Reading into writing: Two years of roughghosts

Beyond the ear there is a sound, at the far end of sight there is a view, at the tips of the fingers an object—that’s where I’m going.

At the tip of the pencil the line.

Where a thought expires is an idea, at the final breath of joy another joy, at the point of the sword magic—that’s where I’m going.

– Clarice Lispector, “That’s Where I’m Going”

Today is the second anniversary of the rather haphazard and ill-defined birth of roughghosts. The evolution of this space that I tend has far exceeded my expectations. When I look back at my very first post, a quick note to self, I talk about having long put aside the desire to write so as to live a little first, acknowledging that life had given me more material than I was comfortable addressing–a theme I’ve revisited since. My first year of blogging saw a collection of random observations and occasional book related posts develop into increasingly structured book reviews interspersed with the occasional reflective essay. Looking ahead to my second year I had hoped to broaden my reading while privately I was more actively playing with ideas that I hoped would eventually lead to a serious creative effort of some measure. But as much as I had been filling notebooks, I was writing more about wanting to write as if wishing could make it so, rather than believing that I would ever offer something beyond the confines of this blog.

For me, my blog, no matter how seriously I consider every word I offer here, no matter how many hours I spend constructing essays or reviews, has always been a twilight place. It belongs to neither the day nor the night but sits at the intersection of the two: a place where I can imagine that I am not quite exposed to the full light of day, a place where the darkest truths remain unspoken. For that is the realm of real writing and what am I, editing my efforts and posting them myself, but pretending to the art?

I know, of course, that this is not true.

The past twelve months have changed everything, and in more ways than I might ever have imagined.

Writing is the conscious attempt by the human to participate in his fate, that ‘story’ written from birth to death. Casting spells, exorcising, whistling in the dark, inventing the textures and structures of consciousness, keeping a backdoor open to memory, getting to know who or what we are, both reflecting what is and shaping the new. Memory is nothing but dead time, but death seeds the soil: from forgetting new shapes sprout. . .

For writing is a means to transformation: using words and their interacting combinations—the meanings, the feel, the sounds and the shadows—to broaden our scope of apprehending and understanding ourselves and others, and in the process creating new spaces and references. Sometimes looking down into hell.

– Breyten Breytenbach, Intimate Stranger

Last year, on July 7 to be exact, with the majestic Table Mountain rising in the background, I started to write the essay I had been toying with for over a year. It was my last full day in South Africa and looking back over the preceding year I envisioned this grand narrative that would guide my writing, shape the story I wanted to tell. On July 27 a pulmonary embolism caused me to go into cardiac arrest. I stared into the abyss, metaphorically speaking, that is, because I have no memory of the event or of the days immediately before or after, but I do know that if my son had not been home that night I would not be here.

And I know that every idle word to page before that moment was precious more than wishful scribbling. To write, honestly and openly, was now critical.

My path from the confines of my blog to the publication of my first piece of essay/memoir writing earlier this month has been quite remarkable. Doors have opened, starting with Douglas Glover at Numéro Cinq where I am proud to be on the masthead. I have since published reviews for several other sites or publications and have more forthcoming, and I have another piece of creative writing that will be in the Seagull Books Catalogue this fall. It does mean that my attention is necessarily diverted from my blog at times but I will link to new pieces as they appear and have created a page of links to outside writing. I never would have dared to dream that I would need such a page at this time last year. Nor did I imagine that I would now call myself a writer.

I derive a great deal of satisfaction from the challenge of writing longer critical reviews. To read and engage with a text at a deeper level opens an entirely new appreciation of language and literature. It fuels and, I hope, enhances my own ability to write. And over the past year I have been fortunate to become acquainted with some truly gifted thinkers and writers who inspire and encourage me, as well as building stronger intellectual and readerly camaraderie with fellow bloggers.

Copyright JM Schreiber
Copyright JM Schreiber

I don’t know where fiction is born, but I am certain that the best essay/memoir writing does not have its roots on our brightest days. Rather, it emerges from the shadows, when we are wounded, grieving, shaken to the core. We write to make sense of pain, of confusion, of loss. We write out of the darkness toward the light. We write in the in-between spaces—daybreak, twilight—find the patterns, themes, edit, shape, refine and edit again, careful to leave room for tension, friction, the beating heart.

And, of course, we write because we have to.

Here’s to a new year, so to speak.

Author: roughghosts

Literary blog of Joseph Schreiber. Writer. Reader. Editor. Photographer.

31 thoughts on “Reading into writing: Two years of roughghosts”

  1. Happy Anniversary, Joe! I have so enjoyed reading your blog, both your personal writings and your book reviews. It is the second anniversary of my blog in June as well. When I first started writing I wasn’t sure how long I would really keep it up. But reading and writing and interacting with other bloggers has become such an integral part of my life that I can’t image not doing it now.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks Melissa! I suppose it probably best when we enter blogging without any particular expectations and see where it takes us. It is a great community. And luckily geeky literary book bloggers like us seem to attract few trolls it seems! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I’m so glad to have found your blog and your online presence. About memoir, though (or at least the sort I’ve found myself writing — my Mnemonic: A Book of Trees, as well as a work-in-progress): when you write this — “I am certain that the best essay/memoir writing does not have its roots on our brightest days. Rather, it emerges from the shadows, when we are wounded, grieving, shaken to the core. We write to make sense of pain, of confusion, of loss. We write out of the darkness toward the light.” — I have to say that I’m constantly looking for balance. And sometimes that reverses the process you’ve described. The light takes me into shadows, ones I never knew were there. And I want it all. Or at least I want a way to acknowledge it all, to get it all in, to find a capacious form that will expand to allow it all to have its place. Reading is a way to learn about the possibilities of form, a way to have a conversation with those paradoxes. Was it Alcman who said something like, Men perish because they can’t reconcile their beginnings or births with their endings, their deaths? So maybe not such a difference in perspective after all. I look forward to years more of your work.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you Theresa. Maybe the light gives us the courage to venture into those shadows? I do know that writing became ever more critical after my cardiac arrest (and there’s a whole essay in that experience that I haven’t begun to process yet). Although I feel that, at least for me, the heart of the stories I want to explore lies in the darker moments, one has to write through the darkness (even if it never more than therapeutic). I am equally apprehensive of overtly happy endings, too. The goal, in the end, is more honestly one of balance I suspect. At least that is sort of essay/memoir that inspires me.

