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Daring to Look in the Well: A Conversation

James Still and Jim Wayne Miller
Used with permission.

JM: During the month of August 1983 at Yaddo I had the opportunity to converse with James Still on a daily basis, so what I'm doing here this evening is a continuation of that conversation. I recently came across an interesting statement by Saul Bellow, Jim. He said that "a writer is a reader who has been moved to emulation." How did you begin writing?

JS: I wish I remembered and could tell you. I don't think I began exactly. I never had any thought of being a writer. I didn't know what it meant, to tell the truth. I do recall writing a little poem once, which, honestly, is not too bad. I was fourteen. I pitched a little tent -- you know you have to have romantic associations with the poem -- I pitched a little tent in the yard, and I went into that tent and wrote this little verse. I still know the poem now -- I won't say it, I assure you. But I'm still astonished when I see this little verse. I do intend to publish it some day to show how far you can come from something of that sort.

JM: Well, that Bellow statement suggests that there's some kind of connection between reading and writing. What sort of things did you read?

JS: We had no books in our home. Well, there was the Bible, of course, which no body was reading. I tried to read it once, but I got stopped in the "begats." My father was a veterinarian, that is, a horse doctor, a man with no formal training at all. We had one volume called The Anatomy of the Horse, which wasn't very entertaining. And we had another one which was called The Palaces of Sin, or The Devil in Society and which had to do with a man inheriting a million dollars and going to Washington, DC, where he observed the wicked life that was being led by the congressmen and senators. It seemed that these people played cards and they also drank gin. Now I didn't know what gin was. I knew all about liquor, but I thought gin must be pretty bad. Then there was one more book. It was called The Cyclopedia of Universal Knowledge. It was a very large book. I remember that one of the backs was torn off. But it had a great many things in it, including how to play all kinds of games, even the game of hoyle. There were about twenty poems -- great poems by Keats, Shelley, and so on. I memorized those. And I knew I was surely the only person in my area who knew twenty words of Arabic when I was eight years old. I also knew maybe twenty-five words from various languages, how to say hello, goodmorning, and so on. I learned from that book how to prune fruit trees, how to write business letters. And there was a little bit on physics and on the chemistry of that day.

JM: Did you get any urgings or guidance from your parents as to what you ought to be?

JS: None. Well, my father wanted me to be a lawyer. I'm sure he didn't, though he never said it, because he dragged me around to every lawyer in the country and anywhere else. I was always being introduced to lawyers and judges. And when the governor came to town, he pushed me through the crowd to shake hands with him. But I never thought of being a lawyer. That was nothing I wanted to do. My father never urged me toward anything. In fact, I don't recall my parents' ever asking me if my homework was done. I don't think we did homework in those days. I carried my books home every night and then carried them back to school, but I don't think I ever opened them. I don't recall that I did. Anyway, they were sort of dull. However, in time I came across other books -- Tom Swift books and Tom Slade books. I didn't care for them really. We subscribed to the Country Gentleman, and Zane Grey had serialized novels in it. But I didn't like them. I don't know how I learned so early, but anyway I didn't care for them at all. But one day we moved at last to a little town called Shawmut, and in one corner of a building there was a small library. There was an elderly lady who took care of the library, but she would never let you touch the books; she would go bring you one. And one day she kept bringing books and I didn't want to read them -- I didn't like them -- so she told me to go look for myself. So I went back, and I found a book called Father Goriot by Balzac -- I'd never heard of him. It had no pictures in it and had very small print and looked very unpromising, but I took it home. And that night I read this book. I don't know that I read all night, but I read a long time. That was my first approach to literature. And I never turned back. After then I read adult books when I could get them. I think the only other book I read about that time was Treasure Island, which was a children's book and an adult book as well. I looked at it again not long ago, and I think it is still a classic, a very fine book.


Now this town you mentioned, Shawmut, where you encountered the library and the works of Balzac, was in Alabama?

JS: Yes it was.

JM: From there you came up to Lincoln Memorial University in Tennessee.

JS: Well, not from there. We moved again.

