In the room where I’m writing, editing, drafting and, admittedly, doubting, the last pages of my book before it’s sent to my agent for review, there hangs a little piece of my great-grandmother, Eleanor. It’s her daily egg tally: Eleanor’s writing in pencil on two whitewashed wooden planks, long columns of numbers, calculations of her gains and losses. It’s the only physical evidence I have of Eleanor’s work as a farmer.
The quarter acre of prairie land outside Woseley, Saskatchewan, where she and her husband, David, built a little house from sod, a barn and a chicken house, has grown fallow. Where they grew maize and potatoes, where Eleanor kept a garden of carrots, cabbage, beans and peas, where they raised their two sons, Desmond and John, the land, the farm, the story is no longer visible. The physical evidence of their existence on the land has disappeared to a prairie that’s remembering how to be a prairie again. No longer under cultivation, the fine thick mane of prairie grasses grows so tall that the stalk heads tickle my belly and I can literally wade through the land as though walking into a lake. The house is long gone, the barn rotted, dismantled. And all that remains is Eleanor’s egg tally on the wall of the room where I write from Peace River, a small northern Canadian town positioned at the 56th parallel.
While working on my book, I often glance over my shoulder at Eleanor’s tally and I see her in my mind’s eye, collecting eggs every morning, adding up the perfect oval ones against those with cracks and stains of embryo blood. Before electricity came to the farm in 1947, Eleanor inspected the eggs by holding a candle’s flame to illuminate the fractures, sometimes fine as corn silk. She counted the chicken eggs every morning and made her calculations on the whitewashed wall of the chicken house. She sold the perfect eggs in town. The imperfect, cracked eggs she gave away to hungry mouths in Woseley.
Eleanor’s egg tally makes me reflect on my own tally over the past couple of years. With the passing of the Winter Solstice and the New Year celebrations, the northern skies are filling, slowly, slowly, with light again. In these first days of 2016, from my writing perch in the isolated North, it’s a good time to reflect, to tally up my work as writer, an individual, and all of the gains and losses of the seasons behind me.
Eleanor’s eggs are my words. I, too, could quantify my work by counting words, counting deadlines, chapters, and articles published. Everyday, it’s a thousand new words. Every month, it’s a new publication credit. I’m thrilled that this year’s gains have been many with new editors, an agent who believes in my book, and bites from interested publishing houses. The words have added up. On paper, my list of publications is accumulating the way potatoes grow underground. In my bank account, I’m barely hovering above zero, but my tallied words are getting me by and I’m surviving, if scarcely, and I’m proud of that.
On paper, it’s all very exciting: the numbers are piling up. I should be celebrating, and, externally, I am celebrating. Sharing the news with family and friends. Patting myself on the back for having the guts to take my craft seriously, to give so many hours of the day to writing, to sacrifice my resume and bank account by turning down job offers, just so I can dedicate all of me to my art. I’m behaving the way emerging artists often behave, self-absorbed, fully, in their art. It’s what I go to bed thinking about. It’s what I gravitate towards talking about in the company of others. I’m quite confident to admit that it’s shaped me into a distracted (if not lousy) partner, friend and daughter. Part of me is unapologetic for that and the other part feels guilty, if not regret.
But as the word count grows, as I move another day closer to publishing my first book, as I move physically into a sphere of, relatively speaking, external success, internally, I feel unmoved by it all. Internally, my tally is unquantifiable. Instead of dreaming of the perfect oval egg – the published book – I tend to dwell on the losses of the past season, what experiences I’ve forgotten to tally: the cracked and bloodied eggs.
When I think of 2015, I think of the face of my grandfather who passed away in February, days before his 92nd birthday and wish he could’ve told me one last story. I think about a very good friend whom I haven’t spoken to since last year’s Winter began to thaw for reasons that, perhaps, I refuse to accept, or understand. Despite my fiercest resolve, I can admit that I dearly miss our bruised, flawed friendship. I think about the mistakes I’ve made this year, professionally and personally. I think about the trauma I continue to carry on my back, the fear I decline to unpack. I think about the anger that follows me everywhere, like a dog with barbed wire tied to her tail, the anger I can’t seem to rid myself of.
I think about these losses, not with shame or denial, but love. They, too, were a part of the season’s tally. In many ways, they were more important to the process than the words I sold to society, the words that earned me points in the external sphere. They are more important than the number of words and stories written, articles published and chapters finalized.
Yesterday I read an essay called “My Own Trap” by Alice Driver, a writer whose words and craft I’ve come to fall in love with. In the essay, Driver explores the memory and emotion she felt on the day when she learned her first book would be published. She writes:
“I had imagined the kind of joy I would feel – the authenticity that I could finally lay claim to – when I published a book. However, that day, I wrote in my journal, “There is no such thing as arrival.” I did feel elated, but I didn’t feel any more or less legitimate as a writer than I ever had. After years of burning through journals asking existential questions about my purpose in life and wondering if I would ever feel like a writer, I finally gave up and realized that all I would ever have was the journey and the process.”
In the year ahead, I’ll continue to collect and mentally tally up my words, stories and chapters and – who knows – maybe even a book. I’ll celebrate the milestones as a writer, just as another professional would celebrate a new job, or a promotion in the workplace. But I’ll be sure to mark down the losses. I’ll try to carve out space for unpacking the meaning of loss, anger and fear. My tally in 2016 won’t be a list of new publications. My focus will be, instead, on the work itself. On the process of writing, of doing work that feels meaningful and necessary, if only to myself and to no one else.
My great-grandmother, Eleanor, collected eggs the way I collect and write down words. She marked down the gains and the losses, enough to fill up the whitewashed walls of the chicken house. Inevitably, she knew, the process of her work involved gains and losses, but she found a place for everything. Even the cracked eggs fed her family and her community.
So it wasn’t the eggs, I’ll try to remember. It was the act of collecting the perfect oval eggs and the broken, bloodied ones, too. It was the work that gave her meaning. The egg tally reflected the gains and losses, but it was the accumulation of both that was important. It was the act of bending down to dig through the warm, moist sawdust, and slowly, slowly, filling up her basket.