Reflections on the challenge of writing the self, and a link to my essay at RIC Journal

I was lonely child and adolescent. I lived in a rural area, outside a small, but growing, city. There were no children my age in my neighbourhood, and although I had two younger brothers, I spent countless hours alone. A misfit of sorts, I found comfort in the world of words, spending hours reading and writing stories and poems. It was a way of imagining myself elsewhere, fashioning a time or place that I might fit into. However, as I neared my late teens, I became increasingly aware of an inability to inhabit, in reality or in my imagination, the kind of person I wanted to be.

If I couldn’t find my own voice, how could I grant a voice to characters?

So I stopped writing, hopeful that with a little more experience, I would have more to draw from. Gather stories to build on. Live a little first.

But I had no idea how strange and complicated my life would become, so monstrous, too untidy to reduce to words. Ultimately I found my way out of one fiction—the one I was living trying to be the gendered person I was born—and constructed another fiction around myself so that I could exit with some semblance of an ordinary, coherent history.

And then, when my re-orchestrated life was blown apart a few years ago, I was determined that I could no longer afford to hide. Nor could I continue to put off writing. But by then, the only story I had to tell was not the stuff of fantasy or imagination. It was my own. Raw and simple.

For a while I clung to the idea that the only way I could talk about myself was to create a character to carry the weight, bare the secrets, share the pain I was not prepared to own. But every word I wrote circled right back to me. And sounded forced, hollow, and false.

It took me a while to come to a level of comfort with the idea of writing work that I still often refer to as memoirish. I consider everything I write—no matter what form it takes at the end—to be nonfiction because it originates from my experience. But if asked, I simply say I write essay/memoir. I write of the self. On the one hand, I am always afforded a subject. But on the other, it is the most dangerous, difficult, and draining form of writing to do well. Boundaries are critical. The challenge is to touch on the essential and temper the detail.

Because all of my work comes back, in the end, to a lifetime disconnect between body and identity that has shifted but never resolved, I tread a very fine line indeed.

Two days ago, my most recent personal essay was published at RIC Journal. It is a meditation on photography, the body, Barthes, and grief. I wrote it in January for a specific publication and panicked. It was too raw. I didn’t know if it was finished or meant to go further. The thought that it might be part of something larger terrified me. So I put it away.

A few months ago, with my renewed intention to work once again toward a larger memoir project, I pulled it out. With a little distance, I saw it as is complete if rather unclassifiable. Now it is out in the world, another step forward in the ongoing process of writing myself into being.

This piece had no title when I sent it to Saudamini Deo at RIC Journal. As it is presented the first line of the epigraph—my favourite quote from Barthes’ Mourning Diary—has become the title. And it feels perfect.

My essay, “I am either lacerated or ill at ease,” with my own original photographs, can be found here.

Update: Not much writing yet, but there’s always tomorrow. Right?

The calendar may say otherwise, but with the snow and sub-zero temperatures of the past week, autumn seems to be no more than a hazy memory. More than one month into my year of writing fearlessly, precious little Writing has taken place. But’s been a positive, inspiring time all the same.

My city’s annual readers’ festival, Wordfest, was held in mid-October and this year I volunteered as a driver for the first time. What a fantastic way to meet and engage with authors! Whether I was driving children’s authors out to school events, or picking a New Yorker columnist up from the airport, I thoroughly enjoyed the conversations that arose. The programming was impressive as well, including a strong representation of Indigenous writers. But my personal highlight, without question, was the magnificent M NourbeSe Philip. I had three opportunities to talk to this most remarkable woman—a Caribbean-born Canadian poet, writer, playwright, and former lawyer—at some depth. We talked about poetry, writing, and our adult children. She was generous and supportive, especially when I shared with her the nature of my writing about the body. And her performance of excerpts from her seminal, experimental poem Zong! was one of the most powerful readings I have ever attended.

