How We Spend Our Days: Christine Schutt

Annie Dillard wrote, “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.” On the first of each month, Catching Days hosts a guest writer in the series, “How We Spend Our Days.” Today, please welcome writer Christine Schutt:

christine schutt self portrait

self-portrait

Five in the morning and Blossom, my dog, wakes. In New York, she will sleep later and walk after eating; but in Maine, in summer, we walk first. Our house is on a quiet, country road a mile outside of the village of Blue Hill, that same village where Robert Lowell set his famous poem “Skunk Hour.” I knew of the town—“a red fox stain covers Blue Hill”—long before I had seen it, and from the old photographs not much has changed. Fewer fields, more trees. I’m glad our neighbor has kept her field cleared. A fog floats over the grasses.

No one else is “here to hear the steady lobstermen at sea coughing through the fog and brush fire blue before first light every morning.” I set my fiction in the places I want to be or have been to and find powerful; no surprise then that much of my most recent novel, Prosperous Friends, is set in Maine, although the book was written largely in California and Virginia and New York. At the moment, I am writing something with the working title, “Pure Hollywood,” and living at the edge of the Anza-Borrego desert in Southern California. Barrel-head cacti and a ghostly woman are on my mind this morning, also, more practically, my exercise class: it’s Friday.

There is time to quickly make a breakfast—yogurt, fruit, flax—make the bed, then rough ablutions. In Maine I forget to brush my hair. Here fashion is out of fashion and I wear retired favorites with holes and histories. The sweater I am wearing this morning is thirty years old and was my mother’s, a cotton v-neck, the sea-green version of a coral sweater she gave me, but which I ruined when I poured a glass of red wine over my head to get my ex-husband’s attention. Did Mother give me her sea-green sweater to replace the coral sweater, or did I take it over?  Both.  Most of what she gave me, I seemed to have lost, but not this sweater turned sweatshirt.

christine schutt maine studyThe exercise class is held in the basement of the St. Francis Church, a ten-minute drive from home and often the only traffic I encounter is another classmate with a heavier foot on her way to spend an hour and a half with steps and weights. A retired third-grade teacher leads the class or else a nurse, hardly retired; both are unfailingly cheerful. I love this class and the eight women in it. Recipes and crop reports, blueberries, lobsters, bear sightings, slugs, most of what I know about the community comes from this class. “So what’s going on in Blue Hill this weekend?” Small-town American summer: concerts, yard sales, festivals and races. A few of the women in the room say they will go to one of these events. I will not. I am here to write.

And by nine-fifteen, the morning feels over, and I pass up in-town errands to get home, where the rest of the day is spent writing in all the ways a writer writes, often standing, often not writing at all but looking into the thing itself. I work on a laptop now and for all of my writing life have composed with some kind of typing machine—manuals, electrics. My grandmother, a writer, had four typewriters in her house, so I learned early and have always loved to bang the keys. First in the sun-filled second-floor study, I bang here, although peck, peck, delete, peck more accurately conveys the sound I make for a few hours before I move downstairs to the cooler living room. In the enormous green armchair with its matching broad ottoman, I sit plumped up with pillows, laptop atop my lap—perfectly comfortable but pecking no faster.

The Maine house is decorated to serve the writing life—there are stools for feet or books or drinks, and stepladders for the same. Books—too many half-read—load the long benches and the short benches. No wi-fi in any of the rooms, save the sunroom where I can piggyback on my neighbor’s connection.

But here’s lunch at nearly two—peanut butter and honey sandwich, spinach salad, tea. After lunch, I walk the dog down the hill to the water and the Kollegewidgwok Yacht Club’s dock. The season’s not begun; no one is here. The small boats the kids use are out of the water and stacked like cups. We can walk around the tiny clubhouse—all is unimposing here—and look out beyond the bay.

Come on, Blossom.

Back in the garden, she sits on the granite step to the tool shed, gets up, noses around, sits again; in this, she is a bit like me on any day. We follow the sun indoors and out.  I deadhead for a while. I don’t wear a watch in Maine and we’ve no wall clocks. Inside, the stove clock says four ten.

I read whatever book appeals, and there are many on the rungs of the stepladder.

christine schutt chair and ottomanI have moved again. I am sitting on the oversized couch in the sunroom reading an American gothic story, Sherwood Anderson’s “Death in the Woods.”

     She was an old woman. . .

They all start out sweetly. The sunroom floats in the garden. Patches of this green experience appear in Prosperous Friends. The image of Dinah on her hands and knees on the granite terrace “neatening up with self-abasing ceremony. . .sort(ing) the weeds from the moss and fancy pussytoes” is out of life: my husband bends to this task. The garden is his passion and a gift to me—a vocabulary of flowers, most perennials. With each plant’s appearance, the season’s dial ticks ahead. The apple blossoms, nut-hard and shy, had yet to open when I arrived, mid-May. Now the garden is turning pink but by July the daylilies will begin to pop deep reds and oranges. We are a month away from full summer.

Elliptical has been used to describe my style. (I have had dinner and it was nothing to write home about.) I will walk the dog at nine and go to bed at ten and work and read between from the chair in our bedroom. The chair is large, stuffed, a giant pink peony with a matching ottoman. The chair is on the west side of the room for the sunset. Clive describes what happens at this hour—“it  turn(s) the bedroom pink”—as on the cover of Prosperous Friends.

~

The Green Experience
{please click on the first photo}

AND THOSE SAME 3 QUESTIONS…

1. What is the best book you’ve read in the last few months and how did you choose it?

  • Westerly, poems by Will Schutt, the best book I’ve read in the last few months with its “pain and happiness, which in many / people’s books make beauty.”

2. Would you give us one little piece of writing advice?

  • A trick to staying seated anywhere for longer than twenty minutes: keep your feet off the floor.  Stools and ottomans work but a bottom drawer to a desk, like mine in New York, also works.

3. What is your strangest reading or writing habit?

  • Nothing I do seems particularly strange by any writer’s reading/ writerly habits; besides, the goal is the same for all: writing something you can stand by.

.
By Christine Schutt:

Prosperous FriendsAll SoulsA Day A Nightfloridanightwork

7 thoughts on “How We Spend Our Days: Christine Schutt

  1. Dear Christine,
    You describe a beautiful day and a bucolic writing life. As I read about Maine, I glanced the pastel on my wall, “Match Race,” rendered by a wooden boat builder from Blue Hill. My family lives and loves in Vermont yet a part of us longs for the Eggemoggin Reach. Someday, you and I will see each other in exercise class. In the meantime, I look forward to meeting you at the Brattleboro Literary Festival. I have just ordered a pile of you novels having read some of your stories and now having read your post I cannot wait to dive in.

    Favorite bits and pieces: “In Maine I forget to brush my hair.” “A retired third-grade teacher leads the class or else a nurse, hardly retired; both are unfailingly cheerful.” “No wi-fi in any of the rooms, save the sunroom where I can piggyback on my neighbor’s connection.” “I am sitting on the oversized couch in the sunroom reading an American gothic story, Sherwood Anderson’s ‘Death in the Woods.'” …”a vocabulary of flowers…” “Elliptical has been used to describe my style.”

    Dear Cynthia, Can you tell how much I adore your June pick? Enjoy your New England June and let’s get us both to Maine this fall.

    Your fan,
    Jodi

    Like

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