Dear Sean

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 recall, you asked for my five-and-dime-store opinion.

So Moe and I sipped coffee and watched the waitress feed the barefoot man. Our ears were ringing from an entire evening spent playing loud music for drunk people in cowboy hats.

Deep in my heart I had always wanted to play sweet songs like “Stardust,” “Paper Moon,” and “Smile.” Instead, I was playing “Achy Breaky Heart” with a chain link fence around the stage.

Moe must have sensed how miserable I was. Because over our fried eggs he started telling me about himself.

He said his mother died when he was a boy. His father abandoned him at 14. He raised his three sisters then put himself through college and was determined to become “somebody.” And he did. He climbed a corporate ladder and became the president of a company in his previous life.

I almost spit coffee. “A president?” I said in disbelief.

Moe had scraggly white hair and an unshaven face. His appearance called to mind Gabby Hayes after a very bad night. He did not look like an executive.

Moe said he’d gotten so miserable in his former career that he’d forgotten how to have fun. He avowed to approach his next phase differently, which was why he sold everything and took a job working as a clerk in a department store.

Moe spent his evenings playing with local Atlanta acts because he loved music. And he was ready to have a little joy in life.

Then Moe told me something I’ll never forget. He said, “You ever heard of Bobby Jones?”

I frowned. “You mean the makeup brand?”

“No, not Bobbi Brown, you nit. Bobby Jones, the golfer.”

I shook my head. My people weren’t golf fans unless Dale Earnhardt was on the green.

Moe went on to explain that in the 1920s, Bobby Jones was the dominating golfer in America. In fact, Jones was maybe the greatest player to ever live. But here’s the thing. Jones never played professionally. He never even considered it.

Try to wrap your head around this. Jones was in his 20s, in his prime, the greatest golfer on the globe, but he refused to quit his day job.

Which I find astounding. Most 20-something guys I know are waiting to hit the bigtime. And by “hit the bigtime,” I mean they want to make enough money to purchase exotic islands, complete with matching pairs of exotic giraffes.

But Jones remained an amateur. He never endorsed a soft drink brand, never wore a jumpsuit with sponsorship logos emblazoned on the hindparts, never advertised foot powder on TV. What Bobby did was have fun with his life.

So I won’t bore you by talking about how Bobby Jones beat the stew out of the nation’s top professional golfers. And I won’t weigh you down with details about how Jones made history by claiming victories in four major tournaments (the open and amateur championships in the U.S. and the U.K.).

What I will tell you is this: When Jones was 28, he retired. And here’s what he said about it:

“It [championship golf] is something like a cage. First you are expected to get into it and then you are expected to stay there. But of course, nobody can stay there.”

Moe explained all this to a 20-something kid in a cafe one rainy night. A wayward young pup who, as it happened, needed to hear his gentle words.

After we finished eating, Moe tipped our waitress $60. He left the cash on the table since she was too busy feeding grits to the barefoot man.

Whereupon Moe looked me in the eye, and in the grizzled voice of experience, said: “Son, you were created for more than just paying bills.”

I never forgot it. Maybe you won’t either.


  1. Gordon Hall - January 5, 2021 7:09 am

    Painfully true. Only a fraction of one percent hits the big time and that’s by writing books. True journalists, not those who write lies for politicians or copy/paste other people’s work, barely scrape by. That’s because they aren’t respected as writing professionals and paid accordingly. The world believes that “anybody can write. ” Fact is that “anybody” should never be allowed to because he or she sucks at it. You find yourself in journalism only because it’s what you’re good at and were destined or, should I say, designed to do.

  2. Leigh Amiot - January 5, 2021 7:50 am

    Keep telling your life stories, Sean. I believe you see in these comments their true value and worth.

  3. Gerry Freeman - January 5, 2021 10:47 am


  4. Te Burt - January 5, 2021 12:34 pm

    It’s a shame we don’t pay attention to the good advice we get through the years. I am proof of what happens when people tell you not to do it, who dismiss doing it as worthwhile, or who tell you, you’ll never get published; hardly anybody does. Good thing I ignored all of them. But I”m the rebellious sort.

  5. Karen Howard-Goss - January 5, 2021 12:36 pm

    While my advice didn’t come from “Moe”, this is so similar to what I tell my young adult students; loved this! Everyday I think, “today’s column is my new favorite”, then the next day comes and, often, a new favorite. Thanks Sean.

