Dear Idiot (A Writer’s Lament)

My earliest published work did not always receive the highest magnitude of praise.

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I got my start in writing at the age of 23, when I phoned The Indianapolis News to complain about the inspirational thought they published each day. The operator passed me on to the editor who told me the job was mine if I thought I could do better. I hadn’t been angling for a job, but it was only two sentences a day and paid $50 a month, so I rightly interpreted it as a sign from God that I should be a writer. I had just entered college, so while writing the daily devotional I was also picking up roadkill for the Indiana Department of Highways to pay for my education. There’s nothing like picking up dead possums to keep one from getting the big head that often accompanies seeing one’s name in print.

I liked writing for the newspaper because it allowed me the luxury of fresh commentary. I’d have a thought one day and see it on the front page of the newspaper the next. When I start a book, I’m two years away from holding it in my hands. When I write an essay for a magazine, it won’t see the light of day for at least three months. It’s now July, and I’m having to write about what life might hold in November and December. Lacking a crystal ball makes the job somewhat tricky. I can’t say it’s been a rainy fall, since fall hasn’t arrived. Nor can I write with certainty about political matters, since by November the British might invade us and take us back. (I’ve been wary of the British since they burned the White House in 1814.)

Writing with an eye to the future imposes a certain caution I don’t always exhibit in other areas of my life. I can’t just spout off like a guy sitting at a bar with six beers in him. That’s not to say I haven’t written dumb things. I once penned a column about realtors and their occasional habit of exaggeration. For the next year I received letters and emails from honked-off realtors around the country, most of them beginning with the salutation, “Dear Idiot …”

There’s nothing like picking up dead possums to keep one from getting the big head that often accompanies seeing one’s name in print.

Being in print is a heady experience, so if you’re not careful, you start thinking you’re an expert in all matters and don’t mind telling people so. We’re brought down to earth by people who call us idiots, which is probably healthy.

Despite the occasional contempt in which writers are held, I meet a lot of people who want my job, though most of them aren’t willing to do the work necessary for the task. Writing might be the only vocation like this. No one says, “I want to be a brain surgeon” and then slices into someone’s head, but lots of folks will peck out an essay, declare themselves writers, and expect the Pulitzer Prize to land on their doorstep the next day. Writing is funny that way.

When I was a kid, I’d visit my grandparents for long stretches in the summer. They subscribed to this magazine and would stack the back issues on the table next to Grandpa’s rocking chair. On rainy days, I would sit and read them. If a cover caught my Grandpa’s eye, he might cut it out, frame it, and hang it in his workshop. If you had told me, at the age of 13, that I would one day grace the pages of this most American of magazines, I would have told my English teacher, Mrs. Huffman, who always enjoyed a good laugh.

I guess the moral of the story is that sometimes you get a job by complaining about the poor work someone else is doing. That doesn’t sound very noble, but it does inspire me to always do my best, lest some young whippersnapper lurking in the undergrowth nab my job.

Editor’s note: Many have tried, but so far, we’ve fended them off, Phil.

This article is featured in the November/December 2019 issue of The Saturday Evening Post. Subscribe to the magazine for more art, inspiring stories, fiction, humor, and features from our archives.

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