
You, and your family, and all like you are the backbone and heartbeat of America. We, unfortunately, don’t hear a lot about you all from the media, but you are always there. Thanks for writing about you and yours and reminding us what is real.
Marilyn - October 13, 2018 1:20 pm
You are a writer, Sean. Your stories do not need translation, we understand your words. Sometimes they make us laugh, other times we might shed a tear, for you write about real life. I look forward to seeing what you have to say each morning. God bless you – and your writing.
Susan Swiderski - October 13, 2018 1:25 pm
I think the only writers who don’t doubt themselves are the ones who don’t care, the ones who only do it for the paycheck. True writers, like YOU, write from the heart and touch the hearts of other people because they appreciate the power and beauty of words, and truly care about life and making connections with other people, Your mom is a remarkable woman, and you, dear man, are a remarkable writer.
Sandra Smith - October 13, 2018 1:32 pm
I’m looking at the sky, Thanking God, AND your Mama & Daddy, for making YOU, the kind of man who can write like you do, You ARE a writer. You ARE a poet, and you speak our truth & gratitude, everyday.
We, who clean hotel rooms, and the backsides of those who are ill. We, who climb on dozer’s, and build the roads & bridges, and infrastructure of this country. We, who grow. Soy beans, & melons in the summer, & collards in the fall. We, who are brick & morter, that makes up the foundation of this nation…THAT’S who you speak too, and THANK GOD for you. ❤
John Wheeler - October 13, 2018 1:41 pm
I am 10 miles away in Arab. Come on by!
B. Yerry in Fort Walton Beach - October 13, 2018 1:48 pm
You are a writer as Norman Rockwell was an artist. He painted what he saw and you write about what you see. That’s the real stuff. And as I said before, I know what you are talking about. Lived it, done it, and saw it.
Louise Ferguson - October 13, 2018 1:58 pm
I thought Jeff Foxworthy would replace Lewis Grizzard. I was wrong. You took his place. I read your column everyday!
Carol L. - October 13, 2018 2:08 pm
I am reading your post at 8:50 am on October 13, 2018 and seeing comments that show they are posted at 1:48 pm. I don’t understand that. How can the comments be posted in the afternoon when it is not even 9:00 am?
I love your stories and hope you might visit the area where I live, Crossville, AL, about 30 miles East of Guntersville on Hwy 68. Love hearing about the places you visit and the way you write about them. It makes me remember a lot of my childhood when you tell about the old time stores and other places.
Keep up the good work.
Steve Winfield - December 4, 2018 3:13 am
Wait for your comment to post, check the time stamp & follow that overseas. That’s where the servers are operating. Comprende?
Jeanne Butler - October 13, 2018 2:57 pm
You ARE a writer. You write about real things and life that people like me can identify with. You write about the wonderful South that people like me stuck in the North love. Thank you Sean, the best writer ever. Love and hugs
Penn Wells - October 13, 2018 3:24 pm
From “Our forebears….” through “…Columnists, even.” has gone into my book of quotes. ?
Barbara - October 13, 2018 3:26 pm
Maybe you could gift Samantha with a copy of all your books. Who knows she may be the next Sean Dietrich.
Dianne Shafer - October 13, 2018 3:27 pm
A poet is that person who “expresses in words what others cannot express for themselves”–it’s just that simple. You ARE a poet–a poet of the quiet folk, of the kind hearts and gentle souls. You are gifted to be able to see the good in others and to celebrate that good in ordinary words set in ordinary places. You celebrate God with your simple declaration of encounters that express goodness that, most often, the majority of us are too busy to see. Sean, you ARE a poet; you ARE a writer–sharing the good.
Renee' Flory - October 13, 2018 4:27 pm
Amen, Dianne. You said it very well.
rantsandravescom - October 13, 2018 9:48 pm
You write pretty well yourself Dianne Shafer. For you said all the things I would like to say about Sean’s column. I can report facts, that’s what I used to write about, but being to tell a story from old memories or present ones, that people hunger to read that is a true write.
Debbie Galladora - October 13, 2018 3:59 pm
Renee' Flory - October 13, 2018 4:26 pm
You ARE a master at prose. Believe me…I knows. 🙂
Dolores S. Fort - October 13, 2018 4:40 pm
You definitely are a writer, Sean. The words you put together are true and part of our everyday life. It takes someone special to be able to make the reader a part of the story and, sometimes make it their own. Thank you. And don’t ever change! You are special!
Mary - October 13, 2018 4:49 pm
Sean, One of the hardest things for me to accept about myself is that I’m a writer. My writers group friends told me repeatedly, until I began to believe it, that I’m a writer even when I’m not writing. I’ve had a blog, and a couple stories published. I laugh at the thought of a 600 word piece, Some of my sentences are 600 words. I’ve still got a lot to learn. I’m not ready for the big time yet, but you certainly are. Keep writing. And even if you’re not writing, you are still a writer.
