said that a visit with essayist Sam Pickering, whether in
prose or in person, is a giddy and reckless romp through
an intellectual landscape that allows one to laugh at human
nature and discover the fullness of living. You also get
taken by the hand down a winding path, not knowing where
youll end up. Mr. Pickering, a member of the English
faculty at the University of Connecticut, has written fifteen
books (twelve of which are collections of essays) and over
200 journal and magazine articles. His latest is The
Last Book (University of Tennessee Press, October 2001).
He is eagerly sought as a speaker not only because of his
humor and his avid appreciation of the details of lifes
clutter, but also for his brush with Hollywood—a former
student modeled the inspiring teacher in Dead Poets
Society on Mr. Pickering. But first and foremost, Mr.
Pickering is a Southern storyteller.
Recently on assignment
for Critique Magazine, I asked Pickering to comment
on his writing method, his career, and his advice to new
Franz: We have an issue
thats on writing. When we talked previously, we did
touch a little bit about how you approach it.
Pickering: But I forgot
how that ends. [laughs] What youre going to get is
just a matter of the moment, but go ahead.
Franz: Sure, lets
find out what it is in 2002, what it is at the moment. I
gathered from our first conversation that you write by hand.
Pickering: Yeah, I
do, unless its a book review. I write by hand because
I can revise a lot easier. I have written some things, Im
starting to revise on the computer again, and again, and
again. After I write it out by hand, I type it out on the
computer. I keep revising on the computer because it certainly
what I found. I took me forever to get used to composing
cold, but now I feel Im hampered a lot of times when
I have a pen in my hand.
Pickering: Well, sometimes,
I discovered—I do some composing on the computer—because
sometimes the words come a little easier. Also, I have a
bad back, so generally I do most of my writing by hand ...
Its not a philosophic thing. [laughs] Theres
nothing philosophic in anything I do. It just happens to
work that way.
how we do a lot of things or should be. Its just you
flow with it.
Pickering: And you
impose a philosophy on it later on when somebody asks you
a serious question. [laughs] You begin to be serious when
it works out for you.
already decided beforehand that we were going to do it this
way and this worked out for all of these scientific reasons.
Franz: So basically its just
a pen and—
Pickering: Yeah, its
a ballpoint pen. It used to be a pencil but one year I wrote
some 600 pages by pencil and I brought them back from Australia
and they all faded.
Franz: Oh, no!
Pickering: I could
see them but you know I couldnt see some lines. So,
then I switched to ballpoint pen. Ill write generally
on yellow pads, but I have been known to write on pink or
green. [laughs] I thought Id write an essay called
Prissy on pink paper ... Actually, they sold
these pads; they come in four colors: white, yellow, green,
and pink. Theyre very cheap, so I could just buy four
of them. Thats not philosophic either. Choosing pink
didnt reveal anything about me.
Franz: You just ran out of the yellow
and the white.
Pickering: Thats right.
Franz: That sounds like me. Practical.
Thats what you have to do a lot of times. Youre
Pickering: Well, Im
not. I turn around and look at these guys who right 750
books. [laughs] And they make—[laughs]
Franz: And what else do they do in
Pickering: Well, I
dont know. Probably a lot more than the rest of us.
Thats whats bothersome about it.
Franz: You think so?
Pickering: Yeah, I
think theyre the most active people in the whole world.
Theyre out there bungey jumping; theyre writing
while theyre bungey jumping. I met a woman, for example,
who really had a hard life, but she got up every morning
at 4:30 and went to the basement and did the laundry and
everything and wrote while the laundry was being done. Can
you imagine?! I dont know how successful she was.
I wonder if the rhythms of the prose probably went wharomp,
wharomp. Probably horrible rhythms, I dont know. Maybe
she was writing explosion books. I dont remember.
Franz: There have been people like
Tillie Olson, whove written—
a wonderful thing she said in I Stand Here Ironing,”
isnt it? [This is a story about a mother pondering
her relationship with her daughter.]
Franz: Oh, it is.
Pickering: You cant
explain a child to a high school counselor. They want to
be so helpful. How can you tell them what they were like?
You cant ... Such a bright story.
To be able to have done that over time, to kind of have
to hide your writing for fear of being criticized.
Pickering: Thats right.
Franz: But it was in a box—a
typewriter in a box. I thought what a story.
Pickering: What a
real story, right ... People want to throw around the name
writer a lot. When somebody asks me, I just
say Im the person that mows the grass, that pays for
the studying, that takes the dogs out to go poop. Thats
what I do.
Franz: But you know,
thats what we do ... But one of the things that I
am the most qualified for but I dont want to teach
what I do. I dont teach it much. I happen to have
a course for graduate students this semester on the personal
essay. So, I just talk about life and they all laugh and
think its a brilliant course. [laughs] You tell stories.
They say, I cant believe that really happened,
and I say, No, it didnt. I just made it up.
