Imagine that you have hired one of those courtroom typists to follow you around all day, transcribing your conversations.

DEAR SEAN:

How do I come up with things to write? I want to be a writer, but right now I have writer’s block and the words aren’t coming. I have an essay due in my class for creative writing so I need a quick answer.

NINTH-GRADER

DEAR NINTH-GRADER:

Here’s what you do. And pay careful attention to what I am about to explain.

Pickled eggs.

Now before you roll your eyes and quit reading, let me tell you a story about a kid with an incredible stretching stomach.

This kid’s pals used to travel far and wide simply to dare him to eat things because this kid had a gift. And by “this kid,” of course I mean me.

I could eat two large pizzas with no problem. Buffets? I laugh at buffets. If you would have cut a bowling ball into bite-sized pieces, I could have eaten four and still had room for layer cake.

My buddies would often buy a giant jar of pickled eggs

and watch me eat myself silly while chanting, “PUKE! PUKE!”

Today, these friends are all insurance salesmen, dentists, and chiropractors. You have to worry about America’s youth sometimes.

But anyway, I would eat eggs then go home. I would be so sick that I couldn’t go to sleep for at least four semesters. So I would stay up all night, writing. And so began my literary career.

Of course, the real trick was not the eggs. It was the friends. Because during these eating exhibitions we would have great conversations. And that’s what creative writing is, a one-sided conversation.

Have you ever paid close attention to yourself during conversation? Words flow. There’s no pressure to come up with something profound. Entire paragraphs fall out of your mouth like building blocks.

You speak a few words. They add a few. Someone tells a…

This woman is important to me. I married her when I was young like you. She has contributed more to my life than any single person alive.

DEAR SEAN:

I want to ask this girl to marry me. I am 21, and she is 22, and we are completely in love. Her family is against our wedding and my family isn’t all about it either.

I have had some serious health issues since I was a child and I almost died several times so I know that life is short, more than other people. I asked a pastor what to do and he said it would be disrespectful to our parents to disobey them, but I am so confused, so what do I do? We just want to be together.

Thanks,
VERMONT-GUY

DEAR VERMONT:

First off: You do not need advice. Anyone who has “almost died several times” has already learned things I will never know.

Don’t get me wrong, I have had a few moments when I THOUGHT I was dying. But nothing like you.

I am not kidding. I am predisposed to episodes of something called “vasovagal syncope.” This

is just a medical way of saying that I pass out at the drop of a hat. It happens only when I get very freaked out.

People who experience vasovagal syncope experience lightheadedness, nausea, the feeling of being hot or cold (accompanied by sweating), ringing ears, confusion, inability to speak or form words, visual disturbances such as lights seeming too bright, tunnel vision, and (this is a real biggie) RELAXATION OF THE BOWEL MUSCLES. Then these people pass out.

I have passed out a lot. Once when I was a child, a faith healer from Tennessee came through our church. He asked if I “believed.” I told him I did. He did put his hand on my forehead and hissed like a snake.

I hate snakes.

I passed out. When I came to, something was very wrong. My mother took me into the bathroom and—I don’t mean…

When I read the email, I realized the person who wrote this letter was not being funny, but was having a dire emergency.

I’ll be the first to admit that I know jack diddly about teenage romance, which is why I am answering an important email on teenage romance.

This morning, I got an email with the subject line:

“URGENT!!!!! NEED ADVICE ABOUT A CUTE BPY IN MY CLASS!”

Almost anyone can relate to the urgency of this six-exclamation-point statement. We’ve all been there, sitting in third-period algebra, filled with teenage angst and confusion, but all we can do is daydream because in our heart of hearts we aren’t exactly sure what a “bpy” is.

When I read the email, I realized the person who wrote this letter was not being funny, but has a dire emergency.

Here’s part of the message:

“There’s a guy in my class [eighth grade] who is cute and I want to talk to him, but he doesn’t even know I’m alive, and my mom told me I should ask you because you’re also a guy. I hoped you might have some advice for me.”

