An Interview with Laurie Jean Cannady
“It was an awakening for me,” Laurie Jean Cannady says, describing the process of writing her debut memoir, Crave: Sojourn of a Hungry Soul.
Cannady began writing as far back as she can remember. In her childhood, she wrote stories, poems, and plays. As an adult, she knew she would have to write a memoir.
“I was really called to writing because I thought of the young women and young men who grew up where I grew up, or who grew up in similar situations to the one that I grew up in,” Cannady says. “I just kept thinking that our voices need to be out there. They need to be heard. People need to understand what it’s like to live in a world where oftentimes you’re marginalized, and people will really negate your voice.”
Cannady’s lyrical voice is the one she uses in everyday speech. She says honing one’s voice is critical.
“I think it’s very important for writers to read aloud what they’ve written, and also get others to read it to them,” she says. “You hear where they pause and where they stop.”
Cannady believes that writing workshops and writing groups are invaluable resources, but family can also play a big role.
“My husband was forced to listen to me read it aloud,” Cannady jokes. “Sometimes he would read it aloud. And my son is also a writer, so he was very helpful, too.”
Cannady wrote Crave one page at a time, typing at least one page every day. Sometimes she wrote more, but she would not allow herself to go about her business without finishing her daily session. This morning ritual allowed her to have a life outside writing, while not allowing herself to procrastinate or become upset for not writing enough.
According to Cannady, a revision is a major undertaking. She says she used to do simple line editing, but that isn’t enough to prepare a manuscript for publication.
“Once I learned that (line editing) was a waste of time (early in the process), I started thinking more holistically about the different chapters that I was working on. What message was I trying to convey with that particular section or scene or chapter? When I started thinking about it that way, I wasn’t looking for what needed to go; I was looking for what I could keep.”
Cannady made major changes during this revision process. Sometimes only a few sentences out of a 30-page chapter would remain in the next draft. She says she searches for the heart of the piece. Her routine of writing one page a day may produce plenty of material she’ll never use, but Cannady finds gems within the work.
“I look for those lines that string together, that allow me to see the whole piece a little better,” she says.
This selectivity allows Cannady to feel removed from the pressure of making every one of her sentences perfect as she writes. Once she finds the heart of the piece, Cannady re-writes the entire section.
As an example, Cannady describes her experience in reviewing one of the chapters in Crave, entitled ‘Never Tell.’ She says she was distraught when she began revising.
“I had written most of that chapter in a stream of consciousness, but some of it just didn’t make sense. There was so much that I wanted to include, but it was just a big mess.”
When Cannady looked at the chapter again, she realized it read like a biography, chronicling each day of her relationship with a man named Sanford. Readers of memoirs don’t want to read objective biographies, Cannady says. Memoir, in her view, goes beyond biography, attempting to make sense of the past and letting the reader access deeper truths.
“The way I had written Sanford initially was very harsh because he had been harsh to me,” Cannady says. “But, of course, that wasn’t all of who he was. He was very funny. He was very likeable. No one would have believed that he was battering me behind closed doors because he kept up the façade of this perfect young man.”
Cannady says if she just retold the story as it happened to her, the reader wouldn’t have learned anything about abusive relationships. But when Cannady puts Sanford onstage in a theater production, in the same way that she originally saw him, she was able to convey more of who he was. One scene was worth more than dozens of pages about their relationship.
“When I first wrote his part, he was just a monster. And the reader would say, ‘why would you date this monster?’ But when I allowed the reader to be introduced to him the way that I was introduced to him, when I allowed the reader to see him in the way that others saw him, and even in the way that he saw himself, I felt like he came to life for me, and even I understood him better.”
Sanford is emblematic of the young men who dated Cannady and tried to help her, but made things worse because they, themselves, were so broken.
Cannady says the biggest obstacle she faced was feeling that she had the right to tell not only her story, but also the stories of the others in her book.
“My story is so intertwined with so many other people,” she says. “I’d be writing about someone and think, ‘oh, this person’s not gonna like this.’ I spent a lot of time thinking about how it might affect other people. And that was the stumbling block that not only affected me during the writing process, but during the revision process, and even during the process of sending my manuscript out.”
Cannady deliberated for a long time.
“I sat on the manuscript for over a year,” she says. “Because of the doubts, because of the fear.”
Cannady says she worried about how people would receive the book, including her family. But ultimately, she made the bold decision to share her story.
“You have to own your story and understand that it’s yours to tell. You have a right to tell it.”
Fears are usually overblown, she says.
“Most of the people that you write about won’t even read it,” Cannady says, “and even if they do read it, no matter what you wrote, they’re probably gonna say, ‘that’s not how it happened.’ Even if it’s something great.”
Cannady once read her mother a scene between the two. It was an emotionally charged scene that showed a connection between mother and daughter. Cannady thought her mother would enjoy being portrayed in a favorable light. When Cannady finished reading the piece, her mom’s response was unexpected.
“I didn’t make French fries that day,” her mother said. “They were potato logs.”
Everyone has a different version of the truth and will remember different things, Cannady says. While she was focused on the emotional content of the scene, her mother was focused on the potatoes.
“For memoirists, the people that are in the book are real people. They’re not just characters,” Cannady says. “But you have to write them as if they are a character. You have to look at them for all of their layers. You have to investigate who they are to you, but also how they may see themselves in the world, and how others may see them.”
Cannady says she learned a lot about this process in presenting her version of events.
“What I learned was that there were parts of my story that my mother had to protect herself from,” she says. “There were parts of my story that my sister and my brothers had to protect themselves from. When they said, ‘that’s not the way it happened,’ I couldn’t take it personally. I had to say, ‘okay, well that’s the way it happened for me.’”
Once Cannady accepted that her writing would never totally please everyone else, she focused on making herself happy with her work. In so doing, Cannady says she became stronger. Writing Crave allowed her to discover a lot about herself.
“I learned a lot about who I was as a young girl, but I also learned a lot about what I was still carrying—the things that I thought I had put down, but that they were still with me, and they were very, very heavy. Writing actually allowed me to put some of that luggage down and to pick up new things.”
Cannady’s rejuvenated confidence helped her analyze decisions she made and the ways she interacted with people.
“It was definitely an awakening I can pass on to my children, and hopefully to the reader,” Cannady says.
Sam Chiarelli is completing an MFA in Creative Nonfiction at Wilkes University. He is working on his first full-length manuscript—an exploration of humanity’s fascination with dinosaurs.