      I look forward to reading more of your work too. And perhaps even meeting one day because, in world wide web terms we’re practically neighbours!


      1. Yes, neighbours! (Esp, as my family roots are partly in Drumheller and one of my sons lives with his family in Edmonton.)

        And we do write what we need to, when we need to. I believe that. It’s hard but true, finding the right form, the right approach; but oh, what better thing to wake up to each morning?


  3. ‘Writing more about wanting to write as if wishing could make it so” – yes, there’s the pit and the fall. That’s been the only kind of writing I’ve thought myself able to do – and worse, I find myself writing about wanting to read – because no matter how fiercely I read a text, I invariably think I’ve read it wrong, and the feeling of being “in error” keeps me from doing critical writing. How to write, when one is afraid one hasn’t really managed to read? (Scanned, or “limned,” or read distortedly, as if words could be a sort of optical illusion. Fear of being fooled by one’s own lack of depth.) This is by way of saying that when I read your blog I’m in the presence of a mind that is learning new things about the reading process constantly, and writing so clearly about what it’s like to learn. Your “process” (your writing is very vital, very much in motion) is rigorous but joyful – you’ve learned so well how to discard the sere husk of received ideas, so that the green shoot emerges. Too many metaphors here – I haven’t yet learned what to leave out. At any rate, I read you as a guide, as I attempt to discover a process of my own,to read and write in unexpected, unreceived ways.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Reading, writing about books, and challenging myself to explore more translated literature have all been critical. Writing on my blog allows me to exercise my skills, but the longer critical reviews I have had an opportunity to write (and the advantage of having some great editors) has really made a difference. Depending on the book I’m reading I take copious notes, sometimes 20 pages or so, especially for a longer review. It slows my reading, but it helps me focus. And I have no concerns about underlining and writing in books, I especially love books with a number of blank pages at the back. Much of the time I think I am seeing patterns that don’t pan out by the time I get to the end of the book, but more often in the act of writing about a book I come to appreciate it more.

      I read very intuitively. I’m not burdened by lots of literary theory which I used to think made me unworthy to write detailed critical reviews. But I have been assured by others, including some writers, that intuitive is best. And there is no right or wrong way to read something. As a patient editor kindly reminded me when I was stuck with a review: “Once a book is published it doesn’t belong to the author or the translator”.

      Your reading of a book belongs to you.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Scott. Do you know Seagull Books, they are a publisher based in Kolkata India? They produce gorgeous, high quality books (they’re won awards for their extensive line of German translations, including Handke). Their catalogue is 400 pages, of original artwork and writing (or previously untranslated works) from authors, translators who are included in the forthcoming season (and others, I suppose). That’s what I’ve contributed, a piece for the catalogue. It takes the form of a parable and I wrote it before the most recent publication. The publisher kindly invited me out of the blue.


      1. Yes, I know the press and its connection with Chicago. They have done great work. I’m currently reading Tomas Espedal’s against art in their edition. I’ll look forward to reading your parable.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. I am a bit of an evangelist for Seagull, great books, they can be quite addictive. I’ve read some really positive reviews of Espedal and have one of his books on my wishlist. I’ll be interested to hear how you like that one.


  4. Your post reminds me of Foucault’s ‘Self Writing’: “Writing, as a way of gathering in the reading that was done and of collecting one’s thoughts about it, is an exercise of reason that counters the great deficiency of stultitia, which endless reading may favor. Stultitia is defined by mental agitation, distraction, change of opinions and wishes, and consequently weakness in the face of all the events that may occur; it is also characterized by the fact that it turns the mind toward the future, makes it interested in novel ideas, and prevents it from providing a fixed point for itself in the possession of an acquired truth.”

    Congratulations on your second anniversary. It is a delight to be able to read your carefully considered, singular thoughts on what you’re reading.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you Anthony. For me writing, even keeping notes on what I’m reading has become critical, not only for processing and appreciating the reading but in term of inspiring and informing my further writing. It is akin to constructing a web of thoughts and ideas that allows you to pick up threads as you travel through difficult times and move on and make sense of things in a new light. I’m finding that reading means reading broadly and writing mean writing a lot. What you distill from all that in the end is a fragment of what you collect but it is finely honed, essential.

      *I wanted a change to mark the new year but I’m not sure about this theme. It’s called “The Skeptical Theme”. It’s living up to its name so far.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Congratulations on your two years – I always find your blog intelligent, insightful and – above all – interesting. I’m so pleased it’s led you to flourish as a writer! Long may it continue.

    Liked by 1 person

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