Well, the first thing I want to say is that I am jealous of my parents and grandparents. They had it a lot easier than we do. There have been some major changes in the field of romance within the last sixty years.

The uncharted waters of teenage love were a lot easier to navigate back when Sandra Dee was still playing Gidget and people were still using the word “gosh” before each sentence.

Let’s take, for example, the movie “Beach Blanket Bingo,” which was on cable a few nights ago. Fifteen minutes into this movie and you can see how much society has changed.

For one thing, fashion is different. Men quit wearing skimpy swim trunks, and ladies quit wearing those massive conical brassieres that resembled military defense machinery capable of taking out entire villages. For another thing, nobody uses the word “spiffy” anymore.

We can…

It’s hard putting yourself out there. In fact, this is the hardest part.

DEAR SEAN:

How do you go about writing one of your stories? What is your process like?

Love,
TWENTY-FOUR-AND-WANT-TO-WRITE

DEAR TWENTY-FOUR:

There are many people who can tell you more about the writing process than I can. But I’ll tell you how I do it.

The first thing to know is that writing requires brain power. And studies tell us that the human body gets its strongest surge at 5 A.M. This surge typically lasts until 5:03 A.M. Unfortunately, I am asleep during the surge and I am wholly unaware of it.

So I generally wake up exhausted at about 7:30 A.M. Then, I complain about how badly I slept the night before. When you get older, you don’t sleep as good as you used to.

My mother used to warn me about this. I would laugh at her and say “Ha ha! No way, I’ll sleep great forever! And I will always be able to eat acidic foods after six o’clock, too!”

No.

You quit

sleeping well around your thirties. And food? Once upon a time, I could eat an extra-large five-alarm beef burrito and finish the day like a caffeinated squirrel. Nowadays, if I eat one French fry I have to take a four-hour nap.

So anyway, after morning coffee, I wait for my mood to improve. I am not a morning person and never have been. My happy mood in the morning is always fake.

This is because when I was a boy I used to wake up with a bad attitude. My father took me aside once and said, “You'd better learn how to fake a good mood, or your mother’s not gonna make pancakes anymore.”

I’ve been faking good moods ever since.

When my caffeine takes effect, I go to my office. In my office, I have just about everything a writer needs to have around…

But not me, thank God. I wasn’t ever called “chubby.” I was called “chunky.”

DEAR SEAN:

Your writing is becoming redundant, can you write about something else besides the same things over and over again? If you need help with ideas then get out of your comfort zone to stretch yourself and see more of this world.

...And don’t take offense when I tell you this, but I think you should shave and get a haircut since in your pictures you can sometimes look homeless. Don’t be afraid to let the world see the smiling face that’s behind all that hair, people will love it!

Thanks,
NITPICKY

DEAR NITPICKY:

Thank you for writing me. Of course you didn’t offend me, don’t be silly. I love it when people tell me I look “homeless.” It makes my day.

Only someone with deep emotional insecurities could feel hurt by such words. Someone who, for instance, might have been made fun of in middle school for being chubby. But not me, thank God. I wasn’t ever called “chubby.”

I was called “chunky.”

Chubby and chunky are not the same things. Chubby people

can wear bathing suits to Lydia Mandeville’s thirteenth birthday party and feel no shame.

Chunky people would rather die in a tragic diving-board accident than remove their shirt in public.

Then again, the only thing that would have been worse than taking off my shirt in front of thirteen-year-olds would have been NOT ATTENDING the biggest party of the century.

My friend, Billy (also chunky), insisted on going to the party because he was in love with Lydia Mandeville.

Billy begged me to go. He said, “I need you there! For support! PLEASE!”

“I’m sorry, Billy. I’m not going.”

“There’s gonna be barbecue.”

“Barbecue?”

“Did I stutter?”

So I decided to go to Lydia’s party because there was going to be barbecue.

Billy’s mother dropped us off at the public pool. Billy and I arrived…

This week alone, I received letters from Lake Geneva, Wisconsin; Fayetteville, North Carolina; Chanute, Kansas; Oswego, New York; and Atlanta, Georgia.

