I was a kid. We were staying in my aunt’s upstairs bedroom in Atlanta, trying to make sense of our world after my father died. Daily life was getting tense because we lived in a household of many females.

It’s never a good idea to have several strong-minded women crammed into the same tiny house. It’s a recipe for an estrogen apocalypse.

My mother decided we needed a break from the family dramatics. We needed a break from grief. We needed to temporarily forget my father, the man who ended his life and dragged the memory of our family into the grave with him. What we needed was to feel normal.

Just for seven days.

So she rented a cottage at Tybee Island—about four hours southeast of Atlanta. The irony was, we were not beach people. I don’t know what kind of people we were, but we definitely weren’t the beachgoing type. I wasn’t the sort of kid you wanted to see clad in a bathing suit. I was chubby, pale, and built like

the spokesperson for Pilsbury.

But when we arrived at Tybee, that all changed. We crossed the bridge arching into the little beach town, cruising at forty-five, and I felt my stomach tingle and my heart opened like a butterfly.

We stopped at a seafood shack for lunch and ordered grouper sandwiches. When the waitress placed the food onto the table before us, she had a cigarette dangling from the corner of her mouth and said, “This fish ain’t real grouper. The chef is a [cussword] liar. It’s tilapia.”

So we were off to a great start.

Our cottage was charming, and the city of Tybee Island was postcard pretty. We bought groceries at the IGA, we developed sunburns at the beach, we climbed the lighthouse tower, we ate ice cream until our pancreases begged for mercy.

One morning, I awoke to find my mother having coffee…

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 him. I have things like toddler toys, Superman…

Morningtime. I am bound for Savannah, riding in our little white utility van. My wife is driving, and I am in the passenger seat writing to you.

We are flying past farmland and cattle, occasionally stopping at side-of-the-road veggie stands, or filling stations, trotting inside to conduct a thorough inspection of the commodes.

On top our dashboard sits a stack of classic country CDs, teetering like a famous tower in Pisa. There are maybe forty separate albums from the golden days of Nashville twang and fringe. Everything from Ernest, to Acuff, to Loretta, to Willie. The old highway hums beneath my tires as Tammy Wynette reminds her listeners to stand by their male counterparts.

Funny. These CDs used to belong to my mother-in-law. They were her prized album collection. After she passed a few months ago, we were sorting through her belongings when I came across all her beloved LPs, forty-fives, cassettes, eight-tracks, and CDs. Nobody wanted them so I confiscated the lot. She would have wanted it this way. We shared

an impeccable taste in music.

Anyway, this morning it’s almost hard to believe that my wife and I are on the road again. We used to go on the road all the time. We used to live on these old highways.

Such is the life of a hack writer.

People are always asking you to speak at events after you write a few books. Usually, it’s Rotary Clubs, Kiwanis meetings, church groups, or the chair yoga class senior at the citizen’s center.

We did it all. No speaking gig was off-limits. No journey was too far. My wife and I visited almost every state in the Union in our little secondhand Labcorp van. We’d wake up in some no-name Montgomery hotel, eat a meager breakfast of Pop Tarts, whereupon I’d deliver a speech in a conference room to a bunch of people playing on phones.

After which, we’d…

They are holding hands. I like it when young couples hold hands. I don’t see many kids do this very often anymore.

They are sitting on the same side of the booth. I like it when they do that, too.

This is why I loved the bench seats in old cars and trucks. God bless the bench seat. It’s extinct now. But before automobiles lost these long seats, young men and women would sit close when driving. They would love up against each other.

If ever my mother spotted a truck window in traffic with two heads leaning close, she would remark, “Aw, look. That girl’s holding him up so he can drive. Ain’t that sweet?”

It sure is. For a boy, there is nothing sweeter than the feeling of driving a truck with a pretty head resting on your shoulder.

The couple in the booth is somewhat of a rarity. They are not holding cellphones, they aren't texting. They are saying things in soft voices. And it’s great.

I came here this morning for breakfast, I brought

a newspaper with me. But I can't seem to read it. Not when I am people-watching in a classic American scene.

I flick open the newsprint. I watch the couple from the corner of my vision.

They talk to each other. She is your typical teenager—happy and rosy-cheeked. He is your basic high-school boy. Skinny, a little awkward, a touch of Norman Rockwell to him.

The waitress refills my coffee. I am grateful for hot joe this morning. I didn’t sleep well last night. The folks in the hotel room above me were having a jump rope competition that ran until the wee hours.

“Anything good in that paper?” the waitress asks, nodding to the front page.

“Not today.”

“Yeah, I can't read the news anymore, it’s too depressing, makes me sad.”

