Sunday, December 23, 2018
Interview with Sarah Cannon - Q4 Essay Contest Winner
Sarah Cannon is the author of the memoir The Shame of Losing (November 2018, Red Hen Press). Her essays have appeared in the New York Times, Salon.com, Chicken Soup for the Soul, Bitch Magazine, and more. Sarah earned her MFA from Goddard College in 2014 where she later helped launch the inaugural Lighthouse Writers’ Alumni Conference & Retreat in Port Townsend, WA. She lives in Edmonds, WA, just north of Seattle, where she works as a technical editor, dog-sitter, book coach, and more. She lives by the sea with her family and many animals. Read more about Sarah and her work at www.cannonsarah.com or follow her on Twitter and Instagram @sarahmecannon.
If you haven't done so already, check out Sarah's award-winning story "Do Not Blame the Trees" and then return here for a chat with the author.
WOW: Congratulations on placing in the Creative Nonfiction Q4 Contest! How did you begin writing this piece and how did it and your writing evolve as you wrote?
Sarah: I knew I wanted to figure out a way to reflect how obsessive my mind was working when it came to my husband’s near fatality. In fact, the piece was for a long time called “Obsession.” I really was the woman sleepless in her robe pacing around the creaky wood floors in the wee hours, so I simply started there. I kept thinking, OK, stay in the present, but go back to that place where you never were physically, but where you always went in your mind when it was quiet in the house in the middle of the night. The piece was a lot longer in the beginning, but as I picked it over, it became more and more spare. I always like essays that balance inner and outer conflicts. Sure, I had insomnia, but the story is why. In reading memoir and shorter essay pieces, I began to notice how writers were doubling up on what’s happening in the mind and the circumstances in the “real world.” Sometimes the trick with that is figuring out how to move between tenses though, and I think that’s what likely evolved over the edits.
WOW: Thank you for sharing that; it’s interesting to hear how you approached the balance between inner and outer conflicts within the piece. What did you learn about yourself or your writing by creating this essay?
Sarah: I learned that I had a lot to process about that time in my life, that I was angry and that I couldn’t simply “get over it.” I always knew I was a highly sensitive person, but stepping into the imagined scene of the accident itself using as-told pieces of detail from real witnesses, I realized that if I didn’t write this, I would be likely haunted forever. And I wanted to live free of insomnia and dread (still working on that). And I wanted to immortalize him – my husband – somehow, probably because I knew he wouldn’t remember what had happened to his body, either. Using all those delicious nouns to call out the specific tools in the arboriculture trade made me feel stronger, and closer to him. Writing it made me feel like maybe I could actually say the words to someone in real life someday. For a while, I could only choke on my own tears, you know. And I was very defensive when anyone wanted details. So this gave me an outlet for my confusion about the accident itself and also for my anger at the human condition – our tendency for Schadenfreude.
WOW: You've so poignantly described that healing, restoritive power that writing has, and I’m glad you found an outlet through this process and felt comfortable enough to share your story with us. Which creative nonfiction essays or writers have inspired you most, and in what ways did they inspire you?
Sarah: I know everyone reads Maggi Nelson in their MFA programs, but she truly is this trailblazing shero for me, for all the reasons everyone knows. Her play with form, her fierce intellect and curiosity, her poetry/prose that is molded into story. She also follows her fire, her obsessions, and when you see how it works, it inspires. Jane, a Murder rocked my world. I loved Eve Ensler’s The Body of the World for its sense of urgency and corporeal sensibility. I think as women we must write from the body, and Lidia Yuknavitch is a pure example of finding freedom in that. Joan Didion is, of course, the master of crafting the most beautiful sentences, and I would put Ta-Nehisi Coates in that category as well. The choices he makes and the way he strings words together is mesmerizing. His book, Between the World and Me, ought to be required reading in the high schools. Joan Fiset is a wonderful local (Seattle) writer who I was assigned in a post-grad school week-long workshop with Rebecca Brown, another great. I would recommend either of Joan’s books (Now the Day Is Over and Namesake) for any poet or memoirist who gravitates toward white space and prose poetry. Like Sandra Cisneros’ House on Mango Street, which I love, Joan’s fresh language gives off this deceptively easy-seeming style. I was lucky enough to have her endorse my book, for which I’ll be forever grateful.
WOW: Thanks for that great list of recommendations. Congratulations on the publication of your memoir The Shame of Losing! Can you tell us more about your book and what your process was like while writing it?
Sarah: This memoir is short in length (160 pages) but long in blood, sweat and tears. It is informed by my graduate thesis and evolved through revisions into a hybrid style with descriptive vignettes, diary entries, and love letters. I really thought going into the program that I would produce fiction – I was interested in writing film, actually. I began about three different screenplays and read a bunch of scripts, which was super fun, but in my annotations and side work I kept going back to this story – my story, which was telling. The time with mentors felt precious and also safe, so I switched my focus to memoir. Even so, I had a long way to go before the manuscript read unpitying or artful. Having survived something doesn’t alone give you the tools to write something people want to read. For me, I needed the support of a writing community, and the help of mentors, to begin the project. The finishing was all on me. I don’t have a regular writing time of day or a real process, only that I had come so far with the drafts of the book, and it was so important to me, that I knew I would do anything it took to “finish.” I’m both relieved and anxious that I no longer have that sense of urgency about a writing project.
WOW: That does sound like a relief, but it also sounds like you crafted a meaningful story—you’ve definitely caught my interest. If you could tell your younger writing self anything, what would it be?
Sarah: I’d tell her to be less afraid of looking dumb, shallow, or less-than. I’d say don’t be so afraid of failing or looking foolish. A lot of people, including me, get really intimidated by “writers” because I guess to be a writer must mean you’re really smart, only I never felt that way. When you don’t feel like you belong in those AP/Honors classes, when you process at a slower pace than your whip-smart classmates or siblings, or you just aren’t that competitive academically, you start to maybe think you don’t be belong in that kind of circle. But it turns out I’m wildly creative! I just needed to let myself fail, to allow criticism and know that it comes with love – usually. I would have told her to understand that it’s not the long, “smart-sounding” sentences that are the most interesting. And that the loudest person in the room is usually the least talented. Simple is good. Simple is appealing, especially when it’s layered with heart and the commitment to tell a good story with feelings.
WOW: Wonderful advice! Thanks so much for your thoughtful responses and for sharing your writing with us.
Interviewed by Anne Greenawalt, who keeps a blog of journal entries, memoir snippets, interviews, training logs, and profiles of writers and competitive sportswomen.