JM: But from the state of Alabama you came to LMU?

JS: I did. I graduated from high school there in Fairfax, Alabama, and then I went up to Lincoln Memorial. The way I happened to get there was we had a substitute teacher, or rather, one of the teachers left school and they hired a man through a teachers' agency. All my teachers were women -- well, I recall one who wasn't -- all the way through school until this man. And one day he said his father was dean of a school in Tennessee and he left some catalogues on his desk if anybody wanted one. So I saw in reading it that they had work programs. And when I graduated, I went there. I didn't have any money, but I went. They didn't know what to do with me, but they kept me. I was very small -- you wouldn't believe it. So they signed me up in the Academy; they couldn't imagine I was college age.

JM: Now, we're sitting here at a literary event. There's a writer here to be interviewed. What kind of literary events or literary influences did you encounter at Lincoln Memorial?


JM:Well, you had access to a library there, I'm sure.

JS: Oh, yes, that was the main thing about that school, and it's the main thing about any school as far as I'm concerned. If you've got a good library, that's about all you need. Oh, it's good to have a few teachers to lead you and to direct you to the library where the information is. I think a teacher should just crack the door open. That's all you can hope to do. That's all I ever hoped to do when I tried to teach. I did work in the rock quarry in the afternoons and then in the evening as a janitor in the library. I was always too tired to study. I didn't have time to study. I don't suppose I did very much. But I did have that library. As soon as it closed at nine o'clock, I locked the door, swept the floors, emptied the wastebaskets quickly. And then I had this marvelous library all to myself. Some nights I never left. I slept in the magazine room. Anyway, I was like a child in a candy store: I didn't know where to start eating. It was frustrating.

JM: That was not your only college campus experience. What about the situation as you found it at Vanderbilt or later at Illinois?

JS: I think I should mention, before I go on, Harry Harrison Kroll, who was there at LMU as a teacher. I did have a couple of classes under him. I sat in his classes anyway. One was called the teaching of composition. We just wrote compositions: that's all we did, one a day. And I had a Shakespeare class. We would read the parts in class. I usually would sit back with my book and another book inside of it. Anyway, I tried to make up for that later.

JM: There were some connections, of course, between Harry Harrison Kroll and some of those teachers at Vanderbilt. Did you encounter any different kind of literary scene at Vanderbilt when you were there?

JS: Oh, yes, it was quite different. Well, I don't want to give the wrong idea about Lincoln Memorial. I'm sure it's greatly improved since my day: they had no where else to go. I think it's a standard school nowadays, like any other. And I appreciated the chance to be there. I went with nothing and came away with a little bit more than that. But anyway, I went to Vanderbilt to graduate school. I don't know why they let me in, because I didn't know anything except what I'd read. I had read madly for four years. As I look back, they were pretty good books. Even there, I wanted to write. I thought, then, I wanted to write things, and I did. There used to be Sunday School magazines -- many of them that they gave out in church for children on Sundays. Many denominations. And so I wrote and, as we say, sold -- for a dollar, two dollars, three dollars -- little articles on various subjects. I don't know what they were about, but I do remember that I did it.

JM: So you were already at that time behaving very much like a writer. How do you work, now?

JS:I could say now that I don't. I will do anything to keep out of writing. I want to with all my heart, really, but it's very difficult to go to that desk, except when I get to working on something, say, a long piece. Some nights I can hardly wait for day so I can go back to work. But once it's finished, that's it. I'm through with it.

JM: You just wait until you're struck again?

JS: Well, until some idea comes along and I want to do it. I want to write to get rid of it, partly. You know, some idea bothers me. I've written many stories because they bothered me. I kept thinking about a little dialogue, the characters came to life in my head and they begin to talk a little bit and finally I'm putting it down. Somebody said to me once, you make it sound so easy. Well, it wasn't I don't think. But I didn't have any large ambitions. I just wanted to write one poem, and then, of course, in a little while I had to write another one, and pretty soon another one. It's sort of a disease, I think: once you get it, there's no cure. The same way with stories. I'll have to say I've known a good many unhappy writers. I read about them and hear about their great unhappiness. I think they had unrealistic goals, maybe. And I don't think I was ever unrealistic about it. In fact, for the most part, this has been the happy part of my life. I enjoy doing it. Even if nobody else reads it, that's OK. I like for everything to be published, and I intend for it to be published. That doesn't mean that the first magazine I send a story to is going to take it. But I don't worry about that. Maybe they're not buying turnips today. So I send it to the next best place. And I didn't know any better than to send them to the Atlantic Monthly. The Atlantic, I believe, published my first story. Is that right?