Since the festival ended, I’ve been busy. I worked during our municipal election—an absolute nightmare—we are one of the last paper ballot hold outs, turnout was unexpectedly high, and by midnight during the third recount I found that I was completely incapable of counting to fifty! Add feline dental surgery, writing reviews, editing, and a public speaking engagement (on the intersection of faith and my queer identity, in case you’re curious, a rather uncertain junction to be fair), I have found it difficult to carve out a creative space of my own. But, it’s all good. I even had the opportunity, earlier this week, to attend a book launch for fellow Albertan and Twitter compadre, Steve Passey. To be honest, I went to heckle him, but he’d stacked the house with his friends and family so I decided to be polite. (Just kidding, of course, it was a great night—with wine and cupcakes, what more could you want!)

But, in the midst of all this, the most unexpected and welcome surprise came in the form of an invitation to join 3:AM Magazine as Criticism/Nonfiction Editor. There was a time when just publishing something at 3:AM seemed an impossible dream, and my first effort appeared after the most brutal editing experience—one that almost caused a me to have writerly crisis of faith. I had over-read and over-written a complex postmodern novel. However, I learned so much from the process of working it into shape and I was, in the end, very proud of the result. I firmly believe that being edited myself, editing for The Scofield, and the workshops and training I’ve taken along the way, have all helped make me a stronger writer. And it’s an excellent way to encounter great writers, engage with exciting writing, and help bring it to the attention of others. I look forward to being part of the 3:AM team, I expect it to be both rewarding and inspiring.

So now, to attend to writing. With winter making its presence felt early, it seems the ideal time to settle down and get to work.

Writing into a new season with renewed hope: A reflection

Writers are the scattered or lost tribe of the world. They originated from one belief—even the tenants have been lost—shared rituals and music, and the same place, which was an oasis port on the edge of dark badlands. Because of a history of roaming and Diaspora long, long ago, the individual members became stultified in separate languages and they took on as protective colouring the customs and the beliefs of the populations among whom they lived. They may have given their hearts to the people. But when they meet they recognize one another by a look in the eyes as if squinting against the sun, and by the clumsy gestures of hands. Their hands are uncertainly looking for sugar signs of sharedness. This they will see, maybe with mortification, remorse and shame: That they are indelibly marked by the same stubborn illusions, the same shortcomings making their fit into life an awkward one, the same yearning for projecting connectedness and for initiating transformation.

— Breyten Breytenbach (from Intimate Stranger)

I entered September on a low note, still trying to stay a step ahead of the tendency to slide toward darkness that has been haunting me these past few years. At times I thought I had finally shaken it, only to have another challenge rise up. Last October, bereaved three times in the span of a few months but unable to begin to untangle my grief, I hit the lowest point I can recall since my teens. And paradoxically (because depression holds to its own logic) I had just sold several essays and had two pieces finally emerge in print.

Now, almost a year later, I sense a change.

I feel that I am beginning to heal, and that I am ready to begin to grieve.

The past six months have brought adventure, a degree of closure, a measure of financial security, and the recognition that with true friends, the ones that really matter, distance is not a barrier. However, I have not found a job and I have not written much beyond a few select critical reviews and a few short creative pieces. I talk about finally being ready to write, to focus on a larger project, but now that I no longer have any kind of regular income, writing can feel like a frivolous pursuit. Yet, as much as I was briefly tempted by a professional position I was interested in, I don’t really want to go back to my former line of work, even if that was a viable option and I’m not sure it is.

So, I have made an exciting—and a little unnerving—decision. From the money I recently inherited, I have put aside enough for the next twelve months. It’s a modest sum but my life is not extravagant and I now own my house. Of course, being a pragmatist, I’ve also left a decent amount for emergencies (the cat’s dental work to start) and with luck, a little travel. But rather than seeing this as a stopgap until I find a job, I am considering this as: Paying myself to write.

 My goal is to attend to writing as I would any other job. I’ve joined the Writers’ Guild, increased my volunteer commitments in book and writing related areas, and have several opportunities for contract work of various types. I want to continue to gain practical experience and build on the connections I have.

I made this decision several weeks ago, but only shared it privately with a few people. I needed to know if I could keep on task and keep my mood positive before making my commitment public. Before putting it out there.

And so now it’s public.

Today I turn fifty-seven, another fact I hesitate to share. I’m not sure how I got here so fast, but I don’t want another year to pass without making a serious effort to finally do the only thing I’ve ever wanted to do. To write. To believe in myself.

