Sam Pickering, on the English faculty at the University of Connecticut, was the model for Robin Williams’s character in the sentimental hit movie Dead Poets Society and is the author of eighteen books, fifteen of them lighthearted essay collections describing his “doings.” Sometimes he alternates with humorous stories about fictionalized characters from his Tennessee hometown. He publishes mostly with university presses—everyone gets a turn: when I was at Ohio University Press we published Deprived of Unhappiness, his tenth volume of essays. He says he hasn’t made money, but he appears to have had a good time and concentrated his experience, focused himself on making a kind of sense from his happily ordinary existence.
His most recent book is Letters to a Teacher, essays focused on the art and craft of interacting with students. Pickering was made famous by a movie and Letters to a Teacher indicates his fame (and any emoluments appertaining thereto) was well and truly earned. Like most good teachers, he emphasizes sensitivity and gentleness, irreverence and humor. When he worked at the prep school, Montgomery Bell Academy in Nashville, he taught a class while under his desk, belting out Thoreau; he also stood on his desk, declaiming, a la the movie, and crawled out a window. These gimmicks worked; he got students’ attention.
“Perhaps the asinine has greater effects than the inspirational,” he writes in Letters to a Teacher, “at least in the classroom. Indeed when I see the word inspirational, I read carefully. . . . Teachers should banish inspiration from their minds and labor to be competent and kind.”
Janie Franz interviewed Sam Pickering for Critique Magazine. Some excerpts:
“I write by hand [in ballpoint pen, generally on yellow pads] because I can revise a lot easier. 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. . . . 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.
“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. . . . 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.”
“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. . . . 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 shouldn’t take words too seriously.”