When I set out to be a writer, years ago, I wanted to write humor. Plain and simple. I’m not a particularly smart guy. My vocabulary stinketh.
I knew I’d never be a prose writer. Mostly because—technically—I don’t know what “prose” is.
But I liked humor. That was what I cared about. So that’s what I wrote.
At the start of my fledgling career, I began writing humor for a teensy local newspaper with a circulation of 2.3 readers. I wrote 600-word columns that were meant to be irreverent and sort of silly.
I was not a real writer per se. I was a jokester. I was ridiculous. I’m not saying humor writing is easy. It’s not. It’s difficult. Some people think humor writing is all about telling tasteless jokes about bodily movements. They couldn’t be more wrong. There are also tasteless jokes about religion.
So things were going okay for my writing. Sometimes people would offer to buy me a beer because they liked a column I wrote.
Occasionally, someone might cut my column out of the newspaper and stick it to their refrigerator, nestled between their grandkids’ artwork and their reminder for an upcoming appointment with the proctologist.
I had fun being irreverent. It suited me. I once got invited to speak at a dinner for humor writers and cartoonists, and the emcee introduced me as a “humorist.”
Nobody had ever called me that before. I was so flattered. A humorist. Me. Unreal.
So I wrote columns about how my mother-in-law once walked in my house when I was naked. And about how she once told my family at Thanksgiving dinner that her son-in-law was a cute little “ding-a-ling.”
I wrote a column about a man who had llamas attend his wedding, who enlisted a goat for his best man.
I wrote my journalistic tour de force when I hired two highly trained culinary judges (my cousins Ed Lee and Tater Log) and we tested 13 brands of American and Japanese mayonnaise to determine the best tasting product (the winner was Duke’s).
So life was good.
But then something happened. My writing somehow became more serious. I can’t pinpoint when this happened. I don’t know how it occurred. I am sort of embarrassed to admit it.
Because I never set out to be serious. People who try too hard to be serious make me gag.
Still, each morning I was receiving serious emails from readers who were going through super serious stuff.
People who had lost loved ones, people who were depressed, people who felt they had nobody to listen to them. And this newfound connection with people altered me.
I once got a letter from a kid whose parents were both murdered. He was writing to say he was terrified of going into foster care. He asked me to pray for him. “I’m scared my new family won’t like me,” he wrote.
I received letters from law-enforcement officers who admitted that they were struggling with mental health issues. Fact: Twenty-six percent of U.S. police officers report mental health symptoms.
Then came the pandemic.
Hoo boy. My inbox exploded with mail from people who were really suffering.
I got an email from a woman during the pandemic who had multiple heart attacks from chronic anxiety.
I got letters from nurses who were ready to quit their profession, from teachers who already had, and I received mail from pediatric cancer patients, or people who lost loved ones to COVID.
And, of course, I received a daily offering of hate mail from random religiophiles, most of whom had the amiable personality of a stepped-on snake.
Then came the racial unrest. Then political discord. Then fighting in the streets. Online arguments. Memes about Charmin. Mass shootings.
I do my best to write columns to fit the kinds of interactions I have with those who take the time to read my stuff. But sometimes I wonder if I haven’t lost myself along the way.
Where did that young humorist go?
And now here I am. Middle-aged. And I’m a completely different guy than when I started this column. I’m still writing, yes. But I don’t know what I’m doing anymore.
Sometimes I don’t know what’s going on in the world. Most days I don’t even know who I am.
But then along comes a letter from a young man named Taylor. Taylor writes:
“Good morning, Mr. Dietrich! I’m not sure if you remember me. I live in Hartford, Alabama. You’ve been to my town a couple of times and every time you visited I spoke with you. I’m the ginger kid who was in Boy Scouts and liked to write.
“I wanted to let you know I’ve found my calling and got my dream job as a reporter at the ‘Geneva County Reaper’ newspaper. I wanted to say thank you for all the inspiration you’ve given me about writing and living life and all the stories you post every day. I appreciate everything, and you are most certainly a reason I’m a writer today. Thank you.”