- Birthday, Books, Quotes, Reading, Writing

Christine Schutt on Writing, Reading, Teaching, Sentences, and More


Happy birthday, Christine Schutt, who always magnificently dissolves the so-called boundaries between poetry and prose! Christine’s evocative, lapidary writing has repeatedly shown me how it—the endeavor of putting the right words in the right order—is done; and I’m so grateful, awed, really. I’ve read all of her books and loved them all. Go read her books! You’ll love them, too, I promise! Here are some quotes from the writer:


“‘By the mouth, for the ear’—is there any other way in which to write?”


“I think the right book can save you.”


“A lot is left unsaid and must be inferred simply because I want to avoid the dulling effect of belated language.”


“Fail at everything else if you must, but make something.”


“You saw the worst, and yet you came out of it and you’re still breathing.”


“I have no preferences only desire. I try ‘to stay open for business,’ which is to say receptive, ready, on the lookout for story. Once a sentence is made, I am on my way, but whether to story or novel, I am not always sure.”


“To your last question, how to break into publishing? Better ask how to break into a story.”


“When I’m writing, though, I’m not necessarily thinking about the value of the final product or how it will improve anyone’s life.”


“[S]tart with the last thing you would ever want anyone to know, a remembered action that is troubling (there are many such) and start writing about it. Experience, so long held so close, will keep you on the edge of your seat because the story must be told carefully; moreover, it is unlikely you will tire of the story simply because you have lugged it around for a while. The other lovely element of rooting around in your own bag of horrors for fiction is this: Who is to know if you are telling the truth?”


“[W]rite one sentence strong enough to live by, and then to query this same sentence for its most powerful or interesting or provocative word. In the next sentence you either embrace the word or reject that same term, and so then you move on, sentence by sentence.”


“If you are a writer, you are also a reader and have at least two or three writers who have given solace that no other can provide. Their sounds, like music, come back to you from time to time and you try to harmonize. It is not a matter of how much; after a while, your own voice will discover its melody.”


“No writer, I think, wants to be repetitive; the writer wants range of style and subject: surprise. Of course, the same interests, or should I say obsessions, will be there in the fiction no matter the stylistic changes.”


“I do think about sound. What I want to do is wed sound to scene. What comes first is a picture.”


“I am generally uncertain of purpose and have few opinions, no ideas. But sound.”


“No one sound directs a story or a novel; rather, sound directs the sentence that is in service of scene-making. If the sounds are harsh, hard, the scene may turn in that direction; likewise, soft, sibilant sounds may take the writer into a gentler place.”


“Sometimes there’s an image, yes, and the language comes so fast on it. I look at something for a long time and roll over words right to the occasion.”


“I like story; I want story. I have characters but they are dimly perceived and what they will do is a mystery to me.”


“The minimalist style is borne of my determination to avoid received, worn, cliched language in order to write originally. This means many sentences are struck out for being dull, for being in service of no more than moving a character like a chair, for saying the obvious in the same old, obvious way. ‘She froze.’ To talk about somebody freezing as a way of suggesting surprise or horror or shock seems to me the laziest of practices.”


“I trust in the ear to detect feeling before struggling over why the voice sounds so. I should also add that I am charmed by symmetrical sentences and catalog sentences and sentences with bunched-up groups of adjectives that sound great and look great on the page: ‘lurid, rapid, garish, grouped.'”


“Quite simply a lot of what Gordon [Lish] said about writing made immediate and complete sense to me, and my own interest in poetry, in sound, my arduous effort to compose so much as a sentence, meant I shared his aesthetic: a delight in language and an ambition to make something uncanny.”


“I value no one’s opinion more than Gordon’s when it comes to assessment of fiction and while in his class I took notes I have profited from reading again. I try to live by many of his phrases: Stay open for business. Be Emersonian: say what no one else has the courage to say and you will be embraced. Reveal what you would keep secret. You will stay awake when writing such a story; you will also write very, very carefully with so much at stake. Each sentence is extruded from the previous sentence; look behind you when writing, not ahead. Your obligation is to know your objects and to steadily, inexorably darken and deepen them. To be in Gordon’s company when he was talking about fiction was to be in full-out writer mode. Let the performance be insane!”


