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Copyright © 2006, 2009 Samuel Pickering and the University of North Dakota.

Dr. Chris Nelson: …Sam Pickering from the Dead Poet’s Society, but he’s also a family man, a father of three, and he’s prolific in other ways as well.  He’s written at least [audience laughter] written at least 19 books and has somewhere over 200 or so magazine and journal articles at last count. Educated at the University of the South, Cambridge University in Princeton.  He’s a member of the English faculty at the University of Connecticut. He teaches 18th and 19th century literature, children’s literature, nature writing and, of course, the art of the essay.  His publications are in literary journals that are really too numerous to mention. And his work is most frequently described as focusing on the small details, the little things, the ordinary. Reviewers have noted the tendency for his essays to meander like his favorite rambles through the countryside through a mix of fact and fiction, the mundane and familial, but always marked by his sense of the humor and richness of life.  My favorite comment about his work comes from Kirkus Review and Hartford Advocate, who have likened his work to a good shot of sipping whiskey—smooth, but promising a warm kick. Without further rambling then, please welcome Sam Pickering. 

[Audience applause] 

Sam Pickering: Thank you Chris. If this microphone echoes in any untoward ways let me know and I’ll make adjustments with it. I wanna say right now that this black thing is not a growth. This is another microphone I have to use.  So I’m covered with unsightly growths, which I keep out of sight. I’m gonna read for twenty minutes and then we’re gonna have this little question and answer thing. And I hope you will be thoughtful in what you ask and not just ask any old question, because I wanna answer them. 

Now, I am a traveler in little things. The Biblical tale of loaves and fishes is not about feeding a multitude. Instead the story celebrates making do with small things, a fist of bread and hunk of fish. The little appointments of ordinary life are about all most of us have, but they’re probably the best we have. Last spring, I was running into Edinburgh, Scotland. I had a fellowship. And as I was jogging through town, a man yelled at me. I couldn’t understand. And was thinking that he might be asking directions, I ran over to him. He was drunk, and when I ask him to repeat his remark he said, "You’re the slowest runner I’ve ever seen, you should walk." In truth I clip along at a pretty good pace except when I daydream. When the man shouted, I was thinking about Murdo McKay. Murdo died last week. A doctor explained to Beatrice, Murdo’s relict, that although Murdo’s legs were stiffer than fencepost and his lungs were thick with clabber, a petrified bowel had killed him. 

Murdo’s left eye was glass. Buried in the eye was a blinking red light. When Beatrice pulled Murdo’s eyelid down, the light remained visible, not a matter that concerned Beatrice until her distant cousin Martha Washington viewed the body. Martha did not know Murdo had a false eye, much less one that blinked. "Save me Sweet Jesus! It’s alive and winking at me," she screamed when she leaned forward to study the corpse. "Uh," she moaned, flopping over into the casket. While Martha’s head slammed into Murdo’s chest, the powder on her face exploding in a cloud, one that would’ve made Murdo sneeze had he been breathing, her lipstick streaked his shirt, forcing Beatrice to haul the corpse back into the kitchen, hee hee hee, and change "its" shirt. 

[Audience laughter]

I suspect Beatrice was relieved to hand Murdo over to the Lord. For two years Murdo had been a trial. He had become deaf, not something, however, that stopped him from listening to and repeating gossip, getting details wildly wrong, causing scandals, saying, for example, that a woman that a man who was taking the nerve cure and a woman suffering from a touch of rinderpest had become Methodists [chuckle].

Beatrice had Murdo cremated. Aside from baking it into an ashy green patina, the firing did not affect Murdo’s bowel.  Because she was sentimental Beatrice didn’t toss the bowel onto the nearest rock pile as most folks would have done. Instead she paid a stone mason to carve the bowel into a pair of dachshunds, which she put on the mantle in the living room [laughter], both dogs lying down, curled into semicircles, the tail of one dog twisting to the right, that of the other twisting to the left.

Course I might have been dreaming about Murdo’s cousin, Mulberry McKay. Actually the man’s name might have been Teigncombe. In any case Mulberry’s or Teigncombe’s family immigrated to Pennsylvania when he was a boy. Teigncombe did well in school and seminary, eventually becoming Episcopal bishop of Pittsburgh. 

I chose that bishop actually because he was the man that led the movement against the gay bishops-the gay bishop in New Hampshire. And I don’t care about what people do with their private parts. I just care about people killing other people that seems to bother me more than private parts. 

Anyway, he never married, and his closest companion was Mr. Green, a parrot. Last week Mr. Green died, and Teigncombe wrote in his diary, "My beautiful Mr. Green died at ten-thirty last night. At six he was healthy and ate a full dinner of dried pineapples, banana chips, monkey and macadamia nuts, white sunflower seeds, and a crunchy vegetable stick. When he finished the stick he said ‘amen’ something he neglected to do recently."  That night Teigncombe removed the American flag from its pole in the Sunday school auditorium and from the upper left corner snipped off the blue section containing the stars. After wrapping the cloth around Mr. Green, he laid him in a humidor, tacking down the lid to prevent Mr. Green from kicking the top up when rigor mortis set it. [laughter] [ol’ son bitch]. The next morning, he buried Mr. Green under the birdbath behind his residence. To allay his grief Teigncombe opened a bottle of brandy, forgetting that at noon he was scheduled to preside at a baptizing. Just before noon Teigncombe’s curate appeared and after reminding him about the baptism steered the bishop toward the church. Unfortunately, Teigncombe was fuddled, and he had trouble finding the baptismal ceremony in the prayer book. "Jesus H. Christ," parishioners heard him say as he flipped through the Prayer Book, "this is a goddamn difficult child to baptize." 

[Laughter]

I write quite a bit about religion. 