  6. Bobby - January 5, 2021 12:54 pm

    Agree with the sage statement that life is not all about paying bills. If you don’t enjoy your job, look for another one. We spend most of our waking ours on the job site, until we retire. Life is too short to spend it in misery. I am now retired and am fortunate to have had a career that I truly enjoyed. I didn’t get rich, but I paid the bills, and had fun.

  7. Sam Haynes - January 5, 2021 1:09 pm

    This fits into your previous story when, in a job interview, an exasperated interviewer asked you, “what do you want?” I’ve thought about this often after your story, and my answer would be something like “owning an island with exotic giraffes”. Now in my seventies, the answer would come right out of today’s story. Thanks, Sean.

  8. Gay Talbott - January 5, 2021 1:12 pm

    You are golden…

  9. Beryl - January 5, 2021 1:34 pm

    Life is meant to be lived until we die! Its richness and fullness is often whittled down to labels such as success and failure, good and bad, and other such dualisms. The truth is, the simple act of kindness bestowed upon the shivering, barefoot man is where this story shines brightly. With a finite amount of breaths bestowed at our birth, many are wasted on chasing “the prize”. Simplicity gives us clarity. What can I do to be of service to my fellow human(s) today? Listen and the answer will be as clear as message in this story.

  10. Jennifer Daniels Neal - January 5, 2021 1:54 pm

    Thanks for this! Creatives have to be scrappy to feed a family AND continue to love what they do. And humble too, I guess. And really really prayerful. I may be projecting.

  11. Peggy Thompson - January 5, 2021 1:59 pm

    Wow! Great lesson and memory.

  12. Jan - January 5, 2021 2:20 pm

    So many life lessons in your writing and in your life! Thank you for sharing!

  13. Bill - January 5, 2021 2:47 pm

    “I learned that the easiest way to kill what you love is to treat it like a career. I know this sounds painfully.”

    This is a fact. I’m a self-taught musician with one year of piano when I was in 6th grade. After high school, after 2 years of trying to decide what I was going to do with my life, I enter college to become a professional musician. Of course when I got there, I ran into guys who had 8 to 12 years of musical training under their belts. Boy, was I left behind. But that didn’t seem to stop me. At this point I was playing organ in a band on Friday and Saturday nights and then got up at 7 A.M. on Sunday to play two church services. I also had a day job. But that wore off because I tried to make the fun and enjoyment of music a job.

    I tried to do that with photography. I was actually good. I developed a good eye to see the image that other people didn’t. I even built a darkroom and spent hours in it perfecting the craft. It was great fun, but I didn’t have the drive to make it a business.

    Maybe that’s what it was. I just didn’t have the drive to make it a business.

  14. Helen De Prima - January 5, 2021 3:43 pm

    Profound! I’ve done jobs I loved and jobs I hated to pay the bills — OR nurse, Visiting Nurse in northern Colorado, weird hours doing shift relief. Insurance exams and mothers’ shift at McDonald’s, picking grapes and scrubbing other peoples’ toilets. But I write for the joy of seeing words accumulate on my screen, watching my characters taking control of their lives to tell their stories. And yeah, the satisfaction of great reader reviews and enough financial reward to grant validation.

  15. Jeff Corkran - January 5, 2021 4:45 pm

    Your Bobby Jones story struck home.

    During the last few years of my military career, I got involved in community theatre, which I really loved. When it came time to retire, several theatre friends thought I should “go pro” with my acting. (They thought I was good enough for that — I did not agree.) Anyway, my reply was always “Then what would I do for fun?” I just did not want my passion for performing to become drudgery and something I did to earn a living. I wanted ot to be something I did for myself.

    As always, thanks for the story.

  16. ralph - January 5, 2021 4:46 pm

    Sean: that may be your best story ever!

  17. Linda Moon - January 5, 2021 6:05 pm

    Writers, actors, musicians…..these creative persons sometime have a difficult road ahead for bill-paying. I know and love lots of creative people, including one in Atlanta. To Moe’s gentle words I will add: Don’t create your own cage of so many bills that you lose the freedom of your own creativity. Budget wisely, stay on your path, and live creatively!

  18. lfry1220 - January 6, 2021 10:25 pm

    I agree with Moe. You touch so many lives with your words. Way to go, Sean!


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