JM: Yes, and then some twelve or thirteen pieces beyond that.

JS: But they kept changing until whatever it is today. I don't know. I subscribe to it, but I just look at it nowadays.

JM:Well, after Lincoln Memorial University, Vanderbilt, and the University of Illinois, you went over into Knott County in east Kentucky and joined the Hindman Settlement School staff. Can you describe that situation -- the way it was at that time?
JS: The situation was that after I got out of school with three little degrees I still didn't have a job, even pumping gas -- no kind of job. I even went to a foundry in Rome, Georgia. I hitchhiked around, all over, but I never found anything. Then I ran across a man you may know of, Don West, who had been a classmate of mine at Vanderbilt, and at Lincoln Memorial too, and he wanted me to work in Knott County for the summer. This was for a Vacation Bible School for the Congregational Church. Well, I was having nothing to do with that. He wanted me to organize Boy Scouts and the baseball teams. I worked with his brother-in-law there all summer. We had the Boy Scouts and we played baseball and camped all summer long. It was very pleasant. And they asked me then to stay and work with him, which I did. They had no money to pay us, but they did feed us and house us and furnished soap. So I worked six years, three years with no salary. I would have been very happy to have had one, I assure you. At that time, I liked the place. But when I was going to have to leave -- you run out of socks, eventually, and razor blades -- they found somebody who would send $15 a month to keep me there, so I stayed on. Times got better and they paid a little, and at the end of six years I figured up one day I had worked six years for an average of six cents a day. I felt so rich, I retired. I went nine miles away back in the country -- backwoods in those days, and some say backwoods now. By this time I was publishing a few stories and poems. And my publisher at Viking asked me to take a year off and they would put me on a salary. But I was kind of proud: I wouldn't accept their salary. But I did go back to this big log house, where I still live, and I raised a garden and finished writing the novel River of Earth there. Then I had the luck to have The Saturday Evening Post take a story. That wasn't such great luck except in terms of money: they paid very well indeed -- actually, fabulous prices for those days. So after then I just wrote one story a year for them. That was all.
JM: You could sustain yourself on one story a year?
JS: Not only that, I could go to Florida for February.
JM: Robert Penn Warren said that he quit writing stories because they robbed him of poems. Have you ever been in doubt about the way an idea ought to go, which way it should be developed, either as a story or a poem?
JS: Well, they're two different things, so different. I think that when I'm writing prose I don't write poems. I do recall once writing a story and while I was working on it this idea for a verse, I call it, came in my mind. It kept bothering me, so finally I quit and wrote it. It wasn't a very good one. But I remember The Saturday Evening Post published both the poem and the story.
JM: I wanted to get a response from you about the way you saw it, because I developed this notion in a critical piece on your work that there are many, many connections between the themes in the prose fiction and in the poems: similar images, similar thematic developments. I quoted from Katherine Anne Porter, who had commented on your River of Earth and on Hounds on the Mountain. She said something like this: the novel is an extension of the experience that gave rise to the poems. She saw a connection there, too. So I've got a lot riding on this thesis, and that's why I was asking about that.