[Audience laughter]

Now, my life is completely and utterly ordinary. There’s nothing that happens that’s out of the ordinary. This past summer I participated in a triathlon and I ran twelve kilometers, a guy biked thirty-five, and somebody swam a kilometer. My team finished second among the men’s teams in Yarmouth, Nova Scotia. There being, of course I have to admit, only three men’s teams. To enter the triathlon costs $30.00 per person and I’m a person who toys with numbers. I ran the twelve kilometers in sixty-eight minutes; each minute thus costing me 44.1 cents. Not a bad price to pay, especially when compared to what a minute would have cost had I been faster. If, for example, I had run the twelve kilometers in fifty minutes, each minute would have cost 60 cents, an almost prohibitive price, one that would have made me reluctant to participate in the triathlon. 

[Laughter] 

Now, I get a lot of my material from other people. I haunt libraries and look for things in books and I’ll give you some examples of a couple of things I found recently. This kind of aphorisms, "never contradict a man who stutters." Think about that. "Most family trees are only suitable for broomsticks and horse troughs," which is something I believe.  And I also say I write a lot about chickens. I ate a lot of drumsticks when I was young and this has affected me in later life. 

[Audience laughter] 

I’ve learned for example to call a cockfight a chicken dispute.  I’ve even in the library deepened my knowledge of Shakespeare, this after teaching Shakespeare for thirty-seven years. I was surprised when I was unable to answer the question, "what character in Shakespeare butchered the greatest number of chickens?" The answer, of course, is Claudius in Hamlet, who did "murder most foul." 

[Audience laughter] 

Now, I have just finished a little piece of written in which I have, I’m arguing, I have argued that in the Garden of Eden, Eve was not seduced by a serpent, she was seduced by a chicken.  And I wrote for politeness sake that it wasn’t a rooster, but a capon. And so our Catholic brothers and sisters would not be disturbed, I said it wasn’t a fryer, but a baking chicken. I did publish an article once in which I argued that they had mistranslated the Greek myth. And you know, Zeus comes down and sleeps with Leda in the form of a swan. I wrote that he came down in the form of a chicken [laughter], which, oh to hell with it!  Anyway, I thought it was brilliant. 

[Audience laughter] 

Now, I teach, and I get material from my classrooms. Two years ago, I taught my first class and I came home and my wife Vicki asked what it was like. And I said, "It was luminous, I was absolutely brilliant. I had come down from a cloud in the heavens I was so brilliant." And the next day, I walked into the bookstore and started chatting with my friend Susy. And she said one of your students wandered into my office yesterday. The boy it turned out was lost and didn’t know where to find books for his course. "I’m looking for a book called The Art of the Personal Essay," he said. "What’s the name of the course?" Susy asked. "I don’t know," the boy said. "What’s the teacher’s name?" "Pick-something," the boy said. "Pickering?" Susy said. "Yes, that’s the name," the boy said. "Oh, you’re lucky," Susy said. "He’s a wonderful teacher and the class will be super."  "I don’t know," the boy replied, "I didn’t understand a single word he said today."

[Audience laughter]

I sometimes think that ya know I’m um…sometimes I begin to think I’m influential. I think, well you know you’re Emersonian in the way you write. And I got this little note in the mail not too long ago:  "So that you would know what is on the minds of your readers, I’m enclosing a slip of paper I found in one of your books in the Gainesville library," a man wrote from Florida. Three inches wide and five inches tall the paper was pink. Written neatly in pencil atop one side was, "take chicken out of freezer." 

[Laughter] 

Now, people often ask me about the affect of education. I’m gonna give you a little story and this will sorta sum it up. I write about Carthage, Tennessee, where my family’s from, was for three generations in any case. And each year there is, I bring a show to Carthage of all sorts of things. And this year what caused the greatest sensation was "The World’s Smallest Giant." People flocked to view the "monster." "He was only five feet eight inches tall," Loppie Groat told a crowd at a local café. "What was amazing was he looked like a normal fella. If there hadn’t been a sign over his cage, I would’ve passed right by." "That shows the importance of education," Googoo Hooberry said. "If you hadn’t been able to read, you wouldn’t have been able to knowed he was a giant. [laughter] And you would have missed a once-in-a-lifetime sight." 

[Laughter]

Now, I tell a lot of stories about education and this is a story my father-in-law told me and I put it in a book of mine cause I like it. He was chairman in the English department. He went to Princeton as an undergraduate and came back and was chairman of the English department and he had a nice sense of humor. But he told this story about when he was a senior there. And a French professor, and we know, invited him to his house for dinner. The man raised the meal like a well-wrought garden, each dish a well-tended bed blending, blending harmoniously with the previous course. Just before dessert, the man excused himself from the table and went into his bedroom. He was gone sometime and Vicki’s father, my wife is name is Vicki, assumed he was fetching a tray of liqueurs. Vicki’s father was mistaken. As he set back in his chair, mulling the delights of Drambuie and Grand Marnier, the professor suddenly appeared in the doorway to the dining room. He was, as the British would put it, completely starkers. For those of you don’t, it means naked. "Around the table and through the house he chased me," Vicki’s father recounted. 

[Laughter] 

Universities have just gone downhill ever since. Vicki’s father escaped with both honor and sense of humor intact. He said nothing about the evening. A month later, a friend came to see him. The professor had invited the friend to dinner. The professor had struck the boy as strange, and knowing that Vicki’s daddy had eaten at the professor’s house he asked if he should accept the invitation. "By all means," Vicki’s father said, "the man is a magnificent cook, and the evening will be a night to remember. Dessert in particular will be an astonishing surprise." 

[Laughter]

What have we lost? I also put in stories people send me. And this is kind of a dumb story, but I like it and I’m gonna tell it to ya. Now ya don’t look that bright, so you might like it too. [Audience laughter] The day after they graduated from the University of Tennessee this past June, two new alumni walked into a pet store in Knoxville. "I want four budgies," the taller of the young men said, still wearing his graduation gown. "Certainly," the clerk responded. "We have an aviary.  What would you like two males and two females, all males, all females?"  "Perhaps," he continued pausing, "three of one, one of the other sort of feathery ménage a trois?" "I don’t know nothing about no ménage," the customer responded. "I just want four budgies." "Certainly," the clerk said, "but what colors would you like? We have yellow, blue, green, and Neapolitan."  "Are you deaf? I don’t care about the colors. Put the budgies in a box for me. Is that too hard for you to do?" "No sir." 