“The constant has not been a sense of urgency, but the terrors felt with every composition: no you cannot; no you will not; no you should not. To be balked at every turn in the effort with never and no makes for slow composition, and it dismays me not to have more gift stories, more sentences that rise up alchemical and deserved. Composing for me is largely a dispiriting venture, and the urgency and flushed condition ascribed to the experience may be something I’ve imagined after the fact of publication, a fictive sentiment necessary to sustain myself as a writer.”


“One of the leasts is not feeling like a writer, so that when asked, what do you do, I answer, teacher, when what I want to say is I am a writer. Sometimes the question is pursued: What do you teach? Writing as an answer seems so presumptuous, as if to say I teach breathing, so I more or less mutter the word writer. And what kind of writing do you do occasionally follows, and I can barely say it, fiction. Fiction seems so—so impossible to manage, so unlikely. Why is it I must feel embarrassed about the one profession by which I would want to be known, but I do; I am embarrassed. Would I know your name is the last question, and what is there to say but probably not?

Another least is the way it feels to be a writer, which is to be forever outside the human circle and never within it, rarely holding hands with anyone but practicing a lonely occupation which involves wheedling and lying for more company, anything for company, for an audience, a reader, someone else to say yes, this is life; yes, it takes the top of my head off.”


“As it is in life often a relief to be in someone else’s company, so it is for me in writing a novel. I am relieved to change point of view and hope the reader feels the same way. Only in my stories and first-person first novel are there no such shifts, so it seems I came to this style over time.”


“The novel is a coat with many pockets; the story is a hat; the former item of clothing allows for digression, which may mean the relief of entertaining another set of characters. My ambition now is to write a perfect novella, a form as demanding as a story and yet not without a few pockets.”


“The challenge of dialogue is how to make it sound real and yet at the same time interesting; the challenge is to avoid the trap of using talk to provide exposition. The trick I’ve employed in the last five years is to have characters chatter away and then in the next draft take out every other line. Oddly enough, the speech has more life, more surprise.”


“But when I’m writing and taking from my own experience, I’m making memories larger and stranger because it’s just more interesting for me, and more interesting as a reading experience.”


“What I have read and learned from, read and loved, either as a teacher or writer, I make use of in my own fiction.”


“Teaching literature, more than my relationships with students, has had the greatest impact on the way I write. To teach a story is to come to know it intimately; to learn from its successes and mistakes. My relationships with students have brought happiness and humility. The students are, for the most part, unimaginably loving and talented in ways they don’t fully appreciate, but I have read their fictions and have been impressed by their skills. Year after year, the students stay young, and I age, so the fact that I should write about age and aging could be attributable to my profession, which involves forever being buffeted by the dewy and supple.”


“In my writing class I stress the importance of nouns and verbs, the usefulness of repetition (no matter what teachers have said before about ‘variety’), the reader-friendly use of nouns over pronouns (so that the reader need not hunt for the antecedent), high and low diction, and the effect of mixing it up. (Of course, pronouns can be used with smashing results. When the body is reduced to it, for example.) We play the editing game: If I can say in three words what took you ten, I win. Finally, composition of one unimpeachable sentence in work of any length should be considered a victory.”


“Teaching and writing are compatible insofar as the teaching involves reading; a teacher learns from teaching a story. She is obliged to figure out, for the sake of her students, how the story is made, how its effects are made. In this way the employment serves the writer. Teaching also drains—especially when it involves workshops because the teacher has to think long and hard on the student work as to how it might be made better. A friend of mine recently talked about having two wells from which to draw, the teacher-well and the writer-well, but most of us who write and teach find ourselves drawing from the same well, which is to say that by the end of the school year, the writer has drained the well and is parched.”


“I don’t think the book as object is going to go away, particularly for teaching. Maybe they’re going to fix all these iPads and Kindles and things so that you can actually write efficiently in the margin and make the text your own, but right now you can’t; the reading experience is different. The books I love and have on Kindle, I also have them physically, and that’s where I go. Unless I am traveling, I go to the book itself. There I can find my place. I can write notes, underline what I consider significant. They haven’t perfected the online readers yet. Most of my colleagues, even the younger ones, feel a great attachment to physical books, so I don’t think books will go away.”


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