Author Marion Agnew shares her wonderfully art-filled techniques for avoiding or breaking through the dreaded writer's block and more about her novel
Reverberations (Signature Editions), which she says is more than a book about Alzheimer's – it's a testament to the bonds of love.
All Lit Up: Who is your favourite fictional character?
Marion Agnew: I’m fond of Toby Ziegler, Communications Director in the Bartlett administration on The West Wing. He’s courageous and idealistic, and he struggles when he and those around him fall short. I fell for him early on, when he listed fourteen forms of punctuation.
I’m also drawn to Anne Elliot, protagonist of Persuasion (Jane Austen), who knows what makes for a worthwhile life, yet also feels bound to live up to her family responsibilities. I love that she eventually, with as much initiative as women had at the time, fights for the life that is right for her.
ALU: What are you working on now?
MA: A novel—not the first I started, but the first for which I got to type “The End.” (Let’s not discuss how many drafts I’ve done since.) It’s about a widow, a young boy, and a well-meaning loser, who cross paths as spring comes to the Lake Superior shoreline. I learned a lot while revising the essays in my book Reverberations, and I’m trying to apply that knowledge to this work. It’s slow going, but also very satisfying.
ALU: Have you experienced writer’s block? What did you do about it?
MA: I didn’t use those words, but yes, with my essay collection. I was trying to make a manuscript from mountains of materials in various stages of completion, and I hit a dead end—didn’t know my next step.
Since then, I’ve learned two things: let the piece rest, and ask for help.
“Let it rest” can mean giving the piece an hour, if that’s the deadline. For an essay, a week or a month is better. Meanwhile, I do something else—make supper, lop spruce branches that overhang our driveway, or even file paperwork. Or I work on a different project. I try to have several pieces on the go at a time.
If, after returning to the work with new eyes, I still don’t know what it needs, I ask for help—usually, feedback from critique partners. As I developed my essay manuscript, I arranged a mentorship with Susan Olding, who helped me see what was successful and where I might take the pieces that weren’t working.
After time and/or input, I act. I hedge my bets with “save as,” but rarely return to previous versions.
Generally, my difficulty moving forward comes when I’m trying to decide what readers need to know. What do I need to leave in? What can I allow them to infer? As my collection neared publication, Karen Haughian at Signature Editions helped me find that balance.
Marion shares her best writing advice.
ALU: Do you have any rituals you abide by when you’re writing?
MA: Coffee, morning and (early) afternoon. Cinnamon-raisin toast with butter. X-ing blocks on a calendar as I finish tasks.
One of the most helpful things I do isn’t writing at all; it’s art. Or given my (lack of) skill, “art-esque” or “art-ish.” Every day, I set a timer for ten minutes and do something on an index card—sometimes drawing or mark-making, often collage, sometimes using words, and sometimes in themes (colours, moods).
In 2020 I’m interpreting one-word art journal prompts using the magpie hoard of stuff (patterns inside business envelopes, old lists of books, acrylic prints, watercolour swatches) in my upstairs office. The process is colourful, satisfying, and creative, and most of all, at the end of ten minutes, it’s DONE! Unlike my novel. (Yet.)
Marion's cozy and colourful indoor office space
ALU: What question do you wish someone would ask you about your book?
MA: “What if I’m not interested in Alzheimer’s?” First of all, I hear you. Most people resist learning until it’s urgent. But in the coming years, more people than ever will live with a dementia diagnosis, and we all need to know how best to support them and their care partners. My book isn’t a how-to or inspirational book, but I hope it helps people who are thinking about dementia feel less alone.
Also, the book is about “more than” Alzheimer’s. It’s about the ways loved ones never leave our lives. It’s about families, sisters, responsibilities, and the magnetism of a specific place. Plus I had a lot of fun with the essay form, and it’s always lovely to hear from someone who appreciates that.
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In her former life, Marion Agnew relied on the enthusiasm of scientists and engineers to write about things like photovoltaic cells, watershed protection, precision machining of hazardous metals, and plate tectonics. Now she follows her own writing enthusiasms, which she finds outdoors, either goofing around in a rowboat on Lake Superior or wandering around looking at things and snapping pics for Instagram. Her lifelong quest is to use up the notebooks she already owns before buying more. She has published short fiction and creative nonfiction, and she writes every week or so at
www.marionagnew.ca. Her essay collection, Reverberations: A Daughter’s Meditations on Alzheimer’s, was published in October of 2019.
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