Once the men, two men received the birds, they drove to Clingman’s Dome, the highest peak in the Smokey Mountains. There they parked the car and walked to the lookout. After studying the lip of the lookout, the first man paced off ten paces back toward the car where he paused and reaching into the box his two budgies, holding one in his left hand the other in his right. Then after leaning back like a broad jumper preparing his approach to the bar, he sprinted to the edge of the mountain, hurdled the guardrail and leapt off the cliff flapping his arms, the birds firmly in his hands. He hung in the air for a moment and then fell heavily smashing into boulders, parts snapping off and ricocheting in sundry directions, a leg here, an arm there, his head bouncing into a thicket of laurel like a bowling ball sliding in to the gutter beside a lane, his eyes open and spinning like holes in the ball. For a long time his companion stood at the edge of the mountain, rubbing his chin and studying the remains of his friend. Finally he shook his head and said, "Shitfire, this budgie jumping ain’t all that it’s cracked up to be." 

[Audience laughter]

Now, I was sitting not long ago to end the first semester on a rock wall, my leg was in bad shape and a girl walked by and she said this to a boy she met, "Have a nice semester, life, and stuff," which I thought was brilliant. And I write about the stuff. I don’t have a lot to say about life, I just write about stuff; I write about everything. When I was in Edinburgh this past year, the second day in Edinburgh I went to a used bookstore and while I was there a border collie mounted me. "A traditional Gaelic greeting, I presume," I said to the man running the store. When he didn’t respond, I pushed ahead, saying, "This is unexpected and extremely pleasant, something that makes me eager to make the acquaintance of the two-legged and kilted." 

[Laughter]

He said nothing. I just gave up. 

I keep track of things. I had some rules in Edinburgh. One, I’d never leave the city. One, I’d go nowhere I could not walk. One day I walked eighteen miles and I was exhausted after ten. But on the way back, I looked into a backyard and a woman had hung up fourteen pairs of underpants on the line. They were all of a robust size. All white and waving like signal flags on a yacht. 

[Laughter]

A fortnight supply, I thought. "Doubtful; remember this is Scotland," an Englishman of my acquaintance of mine said, "that could be a six month’s supply." 

[Laughter] 

Now, I’m not gonna talk to much longer, but I keep track of everything. This is a true story. A lot of my stories aren’t true, but this is true. I was in Nashville, Tennessee a couple three years ago and I was waiting to catch a plane to Providence, Rhode Island, the flight was cheaper than to Hartford. And in the waiting area I noticed a woman my age standing beside the counter. I’m ashamed to say that she attracted me and before I realized it I was a yard away from her. "Good golly this is odd," I thought, "I’m not a masher."  So I turned away quickly and walked back down along the corridor to a café and bought a cappuccino. I hoped that the woman would be gone when I returned. She was still there though, sitting in a chair staring at people strolling through the terminal. I put my suitcase down, and taking out a book set in the chair near her. I didn’t read, however, I also watched people. After a large girl wearing a pink shirt strolled past chewing a fist of bubble gum, I leaned to the woman sitting in the chair and said, "You’ve really been watching folks; have you seen anything interesting?" The woman turned my way, stared, then said "Don’t I know you?" I had attended Vanderbilt University for a year and one of the reasons I transferred to Sewanee. Quite simply co-education made me uncomfortable. At Vanderbilt, a girl named Cornelia was in all of my classes.  Cornelia had brown hair and a bright smile and when she was in a room, I couldn’t concentrate on books.  I never asked her for a date because I was seventeen and dreamed of seeing "the world." And I suspected that if I went out with her once I would marry her. So I left Vanderbilt. 

Only after we introduced ourselves did I recognize Cornelia. "When I was a freshman, I had such a crush on you," she said. "I had a crush on you, too," I said. "Forty years have passed, and I still think you’re super," whereupon people sitting around us burst into applause. They did! 

[Laughter] 

Cornelia and I chatted like old friends, we really weren’t. She had married, of course, just after college and had three children. She was in the airport to meet her two grandchildren flying up from New Orleans. Soon my flight was called. But before I left Cornelia introduced me to her granddaughters. That night I described the meeting to an acquaintance in Connecticut. "You should have raced off to a motel and tumbled amorously against each other in a big bed," he said, "that would’ve brought the story to a smashing conclusion." "No," I said. "That’s a northern, not a southern ending." "Real endings are beginnings," I explained. After meeting the girls, I got Cornelia’s address. I told her that I wanted my boys to marry warm, good-natured girls. "When the time comes for the boys to fall in love," I said, "I’m gonna mail them to you and your granddaughters in Tennessee." "That will never happen," my friend said. "Yes, it will," I said. "On the paper, the story will end just that way. I will shape the pages of the boys’ lives so they don’t run away from happiness." Kind of true I think. 

One or two little things and I will stop. I create things to write about. [sigh] Not long ago, I received a clipping from the Carthage Courier 1953, the notice said rites set, this is for my grandfather, set Friday for Sam Pickering. The next morning I tacked the obituary to the bulletin board outside the English department at the University of Connecticut. 

[Laughter]

As I admired my work, the students started reading the clippings on the board. "Oh no!" she said, seeing the obituary. "I planned to take Pickering’s course in the fall; now I’ll have to redo my schedule." "Is he really dead?" "Plucked and fried," I said. "He’s roosting in the holy sanctum now.  Never again will he teach reading." "Damn it!" the girl said. "What an inconvenience; my friend told me getting an A from him was easy." 