It is not easy. I realize now that every day I need to work to keep from slipping back into a negative spiral. To that end, I have taken a cue from Michel Leiris whose work has been a near obsession for me of late. I’ve just finished reading his monumental work Phantom Africa which is a journal he kept over the course of a two-year ethnographic expedition from Dakar to Djibouti in the early 1930s. He simply records the events of the day and his feelings about his experiences, in so much as he has time to do so. He does not edit himself, his moods fluctuate, his doubts, frustrations, and erotic dreams are all noted. I decided to follow suit and keep a journal of this year myself. My past journaling efforts have fizzled pretty swiftly because I assumed I had to be profound at all times, to only record my sculpted thoughts. Now my aim is to comment on my successes, or shortcomings for the day, and set a goal for the next. When time or inspiration allows I go further, write about the things that are worrying me, speculate, even dream a little. I don’t confine myself to reading and writing concerns, but they are always central.

So far so good.

I hope to stay open to possibility. To read and write to purpose and potential. I have certain projects in mind, call for submissions I want to answer, but I want to kindle and nurture other ideas and see where they take me.

To trust words.

Ever tried. Ever failed. You know the drill. August 2017, the month that was.

As August draws to a close, and September opens, I have some thoughts about the pressures of prescribed reading and the complicated emotion of loss.

Joseph Schreiber 2017

At the outset of the month I pulled out a selection of potential books to choose from for Women in Translation month. I knew that with several review related reading projects underway I was unlikely to get to more than a few titles. I managed three: one of my must-reads (Carmen Boullosa’s Before), one that was somewhat disappointing (Kjersti A. Skomsvold’s The Faster I Walk, The Smaller I Am), and one late addition (Isabelle Eberhardt’s The Oblivion Seekers). However, I found that many of the books I tried to pick up did not work at all for me— that is, they were not right for right now. Feeling that I ought to try to manage one more before the month was out I found myself frozen, almost unable to read anything… I had to stop and remind myself what such reading projects are all about.

Raising the awareness of the fact that fewer female writers are translated is important, as is celebrating the terrific authors who may not be well known. It never hurts to look at one’s reading habits and challenge one’s self. But it is another thing to get stressed and defensive. And that is what happens when I start to measure my reading by gender. I will admit, more male than female authors line my shelves. I have addressed this fact before in other posts. I also wrote about how for the better part of two decades I read almost exclusively female writers in an essay for Literary Hub last year. For a long time, I hoped that by filling my head with female voices I would find my own. And, of course, I never did. The sense of myself as male was unassailable. Seventeen years ago I set off on a course to realign my presented and internal gender. And here I am.

At this point, I like to think that the gender of the authors I read is secondary, although I will admit to a growing need to connect with gender-queered and gender non-conforming perspectives. Most specifically I am drawn to writing that is challenging, exploring style and form. In recent months, some of those writers have, in fact, been women in translation—Fleur Jaeggy, Can Xue, Marie Ndiaye. Before next August rolls around again I am certain there will be more. And I know for a fact I will be turning to some intriguing experimental female writers writing in English. But, as a person with a differently gendered history, gender is a complicated, messy space of being. Whenever I start to feel the burden of gender pressing on me from the outside, the existential anxiety (and anger) that haunts me is stirred.

So, let me read—as and how I need to read.

But my own self-imposed reading ambitions are not the only pressures that have weighed on me this past month. My brothers and I listed our parents’ house and it sold within one week. With the possession date looming we made several trips to clear the house out and, on the final visit, I found my mother’s nail file. She carried this file with its ivory coloured handle and tattered red plastic sheath for decades. Just looking at it I see her hands. It is perhaps the single most important keepsake I have. More than anything it reminds that she is well and truly gone.

When I first came out to my mother, back when transgender was just beginning to draw some serious public attention, she asked for some time to process what I had shared, but promised that she loved me unconditionally. And she never let me down. She was my advocate, my best friend, the one person I could call for comfort and reassurance, no matter what. I was otherwise alone. There were no local supports, I faced the challenges of being a single male parent of two children with learning disabilities, I experienced a breakdown, the loss of a career, and a life-threatening health crisis. Even though she was unable to travel far near the end, she phoned me every week without fail, and I spent as much time as I could with her and my father in their final months.

