Hearing Voices

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By Sean Dietrich

I remember the first time someone told me I was a good writer. It was a woman. She said, “Hey, you’re a good writer.” That was all. Five words.

Nobody had ever said this to me before. It’s kind of funny how one sentence can change a guy. Which is why I am writing to you. You know who you are.

No, I don’t know you, and no, you don’t know me, but you’re reading this. So in a way that means that these words are happening inside your head. That’s how reading works.

It’s kind of like I’m wandering around inside your brain, talking to you. And let me tell you, it’s pretty spacious up here in your head. Have you ever been up here? You should see this place. There is a lot of junk up here you need to get rid of.

Over there by that patch of brain matter is an old memory of your ex-boyfriend. Why are you still keeping that memory around? And over here, behind your cerebrum is the one from when you peed your pants in the backseat of your aunt’s Oldsmobile. You really ought to throw that one away.

Since I’m in your head right now, this means I can say things and they might—if I’m lucky—stick with you. This is the magic of reading. I could write anything at all, and you’d sort of read it using your own internal voice.

For example: I could say, “Do not envision your grandmother sitting on the toilet.” Whereupon your brain would not only read that sentence in your own personal voice, you would immediately picture Mamaw reading her morning paper.

But I’m not going to say anything like that. Because that would be totally uncalled for. Still, I do have something important I want to say. So here it is:

You’re pretty great.

A lot of people don’t believe this about themselves. Usually, I can pick these people out of a lineup because I am one of them.

Maybe you are too. Maybe this is because other people have gotten inside your brain and made a mess. In fact, I know they have. In fact, I can see their footprints up here. They didn’t wipe their shoes.

Your teacher called you a bad student. The P.E. instructor said you couldn’t play basketball if you’d been born with a rubber ball shoved up your cerebrum. Your ex-boyfriend said you weren’t worth his time. Your local Amway representative said you were foolish for passing up on a ONCE-IN-A-LIFETIME OPPORTUNITY!

You get the idea. The words worked themselves into your ear canals and you were finished. I have lots of these little soundbites in my head, too.

Once, a Billy Wilder called me fat. I’ll never forget it. He was not wrong, of course, I was chubby. We were in the boy’s locker room, with the guys, I was changing my clothes. He looked at me and said, “Man, you’re fat.”

I still hear Billy’s voice in my head. Just like I hear the voice of the young woman who told me that I was a terrible first baseman. I was playing with a community team. I was in my twenties. It was an informal game. I muffed a crucial play because I’m not very flexible. First basemen are traditionally flexible, sometimes even doing the splits while placing their foot behind their head to make a catch.

That’s not me. I haven’t touched my toes since, well… I’ve never touched my toes. In fact, I just tried to touch them before I wrote that last sentence and I got as far as my belly button.

So after that baseball game, this young woman said, “You’re a horrible athlete. Maybe you shouldn’t play baseball anymore.” Just like that. So matter-of-factly.

And do you know what? I didn’t play again. Even though I love baseball, I never touched an infield again, except when I helped coach my cousin’s Little League team. Which turned out to be a unique disaster.

But I have good news. The great thing about this brain business is that you don’t just remember those who call you fat, stupid, or inflexible. You also remember OTHER things, too. Things of great importance. Like the lyrics to the State Farm jingle. And the way your dentist’s breath smelled in 1978. And ridiculous jokes about nuns.

And every nice thing anyone ever said to you.

At least this is how it works for me. I remember the first time someone told me I was handsome, someone other than my mother. This woman said it and she meant it. At the time, she was 86 years old and half blind, but the point is it was special.

I remember when my boss told me I was a quick learner when it came to running a commercial lawnmower. I remember when the director for my school musical said I had “impeccable timing.” I don’t even know what this means. But he said it.

And the first time someone told me I was a good writer. Yeah, I remember that one. It stunned me. Me? A good writer? The high school dropout? The kid with the overbite? The chubby boy with all the flexibility of a municipal fire hydrant? A few words can mean a lot.

I can still remember that voice. That sweet voice. I can still bring it back any time I want. And I still remember the woman who said it. It’s hard to forget her. She’s been sharing my life for the past 17 years.

Don’t forget how great you are today.

Sean Dietrich is a columnist, and novelist, known for his commentary on life in the American South. His work has appeared in Southern Living, the Tallahassee Democrat, Southern Magazine, Yellowhammer News, the Bitter Southerner, the Mobile Press Register and he has authored seven books.

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