[Audience laughter] 

It’s very easy.  I just uh…one or two other…Now, the other thing I do a lot of is I rewrite history. It bores me the way it’s written, it’s all lies anyway and this is a little example. I wrote this. I said, the great-grandfather of a friend in Nashville spent some time in the Civil War on Robert E. Lee’s staff. After the battle of Gettysburg, my friend recounted, his great-grandfather overheard Lee mutter, "Damnation. I made a helluva mistake when I accepted the command of the Confederate armies. I should have fought for the Union." Now the problem of course with this story is it’s plausible indeed, probable, hee hee, except of course for the curse words. In school, I and all Southern children learned that Robert E. Lee never swore, not even when he was a boy and stepped on a honeybee while running around barefoot playing "Kiss and Chase." 

[Laughter]

Now, I’d like to say I treat students gently, I don’t. I’m kind, but I get things. Two more things I’ll stop and we’ll have this conversation. About a month ago, when I wrote this because I thought it was so brilliant, a teacher introduced me to a student who had distinguished herself in neurology, studying the loss of memory in old age. "Sally wants to devote herself to good," the teacher said smiling and rolling her hands over each other almost as if she were rubbing lard into her palms, before adding, "Wouldn’t it be wonderful if she discovered a way to combat memory loss?" "Wonderful!" I exclaimed, "What a nightmare! Forgetfulness is the only good thing that accompanies age. Old bores become interesting, thrice-told tales seem fresh, year after year the seasons are unique. A person wakes up in the morning and discovers a stranger lying next to him in bed. ‘Who is this?’ he thinks, ‘What a delight. What a surprise.’" 

[Audience laughter] 

And I am impatient. About two weeks ago, Mark telephoned from the Bank of America. You get these all the time don’t ya? And asked me to participate in a two minute survey. He read a sheet of questions and instructed me to rate the performance of people at the local branch: scoring them 1 to 10, 10 being the highest. "Do the employees at the bank make you feel important," he asked? "Important!" I exclaimed. "I’m not important. If people at the bank made me feel important I would know they were crooks, not to be trusted with my money." There was silence for a while. Then Mark said, "But how do you rate them on a scale from 1 to 10?" Only once during the rest of the interview was I tempted to answer truthfully. Near the end of the survey, Mark asked if the employees were welcoming. Being offered cookies and coffee by grinning a overly-intimate, presumptuous stranger does not sweeten my day. Even worse is being asked, "How are you today?" "Just once," I almost said to Mark, "I like to hear a teller say, ‘Shit!’ and then I’d feel right at home." 

[Audience laughter]

Now, I’m gonna stop at this last tiny, tiny bit. And this is, this is kinda, kinda how life is.  And then we’ll have this conversation. Life changes and I’ve said this once or twice before. I was in Nashville not long ago and I was sitting with the Grande Dames of Nashville, and I’ve known her forever. And in the past, she would hug me. She’s ninety years old now. She’d hug me and say "Give Vicki my love and those wonderful children."  Now, this time when she hugged me her last words were, "Take care of your prostate."  

[Laughter]

I don’t know how you do it, but anyway. And here’s the last thing I’m gonna read ya and I’m gonna stop. In November, the last day of November, I got my first Christmas letter. Now you get these Christmas letters from people whom you don’t know that’s what’s always astonishing to me, I get those and they’re amazing. And I hadn’t seen these people for decades. And this fella, first sent us was, "Christmas miracle comes throughout the year," Fred wrote. "This year’s real miracle is Alice’s new right hip. Forty-one years ago Alice’s hip swung free and inviting like a gate into a garden. The hinges oiled, the paint on the slats unchipped, the garden beyond a sweet natural place, dandelions swaying almost as yellow as Alice’s hair. And shadows beneath golden fall skin whiter than ruined anemone. A voice gay as marsh marigolds and days of laughter brighter than pinks and nicer than more wholesome than daisies and blue-eyed grass, milkweed and lavender." 

[Laughter]

Ok, thank you. I think we’re gonna have a conversation now. 

[Applause] 

[Microphone cuts out]

Dr. Chris Nelson: I have one too, but mine fell off. 

Sam Pickering: Well, I’m working on it. [unclear] I think it’s on now! [microphone feedback]

[Audience laughter] 

Sam Pickering: Mine is fine.  Mine is fine.  Is mine alright? Can you hear it? Is it all right here? Ok. I do want you to see the argyle socks. I wore them ‘specially for you. And they’re just you know, they’re dandy. 

Dr. Chris Nelson: I don’t have to pull up my pant leg, do I?

[Audience laughter]

Sam Pickering: You know, Chris, I’m having trouble hearing you, understanding you. Go ahead, say it again.

Dr. Chris Nelson: I was wondering if I should pull up my pant legs too. 

Sam Pickering: Not with all those boils you have on your legs, no.

[Laughter] 

Dr. Chris Nelson: All right, well, how about if we…You know I’ve always wanted to say "shitfire" on the stage.

[Audience laughter]

Sam Pickering: I don’t know what it means, Chris. It’s just a word my wife uses a lot. True.

Dr. Chris Nelson: How about if we talk about lies for a little bit? You made an interesting comment in one of your, well if it was an interview or one of your essays, that you feel free to say anything in an essay.

Sam Pickering: Yes.

Dr. Chris Nelson: And that fiction is confining, you have to tell the truth. 

Sam Pickering: Well, yes, I was trying to justify what I do which is not tell the truth very often. And, because I believe the highest, the most civilized people in the world lie. They lie to their wives; they lie to their husbands; they compliment people when the people don’t deserve compliments. They make life easier, that’s a civilized person. A person that tells the truth is a savage and a barbarian and should vote Republican. And so I tell lies all the time. And I had a reviewer once say that Pickering was an essayist who did not feel under any compulsion to be bound by the artificial boundaries of truth. So I create stories. On the most fundamental level, if you write about a nature walk you have to take twenty walks to get enough for one paragraph sometimes. You can’t say I went out twenty-seven different days and mostly what I saw was the dog’s rear end. 