She's right. The newspaper is just one disaster after another…

The Atlanta Braves are playing for a shot at the World Series. My wife and I are watching the game, cheering loudly, occasionally shouting expletives and flinging popcorn at the TV screen.

But as I watch America’s Team grind against the insufferable odds, locked in a barbarous battle against the LA Dodgers, I’m thinking about other things. Life things.

Because say what you will about these spoiled professional athletes, but these guys on the TV don’t give up. They never give up.

And that’s what has me thinking.

During Game last night’s game, for example, the Braves were behind, and the commentators were predicting a skull crushing loss. They experts said the Braves didn’t have a shot in a wintery hell. But they won.

This game. Same old story. The pundits all claimed Atlanta could never wallop the chosen from Los Angeles. But the Braves are fighting.

Bear with me, I know this baseball analogy is getting ridiculously boring. What I’m getting at is, these twenty-something multimillionaire athletes refuse to fall down and die. They

do not give up. They will not give up. And I wish I were more like that.

In my life as a writer, I have been fortunate enough to meet and interview a lot of people who have faced dire scenarios and taken on the devil without flinching.

Children with leukemia. Old men who survived numbered wars. Single mothers who raised families on shoestring budgets. And the one quality I notice in all these remarkable people—simple as it may sound—is that they never give up. Not ever.

Take my mother. She is perhaps the strongest person I know. She possesses a strength I will never fully understand. She survived a husband who beat her, tried to kill her, and then survived his subsequent suicide.

After that, she went on to survive single-motherhood, thankless jobs, and the rigors of raising an American teenage boy who had…

Right now I am watching “The Andy Griffith Show” on TV. This episode is one of my favorites. Barney joins the choir, but his singing voice is godawful. Thelma Lou, Barney’s girl, visits Andy when she learns that Barney is in the choir:

THELMA LOU: Barney's gonna be in the choir?! My Barney?!
ANDY: That's right.
THELMA: But Barney can't sing.
ANDY: I know.
THELMA: He's the man I want to marry, the man I want to be the father of my children...
ANDY: But he can't sing.
THELMA: Not a lick!

“Not a lick.” Pure primetime gold. If you’re a shameless Andy Griffith fanatic like me, this is the scene you want re-enacted at your funeral service. And you just hope the funeral congregation is able to whistle the Andy Griffith theme song as they escort your casket into your brother-in-law’s pickup.

A few years ago, I had an exclusive one-on-one interview with Betty Lynn, the actress who played Thelma Lou. She was

in her mid-nineties.

I rented a car and drove eleven hours north to Mount Airy, North Carolina, booked the cheapest hotel I could find, and lived on peanut butter sandwiches and coffee. In hindsight, I wish I would have spent a few extra bucks on a better room because I had to share the covers with a cockroach the size of Tom Brady.

It was one of the best days of my life. Betty Lynn’s assistant told me to arrive early at the Andy Griffith Museum on Rockford Street. So I showed up at sunrise, parked downtown and I walked the old streets with the same giddiness a boy might have when he’s on his way to prom. There was a bounce in my step. This was Mayberry.

I had plenty of time to kill so I stopped at a farmer’s market by the courthouse and bought some pink flowers.…

I am not sure where he’s from, but his accent is interesting to me. Nasal. And he talks lightning fast. New Jersey maybe? Philly? I am a Florida guy, don’t know much about the nasal region of the country.

What I do know is that the old man is walking the vacant beach at seven in the morning, collecting aluminum cans from trash bins. When I meet him, I find him rifling through a trash bag in a public beach access.

He has long hair, bleached from the sun, a beard peppered with white, and his skin is the color of aged boot leather.

“Name’s Alfie,” he says.

Alfie rummages through each receptacle, cigarette hanging from his mouth. Each soda can he finds is a cause for minor celebration. He tucks the mangled cans into a homemade satchel worn around his shoulder—a Hefty garbage bag.

Since I have a gift for inquiring about the obvious, I ask what Alfie is doing.

“What’s it look like I’m doing?” he says, lifting an empty Michelob Ultra can, still leaking

its contents. “Fifty-nine cents per pound, amigo.”

I smell whiskey on his breath from ten feet away.

He’s a nice man, sociable, and an Army veteran. Soon, we are lingering on a wide, empty beach, having a conversation, chewing the fat, watching the sunup. Behind us is a large beachfront McMansion which is roughly the size of the Lincoln Memorial.

Alfie tells me that today has been a great day foraging. He hit the jackpot over in Destin. Someone threw away two cases’ worth of Coca-Cola and Pepsi cans.

“The motherlode,” Alfie explains.

Then our conversation becomes more biographical. Alfie tells me about his time in Vietnam, when he was twenty.

“Me and my little brother enlisted together, on the same day. We did everything together.”

