Writing to find meaning in tragedy’s aftermath

Sarah Cannon publishes 'The Shame of Losing'
By Brian Soergel | Nov 20, 2018
Photo by: Brian Soergel Edmonds resident Sarah Cannon wrote a book about changes in her life after a traumatic episode.

One day, life was going one way for Edmonds resident Sarah Cannon, her husband and her two young children.

Then, suddenly, it went sideways, into unknown territory.

Just a few days before her 33rd birthday, Cannon received the most frightening phone call of her life. Her husband’s arborist friend was on the other end.

He told her a falling tree branch struck her husband of seven years, Matt (a pseudonym), in the head. Matt was severely injured in the industrial accident.

“I endured a lot of loneliness and confusion for years and years, and yet it was the love of children, friends and family that kept me afloat,” she says today.

Now Cannon, a writer who has been published in the New York Times, Salon, Brainline, Chicken Soup for the Soul and Bitch magazine, has written a book about her post-accident life, “The Shame of Losing.”

Ren Hen Press, an independent nonprofit press in Los Angeles in business for over 20 years, released the 136-page paperback memoir last week, and Cannon recently signed copies at the Edmonds Bookshop.

Cannon said her husband’s accident did not inspire her to write the memoir. She uses another word.

“I'm not sure I was inspired so much as compelled to write as honestly as I could about my experience as a young wife and mother during the time when everything changed in my life in a drastic, sudden and unwanted way.

“I suppose the impetus to write my version of the truth was to understand what I was feeling. Writing can clarify your thoughts, and since everything was so fuzzy for awhile, I felt an urgency to document not only what had happened, but what my reactions – good and bad – were to those abrupt changes.”

In “The Shame of Losing,” Cannon offers a collection of diary entries, mock love letters and vignettes to create meaning from the chaotic onslaught of changes.

In making the painful decision to end her marriage, Cannon began a rite of passage she never imagined making – a recovery of her own. She then faced the challenge of accepting a remade family, and began to see the world with fresh eyes.

Cannon, now 44 and a technical content editor, was raised in Seattle and Richmond Beach and graduated from the University of Oregon with a degree in Spanish. She earned her master’s of fine arts from Goddard College in Port Townsend in 2014. She is active with the Brain Injury Alliance of Washington and offers creative writing classes at community centers.

It was in Oregon where she met her husband. They lived in Portland before moving to Edmonds in 2001 to be closer to family when she became pregnant with their first child. She taught Spanish to elementary school children in Ballard, and Matt managed G.I. Joe's in Lynnwood. He later moved in to urban arboriculture around the time Cannon started working as a program coordinator at KCTS 9 in Seattle.

“When he was hurt, I tried to maintain work, but it was just too hard. The kids were little, and everyone needed help.” (Her two children now attend College Place Middle School and Edmonds-Woodway High School.)

Cannon found an outlet with writing. Two of her most-read articles came in 2013. The first was published as an entry in the popular Sunday New York Times’ column “Modern Love.” The title: "Love, Light, Strength, (and Glue).”

“The response was an outpouring of support from all sorts of people,” Cannon said. “Friends and family, of course, who were like, what? You're a writer? That was fun, and also validating that I was on the right path and could possibly write a book.

“The editor of that column forwarded me email responses from all sorts of people. A lot had been, in some phase of their lives, caregivers for someone. Married and divorced people. Healthcare professionals. The power that writing has to move people was shocking to me, and gave me encouragement to keep at it.”

The same month, Cannon’s eyes were opened to a darker side of the publishing world when Salon.com slapped the title “Sex in a Hospital Bed” to a piece she wrote.

“I didn't appreciate the title the Salon editor assigned to that piece, as there was never any ‘sex’ in any hospital bed,” she said. “This was an essay about trying to be physically close with someone I loved, who felt very far away. They made it into click bait, and it worked. I had trolls calling me terrible names.

“That's when I realized you don't read the comments. That's also when I realized that you don't have to share everything, that the $150 you might get paid isn't always worth it.”

Today, Cannon occasionally offers creative writing workshops through the Brain Injury Alliance, which has a partnership with Lynnwood-based Verdant Health to host free community classes for brain injury survivors.

“These classes are small and intimate,” Cannon said. “We do a lot of free writing, with fun exercises that inspire creativity and hope.”

Now that’s she’s published, Cannon said she’s looking forward to writing another book, but not necessarily a memoir. In the meantime, she says she hopes readers enjoy “The Shame of Losing.”

“I want readers to feel something. What they feel is up to them, of course, but if I could choose, I would want them to feel empathy for families surviving an ongoing health crisis, and what kind of toll that takes on marriage and family.

“I would hope readers might ask themselves, What would I do? Or, Wow might I help a friend who may not know how to ask for help? I want readers to understand a little bit more about traumatic brain injury, too, and how the name itself – ‘injury’ – is kind of a misnomer, meaning it is more like a disease, which lasts beyond the initial aftermath of an accident or injury. An injury makes you think of a hurt elbow that can be healed.”


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