[Laughter]

And it used to bounce up and down and it had forty-seven. You can’t say that. So what you do is put it down into one paragraph. I also said, and I was being a little facetious. I said if you write, if you tell fiction, write about fiction. If somebody drives fast on the first page, in fiction, is something is gonna happen page 57. There’s gonna be a car wreck. In an essay, if somebody drives fast they just may drive fast that one time and that’s it. It’s over. You can go on and do something else. So, there are never any car wrecks. And I tell stories, and I just do what I wanna do. 

Dr. Chris Nelson: Okay.

Sam Pickering:  And I don’t feel any compulsion about this lying business at all. And, I think Oprah got her nose outta joint on that, but that was so silly. 

[Audience laughter]

Sam Pickering: Look, I won’t talk about politics but think of all the lies people swallow and they just whatever.

Chris Nelson: How does this work in the classroom? Do you tell your stories in the classroom?

Sam Pickering: I don’t tell the truth. I create interpretations. I can make up an interpretation and I make up quotations. You know you make up a whole series of quotations. You say, "Well the great critic so-and-so-and-so William Andrews Ingram and Jonathan Andrews in his book The Burning Flame Beneath The Earth says the following." I make it up. 

[Audience laughter and applause]

Sam Pickering: Now, you may…Now here’s the thing! Now this is a little bit naughty. A friend of mine called me up two or three years ago and he said, "Sam, I’m in deep trouble. I need 10,000 words for the Oxford Dictionary of American Literature on children’s literature. For god’s sakes I need it in two weeks! Could you write it?" I gave him 11,000 words in five days. I’m a pro at this. 

[Audience laughter]

Sam Pickering: But…And he paid me nicely. But ya know I thought, well I was talking about nursery rhymes and so I decided to say that, you know that nursery rhymes are parody. Most of the parodies are obscene. None of mine are. And so, I included, the one that’s parodied the most is Mary Had a Little Lamb. And I said and I’m gonna include the most famous parody that everyone knows, which is one I just made up and put it in the book. So there it is Oxford! 

[Audience laughter]

Sam Pickering: Oxford Dictionary of American literature the most famous parody of Mary Had a Little Lamb and I made it up just there, like that.

[Audience laughter and applause]

Sam Pickering: Now, this could be disruptive. But as I said earlier I think within every thinking person that, it doesn’t matter, there lurks a little bit of the anarchist, because if you do not question platitude and convention in some ways you may not be living. In this case, I may go too far. But I’m old enough, I’ve lived far enough, it doesn’t make a hoot-in-hell how far I go.

[Audience laughter]

Chris Nelson: Do you still go as far as teaching from outside the window?

Sam Pickering: No. I teach on the second floor. No, look I…Ya know. Oh God this is awful! One of the things about teaching is the kids are all so sweet. Ya know, they’re sweet. But it can be excruciatingly boring. Cause about 95% percent of life you just can’t. You don’t wanna mention to these kids. You don’t wanna say to ‘em I... Another woman I talked to as I told her goodbye about three or four weeks ago. I said to her, "Well you’re happy now but you’re not gonna be happy soon." 

[Audience laughter]

Sam Pickering: And I mean everybody in this room knows that’s true. You know, things are gonna happen. But I don’t wanna go into my classroom. And here’s this little flowers, they’re blooming, little buds opening up. And I don’t wanna go in there and chop ‘em off, down and trample ‘em. 

[Audience laughter]

Sam Pickering: Well you’re happy now, but here’s what’s gonna happen to you. So I don’t do a lot of odd things in the classroom. I start my classes… I have recently saying, "This is how I started…"and I said now cause I don’t know how to start a class. I said, "I want to inform you that…" cause the University wants us to tell them that they have rights. [Laughter] They don’t have a damn right. 

[Audience laughter]

Sam Pickering: And I get up in front of the class and I say, "Now you have certain rights in this class. First and foremost, you have the right to fail," I said. "There is some teachers on this campus who fail no one. They won’t give you the grade you’ve worked so hard to get, but I’m committed to diversity of grades. 

[Audience laughter]

Sam Pickering: "And I will give you what you earn. I’m an honest, compassionate human being." The enrollment shoots through the ceiling. You tell ‘em you’re gonna fail ‘em and they enrollment jumps up. You tell ‘em you’ll give ‘em all A’s and they drop the course. It’s very odd. Now, I don’t give many F’s. I have… An old Dean once told me, "Sam, just forget the F. I view the D as an F cum-laude. 

[Audience laughter]

Sam Pickering: I told my graduates, because I have a graduate class, the first day of class, I said to ‘em, "Now look, I don’t want you to be tense. Some of you are probably nervous about writing." The course is on writing the essay. "I’m gonna give you all A’s in this class no matter how terrible you are. So just relax, and write a lot of essays." I had the most brilliant essays I’ve ever had. I have a class of five women and one man. I call that my Mormon class. 

[Audience laughter]

Sam Pickering: Does anybody ever get upset? No, no, no. No one cares. I’m sure people must report some of these things to administration. We have these…what is it? Teacher ratings. I have not filled ‘em out in sixteen years. They come in, "This is very important. Your raise depends upon this." I say, "What shit!" I just take ‘em and put ‘em in the recycle thing. I’ve recycled ‘em for sixteen years. I’ve never received a note. 

[Audience laughter]

Sam Pickering: And if I had filled ‘em out, I’d have filled ‘em out myself. 

[Audience laughter]

Sam Pickering: I pay no attention to it. Now, and this is terribly unprincipled and I’m sorry. Ok, next question Chris.

[Audience laughter]

Chris Nelson: You’ve given me some ideas. 

[Audience laughter]

Sam Pickering: Chris, you’ve got plenty of ideas. I’ve learned that already.

Chris Nelson: Alright, well we’ve talked about your essays meandering. 

Sam Pickering: Yes

Chris Nelson: And these occasional odd things you do in the classroom. 

Sam Pickering: Mm-hmm.

