I receive lots of mail each morning. I have compiled some of these emails together and presented them in a generic Q-and-A format, like I sometimes do. So let’s get started:
Q: Hi, Sean, I hate your stories. I don’t like you. I am an angry person who squashes bugs and waxes the steps of nursing homes for laughs. You, sir, are an idiot, your writing stinks.
A: Hey, thanks. I’m not exactly a huge fan of your writing, either.
Q: Howdy, Sean. Longtime reader, first time emailer. How do you go about finding stuff to write about?
A: Long ago, believe it or not, I used to go to Kmart for material inspiration, but then Kmart closed.
A: Yes. We had a great little Kmart in town. When I began writing this column, I would hang out at Kmart before work because my friend Jay was an employee and gave me free nachos and ICEEs.
Q: So what happened?
A: What happened was Kmart, a sacred American pastime, founded 122 years ago in 1899, a company which used to operate 2,100 stores nationwide, shut down their stores. Currently, there are 34 Kmarts remaining in the U.S.
Q: So where do you get material now?
Q: Be serious.
A: Okay, well, I write seven mediocre columns each week. Meaning: finding human stories is my full-time pursuit. I dig for them anywhere I can.
Q: What do you look for in a story?
A: Nostalgia is a big one. But perspective is the most important thing to me. With the right perspective it’s possible to find something great in any event. My mama taught me that.
Q: So do you keep a journal or what?
A: You bet. Early on I realized I’d better start carrying a journal because producing a daily column is not a part-time job.
When I started traveling a lot, the journal became more important than the trip itself. I meet many people when I travel, and they all have a story. I have U-Haul boxes full of notebooks.
Q: How do you get strangers to tell you their stories? Don’t they think you’re a weirdo for asking questions?
A: You’d be surprised how many people want to talk about themselves. You’d be more surprised at how few want to listen.
Q: Don’t you get tired of listening?
A: Nope. And this is also something you can blame on my mother.
When I was a kid, Mama couldn’t go anywhere without someone telling their life story. She’d listen for hours to someone bearing their soul in a Piggly Wiggly aisle and never once look at her watch.
My mother could make friends with anyone. One time I got home to find my mother in the den with two Jehovah’s Witnesses who she’d roped into helping her fold laundry and vacuum.
Q: Shut. Up.
Q: So, what’s the hardest part about writing your columns?
A: Hate mail. I wake up each morning and my inbox is a free-for-all. Mostly, I get beautiful emails from kind people—Miss Sheila, I’m looking at you. Lynn Thomas, you too.
But some messages come from folks who say ugly things, and although a stranger’s words shouldn’t hurt me, words are like bee bees. The smallest ones hurt like a mother.
Q: Why are people so mean?
A: God, I wish I knew.
Q: Do you think we’re living in an unprecedented angry era?
A: No. Truthfully, I think some people act mean because they get bored.
I once read about an experiment wherein psychologists placed one participant alone in an empty room without stimuli for long periods and gave them two options:
A participant could either (a) sit and do nothing, or they could (b) painfully shock themselves with electricity.
After only a few minutes of boredom almost all participants chose to shock the living horse spit out of them themselves.
In short, people will do anything to stay entertained.
Q: So how do you deal with haters?
A: I write ridiculous Q-and-A columns.
Q: What about positive comments? Shouldn’t you focus on those? Shouldn’t nice words cancel out the bad ones?
A: In theory, yes. But allow me to answer with an illustration.
One time at my 6th birthday party my cat, Richard Petty, pooped in our Kool-Aid punchbowl. After that, no amount of sugar could save the Kool-Aid.
Q: Okay, I think I just figured out why you get negative mail now.
A: Glad to have you with us.
Q: So then why write stories? What drives you? Does someone pay you to do this?
A: Don’t make me spit PBR through my nasal passages. Nobody pays me for this verbal shipwreck.
Q: Then why do it?
A: Because I grew up beneath the shadow of some pretty hard times.
I’ve written a lot about my past, so I won’t rehash it here. But a crummy childhood changes you—not always for the better.
Thus, I made it the pursuit of my adult life to write stuff for that fatherless kid out there who thinks nobody loves him. Because I love him.
Q: So how much money do you make per year?
A: Excuse me?
Q: Come on, tell me about the cheddar.
A: You’re kidding.
Q: Do I look like I’m kidding?
A: Okay. Moneywise, I live on a rural street with double-wide trailers, feral cats, and abandoned sofas which our garbage truck refuses to confiscate.
We drive beat up cars—my wife drives a 2004 Dodge with a screwed up transmission. My truck is a rusted Ford. And I am the luckiest man alive.
Q: Lucky? Why do you say that?
A: Because I get to write. When I was a kid, adults would ask what I wanted to be when I grew up and I used to answer, “I wanna write.”
The adults would always pat my head like I’d just said that I wanted to be an astronaut.
Therefore I’ve always been fully aware that low-rent guys like me don’t often become writers in the caste system of the world.
But here’s the thing: Through some quirky miracle, this blue-collar guy actually became a writer. So, yes, I feel like I won the lottery.
Q: The lottery? Isn’t that going a little overboard?
A: Not really. Because among the daily negative mail I receive, I also get a jackpot of messages from hardworking people who remind me of my mother.
Like the single mother of three who emailed this morning and said: “You make me feel like I’m not white trash, thank you. I have decided to write a memoir for my kids.”
Q: Well, that’s pretty cool. I wonder what that lady’s story is.
A: She is an employee at one of the 34 remaining Kmarts.