JS: The same person was writing both of them. I think they all come from the same place. The poems are just a little shorter. I've written two this past year. I think I don't have another one in me. Last winter I was driving one night in the fog, and a fox flared up in front of me, and I ran over it and killed it. I felt pretty bad about that, and I kept thinking about it. In fact, I wrote a letter to you on some other subject and mentioned this, but when I mentioned it I had to write the poem, which I did the next day.
JM: People are interested in the lives of writers maybe more than they ought to be, because after all it's the work that matters, it's what gets written that matters. And yet there's this persistent interest in the way it gets written. You think about all those Paris Review volumes, interviews with writers called Writers at Work, and so forth. I think this is probably a legitimate interest, after all. One of the things that interests me particularly in your work is that it is so beautifully focused on this one particular part of world, really eastern Kentucky, and one particular phase of its history and its culture, and yet I know you have a longstanding interest in Central America. Is there any connection between these two things or are they just two things you happen to be interested in?
JS: I've had a longstanding interest in a number of things. I used to go off on jags reading in a certain area. For example, I was a Civil War buff for many years. I read every book on it I could get hold of. And then one day I got through, and I didn't read another one and may never read another one. Well, I might. I was interested in Tibet once. I'm interested in mountain climbing. I have quite a library on mountain climbing in the Himalayas. But I've always been interested in primitive peoples. Now I'm not saying that the people where I live are primitives, but they're more so than they are in Lexington or Louisville. I would read anything about, say, the aborigines in Australia. Once I got interested in the South Sea islands, and I read everything I could possibly find. I just had to go there, but I couldn't. And I haven't got there yet. But that doesn't mean I'm not going. Oh, yes, Central America. Well, I don't know how to start it, really. In the winter of 1971, I decided to go to Yucatan. I was hired to teach a little winter semester, and they paid me a $1,000, and I decided I would spend it on a trip to Yucatan, which I did, and I was hooked when I went down. So since then, I've been there five times, and to Guatemala five times and to Honduras a couple times and very briefly in El Salvador and southern Mexico -- to Chiapas and Tabasco.
I'm interested in Mayan civilization. That's the main thing. And I believe the thing that holds me is the great mystery of the disappearance of the Mayan people -- the virtual disappearance within fifty to one hundred fifty years. There seems to be no logical explanation for it. And the usual ones don't apply, apparently -- the ones you would think of right off -- disease, earthquakes, and so on. After all, these people lived in several different conditions. A great many scholars are working on this and I have been reading after them. I don't do any digging, I assure you, in that 140 degree temperature. I just want to go down and see again. And then when I learn more I want to go and look again. I didn't go the past winter, but winter before last I was in Belize, that is, British Honduras, and Guatemala again. I may go this year.

