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.

Our uncertain stories: Immortal for Quite Some Time by Scott Abbott

There is a fortuitous intersection between my first, and to date, only attempt to capture a memoirish reflection on the page, and Scott Abbott’s memoirish reflection, Immortal for Quite Some Time. My Minor Literature[s] essay was published a year ago this past May, just as Scott was proofing his book. I followed that process via his blog, The Goalie’s Anxiety. We shared concerns about opening oneself to strangers. When my small piece went live, his reaction was so immediate and gut-level, that I returned to his positive words repeatedly in the weeks that followed. Now, my reading and my attempt to record my reaction to his finished book comes at a time when I am seriously beginning to build on the project that started with my initial essay and flesh out a life twice lived—my own. And although, on the surface, the circumstances driving our explorations would seem very different, both involve fundamental, human questions of identity, belief, and family. As a result, my reading of this work is decidedly idiosyncratic.

Immortal for Quite Some Time is, as Abbott states in his epilogue, a “fraternal meditation,” an attempt to answer a question posed by his brother John, who died of AIDS in 1991, at the age of forty. Estranged from his devout LDS family for several years prior to his death, John’s question is simple: “Are we friends, my brother?” Scott’s reply, complicated by his loss of faith, conflicts with the rigidity of the Mormon church, a loveless marriage, the demands of parenthood, and a deeply ingrained homophobia, is ultimately more than two decades in the articulation. Presented in the form of diary excerpts, highlighted with images, outtakes from John’s notebooks, and the input of a critical counter narrative voice, Abbott struggles to reach a place of comfort with the answer he so dearly wants to offer. Thus, we are warned, from outset, that this is not a memoir: “The story is uncertain, the characters are in flux, the voices are plural, the photographs as troubled as the prose.”

It is this disclaimer that promises an honesty that respects all the shadowed corners one encounters looking into a life lived—whether that is someone else’s life or one’s own.

Immortal opens in the morgue in Boise, Idaho. The image of John’s body on the examination table forms a stark pivot point that his brother’s thoughts return to again and again: “His feet are livid.” From there, the narrative swings back to Farmington, New Mexico, 1950, midpoint between the births of Scott and John, only fourteen months apart, and moves, with broad strides, through the 50s, 60s and into the 1970s. Scott’s missionary obligations and academic aspirations take him to Germany, where an intellectual infection will begin to work its way into the assumptions and presumptions of his strict Mormon upbringing. John will go to Italy and, for years, his family will speculate if that is where he was “corrupted,” or whether he was “lured” into homosexual behavior at some earlier point. One of Scott’s first steps to reconciliation and acceptance of John’s orientation will involve coming to understand that sexuality has a biological basis. Not that that understanding provides a desired comfort with his own, decidedly heterosexual, attractions for many years.

Scott’s belief in God slips away from him much more readily than his homophobia. However, he continues to uphold the expectations imposed on him by his background. He marries young and before long is supporting a brood of seven with a teaching position at Bringham Young University. John, despite strong grades and an interest in pre-med studies, ends up working as a cook in a series of cafés. His contact with his family is limited and strained. His notebooks reveal little about his personal life. Abbott is clearly troubled by his brother’s isolation and sadness. It was not easy to be gay in the 1970s and 80s, but coming from an uncompromising religious tradition made it much more difficult. It still is today.

Throughout this work, John is a memory, a ghost, as much as a loved and lost brother and son. As readers, we only hear his voice filtered through time. See him peering from old photographs. In that sense, Immortal for Quite Some Time, reads like a fraternal love letter, an apology, and a reckoning. Scott Abbott is wise enough to know that the only story he can really tell is his own. And it is a fascinating, raw, and honest exploration of the intellectual, emotional, and political conflicts that have made him the man he is today. As his story progresses, a critical voice intervenes to challenge his recorded recollections, forcing him to answer and clarify his statements. Toward the end John is also granted a greater presence. (The use of italics, bold type and font facilitates these imagined exchanges in a manner that is simple and effective.) This is more than stylistic device. It is a reminder that we can never and should never stop questioning ourselves even in telling our own stories. It is a good lesson for me to keep in mind too.

As I made my way through this book, I encountered many questions I need to ask myself in piecing together my story. I do not come from a rigid religious background, but in my case I am the outcast, the one set apart by sexuality and gender. I sought to conform to a different, but equally confining set of rules and expectations. I mourn the loss of a sibling, a stillborn sister I never had, and the imagined image of her that I could not be.

