A Conversation with Sarah Cannon
Sarah Cannon is an acclaimed author, mother, brain-health advocate, and remarkable literary citizen. In her 2018 book, The Shame of Losing, Cannon beautifully captures her precarious life after her husband’s traumatic brain injury. She was a mother of two small children, a wife, and a caretaker, all while wrestling with a new and unsettling reality. Her work garnered praise and awards—she was named a 35 Over 35 award winner, and her book was nominated for a Washington State Book Award in the memoir category. Her work has also been featured in The New York Times, Salon.com, Bitch Magazine, and more. She teaches online with Creative Nonfiction, guest teaches at the University of Washington Bothell campus, and is offering a course in the hybrid memoir at the Hugo House in Seattle this spring. Natalie Serianni had the honor of talking with Cannon to discuss her experience with award nominations, emotional book tours, devoting time to writing and next steps in her writing career.
Natalie Serianni: Congratulations on your 2019 Washington State Book Award nomination! Can you tell us how it felt to have your book nominated in the memoir category?
Sarah Cannon: Yes, I’d be honored to share. Nearly nine months after my book pub date I was feeling ready to move on—it had been a long road to publication, and as a mother/writer/employee, I was totally exhausted. Then one day at work last summer, I got an email from the public relations person at my press to check my email spam filter. Turns out the message notifying me of the nomination ended up there. I, of course, am aware of the significance of the Washington State Book Awards, and felt overwhelmed with a dizzying joy that my book made the list. I was glowing at my desk, smiling ear to ear by myself, texting close friends the amazing news. It felt like the betting I had done on myself had finally paid off. The fact that the awards are nominated and voted on by booksellers and librarians in Washington state, the state I was born and raised in, made me feel like this particular award isn’t focused on name brand. You have a mix of debut and heavy hitters, agented and non-agented authors, which is refreshing in this era of influencers and pay-to-play systems. The list of nominees’ work in all categories is always swoon-worthy, and to be among them last year was definitely a top lifetime achievement for me.
NS: What does a book nomination do for a writer, in terms of validation, press, and writing confidence? How has this award helped your writing or career?
SC: The nomination was a huge boost in many ways. I want to be honest and say that to garner the nomination does not mean my book sold a ton of copies. On the contrary, the book remains and will likely remain super indie, and that has everything to do with marketing budgets and that’s perfectly fine. The nomination has validated the importance of writing, to the best of my own ability, with compassion. It gave me hope in the publishing industry that the book I worked so hard to write could be received with openness, despite its unsexy themes of brain trauma and its impact on a young suburban family. I also felt validated that independent presses do have influence in the literary world, and that my MFA was “worth” it. That last part is somewhat tongue in cheek, but in all honesty, there is a real message out there that earning an art degree at any age, but especially as a forty-year-old woman with children to support, is self-indulgent or irresponsible, so learning the book was nominated by serious readers gives me that winning feeling. Have any agents knocked at my door as a result? Has Netflix come calling? No and no. I remain as I am, a big person with a small book, or a small person with a big book. I do have greater confidence in the genre I wrote in, and am turning my focus to teaching a bit more, which has always given me great satisfaction.
NS: You’ve had a very exciting past few years. Your book was met with critical praise, and audiences have connected with you over the book’s focus on traumatic brain injuries, mothering through this experience, and the feelings of shame around losing a life once known. How were you able to handle the emotional experience of your book tour? Was there anything, specifically, that uplifted or drained you on tour? What surprised you most in connecting with your audience?
SC: I was so scared, you know, to reveal my story, because it’s so intimate and I felt like such a writing/publishing newbie, and also nervous, or maybe just conscientious of the fact that I was writing about a long-term health issue that was not my own, directly, but one that had impacted my life as wife and mother forever. But ultimately, that was the point: to share, in an artistic way, the steep and arduous learning I did to survive this journey, knowing I wasn’t alone. That said, writing prose by yourself and getting a book made is different than talking about the product with strangers. I was well-versed in talking about brain injury, rehabilitation, and workers’ compensation. I was not well-versed in articulating the stress on my marriage and why I felt such loss. I wasn’t sure I could even talk about some of the stuff in the book without choking on my words. I had an important meeting with an elder, whom I admire, early on during this process. He told me that my book talks did not have to be therapy sessions, and that it would be helpful for me to consider what I wanted the kind people who came out to listen to get from the opportunity. I took this advice to heart and really got clear on my goals for the book, for me.
Outside of one wonderful stop in Northern California, I only booked myself for readings at bookstores in Western Washington, because that’s all I could afford with respect to time, money, and mental strength. Having grown up around here, I always had at least one friend at each reading, and they know my story, so this provided great comfort. Knowing my family was proudly waiting for me at home was pretty gratifying, too. What surprised me? All the questions about the process, which is really a curiosity about the person’s intention or work ethic. How many drafts did I write? Did I have a mentor? How did I pick the title? Why did I include diary entries? What am I writing next? I think most writers who have completed a book could discuss this stuff at length with whomever’s willing to listen! It’s an honor to be asked, and inspiring to learn how many people are engaged with literature and have works of their own in process.