The night before they left for basic, they hit the beer joints pretty hard. It was their…

I dial the number. The phone is ringing. It keeps ringing. And ringing. Click. A woman answers. It’s a youngish voice. We exchange greetings.

“Am I too late?” I ask.

“Nope, right on time, Miller is right here, waiting for you with his pen and notepad ready.”

I’ll admit it upfront. I’m not having the greatest day today. I didn’t sleep well last night. Also, we ran out of coffee and had only decaf in the house. That’s what I’m drinking now. Worthless decaf.

But I promised a young man I’d do a phone interview for his homeschool assignment. So there you are.

I don’t know anything about him, but his email seemed so sincere.

I hear the sound of a little kid breathing on the phone. “Hello?”

“Hi, Miller. Sorry I’m a little late calling, I got tied up this morning.”

“You did? Doing what?”

“Well, if you must know, I was walking my dog and she ate something funky. And then I discovered that all we had was decaf. Not the greatest day. It’s a long story. Do you have a dog, Miller?”

“Well, no, but

my grandma has a cat, Jilly Billy, we named her that ‘cause we don’t know if she’s a boy or a girl.” Then the kid changes gears. “I’m gonna record this interview with your permission. But before we start, I just wanna say thank you.”

“For what?”

“For, I dunno, just talking to me.”

Next, I hear the sound of a soda can cracking open. And the noise of a satisfying slurp.

“Let’s begin,” says Miller.

“Fire away.”

“What’s it like to be a writer?”

This is probably not a good day to answer this question. I’m a little too decaffeinated. Also lately I’ve been a rollercoaster of emotions when I think of how turbulent the world is right now. “It’s great.”

I hear the noise of a young person scribbling notes…

I’m at the bank. I’m standing in a line that is one hundred miles long. I’m in the rear. The line is not moving. I would rather have open heart surgery administered by Howdy Doody than to wait in line.

Through the doors, I see a woman, walking across the parking lot. I’m trotting toward the door to open it for her. This is because I was raised by women. Polite behavior was beaten into me with hairbrushes and unabridged King James Bibles. I believe in opening doors for anyone you’d refer to as ma’am, miss, or Mama.

But someone beats me to the door.

A boy in line. He is twelve, thirteen maybe. He’s here with his mother. He swings it open.

“Thank you,” the woman says, grinning.

Two more women are strolling through the parking lot. The boy flies into action. He opens the door.

They thank him. They even call him “sir.”

He likes this.

Here comes another. She’s waltzing toward the door, talking on her phone. You ought to see the surprise on her face when the kid

pulls the Open Sesame trick.

She giggles. “Aren’t you sweet?”

Yes, he is.

And I remember a time when most men were. “Gentleman,” my granddaddy would’ve called them. “Polite,” Mama would’ve called it. I call it being considerate. And I believe in such things.

Long ago, we had men who raced to the door to prove that their mothers had raised them right. They were men who wouldn’t use a four-letter word in the presence of long eyelashes, not even if you threatened them with daytime television.

But those days are evaporating. And I don’t like saying it, but the world has changed. Still, some of us remember Mama, reminding us to treat every girl, woman, and granny better than the Queen of England.

I asked the boy’s mother how her son became such a knight in shining…

I am sitting on the beach, tapping on a laptop, people-watching, developing an awesome sunburn.

As a kid, I practically lived at the beach. I always sported sunburns in the summers, and my red hair always leaned more toward strawberry blond.

But then, suddenly, there was a time in my adult life when I quit visiting the beach altogether. In fact, I went years without placing a sole on this sand.

The irony, of course, is that I live a mile from the shore. Not far from my front steps are the whitest sands in the U.S., and the most ethereal Gulf waters known to man. And yet, I rarely visit.

What does that say about me?

I’ll tell you what. It says that I have been taking this beach for granted. I’m not sure how I started doing that, but I did.

Maybe it all started after my first beach job as a teenager. I spent upwards of nine hours each day on the blinding hot sand, setting up awkward beach-service chairs, sounding a lifeguard whistle at

rowdy teenagers, and hollering at little kids who yelled “Shark!” just for the heck of it.

“We don’t have sharks here,” was the official stance we lifeguards were instructed to take with the tourists.

After that, I went through a period when something simply changed inside me. I quit visiting our shores very often and found myself forgetting about our simple beauty. In other words, I ignored what was before me. Which is classic me.

Until recently.

Something has been happening inside me. Something interesting. I have been spending more time on the beach lately. Usually, I visit in the mornings, reading a book, trying to absorb the solitude.

I don’t know what’s come over me. I don’t know what brought this change.

Maybe I’m sitting here by this water because I’m getting older, and I’m realizing I don't have that many…