Sifting through my experiences in Kolkata: Leading a class at the Seagull School of Publishing

I’m home from India and slowly recovering from jet lag and food poisoning. It’s the latter, acquired, most likely, on my last evening, that is really dragging the transition out—blurring the kilometres between there and here. In a strange way, the exhaustion and muscle fatigue feels like a metaphorical and physical rinsing of Kolkata out of my system.

It won’t work. I’ve been infected. By the city—and a country—that I want to return to and explore further.

For the moment though, a little distance is required so I can review, focus, and calibrate the experiences of the past two weeks. Then I can begin to weave it into words. I anticipate essays, interviews, and other projects to emerge in the coming months.  But for now, back to this space, roughghosts, to share a little more of my visit over the next few posts.

I did not travel overseas until I was in my mid-fifties. Not having had the opportunity when I was younger, I think I’d become resigned to the notion that it was something I’d never be able to afford. It is, strangely, loss that has made it possible. I live very modestly, I travel alone, and the internet has opened up a network of people to connect with across the globe. So I never feel lonely when I arrive in a strange place. Perhaps I travel to escape the loneliness of home.

My decision to go to Kolkata was spontaneous. It arose out of a chat with Naveen Kishore, the publisher of Seagull Books, sometime last fall. His enthusiastic response to my idle comment that “someday” I would visit, set my plans in motion. And, while an opportunity to see the store and office and meet the staff was the draw, and Ngūgī wa Thiong’o’s planned appearance in the city determined my timing, I ended up with so much more, not only from the Seagull experience but through my exploration of the city on my own and with friends.Rather than attempting to craft a whirlwind tour through a number of Indian centres, I opted to stay in place for two weeks. Cost and available time were the primary limiting factors, but I tend to prefer to be able to exist in a city for a while if I can, rather than dash through. It was a fortuitous decision. Calcutta is not only extremely affordable, but it takes at least a week to begin to learn how to “see” the city, and that has nothing at all to do with getting around or visiting tourist sites. It was only toward the end of my visit that I was beginning to appreciate how deeply my time in Kolkata stands to inform my understanding of Seagull, not just the publishing venture, but the entire Foundation for the Arts. I still need time to reflect and follow up with further conversations before I’ll be ready to write any major essays.

However, there is more. I headed to India with the idea that I would spend time engaging with my endless memoir project—reading, writing, reflecting. Yet I worried that left alone with my own literary ambitions I might be exposed to myself as a fraud. Despite my successes and accomplishments over the past few years, I still struggle with self-esteem. I feel old. Late. Writers that emerge in mid-life or later are a relative rarity in this world that celebrates the promise of the young—the 30 under 30, 40 under 40—and undervalues the possibility of those of us for whom life and circumstance have delayed entry into the creative literary environment.My anxiety was increased with the prospect of giving a presentation at the Seagull School of Publishing. When, Naveen suggested I could do “a session” with the students, I assumed he meant drop in, talk for twenty minutes or something. No stranger to public speaking, facilitation, or educational settings, I have always talked about subjects with which I had some degree of knowledge—developmental projects, brain injury, even bird feeding—but when Assistant Editor, Sayoni Ghosh, advised me that they wanted me to talk about my career (“career”??) in writing, editing, blogging, and online publishing I was taken aback. And the details? I would be leading a masterclass running from 10:30 to 1:30 with a fifteen-minute break for tea at noon.

Excuse me? What of my so-called career could I stretch into three hours?

Yet, as I started to create an outline for this effort, a strange thing happened. I knew that I had always been a naturally strong writer, something that had served me well in academic, professional, and volunteer settings since college, but I hadn’t fully appreciated the extent to which I’d been writing, editing and designing newsletters, publications, and even detailed annual reports for years—typically without the technical resources that should have been employed in the circumstances. My early efforts at one job were produced on a Smith-Corona typewriter with a simple word processing function that allowed me to print out blocks of text (and several different heads that could be exchanged for varying the font style). These blocks were then cut and carefully taped onto 11×17 inch sheets of coloured paper, photocopied and folded to produce eight-page monthly newsletters that, for the era, looked as good as professionally printed products. I fussed to avoid any telltale shadows, took care not to repeat themes or designs. In a later position, I would eventually move on to Microsoft Publisher, working under-resourced on top of my regular job responsibilities to create promotional, educational, and fundraising documents that my not-for-profit employer refused to invest in adequately. Why? Because I could not abide by the amateurish materials they had relied on before I arrived.

