Digging in

Back home from my month long writing retreat, I was paler, chubbier, tireder but also motivated. I was so excited about it, filled to the brim! I had all my research now divided into categories: geographic, historic, anthropologic, and all the interviews I had conducted were now transcribed and placed in their individual files. Now “all” I had to do was pull it together into a readable narrative.

Life has a habit of intervening just when you seem to have a clear road ahead. In May of 2016 we (me along with my business partner/ husband) went to a conference in Quebec, in early June my father-in-law died and in late June we flew to England to help sort out funeral arrangements, landing the day of the Brexit vote as it happened. In August my mother-in-law died, and in September we flew back to the UK to sort out more funeral and financial affairs, as well as a now-empty house. Interweaving threads added to this were work projects that demanded attention, a garden that required action, and a husband who needed emotional support.

It wasn’t until October that I was able to go back to the book project. In retrospect, it was no bad thing that several months had passed since my 30 day blitz back in April. I could see the work a little more clearly. Just a little, though. It was still just a whole lot of words in a whole lot of computer files.

Nothing for it but to plunge in and tease out facts and details from the transcribed interviews and start writing biographies in a chronological form, making lists of questions still to be answered (e.g., what year did that happen, was Olga the aunt’s or the grandmother’s name, etc.). I worked woman by woman, moving according to how I felt in the given hour or hours I had. If I could, I worked in the morning when I felt fresh. If I worked in the evening I had a hard time stopping. If I was lucky enough to get an entire day, I ended up not moving from my computer for 10-12 hours. Those women and contacts that were reachable by email received fresh questions in regular bursts. Those that did not have a computer would receive a letter with questions. If I could phone, I’d phone, but then I was swept up in a lovely visit that took all my time away.

It was not long before I started referring to “my ladies” and I realized I had become extremely sentimentally attached to them all, even the ones I had never met. Protective, too. It was important for me to write truthfully and authentically, but I also knew there were subjects that might have to be danced around a bit. I did not want any of my ladies to feel betrayed or exposed. Some of the things these women had experienced in their lives were very heavy. Not more heavy than things experienced by other women in other small towns in rural Canada during the 20th century, but that made it even more important to me to outline what life could be like, and was like for many, which would speak to all those other women who had lived with similar experiences in other places across the country. I began to see universal themes.

It would have been wonderful to just put down exactly what happened (to whom and by whom, if applicable) in a journalistic manner, but the outside world can be judgmental, especially to women, and other women, sadly, can be the worst offenders. I felt the best thing was to write factually without passing judgement of my own, and to take what was said to me as truth that could be later adjusted if needed.  Women’s lives have often been whitewashed in the public before and I wanted to acknowledge the truth.

My hip flexors started to get tight from so many hours over so many weeks sitting in front of my computer. I also had the sense of a cold bony finger poking my shoulder, reminding me of the steadily forward pace of time. Some of these women were in their 80s and starting to bow under the weight of age.  I did not want to lose any of them before their story was complete and published. I began to dream about handing each one a copy of the book and what I’d say to them, hoping they’d smile and be proud that their life was actually recorded in a book, that it was of interest despite being “ordinary” to a surface-witnessing outsider. I wanted them to be seen by their children and grandchildren as a woman more than just the cook, housekeeper, chauffeur and person that was always there for them. That each woman’s life and hard work is unique and valuable, and is a thread woven into the tapestry that has formed this country, and every country.

All very romantic I know, but wannabe writers survive on their dreams and idealism. Red wine too, and I’d allow myself a glass now and again, especially when the evening’s work passed the sun’s departure and the moon’s rise. For medicinal purposes of course!