When my parents died last year, my mother’s death opened an intangible void.

My parents’ house. Our last day there.

I did, however, still have one faint, yet vital lifeline—a friend in South Africa, the closest queer friend I have ever had. Bookish and bipolar, like me, she was a sort of soul mate even though we only met in person once when I visited her in 2015. But as I was tumbling, she was falling further and farther. One year ago today, September 1, Ulla took her own life. Images of the rugged Indian Ocean shoreline near her home have been seeping into my dreams. As we spread our parents’ ashes before leaving their property for the last time, all I could think of was Ulla’s being spread on the beach. I couldn’t touch the urn. My son spread my share.

Eastern Cape, South Africa

Suddenly I am doubly aware of how alone I am. How alone I have been and how weary I am.

The intersection of Pride Week, rather than providing a distraction, exacerbates the sense of loss. I cannot imagine anything lonelier than a mass of shiny happy people. I did excuse myself from the volunteer commitments I had made and now I am free to avoid the parade as I usually do. I also happened to have a doctor’s appointment so I spoke to him about my recent depressive dips and my frustration with the reality of long-term trans loneliness that nobody talks about, that isn’t fashionable, that doesn’t fit the script.

Sometimes loss feels less like a temporary passage, than a layering, compounded, defining quality of life.

Welcome to my closed space reality:

All of old. Nothing else ever. Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.

And so on.

Note: I should have included a link to the requiem I wrote for my friend. This piece was published at Sultan’s Seal last November, is constructed of salvaged language, and features photographs from my visit to South Africa.

I have no pride: A sombre reflection

I have no pride.

It’s Pride Week here. For me it’s the worst week of the year. An opened wound. I wake with chest pains, panic attacks. Always the same. No. The more I try to get involved the worse I feel.

I have been out for nearly twenty years, but I always feel out of place and alone during Pride.

And each year is more difficult. I have no pride.

I used to believe that it would get better. Then I believed that it didn’t matter. But it hasn’t gotten better. And it does matter.

Things have changed. I have changed.

Yet I’m not sure if the cost has not been too high.

I no longer know where I belong, my body and I.

 

Remember, Body

Body, remember not just how much you were loved,

not just the beds where you have lain,

but also those longings that so openly

glistened for you in the eyes,

and trembled in the voice—and some

chance obstacle arose and thwarted them.

Now that it’s all finally in the past.

it almost seems as if you gave yourself to

those longings, too—remember how

they glistened, in the eyes that looked at you,

how they trembled in the voice, for you;

            remember, body.

                              –C.P. Cavafy (tr. Daniel Mendelsohn)

 

A few thoughts about July 27: The days that haunt us

It is, in my time zone, still July 27th, and all day I have debated whether I should call attention to what this date means to me.

For many years, July 27th was, quite simply, my wedding anniversary. Celebrated with affection for years and then, as my marriage became increasingly untenable, barely noted in passing. Since my marriage ended the date typically passed like any other, but every now and then something would occur that caused me to remember the distant significance of the day. Like a fading echo down the years.

Today, my brothers and I accepted an offer on our parents’ house—just shy of one week after it was listed, just over one year after they died. Good news given the poor economy and the less than prosperous state of the village they lived in. But, money and estate matters tend to stir up family tensions. A testy conversation earlier this morning has left me feeling defensive, angry even. And no matter how hopeful it is to be one step further in the process of moving beyond the aftermath of our parents’ unexpected and overlapping deaths, it is not easy.

But the July 27th that I cannot even begin to address involves another encounter with death. My own.

Two years ago today, shortly after midnight, I went into cardiac arrest. I have written very little about this episode because I have no memory of the incident or the days immediately before or after. It has been difficult to process this event, or what it means. The cause was a pulmonary embolism, likely related to travel. I survived because my son happened to hear me, called emergency, and started CPR. But it’s not that simple. Family dynamics again.

