So, What Do You Do?

I am at a writer’s conference. I’m about to make a speech on a stage before a roomful of writers. Real writers.

These are the kinds of dedicated, rugged, field-journalism professionals who if they were stranded on a deserted island with nothing to eat would be experienced enough to start diagramming sentences.

I don’t even know if I remember how to diagram a sentence. Certainly, I diagrammed in grade school, but mostly because of peer pressure. Those were wild times, everyone was sneaking off and diagramming in those days.

Truth be told, I have a hard enough time figuring out how many syllables are in words. On the first day of kindergarten our teacher taught us to clap out syllables.

“TA-BLE!” she’d say, clapping, “that has two syllables. PI-A-NO! That has three.”

This is a deceptively simple game. The teacher gave me the word “fire” to clap out before class. I dare you to try it. I’ve always understood “fire” to have two syllables. Just like “chair” and “floor” and “is.”

But anyway, I don’t feel confident enough to talk to these writers. Namely, because I don’t really know what I am. I don’t consider myself to BE anything other than consistently late.

I’ve never known what I am. In fact, this has been one of the main issues of my lifetime. You could call it sort of an existential unsolved math equation. What am I? I ask my wife this all the time. She usually smiles and says, “Take out the trash and we’ll talk about it later.”

There’s a lot of pressure on people today to figure out what they are. Have you ever noticed that people at parties always ask the same two questions when they shake your hand? They ask what your name is, and they ask what you “do.”

“Hi, my name’s Joe,” says Joe Mercedesbenz, chewing the olive from his Manhattan. “What do you do?”

This question. It’s difficult for a guy like me. Time and space sort of slow down. I grope around in the dim recesses of my mind searching for a definition of myself. What DO I do?

I’ve DONE a lot of jobs. Then again, Joe isn’t really asking what I do. If we diagram his sentence correctly we can see that he is actually asking what kind of car I drive.

This is what American men do to each other in social situations. And it’s stupid. Have you ever hung out with Europeans? I have. Europeans rarely ask each other what the other one “does for a living.”

At first, this is a little weird to my American brain, not knowing what the other guy does. But you can literally shoot the breeze with a bunch of Europeans and talk about nothing but famous soccer players, the best kinds of Turkish toilets, Nutella, or which person in the room can neglect using deodorant the longest.

When the party ends the Europeans shake hands, finish the contents of their 254th pint of beer, and walk away without ever knowing what the other one “does” for a living. And they’re perfectly fine with this.

Not Americans. We ask these questions up front. Even waiters ask what you do for a living before they take your order. And most customers will, in return, ASK THE WAITER WHAT HE DOES FOR A LIVING.

No waiter in the history of food service will ever admit that he’s a waiter. Once, we were in Santa Monica, California, and every waiter who ever visited our table would say, “I’m not really a waiter.”

“You’re not?”

“Nope, I’m an actor.”


“I’m starring in a new commercial for skin moisturizer,” he’d say, before giving you an autographed photograph. “Can I refill your tea?”

And it’s not just California, either. Many waiters here in Florida are the same way. Only they aren’t actors, they’re real estate developers.

Real estate developers couldn’t care less about refilling your tea.

What I’m trying to say is that even though I worked as a tile-layer for a long time, I don’t call myself a tile-layer. And even though I have hung a lot of sheet rock, I’m no drywall man. I worked in an ice cream parlor, but I’m sure as hailstones not a soda jerk.

I even worked part time at a church once as a music guy. I was ordained for thirty-six hours before being defrocked because I know all the words to every Conway Twitty song. But what am I? What do I do? I wish I knew.

Polite applause from the crowd. It’s time for me to figure out what I am because I am looking at a lot of people who want me to tell them that I’m a writer, or that I have my life figured out. But I don’t. I have nothing figured out.

The emcee introduces me to the roomful of authors. I am about to take the stage. I look out at the gracious audience of accomplished writers who are all smiling at me.

And I know what’s going to happen next. They’re all going to discover sooner or later that I am really a drywall man, an ice-cream scoop, and a guy who couldn’t clap out syllables if his life depended on it. What am I?

“You’re a human being,” my wife whispers before I go on stage. “So get out there and be a good one.”

One day, I’m going to learn how to diagram her sentence.


  1. Dawn Bratcher - January 28, 2020 7:10 am

    Yep…all I am is God’s child. I have never wanted to be anything except a mother and a grandmother. That’s not to say I haven’t worked most of my life, I have, but I never felt the desire to go to college or tech school. I worked while my children were in school & came home when they did. So, I guess I am a Mother. 😋

  2. Kathy Oliver Jackson - January 28, 2020 7:21 am

  3. jstephenw - January 28, 2020 7:22 am

    Love your work. Have all your books, Self published and professionally published. Have them all. You know that by now. Look at your Glenn Hubbard signed baseball and tell me I do not believe that. But you are very talented and accomplished. Cannot wait on the book about your memories of your dad. Painful, but you will tell the truth. One of these days you will believe Jamie, and stop writing about doubting yourself. Only saying this because I have been a fan for over six years and know your talents. Jamie is awesome. Believe in you bro. Time to believe in yourself.