JM: I believe you got in a little trouble down there one year, didn't you?
JS: Yes, a little more than that, I think.
JM: I'm referring to 1977.

JS: Yes, I was in El Salvador on the streets when there was an uprising. It was the beginning, at least for me -- I didn't know anything about it -- it was the beginning of the civil war which has been going on ever since. I flew down to Mexico City. Of course, they never tell you these things before you get there. Somebody should have warned me. And I flew into El Salvador. When I hired a taxi to take me to the hotel, he took me only part way, because the barbed-wire was across the street. I had to walk the rest of the way. But I didn't see anybody. I didn't know there had been a curfew for a week. Anyway, I went to the hotel. I usually stay in a good hotel when I go to a country I haven't been in before, so I'll be OK. Than maybe I'll move the next day. But there were no guests in the hotel, as far as I could see. And in the dining room that night, which was a beautiful place, a marvelous place, there were only two people. That afternoon I walked around. I went to a church, which was filled with people, and I am fairly certain I heard a sermon by the cabinet official who was later assassinated during Mass. That was the church, I'm almost certain. I walked around and soldiers came out and looked at me. They say I was Americano, and you know, Americanos don't have much sense from their point of view. As my hotel had no tourist office, I was told that there was one in another hotel nearby. When I got there, there was a sign saying that we should call a certain number, which I did. A lady answered, and I told her where I wanted to go. I wanted to go to Santa Ana to see the Mayan ruins there, and she said that she had a trip the next day and maybe she could talk the others into going. But she said, "It will be a very long day." Talk about prophecy.
The next day the curfew was over, the streets were crowded, and I though I would walk up to the tourist office again. I remember there were so many people on the main avenue there that I walked in the gutter. But then the stores did not open; the great metal covers were all fastened down. It's a very beautiful city, incidentally, and very modern -- this part of it anyway. This was the main avenue going up to the government buildings. At a little distance I saw a group of marching people. I thought they had swords, but they actually had iron bars, as it turned out. I watched them. They marched up to a bus. Everybody jumped off. They threw a bottle of gasoline in and started burning it. Then they started turning over cars and pulling people out. There were no police, no soldiers anywhere that I could see. And I wondered about that.
Then all of a sudden people began to run every which way, like turkeys in a thunderstorm. There was the sound of just running feet. I didn't know, of course, what had happened. What had happened was that the army had blocked us in with tanks. There was no escape. Pretty soon they began to fire into the crowds. There were over 200 killed that day, according to the report in Newsweek. I was right there among them, trying to stay out of groups. I got up against the wall. Two little groups came to me and begged me to join them. You know, it would have been real nice to have an American assassinated that day for publicity. I kept saying, "No Espa~nol." I knew what they were saying, but I didn't go.
When the first rush came I was out in the street and I was swept off my feet, but I never did touch the sidewalk. I was just pushed and I managed to get to my feet again. I had a straw hat on, and it went sailing somewhere. You won't believe this, but somebody brought that hat back and pulled it down way over my ears. Sometime that morning a little boy rushed up to me -- maybe he was ten -- and he spoke in English and he said in anguish, "What do you think of my country now?"
Well, I kept trying to stay out of groups. It looked like they were firing wherever a little group came together. And riot guns sound like firecrackers: they don't sound dangerous. To me they didn't. I saw a big cathedral, and I decided to go toward it, but when I got there the iron gates were chained. So I started going toward what I thought were government buildings, and they were. I got in front of the census bureau -- about the size of this room, very small. I was across the street from it. A big gentleman was standing there. He didn't look like a native; he was too tall. He didn't speak to me. I decided that this was his post. As we stood there, here came a truck with soldiers firing bursts once in a while, left and right. And there was nowhere to go. But the man turned to me -- he had a big key -- and he opened a door and said, "come into the American house." That was the name of this little pensi'on, this little boarding house, which had eleven boarders, I remember. He went in and told me to sit down, and I did, and he went away.

Eventually the boarders, who were in their rooms, came out. I stayed there all day, and the firing went on all day. It went on until 3:30 the next morning. They shared their food. They had had no deliveries of food for a week. I think we had fried bananas and plantains or something. We had very little to eat. Anyway, the next day the water came on, lights came on. It was all over. I went back to my hotel and asked them if they could get a taxi to take me to the airport. They did. I felt so good when I got out of the main street.
But when I got to the airport, of course the army was there. A plane was going to Costa Rica within 30 minutes. I was booked on it -- I had an open ticket already. But when I started to board the plane, they wouldn't let me get on. They took me back into the station and detained me for five hours. They asked for a picture. Well, I had one on the passport, but I had no other picture. I once wanted to go to the restroom, and there was a soldier there with a big gun with a bayonet on the end of it. He wouldn't let me in. Somebody finally let me in, and he noticed and went right up behind me and stood there.

