CNCF member Marion Agnew is an editor and writer who lives and works in Shuniah, Ontario, just outside of Thunder Bay. Her new book Reverberations: A Daughter’s Meditations on Alzheimer’s has been praised for its honest and contemplative discussion of dementia. Recently CNCF’s membership coordinator, Lesley Buxton, talked to her about process, mentorship, and writing.
Can you tell us about the title of your book, Reverberations: A Daughter’s Meditations on Alzheimer’s?
A reverberation is a complicated echo—one sound echoing more than once, or perhaps many sounds echoing at the same time. The essays address not only the time of my mother’s dementia, twenty-plus years ago, but her lingering, ever-present influence on my life. I wanted to capture that somewhat confused sense of time happening all at once. And the subtitle is just to give a potential reader some clue as to what to expect inside.
I read an interview with you on the AlzAuthor’s website where you said, it took you years to find the right format for this story. Can you describe this process for us? Why essays?
It’s kind of a saga. At the time of my mother’s illness, I was in my thirties, some twenty years younger than most people I met whose mothers had dementia. I felt alone and bewildered, and so I wrote what I saw, in scenes and narrative and some reflections on what she’d been like when I was a child. My background is in technical and science writing, so I explored dementia research and wrote several “here’s what happens in dementia”-type pieces, which went into a drawer.
At various points in the late 1990s, I also had several hundred pages of memoir-style narration. At one point, I also had a hybrid fiction-nonfiction manuscript. My mother had written stories of her childhood in Canada. I set those stories in scenes and paired them with events from her illness that related to those stories. Mom was alive during this time, though increasingly frail and unreachable.
But the whole enterprise of writing about Mom’s dementia felt like kind of a mess. I took manuscripts to a couple of workshops. Nobody knew what to say about the work, except that it wasn’t fun to read. It wasn’t much fun to live through, either. So I put away the manuscripts and tried to support my father, who was mom’s care partner, plus be present in my increasingly complicated personal life.
Mom died in 2000. By 2004, my marriage had fallen apart and my childhood dream of living near our summer camp asserted itself. So I moved to Canada. (One of my friends referred to this, with envy as well as amusement, as “running away to join the circus.”) I became a permanent resident in 2005. My father died in April of 2007, and I was so grateful to have seven years to get to know him after Mommy died. I married that summer.
I began pursuing creative writing, both fiction and nonfiction, more seriously. I recognized the value of writing short pieces—they can feel more manageable to revise than a book, and literary journals publish some, which gives you a sense of whether you’re successful in conveying your meaning to an audience. Working in short forms gave my writing life valuable structure. I returned to the manuscript morass and looked for themes—beyond the narrative of what happened—to help me organize what I wanted to say. And thus personal essays turned out to be a form that worked well for me, at that time.
You were mentored by long-time CNCF member, Susan Olding. In what ways do you feel this influenced your writing?
Susan Olding was a godsend. Until we worked together, I created essays largely by trial and error. I’d throw some ideas onto a page and see if they held together. Usually they didn’t. I’d cut a lot and add different things, not quite at random but almost. The process was frustrating, because I was used to structure and moving forward in recognizable stages.
Susan helped bring some order to that chaotic process. Together, we looked at what other people did in various essay forms, in works about parents and place, and in essays about dementia. She gave invaluable feedback on my manuscript of “everything that might be related to my mother,” and her comments and support confirmed that I was learning to be intentional in writing and revising.
My writing process is still nonlinear and it’s still sometimes frustrating, but that’s how it is, and Susan helped me be okay with that. She’s a master at supporting work and contributing insights without saying, “Do it this way.”
This book required you to move back and forth in time. How did you do this?
I didn’t really have a choice about going back and forward in time—time passed, tick tock. When I began again to write about Mom’s illness, time had provided a cushion that made it easier to revise and provide context for those earlier scenes. Accumulating one, two, five, ten, thirteen years without her helped me gain perspective.
I live now on Lake Superior in rural Thunder Bay, near where she (and I) spent childhood summers and where she grew up. When I walk the cliff path that Grandpa built in the 1920s and pass the giant tipsy boulder that’s been there all this time but hasn’t yet fallen, Mom’s voice might comment in my ear. But I also live in the “here and now,” as on the recent evening when I recognized that animal waddling along ten yards ahead was a skunk. (I turned back.) The reverberations of Mom’s life (and my father’s, and others’) are present if I choose to listen.
Where do you like to write?
I have an office, with a lovely desk and computer and filing cabinets, in our walkout basement. An upstairs bedroom holds my most precious books and too much craft stuff. So of course I write mostly on my laptop at the dining room table. And, as writers apparently must, I revise in coffee shops when we’re not in a pandemic.
You write both Fiction and Creative Nonfiction. What do you get from Creative Nonfiction that you don’t get from Fiction?
I love creative nonfiction because you have to stick with what happened, or what’s factual, or what’s “true,” or some combination thereof. On the page, you can argue with it, or question it, or wish it didn’t happen, but you have to reckon with it somehow.
And I love fiction because anything can happen. I love asking, “How can this person’s life be more expansive or more difficult, and how can she try to bring her best self to bear?”
Can you tell us what you’re working on now?
I’m revising my first novel and pulling together pieces of a new one. And fiddling with essays. And staring out the window—that’s writing too, right?