The difference today is that I am finally engaged in projects that are personally and creatively rewarding. I have learned to call myself a writer. Perhaps I will someday believe it.In the meantime, on the morning of February 14th, my date with masterclass destiny arrived. The previous day the students had spent the morning with German translator and musician Wieland Hoban, who has translated a number of works for Seagull, most proudly Correspondence: Ingeborg Bachmann and Paul Celan. That afternoon they’d enjoyed the warm wit and wisdom of Kenyan literary giant, Ngūgī wa Thiong’o—a session I’d also been invited to attend.

And then me. No pressure, eh?

Although my carefully created Powerpoint presentation—primarily photographic images and links to websites—baffled me and was abandoned, three hours passed easily with lively discussions of online publishing, blogging, and writing critical reviews. My intention was to promote the idea that in today’s environment, creative engagement is possible, easier and more rewarding than ever, and that it is never too late, even if one’s life or career goes sideways as life and work realities can. To that end I did briefly share my story, my gender-distracted diversions and delays that interfered with my earlier creative writing ambitions for so long. I hoped to help the students to appreciate the truly international nature of a literary community (or circles of communities) that exist and how actively engaging in that world opens opportunities on personal and professional levels no matter “when” or “where” one might be.

In keeping with the spirit at the core of a project like Seagull which started very simply, expanding slowly and organically over time, I also wanted to talk about very small indie publishing efforts. So I told them about my friend John Trefry and Inside the Castle, and how a desire to get his own first book into print has grown into a spirited little publisher, still a singular enterprise out of his own Lawrence, Kansas home, but boasting an impressive roster of authors and published titles. And to illustrate that limited resources should not restrict quality or design, I brought along a copy of Douglas Luman’s The F Text. Much to my surprise and pleasure, one of the students fell in love with it and worried that she wasn’t sure she could obtain a copy. So I gave her mine. And signed it. Which was weird, but cool.

Yesterday the same budding editor contacted me to let me know that she had written about my class for the Students’ blog on the Seagull School webpage! I feel an odd mixture of embarrassment and pride. And relief that my session was of value to the students. I’m also insanely excited that Mihika created a little erasure poem out of an excerpt from my piece, Your Body Will Betray You. What a gift!

Leading a masterclass like this is the last situation I ever expected to find myself in, and I would wager I am the real beneficiary of the opportunity. Gradually I’m learning to believe that others believe that I have something to offer.

One of the many, many precious gifts I am bringing home from Kolkata.

January 2016: A slow start to my reading year (and why does that bother me?)

The first month of 2016 has almost slipped away and I am feeling overloaded. Too many stressors have collided to take a curious toll on my ability to read and blog. My reading continues to be fractured. Books are not the same refuge they were a few months ago. Not that they don’t keep arriving (or rather following me home) and haunting me as the stacks pile up, staring at me, daring me to read faster. But my reading is slow, and the books I had expected to venture into by month’s end have not yet been cracked.

And then there is life, the one that doesn’t exist in books, the one that can’t be shelved or put aside for a later date or, as much as I would love it sometimes, be tossed into a pile to go out to the next charity sale. It is hardly a surprise. Over the past month I have had to face some extraordinary challenges on the home front – some new, some long standing, and others simply arising from the financial reality of owning a car and a house, both of which are well past their prime. Some matters have been resolved – one mechanic and two plumbers later – I just have to figure out how to pay for them; others are less concrete, more emotionally corrosive and resolution is not in sight. If another well meaning person says, “This too shall pass,” my reaction may be less than generous.

Copyright JM Schreiber, 2013 The last time I had a month with two separate plumbing calls I took this shot to celebrate the joy of a clear drain that had been blocked for more than four weeks.
Copyright JM Schreiber, 2013
The last time I had a month with two separate plumbing calls I took this shot to celebrate the joy of a clear drain that had been blocked for more than four weeks.

Through it all I have been reading but by some weird twist of logic my attention has been drawn toward much more intensive review projects. Blogging is fine but for each review I write I spend 4-6 hours, so when I encounter an ambitious, complex, postmodern novel like Klaus Hoffer’s Among the Bieresch, forthcoming from Seagull Books; I can’t resist the desire to read into the varied subtextual materials, especially the works that I don’t know well and – with luck – explore the novel in a space with greater critical elbow room and a much wider audience than my blog commands. There’s a voice in my head that says “Are you out of your mind?” and, maybe I am but, at this moment, I seem to be most comfortable burying myself in demanding critical projects, losing myself I suppose. At the same time, I am also spending more time on my own writing: a personal essay I hope to enter in a contest and a piece of experimental prose.

Tell me then, what is with this book blogging pressure I feel? It’s not a numbers game. No one is going to disown me if I don’t read and review two books a week. Reading and writing about books is supposed to be fun. And, heaven knows, the spaces I that want to write for, on or off my blog, are literary acts of love and, as such, there’s typically no money involved.

So blog posts may be slower for a while. I am reading. I am writing. And I am dealing with all the messy business of living.