JM:When that sort of thing happens, do you ever keep notes or keep a journal? Did you ever think of making a piece of writing out of anything like that?
JS: No, but I wrote a letter the next day to Mr. Perrin at Berea, which you might read someday. No, I never did.
JM: Well, have you kept anything like a journal, or have you made notes either on these travels or on just day-to-day living in Knott county?
JS: Yes, I have day-books. I've kept them for 35 years about every facet of life in this area where I live, Knott County mainly, but all around -- Pike County and Harlan County -- and I think it's a valuable record because it can never be done again. After all these little writings of mine have faded away, which may not be too long, these day-books will probably be a valuable collection for folklorists, sociologists, and so on.
JM: I think I'm beginning to see the connection, then, between your interest in that passing way of life there and the passing way of life that you've been studying down in Central America. Is that the connection, do you think?
JS: It's partly, yes, I think so. I don't know that I study. I just let it happen. I just read for fun, and if the information sticks in my head, that's fine.
JM: I mentioned a moment ago Saul Bellow. I mentioned Robert Penn Warren. I mentioned Katherine Anne Porter. Who are some of the writers that you have known, maybe some of these among them?
JS: I really haven't known any of them, to tell the truth. I did know Robert Frost somewhat over the many years. I used to see him occasionally at one place or another. And as you said, Katherine Anne Porter and Elizabeth Bishop and Eleanor Clark. When I say I know these people, I mean I've met them and talked with them.
JM: Well, you must have had some impression of them.
JS: Well, yes, those I met at Yaddo I did, because I was with them a great deal, especially in the winter of 1951 when we were frozen in. This was our company for many hours a day.
JM: There's a biography, published recently, of Katherine Anne Porter, and a lot of people have been going back over that long life. She was born I believe in 1890 and lived to be 90 some years old. Was she there in '51?
JS: She was always there when I was. Let's see, she was there in '40, '41, and '51. I knew her best through that winter, as I told you. We'd sit at breakfast for hours. After all, the snow was very deep and it never melted. We just had some more snow. We lived within a very small perimeter there. So we used to talk. And that's pretty good company -- Elizabeth Maddox Roberts, Elizabeth Bishop, and Eleanor Clark. I remember for a long time it was just we four. And Yaddo being what it is, we had four people and four cooks, so we ate most of the time. And played ping-pong. Katherine Anne was a very poor loser.
JM: I got to thinking recently again about how much you have dealt in both your fiction and poetry with horses. And now I learn that there was this early book in your home, Anatomy of the Horse. Your father was a veterinarian, who went out and treated horses. You have some special affinity for horses, obviously.
JS: I like them alright. I never owned one. I might be able to buy one but I can't feed him. A horse eats more than you do.
JM: You've even written a poem about "Man O' War," that great all-time champion.
JS: Well, an epitaph.
JM: I heard you read that on National Public Radio, which is, by the way, another phase of your writing that you've taken on the last few years. For the benefit of people who haven't been listening to NPR, tell what it is you do there.
JS: Well, I do three-minute spots. I do a whole bunch of them at one time. I don't read them, though the last bunch I did write out a little bit and then looked at them. But up until now I haven't read them. I go over to the Appalshop film studios and do a dozen at a time. They're sent up to Washington and occasionally they put one on. I hardly ever hear them. If I'm at home, they call me, and I might listen. But I usually pick them up on the car radio when I'm on the road somewhere.
JM: Well, you usually work a poem into those comments, don't you?
JS: I do sometimes, yes.
JM: I remember you did the one about the bad-man, "Are You Up There, Bad Jack?" recently.I'll bet there's someone in this audience who is interested in writing. Do you have any advice for anyone seriously interested in taking up the craft or the art or the trade?
JS: Not long ago I read somewhere about an actress. I'd never heard of her, but she was quite famous. She was ninety-two. And they asked her, "Do you have some advice for an actor or an actress who's already here in New York trying to get ahead?" She said, "Yes. Go home."
JM: That's not very encouraging.
JS: Well, I think if you need to do it -- I suppose I did -- you do it. I wouldn't have done it if I hadn't had this need to do it. I've never written a story with just the idea of publishing it, except once, and it was very bad. It's been called my best by a few people. That's inevitable. However, I don't know what to advise them. I certainly would get a good all around education -- I think I would do that -- and if you can't help it, well all right. Good luck to you.