  4. Judy Register - January 28, 2020 8:12 am

    I couldn’t stop laughing! You can add comedian to your resume.

  5. Steve Winfield - January 28, 2020 8:26 am

    You’re doing what you love & people love you for doing it. More people every day. It’s what’s called a dream come true. Those of us who’ve kind of gotten to know you couldn’t be happier for you.
    We’ve all got some baggage. One way or another. Mom left when I was 5 & I didn’t see her for 13 years. But I did get a 2nd chance. I’m now on my 3rd marriage & I pray to God it lasts this time.
    Being able to make people smile, laugh, & reflect the way you do is a real gift. One you obviously enjoy sharing. Your gift just keeps on giving to so many others.
    I’d say that’s a really big deal.

  6. Lita - January 28, 2020 9:10 am

    Thank you, Sean. I’m a human two claps bean one clap. Trying to be a good one.

  7. Debbie Phillips Hughett - January 28, 2020 10:10 am

    Yours fisherman. You just keep reeling us in. You caught me, again, this time with the last lines.

  8. Meredith Smith - January 28, 2020 10:38 am

    I love Jamie. “You’re a human being.” She has a beautiful heart.

  9. Leigh Amiot - January 28, 2020 12:03 pm

    I was asked that question on Sunday. I told the woman, “Nothing.” Then I went through my litany of jobs, substitute teaching, my stint as a vendor stocking books at Target, wrote a newspaper column for twelve years, then had a book regionally published. But I did amend my “nothing.” I said I do laundry and keep the house clean. Yep, Jamie’s right, human being sounds more philosophical and existential crisis solving than human doing.

    P.S. The only Europeans I’ve hung out with are European by ancestry.

  10. Suzanne Cahill - January 28, 2020 12:31 pm

    Truth. All of it. Some times I’m tempted to make something up, just to see what kind of response I’ll get. “Oh,I’ve been Willie Nelson’s personal assistant for 20 years. Oh yeah, the smoke gets to me some times.” Or, “ I’m a competitive baker. You’ve never heard of that? No, not Pillsbury, REAL baking! I currently hold the U.S. title for baking the largest chocolate chip cookie in the U.S.- it was 4 feet across and weighed 50 lbs.”

  11. bkr - January 28, 2020 1:15 pm

    A-gain you have made me smilecry. You are good. jamie is great. y’all keep on. What you do is wonderful

  12. Connie Havard Ryland - January 28, 2020 1:37 pm

    You’re a writer. You have a remarkable grasp of what people want to hear and you keep us coming back every day. That’s what a writer does. And Jamie is correct as well. You are a human. And you’re a good one. That’s enough.

  13. Nancy Folmar Blackmon - January 28, 2020 1:46 pm

    What you may not realize Sean is that every person you were speaking to felt the same way you did. It is a human thing and Lord writers are always wondering what they are and when folks will figure out they don’t have a clue. All that wondering is what makes good writers and keeps us writing. And in case you’re interested I drive a Buick😉

  14. Mark - January 28, 2020 2:14 pm

    I was waiting on the dangling participle….

  15. Chris Matthews - January 28, 2020 3:02 pm

    Dang – the one time you’re speaking near my home and I missed it again. It was our ‘annual family deer hunt’ down on the farm in Tallapoosa County. I promise though, you are on my bucket list. Thanks again, Sean, for being a human being.

  16. Shelton A. - January 28, 2020 3:04 pm

    You are a writer who knows how to communicate with his audience. You make us think, laugh, and cry with your words. You’re a columnist in the tradition of Grizzard. That is who you are to me.

  17. Gale Smith - January 28, 2020 3:12 pm

    You are Sean of the South. That is who you are, and if anyone wants to know, that is what you are.
    You are ours….and we love you.

  18. Bobby - January 28, 2020 3:18 pm

    Another great column that triggers a memory. At my age, most all your columns trigger memories. Years ago I was a runner. I lived for running and was a member of a running club of all ages in Birmingham, Al. We would meet several times a week and run the roads. There were no discussions about our jobs or even about families unless one of us was ill. It was all about running, past and upcoming races, shin splints, types of running shoes, new stretching exercises, and other related topics that would totally bore a non runner. There’s something about getting out of our work clothes and all being in t shirts and shorts that just made us all the same, like Jamie told you–human beings, with a common interest.

