Leonard Cohen wrote in his song, “Anthem,” “There is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.” But the cracks are how the light gets out, too.
Many times broken people filled with holes and cracks, who are stitched together and mended with love and faith carry and disseminate light in such a way it defies reason. There is a bittersweet mystery in the push and pull between light and darkness, pain and perseverance.
We’ll never stop bad things from happening or create reason in a life that is often void of it. Daddies can die young. Even when Mamas live long, it’s never enough time. Tornadoes and hurricanes destroy lives and property. Cancer is indiscriminate. Violence and hatred, and broken lives and hearts take us to the brink nearly every day.
This ole world ain’t for the faint of heart.
Sometimes it’s too much for people and yet other times it’s the catalyst that springboards another into painting a picture of the ways that life is both beautiful and wretched.
Destin native Sean Dietrich is just that – a painter of the modern parable, offering profundity of the human condition. He dips the words of his mind into the compassion overflowing in his heart to paint for us a picture of a better way to see the world, in spite of the heartache it brings.
Good writers like Sean are more than wordsmiths. A skilled writer must observe the world in such an encompassing way that their descriptive notation may create for the senses what the absent party cannot hear, see, feel, taste, or experience.
While doing this, Sean shines the light of his healing journey out through the cracks caused by pain and despair, to illuminate the way for others, create community, and carve out a sacred space for hope.
I first came to know him as a reader of his Sean of the South column on current events, interesting people, and everyday life. As a son of the Gulf Coast who married a girl from Brewton, Alabama, he primarily writes about the place he knows best – the American South.
Going beyond the pen, he also takes his insight, commentary, and reflection to the stage as a stand-up storyteller and musician for a variety show that is both heartwarming and hilarious. He is a columnist, novelist, podcaster, and accidental historian. His stories are our stories. His people are our people. And his words capture and curate the essence of our shared experience.
Nearly four years ago, I sat with 349 other people at Imogene’s Theater in Milton with a lump in my throat and a tear in my eye, rapt as Sean held court, entertained, and reminisced. And earlier this year, I was there when 4,000 people did the same as Sean brought down the house with a Jerry Lee Lewis style pian-uh playin’ performance meant to be his debut for The Grand Ole Opry.
Instead, it was more like a Sean Dietrich tent revival service held for a few thousand of his closest friends. When I tell you he took us to church…if there’d been an altar call and a baptismal font, the line would’ve stretched down to the Honky Tonk Highway.
When he stood in the circle on that sacred stage, you’d never know that inside the man stealing the hearts of thousands, was a boy long burdened with the heartache of great loss and the weight of not believing in himself.
From the first moment I saw him live, I have been in his corner. And I’m not the only one. Every day, thousands of people are devoted followers and readers of Sean of the South.
But they aren’t devoted because he writes a good story, which he does, they are devoted because of how he makes them feel, which is heard and seen. Ironically they do the same for Sean.
“I do feel more of a connection with people. I get so many messages from people every day. That is a good thing because it helps you feel less alone. It just feels like a bunch of friends,” he says, of his more than 130,000 followers and loyal fans. And because of this, he now feels a sense of duty to honor and cover the people and events important to them.
He does this in the column he has written every day for ten years, covering a spectrum of topics from BBQ and seafood salvation, angel stories, and half-eared cats, to little girls named Becca, and everything in between. He has also authored 14 books and is a gifted musician, who was invited back to the Grand Ole Opry for a second time this past June 10. And when you visit his blog, take note of the signature under the sketches, too. And y’all if that ain’t enough…the man also plays the flute.
As my grandmother would say, “Don’t that just beat all.” Yes, that does just beat all.
Before interviewing Sean, I wondered how on earth the man writes as consistently as he does, plays all these instruments, sings, tells a good story, and still stands up straight from carrying the weight of both his professional demands and the heartache behind so much of his content.
Gifted writers are usually forged in the workshop of childhood boredom, quirky DNA, and complex layers of a life whose pendulum has swung wide across a spectrum of experiences, which are rarely unaffected by acute suffering. But it isn’t common for a creative mind to also be left-brained enough to keep all the creativity together in a productive way, so how does he do it?
“I’m not a business guy. I’ve never viewed this as a business. I don’t know how true that is for my wife,” he says humorously.
But there is for certain a method to the man. While Sean may just feel like he’s telling stories, he and his wife live a pretty disciplined life. Sean’s wife, Jamie, is the ultimate partner for a creative using her skill of organization and management to balance the details of scheduling his professional and personal activities, while also guarding his time and championing his well-being.
“Jamie is the golden child there,” he says of the woman who is no doubt his best friend, “She is the brains for the schedule, so I don’t have to worry about that and can be free to write.”
When he is home, he wakes up between 3 a.m. to 6 a.m. and begins writing, first. He may write until noon or 1 p.m. and then purges his mind by taking a walk or running. He follows with a return to writing, rehearsals, and interviews.
When they are on the road, he writes in the car. “We can go for 6 or 7 hours without speaking,” he says of their road trip routine where Jamie drives while listening to audiobooks and he sits shotgun and writes. The daily schedule out on the road may be different, but the touchstone of every day is writing. He never has a clear-cut path for what he is going to write about and compares himself to an improvisational jazz pianist versus a composer, stating that a composer will work for a long period of time perfecting every note in a piece of music, while an improvisational musician will typically just sit down and play what comes to them.
“It is still shocking to me that people still come to see me. I left one of my early shows and I remember thinking, ‘What is it you’re trying to do?’ The answer was, ‘I just want to make people feel good and if not good, at least better.’” With that mission of just making people feel good, it’s no wonder that even after ten years he looks forward to writing every day.
With so much of his writing referencing hard things and current events, I wanted to know what things he did to safeguard his heart and mind. Since his father’s death, he has worked regularly with a therapist and spends a lot of time in nature hiking with his dog. His faith and his wife are central to his sensibility and consistency.
“It’s important for me to stay mentally healthy so I can write with the same tone I like to have,” he adds, noting that he must exert more effort to stay positive when tuned in to current events. Although he intentionally avoids controversy, people can still read into things that they want to read, but he stays focused on the purpose he feels called to – a purpose I believe is to shine light through those cracks.
The last ten years have brought literary accomplishments and widespread appeal, so what do the next ten years look like for Sean Dietrich?
If you’re one of his multitude of readers, you already know there’s one thing he loves more than writing…more than anything, really, and that’s the love of his life, his wife. So his answer is no surprise, “I couldn’t have predicted the last ten years. I’d like to make some more beautiful memories with Jamie.”
Thank you, Sean, for your vulnerability and candor on hard subjects, including your own personal story of tragedy and triumph. The world would be very dark without you in it. You’re good people doing very good things.
If you want to see what happens when lost little boys grow up to be men found by God through music, Mark Twain, hard work, several good Mothers, and lifegiving love, follow him here.
To see Sean’s show locally, tickets are on sale here for the December 7th “An Evening with Sean of the South,” at the Rex Theatre in downtown Pensacola to benefit Big Brothers Big Sisters of Northwest Florida.