Chris Nelson: But then the other day when we were talking, you said the word "planned", well "planned spontaneity." 

Sam Pickering: This is what I do. Listen, my essays do meander. They look like they’re spontaneous, but they’re really planned. Now does that make sense? Ya know. Look, some of you in this class. Some are hormonal and some of you are post-hormonal. But… 

[Audience laughter]

And quite frankly, the latter group appeals to me more. But those of you that are post-hormonal may remember the days of your youth when you planned out courtship, so that you would appear spontaneous but you really laid it all out. When I was in graduate school, I had a friend of mine. This is a true story too. He was a physicist and he came to me one morning at breakfast and said, "Here it is Sam. I’ve got it. The sixteen steps towards seduction." 

[Audience laughter] 

And he said…He says, "Can’t fail." So I saw he had a date that night. Saw him the next day, next morning. I said, "How did ya do?" He said, "Got to step three." 

[Audience laughter]

Said, "Just needs a little tinkering." 

[Audience laughter]

Then this gal showed up from Texas. She had a big ‘ole Texas pin on with diamonds all over it and rubies. The most [horrible] thing I’ve ever seen. It was as big as her bosom. Took one look at ‘em and married him within the week, ya know, just grabbed ‘em. He didn’t even have a chance. So I plan out what I write. I really plan the spontaneity. Ya know, and I organize carefully so it gives the appearance of not being organized. But in any case, that’s what I do. I plan everything. I’m the sorta person that my daughter has two health plans. Both of ‘em cover her 100 percent. She does, it’s the truth. I have backup plans to everything in the world. If I die tomorrow, my wife will have so much money she can go where all the action is. Though, at her age, it won’t be healthy for her.

[Audience laughter]

So I think. I rewrite carefully. I spend hours rewriting, and I try hard to get the rhythms down. I try hard to get the ideas and I try hard to take a…I’m very careful about not…To give you an example, in my essays, there is no violence against women. There never has been. There have been lots of women who have chopped up their husband’s head. It wasn’t much use to us anyway. And uh, there have been things all kinds of things happen to husbands, but I have no violence against women. I make certain rules for myself. Nobody knows what the rules are, but I make them. There are other things I have…and in four or five of my books I have described drawings, which if you read it carefully this finger is lifted and elevated. I call this my "James Joyce phase" and there are hidden message all through my works.

[Audience laughter]

But nobody has discovered them. It’s so pitiful! You know I’ve worked, and I’ve got it, and if you read it carefully there it is.

[Laughter] 

Chris Nelson: So, this is how the ordinary becomes something other than ordinary.

Sam Pickering: Yeah. Look I um…things happen all the time. I think I told you this, but I was on an airplane; I was on Southwest going somewhere not long ago to see all the family. I try to run and see family—not family members—but I’m not ya know, but people who are older than I am who I’ve not seen for awhile. I sometimes go and visit to tell ‘em goodbye, and I just do that. And I was flying to Nashville and, you know, Southwest is a one class airline, and there’s that bulwark and then there’s the pilots’ compartment. I sat on the second row in the aisle. And on the front row, there was a guy in front of me; there was a man with no legs. He didn’t have any legs. And I mean, they were gone completely, and he was strapped in so he wouldn’t be thrown out on the turbulence.

[Audience laughter]

So he’s sitting there with no legs and in comes an ol’ young boy. He’s got a Harley Davidson hat on turned backwards; it says Harley Davidson on it. He comes along, and he wants to sit in the aisle seat, not the aisle seat, the window seat on the front row. So he turns to this man as he’s going and says, "More leg room up here," he says. "There’s more leg room." He says this to a man who hasn’t got any legs! 

[Audience laughter]

Now look, [chuckle]. I don’t know, you have to kind of put that down. 

[Audience laughter]

Ya know, I could tell you. I talked to Lonny out in the mall this morning. I can tell you about Lonny’s MRI. I can tell you about his divorce.  I can tell you about his trucking years. I can tell you everything about Lonny. He was a damn good guy. Ya know, so you copy all sorts—you listen to people. Sometimes you eavesdrop on people. Where does it go? And what does it mean? I don’t know what it all means. I could ask you what life meant, ya know. God, what a question! So I don’t know, but I’m very careful about revising and going through…

Chris Nelson: And counting gum ball machines.

Sam Pickering: I count…I told him I went to the Columbia Mall this morning cause I had nothing to do, and there are eighty-two gumball machines in the Columbia Mall.

[Audience laughter]

Chris Nelson: Can anybody dispute that?

Sam Pickering: There are eighty-two. A set of twelve, a set of thirty-five, a set of thirty-five, and two thirty-five cents have change machines next to ‘em. I copy down all the kinds of gumballs.  Ya know, I know more about the Columbia Mall than anybody in this room, unless you own it. 

[Audience laughter]

So you put that down and you think. Now why would you write that down, ya know? What does that have to do with Milton and [apostle] Matthew? But you write it down. Now what I do is and I think—Leslie might have reminded this to me. I give a lot of books to the local library sale, but I autograph ‘em all to me. 

[Audience laughter]

Sam Pickering: In the most fulsome way you can imagine. Now I do other things. When I was a graduate at Princeton there was a lovely, young, bright woman; really intelligent, whom I fancied. So I—ya know Shelley died, when was it? 1824, 1826. He died by drowning. [Gesturing as if signing a book] So I had out Shelley and I wrote in to my dear friend Sam, who tried so hard to teach me how to swim. Your buddy, Percy Shelley. 

[Audience laughter]

So this brilliant girl was sitting there. And I said, "I wanna show you a little something." And she said, "Jesus Christ Sam! You knew Shelley!"

[Audience laughter]

I left. So I’ve—Hemingway signed his book In Our Time [Gesturing as if signing a book] "Always throw hard balls Sam." 