Glenda Creel - October 13, 2018 5:40 pm
The writer’s job is to make the reader to be immersed in the story. You are a WRITER, Sean.
Marinan Brewer - October 13, 2018 5:42 pm
But u ate
Sam Salisbury - October 13, 2018 5:51 pm
In many ways I know the feelings. Great writing. Keep up the good work. Sam
Gloria - October 13, 2018 6:56 pm
I would rather read a column by you than all of the tuxedo-wearing big newspapermen put together ❤️
queenofclyde - April 19, 2022 1:37 pm
Seems like my favorite column of yours changes when I read the next one. But this one resonated with me, in a very good way. While I wish I’d started writing earlier, when I did begin, I believe it saved my life in many ways. It was therapy for a young woman who felt as if she was damaged goods. I wrote what I was thinking and what was going on in my life and how it made me feel. I have gotten away from writing but this column has inspired me. At least while I’m at this breakfast table. I need to get up now and go write. I have a lot to say. Thanks Sean.
Sharontj - October 14, 2018 1:06 am
Oh my goodness, you ARE a writer! Observing small mundane daily activities or the invisible people all around
us, then stringing sweet words together……….. that hit me right in the heart
Jane Conner Carr - October 14, 2018 1:12 am
Great column! You have a wonderful Mother and you are a good writer! Believe it!
Toni Tucker Locke - October 14, 2018 1:35 am
I had a hard time sleeping last night and didn’t wake up until 6:30. I didn’t get a chance to read your column until tonight. I see that you were just a few miles South of the Tennessee state line. I would have gone a lookin’ for you if I had known you were so close to us! Until I get a chance to meet you I will just have to be happy reading your very excellent writing. (The first journalist I ever shook hands with was a NASHVILLE TENNESSEAN writer and I was a 16-year-old high school student employed on week-ends as a dishwasher. His hands were softer than mine. I bet yours aren’t ’cause you are much more than just a writer!)
that's jack - October 14, 2018 3:21 am
Thanks for encouragement. we would be writers need all the ‘go get-um’s’ we can get. I did enjoy the read. I enjoy your style. Seems everyone I suggest ‘Sean’ to, drops by and stays. We are not storm evacuees, but have spent about a month in a house and now have our mobile-estate back. We will again be Gypsies in a few days.
Ellen Turvey - October 14, 2018 3:53 am
Glad you and your family are safe. I live in Ozark, Al. Just far enough away that our property wasn’t damaged. I pray for the people that got caught in Michaels path. Hopefully can go home soon and hug your mom. You are a writer. A talented man. Love your books. Thanks.
Lucretia - October 14, 2018 7:36 am
I too thank you, Samantha. Thank you, Sean. Lucretia
Kathy M Hornsby - October 14, 2018 11:12 pm
I once heard that everything ever said or WRITTEN all use the same 26 letters, just arranged in different ways. God gave you a talent and you arrange those letters in the BEST possible way. Keep it up, you ARE a writer !
Shelton Armour - October 15, 2018 12:06 am
Sean…You are a writer. Your stories/columns inspire, provoke thought, provide smiles and belly laughs. You can thank Samantha-but your Mama was right. You can be anything you want-you did become a writer.
Helena Shirley - October 15, 2018 11:16 am
Thank you for bringing to light “People who work in the background of the Great American Masterpiece”. These are the folks that are the back bone, the framework of our nation.
Janet Mary Lee - October 17, 2018 3:39 pm
I am still laughing at the mental image I get by you throwing the paper at those men in their underwear and you protecting your mama!! Your whole story is full of wisdom, buy that image has made my day…again!!
Pecos Kate - October 18, 2018 1:25 pm
The drawing of the typewriter transported me back to another place and time. I love it!!! Great illustration!
Evelyn Holloway - October 22, 2018 1:00 am
You are definitely a writer and I love to read your writing!
Catherine - October 29, 2018 4:56 pm
Real writers touch hearts~you are the epitome of a “heart~toucher”…..
Yulonda - December 3, 2018 1:50 pm
You are a great writer, Sean! It flows straight from your heart onto the page in a fashion we southerners can identify. You are blessed by God with a wonderful gift. Keep it flowing!
Nancy - December 4, 2018 12:56 am
I retired from the State of CA as a technological writer/editor, actually a supervisor—one of only three in the State. I spent much of my childhood/youth chopping/picking cotton in North Alabama. Now THAT’S hard work. Your mama was right. You can do anything you want.
Nancy - December 4, 2018 4:13 pm
Sean, honey, you ARE a writer. Merry Christmas!