Several times I have contemplated writing through the trauma. Try to understand why I survived. What it means.

If this near-death experience had gifted me some magical insight into the preciousness of life, I could write one of those finely crafted inspiring pieces filed under the category: Creative Nonfiction.

I have tried. That’s not my style. I am beginning to understand that my life only makes sense in scraps and fragments, even more now than ever.

I am forever in the process of writing myself into being.

 Time to gather those scraps and fragments.

Image copyright Joseph Schreiber, 2017

Into the redheaded night: From the Observatory by Julio Cortázar

Serendipity is one of the joys of bookstore browsing. Case in point, my discovery of From the Observatory, a book I’d never heard of, discovered amid a selection of Archipelago Books in a local indie bookshop. There was something in the confluence of text and images that instantly captured my imagination. I had to take it home.

Billed as perhaps the “most unconventional work” of Argentinean author Julio Cortázar, an author who was not exactly known for sticking to conventions, this slender volume is essentially a meandering essay that moves between poetic contemplation of the life cycle of the European eel and reveries inspired by the precise angles and arches of the observatories constructed by Sawai Jai Singh, in Jaipur and Dehli, during the 18th century. If that sounds like an unlikely basis for a meditative discourse, the relentless flow of dream-like imagery pulls one into a space reflected in the silvery passage of migrating eels through dark waters and in the movement of stars across the night sky—a space that opens to an exploration of the nature of humanity, morality and society. One simply has to be willing to let go and follow the unspooling sentences:

Lovely is the science, sweet the words that follow the course of the elvers [eels at this stage of their life cycle] and tell us their saga, lovely and sweet and hypnotic like the silvery terraces of Jaipur where an astronomer in his day wielded a vocabulary just as lovely and sweet to conjure the unnameable and pour it onto soothing parchments, inheritance for the species, school lesson, barbiturate for essential insomniacs, and comes the day when the elvers have entered into the deepest depths of their hydrographic copulation, planetary spermatozoa already inside the egg of the high pools, in the ponds where the rivers settle down and dream, and the winding phalluses of the vital night calm down, bed down, the black columns lose their lithe erection advancing and probing, the individuals are born of themselves, separate off from the common serpent, feel their own way and at their own risk along the dangerous edges of ponds, of life; the time begins, no one can know when, of the yellow eel, the youth of the species in its conquered territory, the finally friendly water compliantly encircling the bodies at rest there.

Punctuating this mesmerizing text is a series of photographs taken by Cortázar himself at the observatories, and converted with the assistance of Antonio Gálvez into coarse, grainy black and white images. They provide a stark, antiquated contrast to the winding, lyrical prose.

There is an inherent sensuality to the language throughout—from the detailed descriptions of the eel’s extended journey, to the imagined sentiments of an Indian prince viewing the night sky, to the predicament of man seeking to make sense of life:

Nevertheless there Lady Science and her cohorts, morality, the city, society position themselves for ambush again: barely has one reached the skin, the beautiful surface of the face and the breasts and the thighs, the revolution is a sea of wheat in the wind, a pole vault over history bought and sold, but the man who steps out in the open begins to suspect the old in the new, bumps into those who’re still seeing the ends in the means, he realizes that in this blind spot of the human bull’s eye lurks a false definition of the species, that idols persist beneath other identities, work and discipline, fervor and obedience, legislated love, education for A, B and C, free and compulsory; beneath, within, in the womb of the redheaded night, another revolution must bide its time like the eels beneath the sargassum.

We move back and forth from Jai Singh’s observatories, constructed with mathematical precision as a response to the tyranny of the stars which for centuries had dictated the fate of his lineage, declining as he measured the skies; to the masses of eels, subject to the tyranny of genetic forces, irresistibly drawn through a long fresh water migration to ultimately return, mate and die, in the waters of the ocean. Within its two primary threads, From the Observatory, invites questions about the destiny of humanity, caught between passion and logic, nature and science, dream and reality.

Thoughtful and refreshing, this short book—barely 80 pages, roughly half given over to images—is the perfect accompaniment to a hot summer afternoon.

From the Observatory is translated from the Spanish by Anne McLean, and published by Archipelago Books.