A Conversation with Annita Sawyer, 2013 Literary Awards Program Winner for Nonfiction

Annita Sawyer’s memoir  Smoking Cigarettes, Eating Glass is a gripping and moving account of her experiences in psychiatric hospitals.  She shares her experiences and writing process with us.


SL: Your memoir, Smoking Cigarettes, Eating Glass won the 2013 Literary Awards Program for Non-Fiction. What made you decide to enter SFWP’s Literary Awards Program?

AS: I was looking for book contests when I came across the SFWP Awards Program in Poets & Writers Magazine. I loved your mission statement, so I decided to try.

SL: Excerpts of SCEG have been published elsewhere. Did you begin writing with a book in mind?

AS:When I read the records from my adolescent years in psychiatric hospitals I began to recover early memories and re-experience old symptoms. I became overwhelmed. I promised myself that if I survived I would write about it.  Two years later I wrote the first story – it was just a few paragraphs I called “ECT Hair” – about the way my hair felt after shock treatment.  The book grew from there.  Once I started I couldn’t stop.

SL:  What is your mind set or process as you sit down to write? Did it change as the story grew and expanded?

AS: In the beginning, every time I recalled an incident I wrote a scene or a story describing it.  I was driven to discover who I was and what had happened to me, as well as to spare others by writing about what I had learned. Outside of my office I thought of little else.

For a while after I finished the first draft, that pressure diminished, because I thought I was done.  Residencies also helped me slow down, because I could count on time when I’d be free to write uninterrupted in a tranquil place with responsibility for no one but myself. At home, it was easier for me to revise and edit than to create a first draft, so even though the revisions were massive, as I became I better writer I felt more in control. Writing remains urgent: I need to write.

SL: You have attended some terrific writer’s residencies and workshops. How did they help with the creation of your book?

AS:  At workshops I learned the craft.  At residencies I found solitude and remarkable creative energy for writing.  Both affirmed my work and my dreams as a writer.

I met a wonderful agent very early in the process.  She gave me confidence and helped me with organization. She appreciated that I was a beginner and encouraged me to learn everything I could about writing. Other people also mentored and inspired me. One literally showed me how to construct an essay.  I was amazed to find myself in the company of such accomplished and generous individuals, grateful that they would take me seriously and treat me as a peer. They believed that my story needed to be told, and they had an investment in my success in telling it. Some read early drafts. Others volunteered to read the final work. When I felt discouraged they urged me to push on.  I learned a great deal, especially about perseverance, just from listening to people conversing around me.  I came to feel truly supported by a community of writers and artists that now extends around the world.

SL:  How do you balance writing with work and personal life?

AS:  I’m still seeking that balance. I love my clinical work, but it requires a great deal of time. I promise myself at least an hour every morning to write, and I set aside whole days when I can, but if work or family call I have trouble setting limits.  This prize affirms my writing as legitimate. I’m re-determined to follow through.

SL:  Do you have any other projects you’re working on?

AS:  I want to write about the effects of stigma and shame on everyday life and to convey the way psychotherapy heals. I have ideas for a collection of essays and stories built around this.  The stories will illustrate psychotherapy from various participants’ points of view, for instance, the therapist and the client, but also the therapist’s or client’s spouse, or mother, or friend, etc., to show the context of change.

SL:  Any words of advice for writers on selecting writing contests?

AS:  I’d say select journals and presses that you admire and that fit your sort of writing, but keep an eye out for new ones.  Check lists often.  If you are in a writers’ group ask them for suggestions.  Don’t be afraid of having your work rejected. Don’t send something you aren’t in love with, but if you do love it, take a chance.  Above all, consider rejections a part of the job. My vast experience with rejections is one way I identify myself as a serious writer.

Read an excerpt from her book in today’s SFWP Journal here.

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