JM: We talked about the schools you went to and the composition classes you attended. This was pretty much expository writing, wasn't it? But what about courses devoted exclusively to imaginative writing -- novels, short stories, poems, and plays? Are they helpful, do you think? Would you advise people to take them?
JS: I think writing, as everybody knows, is a pretty lonely profession, if you can call it a profession. A vocation, or whatever it is. The chances of making a living at it are very slim. When you get into commercial writing, that's another field. I'm not talking about that. I don't know anything about that; it's another world altogether. I think you've got to be willing to live the life of a writer. That is, it's got to be one of your priorities and maybe your main one. You've got to make a living somehow. In my case, I taught school. I'm not sure that's the best place to be. However, it's about the only shelter writers have had in the last quarter of a century, I suppose -- a place where you can be certain of making a living and be near your own subject. I think it's a different matter for every person who wants to go into it. People speak about ambition. I never thought for a moment that I'd write as many stories or poems as I have or that anybody would pay any attention to them. I'll tell you how I learned, if anybody can ever say. When I was at Lincoln Memorial, people used to send to the library old magazines and other things they didn't want. Among the magazines that would come to the library was The Atlantic Monthly. I began to read it, and I liked it and I decided I wanted to write something for it. I just wanted to write one piece for the magazine. I was supposed to save one copy and then burn the others in the furnace. But I would save one for the library and one for myself. That summer I sent home maybe as many as fifty copies of The Atlantic. I wasn't in school that summer. I went home -- it was during the Depression and there was no work -- and read and studied those magazines,. I read everything in them. I think that's where I learned, if I did. The Atlantic was a magazine of some prestige in those days -- less so now.
JM: Well, you've done some teaching in colleges and universities and taken part in writers' workshops, and people have submitted to you poems and stories. What quality in a poem or a story would suggest to you that there may be some promise?
JS: I never taught creative writing. However, I have read manuscripts and I'll be perfectly frank. Only once have I read a manuscript that I knew was the real thing. I never had any doubt about it. In fact, this person, who was a senior in the University of Kentucky, came up to Morehead, and he submitted three short stories. I read them and had him in for an interview. But what I said to him was, "I'm not going to talk about these stories. This is professional work. And I want to advise you, for one thing, to stay away from writers' conferences because you have nothing to learn from them. You're already a professional. Frankly, I don't like any of these stories. They don't interest me, but it's professional writing, and I think all three can be published." So what we talked about instead of the manuscripts was how he could go about being a writer, living the life of a writer. Several years ago at the University of Kentucky he was present at a little seminar I was giving there, and he came up to me and said he wanted to thank me for what I did for him. This man by now has published many books; he's famous all over the country. But I began to feel very proud that I had recognized his talent. Now, I didn't discover him; he discovered himself. Well, I said " I didn't do anything for you. I just told you that you have already arrived, in a sense." He said, "No, that wasn't it." He said, "What you did for me was that you were the first person who ever showed any confidence in my work and that was the thing that meant something to me." I believe those were the words.
JM: Would you care to say who you're talking about?
JS: Wendell Berry.
JM: Well, this business of managing life. Is that what you were doing all that time even though it looked as though you might not be getting on in the conventional sense -- working six years for an average of six cents a day? You were getting on as a writer, weren't you?
JS: Not in Kentucky. And not anywhere in the South. Although I was publishing all over, really -- in Esquire, The Saturday Evening Post, The Atlantic Monthly, The Yale Review, The Nation, The New Republic, and The Sewanee Review -- still I do not recall anybody in that area ever telling me they had read a book of mine. Not once. So apparently I can work without very much encouragement. I wasn't doing it for anybody anyway --- just for myself.
JM: Well, you know all that has changed now.
JS: Oh, yes, there are a few school teachers.
JM: It took people a while to find out about you. They're reading you now.
JS: I recall that a professor at the University of Kentucky thought that students in the high schools and colleges in the state did not know about its poets, and should know. So he brought together a collection of eighty-seven Kentucky poets. At that time I was publishing in all these magazines, but I was not one of them. I didn't make it.

JM: What should I have asked you that I didn't?
JS: It seems to me you've covered a lot of ground. I don't know. I've heard people talk about the craft of writing, in the Paris Review volumes, but you'll notice that they're never talking about the art. They always talk about the craft. And I'm a little superstitious about it. When I was a child, we never dared look in the well. It was said if you were going to die that year you would see yourself in your casket. So we would draw our water without looking. I'm a little fearful of looking into, shall we say, the wellsprings of creativity. I don't know what I would find there. I'm not sure why I do these things. I'm not sure. I don't know. I just do it.


Thanks to Sandy Hudock for sharing this essay, which can also be found on her website for James Still.

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