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 SHELAGH CONNOR SHAPIRO
The morning alarm on my phone is a slow-building cacophony of birds. At the same moment, from my office, the computer pipes to life on schedule. I love the synchronicity of hearing them each day at the exact same time. I think this has to do with growing up when clocks were imperfect and relied on winding and movement. Maybe in my waking moments I forget that these are not those simpler days of uncertainty. Maybe I just like the coincidence of machine and bird (which is machine).
The start of the day is early but slow, full of stretches and promises: coffee, a romp with the dog, maybe a little music, then down to work. I rarely fulfill such promises. The news is my first interruption. There’s so much to read, followed by inevitable assessments and discussion with my husband about what is wrong in the world. A terrible way to begin, come to think of it, and yet all too frequent.
I have a new job, producing radio for a local Vermont program. It’s part-time, from home, and should be a great fit for a writer. But it’s new and every week, I find myself spending more time than I should on a phone call, a research session, a pre-interview. I’ll get the hang of it. Today is Saturday, so I only do a few emails before giving myself the day off and resolving to write.
We have plans tonight. Since the pandemic announced itself with the abruptness of a curtain falling on a stage, we’ve worked around quarantines and masks by way of a “curbside pickup” dinner club with two other couples. Tonight it’s my turn to make the main course: an eggplant rollatine with homemade sauce. The dish is time-consuming, what with the slicing of eggplant in long, thin pieces, the flouring, dipping in egg, and finally frying in hot oil. I line everything up on the counter and work carefully and in order, like any task of assembly. On the next burner, my sauce bubbles and steams, filling the kitchen with the smells of tomato and garlic and oregano, a few minute leaves of which I found growing in the early spring garden and snipped for this project. After I finish frying and cleaning up, I put off the rest of the preparations for later and go to work.
Mostly, I write in my loft. Accessed by a sturdy cherry ladder built by my late father, the loft was a last-minute idea, scoffed at by an architect who recommended closing it into the attic instead.
“You know this will just become a dumping ground for all your stuff, right?” she’d warned.
And she was right. For years, my husband and sons loaded their boxed comic book and graphic novel collections into the loft. But one day I asked why I let myself be relegated to a corner of the bedroom, when the comics got all that dedicated space? So I carted Dr. Strange, The Silver Surfer and all their headstrong friends into my husband’s and sons’ closets, and created a writing space barely tall enough for me to stand upright, in a crouch.
Prominent in the space is a very large needlework piece by a woman who used to make art in Montpelier. I don’t know if she’s still around. It’s a study in the letter “I” (the artist had set herself the task of doing the whole alphabet), the main subject of which is an Indian woman, ironing, with an infant at her feet, eating ice cream. A city rises behind them, Ionic columns prominent. An ibis sits nearby. A man imbibes. I both think of her as my muse and reject the idea: why should this poor woman be expected to help me accomplish something? She’s busy enough. She does watch as I work, which is perversely inspiring.
Today I return to a fairly new poem, which is not what I usually write. But my fiction has stalled a bit since I took the job, and this poem keeps punching me in the shoulder. Downstairs, the dog barks. My husband plays piano—Debussy. Across the street, children shout. Cars race past.
The farmland that was all around us when we arrived in 1991 has almost completely filled with houses, like a puzzle being put together gradually by some celestial being: a zoning god. The commotion of the world is unexpectedly welcome as I work, intrusions knocking me out of my head and sending me back to the page.
The poem takes on some shape. A valuable piece of advice has sent me away from forced meaning and into imagery, which is helpful, and the poem is more engaging now, so that I lose track of time. It’s the best feeling in the world, losing track of time.
Suddenly, it’s late. I need to finish assembling that dinner, feed the pets, reconnect with my husband, get ready for our “curbside pickup.” We will be three couples in a circle on a large porch, having a glass of wine at a healthy distance before exchanging dishes to take back home. Four are vaccinated, but one friend and I are not, so we will sit at the greatest distance. It’s not yet warm enough in Vermont to stay together, lingering over dinner on that porch, like we used to before the curtain fell. Soon, though. (Kinehora, says my mother-in-law in my mind, banishing the evil eye.)
I make my way down the ladder—more carefully than I used to—and remember to look into the face of my muse and thank her for the extreme patience she has shown in ironing that same scrap of fabric for decades. Her tenacity might be all that gets me back up here tomorrow.
THOSE SAME 3 QUESTIONS…
1. What is the best book you’ve read in the last few months and how did you choose it?
- I’m reluctant to name a best book from recent months because my show introduces me to wonderful new books all the time. That said, I’ve just read two books in tandem for a conversation on blending the tangible and the ineffable, and they were both fantastic: The Leave-Takers, by Steven Wingate, and Ruthie Fear, by Maxim Loskutoff. Phenomenal (in every way!).
2. Would you give us one little piece of writing advice?
- Notice your writing tics and try to subvert them, at least once in a while. For example, one of mine is to always describe a concept using two or three modifiers; one is almost never enough for me. Sometimes that’s fine. But sometimes, when I want to change something in my work, either to flip it around so I can make it fresh or just to better revise, I’ll lessen some of those descriptors. And so, above, when I wrote “notice your writing tics,” I actually started with “notice your writing tics and habits.” But that’s a little redundant, so I took out “habits.” This is just a tiny piece of advice, and I don’t actually mean that you should worry about my over-modifying habit in your work. But figure out what you do to the extreme, and pay attention to why you do it, and where it is and is not needed.
3. What is your strangest reading or writing habit?
- I’m so used to reading for my show that I do so very closely, with a pencil and an index card handy at all times. When I’m reading other books, not for the show, I’m constantly writing things down for no good reason, at a loss for what to do with all my reactions! Probably teachers face this same impulse to comment on published work and offer suggestions.