The person I have to answer is myself, finding the courage to ask the question is my goal. That will require a memoir of some kind. Just as, in spite of himself, Scott Abbott ended up with a memoir of sorts to answer his brother.

Immortal for Quite Some Time is published by The University of Utah Press.

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

One year on, thoughts about loss, and a link to a piece I wrote for my mother.

This afternoon I was out in the yard. My overgrown mess of saskatoon berries and renegade daisies revealed random branches laden with nanking cherries. Last summer, July was a blur—wet, grey, and grim. My mother died on the 9th, she slipped away quite rapidly while my brothers and I were focused on the state of our father who had received critical injuries in a car accident.  A year ago today we were watching him slowly fade. By the 20th he was also gone.

 

It has taken a full year for the loss to begin to feel real. Their house is now clean, repaired and ready to be listed. None of us, not even their grandchildren are particularly attached to this rural dwelling where they spent the last six years of their lives. Now, more than ever it feels like a shell, hollow.

I grieved my father as I dissembled his library. I had to travel to central Australia to begin to grieve my mother—and that process has only just begun. It started with a dream. She came to me and lingers with me as an absence.  This weekend my first effort to verbalize this absence was published in RIC Journal along with altered images from my time in the red centre.

You can find it here. With thanks to Saudamini Deo.

Another year of roughghosts has passed, my blog is three years old

“be a ghost gum rising from the waterhole in each heart”
— Rico Craig

Birthday Waterhole, in the photo above, is perhaps the most stunning and isolated campsite we stayed at along the Larapinta Trail. The line, quoted from Rico Craig’s newly released collection Bone Ink, seems to me to capture so much of the past three weeks—from my own peculiar challenges with walking (or more often, not walking) the trail, through to lunch with the poem’s author on my final full day in Australia. But more about all of that later. The key word at the moment is birthday.

A few days ago, WordPress kindly reminded me that my blog is three years old.

The past three years have been marked by tremendous growth for myself as a writer, amidst loss, trauma, and great adventure. What continues to amaze me is the degree to which the internet, for all its shortcomings, is able to connect people across the miles. Over this past year, many of my casual blogging and Twitter contacts have grown to form a rewarding and productive creative environment that I value very deeply. But it is always a special treat to meet an online friend face to face.

My recent trip to Australia was instigated by an invitation from a fellow book blogger to join his annual “Larapinta Extreme Walk” in support of the NPY Women’s Council in the Northern Territory. Unfortunately, I arrived with what soon developed into a severe head cold that still lingers, tinged once again with jet lag, as I write this. I’m still processing my disappointment at not even being able to know how I might have managed the trail under healthier conditions, but the experience was incredible and invaluable nonetheless, and everyone was so friendly and supportive. I will write about it at greater length in a few weeks time and share more images of the incredible desert landscape.

After two weeks in central Australia I spent a few days in each Melbourne and Sydney. I met with five online contacts during that time, including a long-time friend from the Pentax Forum (a camera as obscure, relatively speaking, as my literary interests tend to be). Every single encounter was wonderful in its own way. Strangely, online banter clears away the space for good solid conversation of the sort one is often at loss to find in the communities we regularly exist in. Naturally, a strong common interest tends to set the course.

So today, as I look back on three years of blogging—and my subsequent forays into Twitter and to a lesser degree, Facebook—I am especially cognizant of how much warmer and richer my world has become. And not only have I been publishing my own original writing beyond this space, but when I suffered a series of losses last year with the deaths of my parents and a dear friend, the outreach of sympathy and support far exceeded anything I received in real life. Which is both heartwarming and sad when you think about it.

I won’t make any predictions or set any goals for roughghosts in the year to come. I don’t want to be reckless or foolhardy in my ambitions. This blog is, first and foremost, a forum where I can call attention to books I read, without necessarily indulging in the rigour I apply to critical reviews for publication elsewhere. It also provides a space to exercise my writing skills and toss out ideas or work through emotions that are troubling me. The beauty of a blog is that you can directly track the response and reaction to your work—you have a sense of the book reviews that draw readers and the musings that resonate with others. That feedback is vital. I imagine that this will remain the primary purpose of this project.

At the moment though, I have four books I’d like to write about here, and a review to prepare for Numéro Cinq. And after months of battling writer’s block, I find that words are starting to flow again, so I am hoping to carve out some time to write and work on ongoing projects of my own.

And that seems as good a way as any to celebrate three years of roughghosts.

 

* Image copyright Joseph Schreiber, 2017