Today, I got home to find my mail-lady stuffing my mailbox, using her fist to cram letters and manila envelopes in the government-approved receptacle.

That poor woman. She’s having a hard time because our mailbox was the recent victim of “mailbox baseball,” which is a game played during the summer months.

The rules of the game are loose, but it involves speeding cars filled with teenagers beating the tar out of innocent mailboxes.

The object of this game is: Any teenager who awakes the next morning and still remembers what happened the night before, wins.

Because of this, our beat-up mailbox looks more like a mutant metal pancake with a flag attached.

I need to install a new box, but I kind of like the character our dented mailbox has. It seems to scream to the world, “Hey, look at me! I’m lopsided! When it rains the mail gets wet!”

My mail lady hates our mailbox. She tells me it is one of

the top four things that causes her high blood pressure. The top item on her list is her mother-in-law in Tampa.

I receive a lot of mail. Which is a new thing for me. Used to, nobody wrote me but Ed McMahon and the IRS. But now I get mail from all over, sometimes from exotic countries like Canada.

Today, I got a letter from Jacksonville, from a woman I met a few weeks ago. It was a very touching letter. I cried when I read it.

I also got a letter from a man named Myron, who is from Tacoma, Washington, whose father just died.

This week alone, I received letters from Lake Geneva, Wisconsin; Fayetteville, North Carolina; Chanute, Kansas; Oswego, New York; and Atlanta, Georgia.

Most of my letters, however, come from Alabama. I am fortunate to call Alabama my adopted home away from home.…

“Please don’t get weird and preach at me, I get enough of that, I just don’t know what to do about this and had to tell somebody.”

DEAR SEAN:

I know you usually write about good things, but I am pretty down and I don’t know what to do, I think about ending it all sometimes, but don’t know what to do about it. I have a wife and two young sons and dogs, and she [wife] really wants me to go to the doctor, but I hate doctors.

Please don’t get weird and preach at me, I get enough of that, I just don’t know what to do about this and had to tell somebody.

HELP

DEAR HELP:

I am terrified of doctors, too. I hate waiting rooms, needles, elevator music, blood-pressure cuffs, outdated issues of “Better Homes and Gardens,” the smell of rubbing alcohol, and god-awful fluorescent lighting.

When I was a boy, I disliked our family dentist so much that I would fake terminal diseases just to avoid him. My dentist was an old man who looked like Harry Caray and his breath smelled like a reclaimed water facility.

He smoked Winstons while he

worked, and listened to Glenn Miller cassette tapes. To this day, I can’t hear the Glenn Miller Orchestra without developing a nicotine buzz.

One day, the old doc looked into my mouth, he was humming along with “Chattanooga Choo Choo,” breathing smoke directly into my face, and he told me that he was going to install a permanent retainer on my bottom teeth.

I got so scared that I almost Chattanooga-Choo-Chooed in my shorts.

He glued a piece of wire to my teeth with an industrial adhesive often used on commercial runways. When I left his office, I felt like somebody had constructed a Steinway inside my mouth.

But the wire didn’t last. It came loose after only a month. When the wire dislodged, it left behind huge globs of hardened glue on the backside of my teeth.

Now, I should have told…

I’m just like you. I don’t have anything brilliant to write. So I write about simple things.

DEAR SEAN:

I want to be a writer, but sometimes I feel like I shouldn’t even bother to write at all since everyone else is better than I am.

Sincerely,
THIRTEEN-AND-WANT-TO-WRITE

DEAR THIRTEEN:

I think you should keep writing. Especially when you feel like you aren’t any good.

I have written my worst stuff on my best days and my best stuff on my worst days. And it’s been the greatest thrill of my life.

I’m just like you. I don’t have anything brilliant to write. So I write about simple things.

For instance, I have written a lot about my late dog, Ellie Mae. Once, she ate an entire jar of coffee grounds. I discovered that coffee stimulates the lower intestines of an animal.

Don’t ask me how I learned this.

