Sparked by a second-hand book, a gift, Morris explores our connections, from Facebook to the name plate in a book on squirrels, and the stories around us in “Points of Tangency,” (Issue 3). In the following interview, Morris discusses the talent he would most like to have, his inspiration for his piece, and he recommends writers.
Scott Russell Morris lives in Lubbock, TX, where he is an English PhD student at Texas Tech University. He has an MFA in Creative Writing from Brigham Young University. His other work has appeared in Brevity, Blue Lyra Review, and Stone Voices. He is mildly obsessed with squirrels, which means nearly all of his essays mention one somehow.
What inspired you to create this piece? Alexander Smith says that the world is everywhere whispering essays, and in this case, it was less a whisper and more a firm talking to. In the space of not many months I found name after name of other people, complete strangers, on items I owned—books and coats, mostly. Then I received a book with someone else’s name in it that contained an essay about books with other people’s names in them, and I knew that I had to write my own essay on the subject.
What writing or other artistic expression has had a profound impact on your work? Why?When I was new at university, I was assigned Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. At the time I thought I wanted to be a science fiction writer, but when I read Pilgrim, I encountered a way of thinking and writing that I could neither describe nor forget: it was science and fancy and story and whimsy. I wanted to write whatever all that together was. But I had no idea what it was. Neither memoir nor novel nor documentary. Luckily, just a few months later I took a creative writing course from Pat Madden, proselytizer of the essay, and I learned what Pilgrim at Tinker Creek is a long essay and that I was not meant to write space operas, but to be an essayist.
What living writer would you recommend other nonfiction writers read? What titles in particular? Why? While Points of Tangency was inspired by my physical copy of Anne Fadiman’s Ex Libris, the essays contained in it are just as inspiring. Her playfully erudite tone is exquisite, her topics mundane and transcendent at the same time. I also recommend Devin Johnston’s Creaturely and Other Essays, a quiet book of contemplative nature essays which all turn in surprising ways and effortlessly connect the most disparate of topics: mice and gods, trees and death, squirrels and alternate realities.
How did you come to acquire so many items with others’ names on them? What made you begin to notice this? I acquired lots of items with other people’s names on them mostly because I am a cheapskate. I buy used books, used clothes, used whatever because they are cheaper. I love thrift stores and lost-and-found items. I also shop almost exclusively in the clearance aisles. I first started thinking about other people’s names on items because both the coat and the book I mention in the essay shouldn’t have had people’s names in them. The coat I bought at a lost and found sale–ie, after so long, the Lost and Found people on campus sell unclaimed items–I knew that the Lost and Found department contacted students if they knew the item was theirs because I’d lost a notebook with my name on it and they’d emailed me. So, this meant that they just hadn’t cleaned the pockets well enough, leaving behind the airline ticket that had the student’s name. The Ex Libris book was purchased online and had been advertised as brand new. But it clearly had been written in, so the fact that it was used was one of the first thing I noticed. After that, I started thinking about all of the names I had around me, names to strangers.
Can you explain why you believe you were meant to be an essayist? I don’t know that I can fully describe why I was meant to be an essayist…but I do know that there are several personal quirks I have that helped me see the essayist in me. First, I tend to be a bit obsessive, but mostly with common things. As we know, an essayist should be able to see the infinite suggestiveness of common things, and I think that has been me for a while–At one time or another I was fascinated by squirrels, by small twists in language, by pennies, by this tree by a stream surrounded by a subdivision, by national parks, etc, etc, etc. Second, I’ve always been a little bit of a contrarian, willing to see something from a different point of view, eager to be the devil’s advocate. A girlfriend in high school told me I frustrated all our friends because I started almost every sentence with “Well, actually…” Third, I wasn’t satisfied picking just one thing to study. At one time I was super interested in biology and genetics, at another marketing, for a while group dynamics, etc. I eventually settled on essay writing because it means I didn’t have to decide on just one. An essayist is always looking inside, but also always branching out. Being an essayist for me meant never having to limit my field of study. (Though, for the interested, my final major was Recreation Management…)
We asked Scott to dip into the “Proust Questionnaire” and select a few fun (less writing-related) questions to answer.This probing set of questions originated as a 19th-century parlor game popularized by contemporaries of Marcel Proust, the French essayist and novelist, who believed that an individual’s answers reveal his or her true nature.
If you were to die and come back as a person or a thing, who or what would it be? In my next life, I think I’d like to come back as a gardener, someone who works outdoors all the time and isn’t stuck in front of this computer and yet still does well enough to make a living.
Which words or phrases do you most overuse? After I’ve written anything, I do a search for the word “seem.” It seems I have a tendency to hedge my words, never sound too sure.
Which talent would you most like to have? I would like to be a musician of really any stripe. I have taken voice lessons, but never got very good. I was in both my high school and college marching bands, and though I was quite good at the marching, never could get the music down. I didn’t even have the fight song memorized, and we played that twenty times a game, at least. I’ve had small solos in concerts and musicals, but never knew when, exactly, to come in.