[laughs] But then I tell them that you have to make them
that what it is? Ive been spending a lot of time marketing
and doing a lot of magazine writing. There are peaks and
valleys in it, especially with the economy being what it
Pickering: If you
need to make some money at it. I throw books out the window
and wait for the money to come in. I stand by the mailbox
and nothing comes in ... One time I sent in a piece. It
must have fifteen years ago and the guy who rejected it
said—what did he say?—elitist, aristocratic,
and something else. I thought, My God, what a compliment!
I said my mother would have killed for those words! [laughs]
Mama, Im just not trash. Look what this man is accusing
me of being. Mama was dead at the time. This just came too
Franz: Oh, my God, thats wonderful!
Pickering: It is!
Mama, I dont just write all this trash. I was going
to show her, but she had been promoted to Glory ...
Franz: You were in
Nova Scotia for the summer. Well, I know that you like to
get away and I dont blame you. You need to get out
there and get some grist for the mill, so to speak.
Pickering: You know,
I was just reading William Hazlitts essay, On
the Pleasure of Hating (1826). He said that he despises
himself for not despising the world enough.[laughs] So even
when you go, you cant escape yourself. Thats
the other thing. I tried to escape the newspapers ...
Franz: Do you write every day?
Pickering: No, no.
You cant if you teach. People get sick ... No, what
I do is I gather a whole lot of material and then if I can
think of a title. Then I take all of this material and sort
of strap it under the title if I can. I gather, gather,
gather, until Im ready to write something. And sometimes
people will ask me to write something, but that doesnt
happen very often. The trouble with the kind of thing I
write, the essays. People want essays—they kind of
want essays to be on things like liberty; they never want
them to be on toenails or something like that. So, I just
sort of write about, I tie all kinds of things together
because I like to drift. Thats the way life is. Some
folks dont like that.
Often, I just write aboutI
mean, Scott Sanders came here—hes a nice man—he
gave a talk on one of his books. He talked about all the
tools he could use in the books. So, I wrote an essay called
Tool Less because I cant use any tools.
[laughs] So I wrote about that and I proved that the people
who couldnt use tools were more flexible. They were
very nice people . People who used tools thought that things
could be made and fashioned to last. People who didnt
use tools knew that nothing lasts so they were not zealots
of any kind. He thought I was a complete savage and a fascists
at that. [laughs] So, that was the occasion for that.
Franz: So, a lot of times youll
get inspired about something.
Pickering: Right now,
I have to collect the material to write. You know, sit down
and take notes on somebody you doesnt use tools. Now
how would that make him a very attractive person? And then
go around and sort of wander around and listen to stories
about tools, and look at tools.
Franz: Thats interesting ...
Youre commenting on life.
Pickering: I would
say that I had a physical a while back. After poking and
prodding me for forty-five minutes, the doctor said, Now,
Sam, we just have to maintain you. Thats what
they call maintenance. [laughs] The point is that its
going to be pretty damn hard to maintain me. So, thats
where it really comes from. Most of the ideas come from
little stories. Somebody will do something or Ill
see something. Id think wouldnt that make a
nice essay. Then I have to sort of throw things in. For
example, I was on an airplane ... I got on the plane Sunday
morning. The take off was rough and this woman next to me
said, It looks like theres going to be a lot
of praying on this plane. And I said, Certainly,
not. Theres not a single Christian on this plane.
Only atheists fly on Sunday. The Christians are all back
in church, rolling around, and frothing on the linoleum,
squeaking syllables. That woman glared at me. She
didnt say a word. She took out this book that said
something like Making God A Part of Your Every Hour
Want. So I thought about that a little bit, praying
in an airplane. This sort of story comes out of that.
Franz: You observe nature. You observe
what people are doing.
right and you just write about it. Of course, sometimes
its boring as heck, but thats ok. You just right
about the little things that go on. I had a student, for
example. This is nice story. I wrote about this, about students.
I had a student who came to me; shes my advisee. She
asked what courses she should take. I said, Well,
what do you want to take in English? And she said,
I dont care what the course is just as long
as theres no smut in it. Oh, my God. So, I said,
Dont take me. Well, of course, she did.
So, we had a little agreement this lecture class I was doing.
She sat in the front row, and every time smut came up, Id
say, Smut, very low to her and shed put
her hands over her ears. [laughs] Then when Id finish
the smut, Id sort of raise my left hand like they
do in the Evangelical church, showing my palm, and shed
take her hands down from her ears. [laughs] That leads to
I had another story ... But
I had a student who asked me for a recommendation. So, I
said write something about yourself. I almost went to sleep
reading it until I got to the last line. She said, If
I go on this foreign study program, Im going to join
a parrot club because I like parrots. So, I talked
to her and found out she has thirty-five parrots in the
house. Her mother and father argue a lot so all of the parrots
all of a sudden will start screaming out, F... You!
When the sirens go by, the parrots all make the siren sounds.
The make belching and breaking of wind sounds. [laughs]
So, its so wonderful that you can have a little essay
with that all in it.
