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On Writing

I once 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 you’ll 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 life’s clutter, but also for his brush with Hollywood—a former student modeled the inspiring teacher in Dead Poet’s 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 writers.

Franz: We have an issue that’s 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 you’re going to get is just a matter of the moment, but go ahead.

Franz: Sure, let’s 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 it’s a book review. I write by hand because I can revise a lot easier. I have written some things, I’m 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 helps that.

Franz: That’s what I found. I took me forever to get used to composing cold, but now I feel I’m 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 ... It’s not a philosophic thing. [laughs] There’s nothing philosophic in anything I do. It just happens to work that way.

Franz: That’s how we do a lot of things or should be. It’s 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.

Franz: We’ve already decided beforehand that we were going to do it this way and this worked out for all of these scientific reasons. Right?

Pickering: Yeah.

Franz: So basically it’s just a pen and—

Pickering: Yeah, it’s 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 couldn’t see some lines. So, then I switched to ballpoint pen. I’ll write generally on yellow pads, but I have been known to write on pink or green. [laughs] I thought I’d write an essay called “Prissy” on pink paper ... Actually, they sold these pads; they come in four colors: white, yellow, green, and pink. They’re very cheap, so I could just buy four of them. That’s not philosophic either. Choosing pink didn’t reveal anything about me.

Franz: You just ran out of the yellow and the white.

Pickering: That’s right.

Franz: That sounds like me. Practical. That’s what you have to do a lot of times. You’re prolific.

Pickering: Well, I’m 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 their lives?

Pickering: Well, I don’t know. Probably a lot more than the rest of us. That’s what’s bothersome about it.

Franz: You think so?

Pickering: Yeah, I think they’re the most active people in the whole world. They’re out there bungey jumping; they’re writing while they’re 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 don’t know how successful she was. I wonder if the rhythms of the prose probably went wharomp, wharomp. Probably horrible rhythms, I don’t know. Maybe she was writing explosion books. I don’t remember.

Franz: There have been people like Tillie Olson, who’ve written—

Pickering: That’s a wonderful thing she said in “I Stand Here Ironing,” isn’t it? [This is a story about a mother pondering her relationship with her daughter.]

Franz: Oh, it is.

Pickering: You can’t explain a child to a high school counselor. They want to be so helpful. How can you tell them what they were like? You can’t ... Such a bright story.

Franz: Absolutely. To be able to have done that over time, to kind of have to hide your writing for fear of being criticized.

Pickering: That’s 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 I’m the person that mows the grass, that pays for the studying, that takes the dogs out to go poop. That’s what I do.

Franz: But you know, that’s what we do ... But one of the things that I am the most qualified for but I don’t want to teach is writing.

Pickering: That’s what I do. I don’t 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 it’s a brilliant course. [laughs] You tell stories. They say, “I can’t believe that really happened,” and I say, “No, it didn’t. I just made it up.” [laughs] But then I tell them that you have to make them up, too.

Franz: Isn’t that what it is? I’ve 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 is—

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, I’m just not trash. Look what this man is accusing me of being. Mama was dead at the time. This just came too late.

Franz: Oh, my God, that’s wonderful!

Pickering: It is! Mama, I don’t 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 don’t 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 Hazlitt’s 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 can’t escape yourself. That’s the other thing. I tried to escape the newspapers ...

Franz: Do you write every day?

Pickering: No, no. You can’t 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 I’m ready to write something. And sometimes people will ask me to write something, but that doesn’t 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. That’s the way life is. Some folks don’t like that.
     Often, I just write about—I mean, Scott Sanders came here—he’s 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 can’t use any tools. [laughs] So I wrote about that and I proved that the people who couldn’t 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 didn’t 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 you’ll 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 doesn’t 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: That’s interesting ... You’re 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.” That’s what they call maintenance. [laughs] The point is that it’s going to be pretty damn hard to maintain me. So, that’s where it really comes from. Most of the ideas come from little stories. Somebody will do something or I’ll see something. I’d think wouldn’t 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 there’s going to be a lot of praying on this plane.” And I said, “Certainly, not. There’s 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 didn’t 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.

Pickering: That’s right and you just write about it. Of course, sometimes it’s boring as heck, but that’s 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; she’s my advisee. She asked what courses she should take. I said, “Well, what do you want to take in English?” And she said, “I don’t care what the course is just as long as there’s no smut in it.” Oh, my God. So, I said, “Don’t 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, I’d say, “Smut,” very low to her and she’d put her hands over her ears. [laughs] Then when I’d finish the smut, I’d sort of raise my left hand like they do in the Evangelical church, showing my palm, and she’d take her hands down from her ears. [laughs] That leads to a story.
     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, I’m 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, it’s 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 I’ve been wrestling with somebody who’s very intelligent. But you know I don’t remember much at the end, mostly because he doesn’t have a lot of stories. He’s pretty smart. He’s good to read to gain one’s 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 wasn’t gossip. It was a way to understand that family.

Pickering: You’re right.

Franz: We grew up with all those stories. Now, my Northern husband, Chicago-bred husband, doesn’t quite understand this. And also trying to understand that women like to process.

Pickering: And also Southerners know something about death. It’s hilarious. And other people think, “Oh, my God, you’re 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 wasn’t 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 she’s in trouble.” And I said, “No, she’s 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, “You’re not from around here are you?”

Pickering: [laughing]

Franz: Death is really one of the most bizarre things.

Pickering: Oh, absolutely. I’ve 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 it’s fun. I like that sort of alternative world. I don’t mean anything pretentious about it. It’s 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 ...

Franz: You’ve written books of essays and single essays in a lot of university journals and literary journals. So, it is that form that you’ve 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 don’t have that endurance and, in part, I think I’m going to be dead within a week. I always think that. If I start a novel, wouldn’t it be terrible to die before it’s finished. But with an essay, I think I can probably get this finished before death comes visiting. [laughs] It’s something that I can see the beginning and the end. That’s 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 Toyotas. [laughs]

Franz: How about young writers?

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 Pulitzer Prize.

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 good advice.

Pickering: 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.

Pickering: That’s 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.

Pickering: That’s right.

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.

Pickering: That’s what it is. This whole thing about the essay is that it drifts all over the landscape.   

Sam Pickering


SAM PICKERING is a member of the English faculty at the University of Connecticut. He is the author of 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). Mr. Pickering was the model for Robin Williams' character in the movie Dead Poet’s Society.