Essay and photos by Sherri Matthews, a member of the Congress of Rough Writers.
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Walking circuits around the park listening to music on my iPod gets me through the writing mire, when I need to dig deep.
A few years ago I read Heavier Than Heaven, the biography of Kurt Cobain by Charles R Cross. I listen to Nirvana and I think of the troubled young man with extraordinary talent who lost his way and found no peace in his art. I read biographies such as these because I am always searching for what lies beneath the exterior of people’s lives, trying to make sense of my own.
Before Kurt Cobain became famous, before I dared call myself a writer, – never mind a writer of memoir, not having any credentials, fame or publishing connections – I took a walk with my baby boy, and it came to me that I had a story I needed to write. It hounded me, but by the time September 2015 rolled around, and I wrote the last sentence of a 125 thousand word first draft after almost three years, my ‘baby’ celebrated his thirty-third birthday.
Only then did the title come to me, throwing the thrust of my story on its head. Oh, the story was the same. It’s a memoir, so there is no room for embellishment, but my beginning wasn’t my beginning, and the ending wasn’t what it should have been, and I was left with a monster of a shitty first draft.
Writing this essay in response to Charli’s call to re-evaluate our work in the rough, I now see lessons learned, but at the time I wailed, ‘Where’s my story gone?’ All I had was something akin to a lump of clay flung down on a potter’s wheel. ‘Come on then, make me into something…if you dare…’ it mocked.
I loved it, I hated it. I took ten chapters and slashed and pounded them into the beginning they should have been. Then I turned on the rest. And then I read Mary Karr’s definition of a memoir writer in her book, ‘The Art of Memoir’ and I understood:
‘Unless you’re a doubter and a worrier, a nail biter, an apologizer, a rethinker, then memoir may not be your playpen…Truth is not their enemy. It’s the bannister they grab for when feeling around on the dark cellar stairs. It’s the solution.’
It’s who I am, I can’t help it. I am compelled because I was born that way. It’s not what I do, but what I am: A Memoir Writer. It took an unformed lump of first-attempt-writing to show me the way.
But I am not writing a memoir for personal catharsis, nor to air the family’s dirty laundry, wreak revenge or set the record straight. It’s an itch I can’t scratch, the baring of my soul in a gut-ripping, blood-letting, snot-flinging exercise in pursuit of the real story. No wonder Karr also says, ‘In some ways, writing a memoir is knocking yourself out with your own fist, if it’s done right….
So why do it? A self-imposed black eye might seem troubling to some, but through the process as a whole, I find connection with others and I learn to be gentle with myself. Sharing our raw beginnings brings us, I believe, to a place of conviction and ownership of our stories, a place where we write without fear and where we gain victory over crushing self-doubt.
And writing flash fiction as part of a dynamic literary community at Carrot Ranch, with the encouragement and support of other writers, has helped ease that fear. As a non-fiction writer in awe of any novelist (how do you do what you do…?), I was hesitant at first, but now I find writing flash liberating. Made up characters and stories find their way into a flash from the tiniest seed of an idea, often generated by my non-fiction writing. Not only is the 99 word constraint a great trainer for ‘tight’ writing in my memoir, but I practice dialogue which cannot possibly be verbatim in a memoir.
Using flash fiction as a writer’s tool to help hone and craft my memoir? A revelation! A flash of inspiration then, a burst of first ideas bouncing between genres, and the longing of the storyteller, whether in memoir or fiction, there, I believe, beats the heart of Raw Literature.
As J K Rowling says: ‘No story lives unless someone wants to listen.’ Whether through song lyrics, the words of literary greats or those yet unknown, all of us need to start somewhere, which is better than not starting at all.
Sherri Matthews has been writing full time since 2011. Currently working on her memoir, Stranger in a White Dress, she has been published in a variety of national magazines, websites and two anthologies. Sherri raised her three, now adult children, in California for twenty years and today, lives in England’s West Country with her hubby, Aspie youngest, two cats, a grumpy bunny and a family of Chinese Button Quails. Follow her blog A View From My Summerhouse.
