Winner of 2017 Giller Prize

Winner of 2017 Giller Prize
Michael Redhill for his novel Bellevue Square

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

The Best Canadian Essays Includes Essay by Thunder Bay's Marion Agnew

The Best Canadian Essays can be pre-ordered at both Chapters and Amazon on line.  Copies are also available at Northern Woman's Bookstore in Thunder Bay.

Included is an essay by Thunder Bay's Marion Agnew. Titled "All I Can Say."

In this e-interview,  Marion describes the essay and reveals how her family situations gave her the impetus and material for her writing.  Another essay won second place in a Room contest and will  be published in Room this summer.

 MARION: My essay has two main themes: the power of grief and the power of communication. I wrote the first draft of it more than ten years ago, when my Deaf friend and teacher, Eric, lost his hearing dog, Fancy, in an accident, about a year after my mother had died of Alzheimer’s.

The essay itself, as well as the events I describe in it, came from an urge that I expect is fairly typical when a person goes through a difficult event: “If I can someday share what I’ve learned, it will make this whole experience worth it.” Over time, I’ve come to wonder whether it’s at all possible to help anyone else through a time of grief. Furthermore, I’m pretty sure that all life events are “worth it” in the sense that going through difficult times are messy and sloppy and depressing as hell, but they also can be wonderfully meaningful and rewarding.

So that event, the accident in which Fancy was killed, was the impetus for this essay. Generally, my mother’s illness kicked off a lot of change in my life. For one thing, I left much of adolescence behind, finally, in my late 30s. During an 18-month period, I had many extremely difficult conversations with my father about healthcare and wills, and with lots of professionals that “grown-ups” deal with often, like lawyers, doctors, and accountants. So I did some general growing-up.

But some of the maturity I developed during that time came from the particular experience of that disease. Many more resources for coping with Alzheimer’s are readily available online now than fifteen years ago, when my father was my mother’s caregiver and I was fretting on the sidelines. At the time, I had no idea what to expect or how to help. I sought out information then, and went to a meeting or two of support groups for people with loved ones who had Alzheimer’s, but the specifics about the disease were sketchy, and besides, I was by far the youngest person in the room.

My parents were in their early 40s when I was born, so most people with parents the same age as mine were women in their 50s and 60s. Now that I’m closer to the other end of that timeline, I know how much I have in common with women in their 30s, but at the time, I felt very much alone. My thirtysomething peers had other worries – and they often had living grandparents, let alone parents.

Marion Agnew
So I started writing, partly because that’s how I cope and process experiences, but also to capture uncomfortable events and feelings that I suspected I’d want to forget in the future. And yes, I did think of others who might someday wish for the information. I’m really glad I started writing and kept at it, in spite of all the feedback saying, “Wow, this is really difficult to read about.” At about the apex of my mother’s illness, John Bayley’s Elegy for Iris, about his caregiving of Iris Murdoch, came out. He wrote unsparingly and honestly of the disease and its depredations. However, popular works at the time emphasized treacle over reality, and generally annoyed me so much that I don’t like to name them.

In any case, I wrote and kept writing. At one point I had 200 or more manuscript pages combining family stories from my mother’s childhood with scenes of her decline. I’ve been culling essays from that material ever since. Another essay, possibly the final one, will appear in Room this summer – it placed 2nd in their annual writing contest. But just when I think “Okay, this one is it, the end,” I look at the material I’ve cut and think, “Well, isn’t there a theme here?” So maybe there’s more massaging and shaping in my future.

However, my new writing is 99.99% fiction, which is really fun (when it’s not really frustrating). I go back and forth between writing a novel and revising short stories. I have a distressing tendency to collect people – usually women “of a certain age” – around a table to drink coffee and talk, but occasionally they actually do things.

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