  19. that is jack - January 28, 2020 3:30 pm

    I’m glad you cleared that up, but what do you REALLY do? 😉

  20. John (Allen) Berry - January 28, 2020 3:33 pm

    Aw, now… You were great. That’s what you are. I know the feeling. Every time I stand up in front of a class, I think to myself, “I’m a failed videographer, I’m a cable guy (I was for about … five years. Five years longer than I wanted to be). Writers write. You do it better than most I’ve known. Best for the kind of writing you do. That’s why I’m gonna use your Baseball Story again tomorrow in class.

    Take care, bud.


  21. KAT - January 28, 2020 4:34 pm

    💕 “And what do You do,” they ask me. I respond, “ I live to give glory and praise to my God by sharing his Healing love and mercy to those wounded and lost in this world.” Big pause. And then I ask them, “And what is it that you do?” 💕

  22. Linda Moon - January 28, 2020 5:20 pm

    If stranded somewhere, I would want to find something to eat while waiting to be rescued, and I’d pass the time by diagramming sentences. I would not get lost on islands, but I might find myself lost and alone on some high and winding mountain roads in Colorado. But enough about me. Who are YOU, Sean? You are like one of the great literary characters, Jean Valjean, who struggled with the truth of who he was. It matters not what you DO; it matters who you ARE. Your wife nailed it, GOOD MAN!!

  23. Caroline Montgomery - January 28, 2020 5:59 pm

    You are a truth teller, a writer and a storyteller, a comedian, a philosopher, a listener, a husband, brother, son, friend, Good Samaritan, a Southern connoisseur, a good ol’ boy, a humanitarian, a human being…I think that’s enough, though there’s more.

  24. Lee - January 28, 2020 6:46 pm

    We westerners identify ourselves by what we do. Easterners correctly ask not “what do you do?” but “who are you?”

  25. Betty Gayle Dunn - January 28, 2020 8:39 pm

    I’ll tell you who you are. You are a “smart” guy who married a “wise” woman!

  26. Jane Carroll - January 28, 2020 9:40 pm

    I was at that writer’s conference and let me just say… you are a delight and everything else is just gravy.

  27. George Culver - January 29, 2020 12:20 am

    Terrific read Sean. I am sure my running in quickly to meet you before your talk to writers in Pell City on Sat lead to all this brilliant consternation. Apologies.But still thrilled I was able to meet you personally, two months post mini-stroke. Yea.. George Culver, Historic Talladega Ritz

  28. Jackie - January 29, 2020 2:44 am

    My dad bought a power lawnmower. I sorta saw him start it one time. A week or so later he told me to get it and mow the yard. It was one of those that you wind up and turn a knob to start it. All I had seen was him winding it. I spent an hour trying and went in to say I couldn’t start it. He started it and said, “Here you are in high school and can’t start a lawnmower.” I replied that they don’t teach lawnmower starting in high school. “Well what do they teach?” he asked. I said, “Today we learned to diagram sentences.” “Well you can’t make a living at that” He declared. My reply, “The teacher gets paid to do it.” Then came his old standby, “Quite being such a smart aleck.”

  29. Jackie - January 29, 2020 2:47 am

    That should be, “Quit being such a smart alec.”

  30. Linda - January 29, 2020 2:40 pm

    Sean, you are a GREAT human being!!!!

  31. Rita Moritz - January 30, 2020 4:12 am

    I was there. And… You. Were. Amazing!

  32. Sharon weaver - January 30, 2020 5:45 pm

    Sean, as I told you in Pell City last Saturday night after your show and after you offered me the biggest hug🙂You’re a Light Shiner …. You shine light and Gods love and that is the most important job in the world … What an honor he gave that Job to you!!!! Your writing and your music inspire me. Keep doing your thing ☀️☀️❤️ Sharon Weaver

  33. Jones - January 30, 2020 10:42 pm

    Spot on, Jamie! 👍👍

  34. Carol - February 2, 2020 10:01 pm

    Your the best of you and you light up my world, and inspire me every time I read your stories and listen to your podcasts!!
    Please keep being you and don’t run out of thoes hugs until I can meet you next month!!
    Love ya!

  35. Debbie Moser - February 4, 2020 8:40 am

    I was given the tickets, as a gift for Christmas, to see you in Pell City, AL. My daughter and I still laugh about your stories. Can’t wait to see/hear you again.
    Thanks for the laughs❣️

  36. lfry1220 - February 6, 2020 10:29 pm

    Ever since my Nashville friend turned me on to “Sean of the South” almost a year ago . . . you had me at hello. You make me happy, sad, think, and did I say laugh? Much laughter! Oh, and I live in Texas.


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