NS: In your 2017 guest post on the Literary Mama blog you wrote: “So long as we are diligent in the work, keep channels open for feedback, and stay the course, we can have a career in an art form we practice at any age. Ignore anyone who tells you otherwise. They do nothing for you.” You had just signed a book deal with Red Hen Press. Considering the path your life has taken in the past five years, what does it mean to begin a literary career when older? How has this perspective shaped your stories and informed your writing choices?
SC: What it means is you have had a life doing other things, which implies two things: one, you have a lot to write about; and two, your professional connections likely exist outside of the publishing world, which makes it feel like it would take a miracle to “break in.” While it might be harder to build connections if you’ve been working at other things, it also means that you may have the confidence and wherewithal to be a finisher. It’s a real grown-up move to understand the complexity of making art and raising a family. Writing is hard and lonely and if you take it seriously, you must invest time and money into yourself, which as any parent knows, feels impossible sometimes. So the word ‘career’ is rife with complexity, as is the word ‘success.’
In our capitalistic society, it’s tricky not to measure success in numbers. You must identify the definition for yourself. I feel like I can brush my shoulders off for having completed a difficult project meanwhile getting a divorce and learning how to be head of household with two dependents. To me, the success is having had my kids witness that hard work, that dedication to completion. Do I wish I could live off an impressive advance and write for a living? Of course! But it’s not my reality, nor reality for most. We must always remember why we are writing. I gain a great sense of satisfaction in my ability to support my family, my hero’s journey, if you will, and I’ve come to measure success by our family’s overall health and well-being.
NS: In what ways are you a different writer today than before you wrote this blog post?
SC: I’m a more tired writer raising two teenagers by myself, which is way harder than earning a degree and writing and publishing a book. I think about the realities of money a lot, and how to get kids to college or ensure they have equitable opportunities. It’s a different feeling in my heart than five years ago, when they were in elementary school and I was learning how to be divorced and writing like crazy. I am bruised up enough to understand that this phase will pass and I will feel vitality in my writing once again if I want it. I still believe what I wrote is true, and I think that if you feel passionate enough about something, it’s worth it to pursue that impulse and it feels really great to see it through—at any age. I also believe you can’t have everything you want, at least not all at the same time. I don’t earn a living in the literary arts, for example. I earn income at a non-arts-related desk job. But that doesn’t make me less valuable to the literary community; it makes me normal. I have a great book and a wonderful family and some opportunities to teach and engage in meaningful conversations. I am tired, and I am grateful. I’m also really glad I’m 45 and striving a little less to achieve.
NS: What books are you currently reading, and whose work inspires you right now?
SC: I read Elizabeth Strout’s new release Olive, Again, recently, and loved it so much that I re-read her 2007 Pulitzer-prize winning Olive Kitteridge again. If you want to read masterful fiction that beautifully renders the complications of everyday lives in everyday people, look no further. There is the HBO series with Frances McDormand as Olive, and I love it all so much that I’ve proposed a continuing education course with Edmonds Community College’s Creative Retirement Institute called “The Evolution of Olive Kitteridge” that I’ll be facilitating next fall. Other titles on my bed stand include Michelle Obama’s Becoming; a new collection of essays called Burn It Down: Women Writing about Anger edited by Lilly Dancyger; Ram Dass’s Be Here Now, and Daniel Woodrell’s Winter’s Bone. I like to torture myself with a huge stack of nearing overdue library books.
NS: You’ve said in multiple spaces that your next work will have a very different flavor than your last. What are you working on now and what do you enjoy most about beginning a new project? Is there any sadness leaving one you’ve spent many years talking about?
SC: I want to address the last question first. Simply, no: I will not be sad about not talking about this book anymore. I mean, if Netflix wanted to adapt it, fine. I’d love to consult and of course actually make money, who wouldn’t? And I’ll always appreciate feedback, and I hope it finds the right people in perpetuity, which is the glorious thing about literature. But I no longer feel urgent about raising awareness about family and brain injury. Surviving what we did as a family, then producing art from it is good enough for me. I did the best I could in the writing and in the promotion, given the tools I had at the time. I’d like to see more creative nonfiction tackling invisible disability and ambiguous loss. But for me, it’s healthy to move on. I’m super into second chances.
I have a few different projects right now, and they exist in the form of pages, but mostly in my mind. I’ve never had the space for more than one project, or never in the past have I had multiple stories I wanted to write, but that’s what’s happening now, and it feels both exciting and scary. Mostly I fantasize about having the time to write them. But yes, both projects are fiction. One is a young adult novel and the other is a screenplay. I don’t know how writers engage with meaning in projects while they’re promoting their books. I am not prolific and I accept that.
1 reply on “A Conversation with Sarah Cannon”
Particularly loved the question and answer about her 2017 blog post – gritty true answer. Really interesting profile.