[Audience laughter]

And I do that. And then sometimes I will autograph things. Because books are dull, I put nice little anecdotes in the margin to perk up the reader. Something like this. Now this is true. [Gesturing as if signing a book] "To: Mary, From: Spotty. Mary it hardly seems like twenty years have passed since we were close. I wonder what our lovechild is doing now." 

[Audience laughter]

And then I go on a little bit. "Yours, Spotty." And then I write that, ya know, put that on the inscription and put it in the library sale.

[Audience laughter]

Sam Pickering: This year. Now I’m not gonna use the bad words I used. I bought a Cape Cod reader. It came out in 1990 and Minerva had given this to someone, I’ve forgotten his name. [Gesturing as if signing a book] And she wrote: "To John who has been so unselfish in his time and such-and-such. Now it’s time for me to repay you and give you this book." The book had never been opened. So I drew an arrow to the next page and I said, "after all I’ve done for you, you penurious ingrate. You give me a lousy book." And she’d also said, "for your birthday." It was dated July. And ya know, I wrote down, "Birthday my ass! My birthday is in September!" 

[Audience laughter]

And I put the book back in the book sale.

[Audience laughter]

Chris Nelson: Well I believe I’m getting certain signals…

Sam Pickering: Messages.

Chris Nelson: Lovely. 

Sam Pickering: It’s time for questions is that…

Woman: It’s time for questions.

Chris Nelson: So thank you

Sam Pickering: Thank you Chris, I’m sorry I didn’t let you [mic feedback] But perhaps later, you’ll have questions.  

[Audience applause]

Woman: At this time we’d like to give you the opportunity to ask Sam Pickering some questions of your own. Chris and I will be…[mic feedback]

Sam Pickering: If you ask a really stupid question and we laugh just think that you’ve entertained us. I wanna pleasure you…

Woman: What the!? Hi. Can you, if you have a question raise your hand. I’ll bring you the microphone. Same with Chris over on that side.  Okay.  I know you have a question.

Sam Pickering: Listen, I’m a sweet guy. I wont ridicule you at all. Please, just ask a question. It makes it very embarrassing up here. I used to sit in class when I was in graduate school. And say, God, Oh god, give me an idea. Please, give me an idea. I’m so stupid! Well God was busy fomenting wars around the world. 

[Audience laughter]

Didn’t have time to ask me come up with a question on Charles Dickens. 

Questioner 1: I’ll do my best to give you something to chew on Sam. The first person that comes to mind after hearing you is a southern gentleman, a little bit down the road from you. Who went a different direction than you by the name of Hunter S. Thompson, who was asked similar questions about lies pertaining to journalism and…

Sam Pickering: Oh, that’s a little different don’t you…

Questioner 1: And their potential inclusion in them…

Sam Pickering: Yeah.

Questioner 1: By somebody who was getting at the fact that Hunter S. Thompson was this great journalist.

Sam Pickering: Made it up.

Questioner 1: Why there might be lies in there. And Hunter’s response was facts are lies when they’re all added up. And I was just wondered if, in that vein, maybe what you were getting at from a fiction writer’s standpoint in saying in an essay may well be after the real truth. Which is not the facts that are the lies when they’re all added up. 

Sam Pickering: Ya know, what you’re doing in an essay is trying to create an illusion of truth.  At least it doesn’t have to be an illusion of truth, just an illusion that works. Now, as far as journalism is concerned, if there were a wonderful nun, I wouldn’t wanna write a piece and say that she’d had three children that nobody knew about. I think that would be horrendous. I um…most of my little stories make life better than it is. Quite honestly. And…but I’m not so sure why I do that. I write to entertain myself and some days I just sit in the room and laugh and laugh and laugh. And I come out saying, ya know, it’s a pretty good world. 

I even write about my dreams. I had a dream, three or four nights ago, that I swallowed a bathroom stopper. 

[Audience laughter]

And I went to the doctor and he said I had to go to a clinic two hundred miles away to get unplugged.

[Audience laughter]

I wrote that down. But, ya know, I mean…Yeah I’m trying to give the illusion of truth. Hunter S. Thompson is quite a good writer. But I don’t drink like he did. He used to just eat pills. I’m not a medicine eater. But you’re right. I try to give an illusion of truth. One of the oddest things is I’ve had people come up to me and say, "Thank you so much for writing about those things that none of us would ever write about." And I never know what the people mean. Because, ya know, there’s not any sex. There’s a lot of bawdy stuff. But bawdy’s not sex. Nothing lascivious. There’s no sex in what I write, there’s no violence. I don’t know. Maybe it has no meaning at all.  Any other questions? Somebody got a question. Yeah.

Questioner 2: Ok, Umm. I guess I’ve been trying to do a lot of humor writing this semester. And I’ve quickly discovered it’s about the hardest kind of writing you can do. And I was just wondering, do you have anybody that you run ideas by to make sure they’re actually funny? 

Sam Pickering: No, no.

I’ve never given out a piece of my writing to anyone to read before it was published. Ever! My wife does not read anything I write. She’s never read a page I’ve written.

[Audience laughter]

She won’t read it. She says, I’m not gonna read all that rubbish, which is a healthy attitude. And I…My children don’t read what I write either. I have a son in graduate school in English. He wouldn’t read what I wrote if you hit him over the head with a 2x4.  Listen, I um…this is the oddest thing in the world. I write all about my life, but then I never really tell much about my life. You gotta understand something about Southerners. They’ll you everything in the world; they’ll tell you every single thing about their lives and you won’t know anything at all about ‘em. Does that make sense? Yeah? Well that’s how they are. You do know that. They’ll tell you the most outlandish things they’ve done and their relatives. But they’re not gonna tell you really what’s going on. Ya know? And so…Look, if something happened bad to my children and it was really heartbreaking but it’d make a wonderful piece, I would never write it. I never have written about my colleagues, ever! With whom I teach. If I thought it would be just vulgar to go into their lives. No, there’s one exception 

[Audience laughter]

A man came to me in the English department many years ago. And he said, "If I die, would you please clean out my desk before my family gets there?" 