What happens is now
a lot of the writing of essay comes out of story. You know
Swen Birkerts is a wonderful, bright person. I read his
books, like the Gutenberg thing. [Gutenberg Elegies:
The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age; Faber and
Faber, 1994.] I read of all of his essays and I really like
them. I know Ive been wrestling with somebody whos
very intelligent. But you know I dont remember much
at the end, mostly because he doesnt have a lot of
stories. Hes pretty smart. Hes good to read
to gain ones own ideas started. That may be a regional
thing, you understand.
Franz: That may be.
I guess we both grew up with storytelling. When people tell
us stories about their local people.
Pickering: They tell
us stories. If somebody did something bad, people would
all say, Oh, well, you know, this grandfather did
that. Not to worry. [laughs]
Franz: He turned out
ok. Exactly. And all those stories—it wasnt
gossip. It was a way to understand that family.
Pickering: Youre right.
Franz: We grew up
with all those stories. Now, my Northern husband, Chicago-bred
husband, doesnt quite understand this. And also trying
to understand that women like to process.
Pickering: And also
Southerners know something about death. Its hilarious.
And other people think, Oh, my God, youre gloomy!
But no, I mean, you just laugh.
Franz: I know. I swear
to God, I took my husband to Kentucky when one of my uncles
died when we were married, I guess, about a year or two.
It was so funny. I mean it wasnt funny, but it was
funny. Anyway, we were in this tiny, Primitive Baptist church
house. This man had thirteen children, all grown with kids
and everything. There were these women who were swooning
over the back seats of the pews ... There were a couple
of women right behind us in the little church house, and
they were swooning. Of course, my husband is one of those
kinds of people who goes out and helps people. He popped
up and I pulled him right back down and I said, You
sit there and let the women handle it. He said, But
shes in trouble. And I said, No, shes
not. Let the women handle it. Finally, I had to take
him out of the church and I explained to him finally that
this is all part of the grieving process. People here go
over the top. Finally, the sextant of the church came out
and said, Youre not from around here are you?
Franz: Death is really one of the
most bizarre things.
Pickering: Oh, absolutely.
Ive written about love. But funerals are nothing but
bizarre ... I try to write, not too much, but a fair amount
because it gets you into an alternative world. And you have
characters in it and you tell stories. You can shape things
a little bit and its fun. I like that sort of alternative
world. I dont mean anything pretentious about it.
Its just that I have all these great characters in
these essays and I like them. I like to laugh at them and
enjoy their doings ...
written books of essays and single essays in a lot of university
journals and literary journals. So, it is that form that
youve done exclusively. Have you tried anything else?
Pickering: No. I once
tried poetry, but I was terrible. I admire the people who
can sit down and write a novel. But I dont have that
endurance and, in part, I think Im going to be dead
within a week. I always think that. If I start a novel,
wouldnt it be terrible to die before its finished.
But with an essay, I think I can probably get this finished
before death comes visiting. [laughs] Its something
that I can see the beginning and the end. Thats nice.
I like that. In fact, a young person can sit down with a
novel and just go on forever. Also, I think that people
who write memoirs should break them up into little chapters
that are almost like essays. So then they can see the bits
and pieces ...
Franz: So, we know
about your content. We know about your process. What advice
would you give to young people?
Pickering: Buy American
Franz: How about young
Pickering: I don’t
have a lot of advice for young people.... There’s
an old country expression which you probably know, and I
maybe even had said to you last time. “Words are nice,
but chickens lay eggs.” Do things in life. There’s
another good old expression, “Genius is diligence.”
It’s just hard work. Have some hard work, but still
have some fun. Don’t take it too seriously. Remember
Hamlet’s, “Words, words, words.” People
shoudln’t take words too seriously.
Franz: A lot of people
want to write the Great American Novel or write to win the
Pickering: I tell
then not to be too sensitive. If you put something down
on the page that is not you, that stops a lot of people.
They can’t deal with rejection or criticism. That’s
ok, not being able to handle that. But if you want to write,
you sort of have to be a little tough.
Franz: I think that’s
my advice: Be meaner than hell! [laughs]
Franz: You have to
be tough. You have to be confident in what you are doing.
right. The trouble is the more you write, because you write
in short sentences, you begin to think in short sentences.
You become a little too crisp in your conversation. [laughs]
That leads to problems ...
Franz: Well, I think
we’ve danced all around the garden.
Pickering: We did
a lot of dancing. But there’s pleasure in it. You
can talk all you want about writing, but it’s kind
of hard to pin down.
Franz: Exactly. It’s
a matter of doing it.
Franz: If you want
to try it, do.
Pickering: Do it and
not be too disappointed if you fail. Your going to get a
million rejections. Some people don’t, but most people
I know did.
Franz: Even yourself
Franz: Well, we’ve
both told stories and we’ve just taken a little romp
through that whole essay process.
what it is. This whole thing about the essay is that it
drifts all over the landscape.