Days before she turned 33, Sarah Cannon's husband suffered a traumatic brain injury at work that changed everything about her marriage and the life they had planned. Her memoir, The Shame of Losing, tells how she found both suffering and joy as she navigated her new world.
Sarah recently answered questions for Rose City Reader about her book, being a writer, and using social media to connect with her readers:
How did you come to write The Shame of Losing?
I kept a journal in the early days of my husband’s rehabilitation at the trauma center in Seattle. Initially I thought that would be enough, but as time wore on, I needed something more. I craved a community of people who also had a drive to put everything out there and make a book, something readers would pick up and talk about. I wanted this because I was lonely, I guess. And I was also learning so much about this medical stuff I didn’t want to, and needed an outlet for my grief and confusion.
Your memoir is intensely personal – did you have any qualms about sharing so much?
Of course. I posted on Instagram last week how both my (ex) mother-in-law and my mother had received their advanced reader copies on the same day and began reading their copies right away. I jokingly (but not really) inserted the barf and sweat emoji’s, because that’s how I felt – barfy and sweaty. But, as some wise writing mentors told me in my MFA program, you never should censor for an audience. If artists did that, nothing great would ever be published.
You incorporate diary entries and letters written to your husband into the narrative of your memoir. Did you actually write the diary and letters while your husband was recovering from his brain injury?
The diary entries, yes. The letters, no. The diaries that ended up in the book weren’t transcribed from exact entries, but I was keeping records, and as I began to think of the arc, the diary entries – the dates – helped anchor the timeline, so things didn’t get too slippery or non-linear. The letters came from this desire to be loving toward him (my ex) as I was working hard to tell my truth. We had so many good times together. This is not the story of a nasty divorce or a man I came to regret marrying. Plus, I just love letters!
Did you consider turning your own experience into fiction and writing the book as a novel?
That was my number one goal, at first. I had worked in television and I love film, so I thought, well, I’ll get a mentor in this MFA program and learn about movie scripts and plays and produce this as fiction. I still love that medium, but as I got farther along, I learned that I love to read memoir more than scripts, and that I was going to spend all this money on a mentor, I might as well work to fill up some pages. I began writing essays, and a new mentor, a memoirist, basically said I was nuts to not write this as non-fiction. The cool part about going into a creative writing program is that you learn that non-fiction does not have to be boring. Yes, you must tell the truth, your truth, but that doesn’t mean you need to be a journalist with research or documentation backing up your story – unless you need to cite something, of course.
Who is your intended audience and what do you hope your readers will gain from your book?
I think my audience is anyone interested in examining loss, anyone who has felt voiceless or confused by situations out of their control. I think emerging memoirists or writers of any genre, hopefully, will appreciate what I’ve tried to do with the form, and I would hope that any reader simply feels compassion toward the characters – caregiver, injured person, children, and the affected TBI (traumatic brain injury) community – and learn something new they can use in life when they encounter a complicated situation like this one - invisible disability.
What kind of books do you like to read? What are you reading now?
I will read anything you put in front of me, or I’ll try. On my nightstand right now are an assortment of novels, poetry and crappy magazines. I use the library a lot, which keeps me deadline-oriented and also less broke. I am reading the Gilead by Marilynn Robinson and also Days of Awe by A.M. Homes. I need to return my copy of Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity, but I don’t want to! I always have the intense volume Against Forgetting: Twentieth Century Poetry of Witness by Carolyn Forche, at the ready. I am not above People, Vanity Fair, and Redbook magazines. 😊
You have a terrific website and are active on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook. From an author's perspective, how important are social networking sites and other internet resources?
As a fulltime single parent to two teens, money is always tough. I knew I couldn't invest in a publicist for this book, or even pay professionals to consult on my website build. What I did was pay close attention to what other 'emerging writers' were doing out there, and followed in suite where it made sense and where I felt comfortable. I used Squarespace for my website build and spent a long time working on that so that it would be ready way before the book pub date. Facebook is not my favorite, but is sure is handy for connecting with other writers and old friends, who of will be the first to support you. I do love Instagram and I follow a lot of book lovers there, my people. I love that you can't add links and have to push your creativity a little bit on that platform.
My newsletter has been a great source of spreading the word that my book was on its way. I created my tribe, so to speak, and schedule for meaningful content to go out to subscribers every three months. For me, starting at home, with friends and family and writer friends, felt safe and supportive.
I have faith that the buzz will have a ripple effect as people begin to submit their reviews and spread the word.
Do you have any events coming up to promote your book?
I had a super fun launch party in my neighborhood on October 6th where I read for my family and dearest friends. Everyone brought flowers and the wine was flowing. With my teen kids there and both sides of the family, it was one of the most special nights of my life.
I have scheduled in Washington and California over the next several months that are all listed on the events page of my website. I hope to get events scheduled in Oregon after the holidays. The Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) will be in Portland this year, so I hope to do something down there in April when that happens. I love Broadway Books, and participating in anything at Powell’s would be a dream. I used to live in Eugene and Portland, and am fond of the area. (Go Ducks!)
Any tips or hints for authors considering writing a memoir?
Yeah, read everything you can get your hands on, understand the difference between therapy and creative writing, and definitely read Mary Karr’s fantastically helpful book, The Art of Memoir.
What’s next? What are you working on now?
This book was five years in the making, so to be honest, I’m feeling kind of wiped out. I do have a partner, though I still consider myself a single parent, since I have the kids full time and take care of most of their financial/emotional needs. I am working fulltime as a technical editor and project manager, all of which is to say I’m tired! I am participating in a new writing group – women in Seattle who are all moms and who are serious about writing and publishing and reading. They keep me on my toes. I would like to write for kids – teens – and I do have a storyline and some characters I keep going back to, but I am not as compelled as I once was to get it all down fast. I’d love to take a stab at script-writing for real and adapt my book for film. But no more memoir for me. Not for a while, at least. I’m looking forward to entertain you with fiction.
THE SHAME OF LOSING IS AVAILABLE ONLINE OR ASK YOUR LOCAL BOOKSELLER TO ORDER IT!