[Audience laughter]

This was the most boring man I’ve ever met in my life. 

[Audience laughter]

The only thing he might have done that was risqué in his whole life was vote Democratic once. 

[Audience laughter]

I watched him carefully for years after that. He did nothing. So, after he retired and moved away to Florida, I wrote that little story because I thought it was very puzzling. I wanted to go and look in the desk but I never would. So I make a lot of rules about things. And I also said I’m not gonna write things that will hurt people. Maybe if I was offered five…no I wouldn’t do it for any amount of money. I don’t need money now. What good would it do me? Ya know? I could get a new bosom and a new calf and a new bottom but who needs that? 

[Audience laughter]

Getting a little big in the tit. Maybe just take some out here. Get one of those, what are they called…liposuction machines? Women can have it around the middle; men need it in the bosom, after a certain age. So suck it all right out. Jesus Christ! Alright now…

[Audience laughter]

Let me have another question here. I’m not…I’m a pretty good short stop. We’ve got one up here. 

Questioner 3: I was just wondering what you uh…You seem to write essays and fiction. But do you write poetry? And maybe what is your opinion of poetry?

Sam Pickering: I tried one whole summer to write poetry. It’s not very long. I said I’m gonna be the new Robert Frost. I got it all published and then I read it. It was the worst stuff ever written. It was monumentally bad. I took those poems and turned ‘em into prose. And they really, really worked. Ya know…as I wrote them as prose. Now, I write prose. I work very hard to make things clear. Ya know the problem with making things clear? People think you’re superficial. So if you really want people to think you’re brilliant make them obscure. And get a French name. 

[Audience laughter]

So…But I’ve never written poetry. I don’t really know…what I told some people today I started writing because I didn’t want to be a philanderer. I don’t know if that’s true or not; it was true when I said it but maybe it’s not true at all. It’ll keep me at home I said, and it will keep me from becoming a man about town. But I don’t know if that’s true. It sounded really good when I said it, ya know? I’m not even sure why I started writing. I think it is because I had a lot of free time. I was a University professor and I had a lot of time. And I didn’t want people to think I was a lay-about. And I’d written some academic books and I thought, well, ya know, I’ve written about Britain and I’m in America. Why don’t I write about America? Why don’t I write about my own life? Wouldn’t that be fun? And so I wrote one essay and I sent it to a library journal and it was about roaming libraries. And I got twenty or thirty letters. I thought, "well!" I didn’t write another essay for three years. And then I did a piece in the…it came in the Reader’s Digest. It was about a guy…a single man who had put signs up on the roads around his house—"box turtle crossing, slow down." I love box turtles. I have box turtles shells under the seats of my cars and snakeskins too, but that’s another matter. [chuckle]

And so I wrote this piece and this guy was a turtle of a man. And he was kind of looking for a turtle of a wife. And I got four marriage proposals. And I really felt terrible because these were ya know? In Romeo and Juliet, when she says, "Dost thou love me?" And suppose he says no and how terrible she feels.  So these were all very nice people who liked and missed. So I wrote them back, each of ‘em. And I explained to them that there was a sort of shaky line between fiction and nonfiction, and that I didn’t want to leave them with that metallic taste of embarrassment in their mouth. So I said, I’m gonna tell ‘em something really sweet. So I told them all sweet stories about my kids. And three of the women sent presents to my children. 

[Audience laughter]

And I thought, Son bitch, you’ve got it!

[Audience laughter]

So I started writing a lot more. Has it been easy? No. Does it all get accepted? No. The best things I write sometimes get rejected. I have no idea why. I mean they’re really good things. Some of the corn pone stuff I turn out gets taken [snapping] just like that. Some of the best stuff people don’t take. It’s funny too, but they don’t take it, ya know in journals. 

Woman: Sam, we have one more question here and then I think we have to wrap it up. One more question…

Questioner 4: Have you been influenced by certain writers?

Sam Pickering: No, no. 

[Audience laughter]

Now look you’re talking to a child…you’re talking to the remnants of a child who read and read and read and read and read because I like to read. But, I’m probably influenced by my mother, who was a wonderful…and my daddy. Now listen, I started out once to write about my unhappy child and I realized I had the two nicest parents in the world. Then I said I was the last person chosen for teams. And I was never the last person chosen for teams. I think maybe my mother. My mother didn’t go to college. She decided she was gonna go to college. She thought it was a waste of money in her case. She told my grandfather, "It’s a waste of money. Just send me out West. Let me live out West for a year and ride horses and hunt." And that’s what she did. And she was kind of a character. My cousin! I have this crazy cousin was interviewed in the Richmond Times Dispatcher about me and my wife. My wife’s father taught me when I was a graduate student. And my cousin said that, "Sam met Vicki when he was a graduate student and she was thirteen years old!"[Laughter] I mean that’s Jerry Lee Lewis stuff, ya know? 

[Audience laughter]

I did not do that. And then she went on to say and talked about my mother. And she seems to say, "And on hot nights Katherine would come down to dinner dressed in a sheet." A dining room with a servant dressed in a sheet; she would come down dressed in a sheet. And when they had fried chicken she’d say to her husband, "Pass the chicken titties please." And this appeared in the Richmond Times Dispatch. My mother was a very dignified woman. She was a little odd, but dignified.

I’ve read but was not influenced, not everything, but I haven’t been influenced by anybody. I’ve stolen from a lot of people. None of whom you’ve heard of. You wouldn’t have heard of anybody I’ve stolen from because I find books that are utterly neglected. But I’m not influenced. I read a great deal.  Now, I read all the time. I read now to appropriate, but I’m not influenced by anybody I don’t think, ya know? I’m not influenced by my wife, ya know? No, I’m not. No, I’ve never been influenced by anybody. 

[Audience applause]

Pickering: Ok! Thank you. 

[Transcription completed by Paige Wold and reviewed by Dr. Crystal Alberts, 12 December 2009]