I also wrote about the time I got stranded on an island for four hours. No kidding. My boat motor died, the current pushed me into the grass flats of the Choctawhatchee Bay. I

had to wait until I got rescued by a man with beer.

I wrote about the time I dressed up like Elvis for a talent show. And about the time I did a ventriloquist act with the puppet of a squirrel. The puppet’s name was Ernie.

The next morning I wrote about it.

There was my college professor. When my first book got published, I gave her a stack of books and told her she was the reason. I wrote about that.

And about the woman who shares my life. My wife. Once, I sat in a waiting room at UAB, asking Heaven to make her better again. And when Heaven answered, I had to write about it.

Only ten minutes after I received news that my thirteen-year-old coffee-eating bloodhound had died, I wrote about it. My face was swollen, my eyes…

Not only do I feel like a non-writer, Merle, but I am a late bloomer.

“Sean, every time I sit down to write, I can’t make the words come…

“Maybe it’s because I’m not any good. I got a C in my journalism class, and I feel like I’ll never be a true writer, but a big failure. What should I do?”

This question was posed to me by a twenty-one-year-old journalism major who I will call Merle.

I call him this for two reasons. Firstly, Merle Haggard is one of my favorite country singers. Secondly, this person’s name is actually Merle.

The thing is, Merle, you have more credentials than I do. I’m not what you’d call a “true writer,” either.

A true writer finds incredible stories, then polishes them into poetry. I don’t do that.

Case in point: Once, I wrote an entire column about eyebrow hair.

This proves that I am not an “author” in the traditional sense. Actually, what I am is a “talker.” Which means I can talk at great length about topics I know absolutely nothing about. Kind of like I’m doing now.

I inherited this natural gabbiness from my mother. My mother could chat with anyone or anything.

Once, when I was a boy my mother lost her prescription eyeglasses in a JCPenney and mistakenly struck up conversation with a cardboard cutout of Brooke Shields advertising tight-fitting jeans.

After Mama’s conversation, she remarked, “That was a nice young lady, maybe you’ll meet a young lady like that one day.”

“I doubt it,” I said. “That was Brooke Shields.”

“Brooke who?”

“Shields.”

“Well, Brooke’s mother should’ve never let her leave the house in those tight britches.”

Not only do I feel like a non-writer, Merle, but I am a late bloomer.

Just last night, I was watching a baseball game. The announcer was Jeff Francoeur, a former big league right-fielder who is one of the greats.

The…

One of the first things my mother did after my father’s funeral was take us on a trip to Branson, Missouri. My uncle came along.

DEAR SEAN:

My husband died Saturday. The funeral is tomorrow. You have written about your father’s funeral, and the days before and after. Is there anything we can do to make things easier for my ten-year-old son? I know he’ll have a hole in his heart forever. I want to do everything possible to support him.

Thanks,
I-LOVE-MY-SON

DEAR I-LOVE:

My mother took me to a therapist after my father’s funeral. Everyone was pretty worried about me because I quit talking.

They tried to get me out of my shell, but I hurt too badly to laugh, smile, or talk. Besides, I didn’t have anything to say.

The therapist’s office was behind a Methodist church and the doctor was a man with a New York accent who never shut up and always tossed a football in the air while he talked.

I guess this was his attempt at being a down-to-earth guy, playing with a football while he explained my father’s suicide. But it didn’t work.

Every time he spoke,

tossing that dumb ball, I kept thinking of how my father used to say, “There’s no better form of birth control than a New York accent.”

And I would start to giggle. But I still refused to talk.

He told me to stop laughing. Then he asked me to try a mental exercise. He handed me an empty mayonnaise jar and a handful of pennies.

“Put a penny in the jar,” he said.

I wouldn’t do it. So we sat for a long time and I held those pennies, thinking about how foolish I felt.

“Those are hurt-pennies,” he said. “And if you put enough hurt-pennies in your jar, one day you’ll have all your hurt in an itty-bitty place, then you can put the lid on and hurl it into the ocean.”

Then he tossed his football in…