River Teeth Revisted

“Terrible Sanity” and the Art of Narrative

April 15, 2021

By Jake Demers

“At my age a person scrolls back through his decades and ponders the innumerable occasions on which he betrayed himself in order to be true to others or true to the expectations of others. However, Time salves, and the regrets one fancies he feels rarely inflame and are always fleeting.”

~“Terrible Sanity” by Sam Pickering (River Teeth 20.2, Spring 2019)

In “Terrible Sanity” (20.2), Sam Pickering wanders through his own life, lamenting the present and celebrating the past. At once dismissive of sentimentality and profoundly personal, the essay stands as both an ode to education and a yearning for simpler times. For those familiar with the film Dead Poet’s Society (1989), this approach to life should feel familiar; Pickering was actually the inspiration for Robin Williams’s character, John Keating, and this essay contains all the hallmarks and personality one would expect from such a dynamic individual.

Pickering makes fantastic use of scaffolding in “Terrible Sanity”—that is, he anchors both the essay and the reader to a single point and builds the rest of the essay from there. The first notable piece of scaffolding in Pickering’s essay is the way in which it consistently follows a single thread—Pickering’s discomfort with the present. By establishing this thread of discontent from the start, Pickering gives himself a tether from which he can think, ramble, and unpack his mind on the page. There’s an element of stream-of-consciousness to the narrative structure, clearly earmarked and carefully selected. This is especially apparent in the first paragraph: “In assessing what his months at Walden Pond taught him, Thoreau said he learned ‘that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours’” (103). When Pickering starts the essay with Thoreau’s thoughts on life, his own honest discomfort with the present lets him swivel into dreams and the way his life is disrupted by moments. Pickering establishes this pattern right away and sticks with it, each paragraph latching onto something from its forebearer—a word, an attitude, a space.

This stream-of-consciousness progression builds upon itself to reveal the secondary success of Pickering’s essay: the content, and specifically the avoidance of sentimentality. Pickering never once makes an explicit judgement during his carefully wandering wondering. Instead he uses snippets of dialogue—never his own words, and never passing judgement—to introduce the ways in which he and the present are placed at odds. A memorable moment early on is Pickering’s acknowledgement that his habits rub off on those around him: “Unable to retreat into a verbal nunnery, Vicki has been tainted by my linguistic distastes. Last month after hearing an announcer on the National Public Radio say ‘irregardless’ three times in fifty-one minutes, she telephoned the station . . . to inform the announcer that regardless was standard English” (104). In some ways, I imagine this is a result of Pickering’s genre awareness; he avoids passing judgement, and so his essay avoids being yet another curmudgeonly fellow complaining about the youths. In other ways, it’s clear that avoiding judgements about the present is the entire point. “Terrible Sanity” is designed to give us a glimpse into his mind, and as such, the way he interacts with the past takes precedence over anything else.

So where do we go from here, pedagogically speaking? The easy answer is to analyze this structure, this scaffolding. It will give way to the harder answer, but for now we shall reverse course to further embrace the basics. Pickering’s most overtly educational and covertly critical moment is his paragraph on diagramming sentences: “Before irregardless entered radio speech and the possessive of I became I’s, . . . English teachers taught writing by teaching classes to diagram sentences” (Pickering 108). Picking up the thread from earlier in the essay, Pickering lets himself be caught up in the educational nostalgia that informs his feelings on the past. The placement of the paragraph is just as important as the content—he could not have inserted this paragraph directly after the irregardless kerfuffle. The reader needed to understand how Pickering inhabits his world, and how his world in turn inhabits him. So instead, both the essay and the man waited, flirting with the past but resisting the pull until it could be natural, until he could be critical of his own present self as well as the world around him.

Pickering makes it equally clear in this section, one paragraph on, that the past is not all daffodils and roses. He cites an old book of poetry “heavy with puns and too rooted to soar into an abstract lyrical empyrean” (109). There is a clear balance struck, an acknowledgement that even the space where he feels most comfortable has its flaws. This is a balancing act, a completion in which anything that would fuel a preacher-like righteous anger at the world is instead gently cast aside. Pickering does not speak on these past relics objectively—every selection is either overtly subjective or just fitting enough to the essay to render it so. It is at this point that the real writing question rears its head: how can one embrace subjectivity while remaining value-neutral? How can a writer maintain both individuality and audience appeal—and should one even try?

There is no easy answer—perhaps not even an easy starting place. I argue in this space for controlled chaos, a weaving of a wandering mind and an anchoring point. For Sam Pickering, that is but one aspect of an answer tied up in a careful web. He explores himself through the opinions of friends and loved ones, the feelings which the past elicits from him through specific memories, even the controlled chaos that is his stream-of-consciousness narrative. Ultimately, “Terrible Sanity” is as much an exercise in vulnerability as it is an example of craft. Most importantly, it is a search for and discovery of independence—in embracing one’s own worldview without persuasiveness or expectation.



Begin writing about something you feel strongly about; this could be anything from the smell of forests to gun control. Allow your mind to wander—this is exploratory writing, after all—but keep the subject in the foreground.

Now, avoid any explicit judgements unless they are introduced by another entity (the opinion of an author you’re referencing, direct dialogue from people you know personally).

Afterwards, reflect on how this made you feel. Did you still control the narrative, or did you feel the supplementary voices overwhelming your own? If you lost control, how did that make you feel? If you still controlled the narrative, how did these other voices influence it?


Jake Demers spent his formative years in Ohio, and first became acquainted with River Teeth when he attended its first home, Ashland University, in 2014. Four years later, he found himself at Ball State University pursuing a graduate degree when River Teeth moved to its new home. It’s an honor to have been involved in its moving, and as he freezes in Minnesota searching for a terminal degree, he looks forward to many more years of the best of what creative nonfiction has to offer.


**Check with your library to find out if you have an institutional subscription to ProjectMUSE, and thus, River Teeth’s archives.

Other River Teeth Revisited …

Black and white photo of church buildings with scaffolding

Outline as Structure: Scaffolding in a “Dark Barn”

By Micah Gjeltema
"When telling a true story, the “worldbuilding” is predetermined—the world of the essay is you, the writer, and all that you know. The context is as vast as experience, and the scope of the real resists containment. How can it possibly be shaped?"


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