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Raw Literature is an ongoing conversation about those first works we create as writers, as literary artists. Guest Authors share personal insights on their craft, its process, the experience of creating raw literature and what they do with it. Carrot Ranch is a dynamic literary community that creates raw literature weekly in the form of flash fiction (99 word stories). If you have an essay idea, pitch to Charli Mills, Lead Buckaroo, at email@example.com.
What a wonderful post Sherri – I’m so glad to see something from you and so touched by what you wrote! I am not a writer, but I spent my early years reading biographies and autobiographies ravenously for the same reason you have just enunciated. And now in these later years I still love to read anything memoir-ish – still to place my own story in context and yet more to embrace with empathy those who have also trod their own path with openess and honesty; seeking to find direction, co-walkers and ultimately their own souls. I love observing this place Charli provides for writers – it is inspiring! I shall be there among the first queuing up to purchase your memoir when it makes it out to the public 🙂 xo
Dear Pauline, how lovely of you! Always such a treat to read your thoughts straight from the heart. Charli has indeed created an amazing and truly inspirational literary community here, one I’m truly honoured and priviliged to belong to and something I didn’t imagine all those years ago. When I read your last sentence I got so excited…wow…thank you so much! Time to saddle up and gallop to that finish line! 🙂 xoxo
Thank you, Pauline! I feel our readers are just as vital to this community as our writers. And I’ll be queuing up with you when Sherri’s book emerges, and enjoying her writing along the way.
Thank you so much Charli…
Terrific essay, Sherri! I think we can’t help but think we know the direction we are going with our writing, but upon reflection of that first draft, we actually discover it’s different. Yet that first draft gives us an entry point that plotting, outline and planning just can’t come up with. You have to write!
Love this passage: “But I am not writing a memoir for personal catharsis, nor to air the family’s dirty laundry, wreak revenge or set the record straight. It’s an itch I can’t scratch, the baring of my soul in a gut-ripping, blood-letting, snot-flinging exercise in pursuit of the real story.” And the idea that writing memoir punches back.
Thank you for adding to the body of Raw Literature at the ranch!
Dear Charli, thank you so very much for this opportunity to publish my essay at Carrot Ranch. I am truly honoured and thrilled. From the very start since I first wrote my tentative flash fiction here (2 or 3 years ago?), you’ve encouraged and validated my writing, as you do for us all. I’ve learnt so much about my writing process thanks to you and the interaction with your (my!) wonderful community of talented, caring and supportive writers.
Although I had written a synopsis for my memoir a year before I actually started it, when I finally started bashing out that first draft, I didn’t consult it once. I knew the story inside out of course, being a memoir, but it wasn’t until I met that ‘you just have to write’ moment that the ‘gut-ripping’ etc. etc. really began! 😉
It’s been a privilege to watch all the writers here grow since Carrot Ranch went literary in March of 2014 — yes! we are coming up on 3 years — because at this intimate level of sharing in the creation of raw literature, we all grow. I was blown away when I began to gather the Rough Writers and realized what diversity in writers existed here. I’m excited to get to explore that aspect, too. I’ve learned so much about memoir from you, and a better understanding of the genre. Keep the gut-ripping, snot-flinging writing going! 😉
Wow…almost 3 years! Haha…thanks Charli, I will! A bit messy, but then so is all writing! I am priviliged to write alongside this amazing, diverse writing community! And here’s to many more years of doing just the same…and much more 🙂
So glad to see this guest post here, Sherri! Wonderful essay and beautiful weaving of your various threads dealing with memoir. I am envious too. Wow! 125,000 words. Something to be proud of, even if, as is often noted, the book emerges out of the revisions and edits. It is such a huge achievement and I congratulate you. I resonated with your description of your process. I went through something quite similar in rewriting the neurosurgeon’s memoir, finding the beginning somewhere in the middle of the manuscript (which had already seen multiple drafts) and wrangling (to use our buckaroo’s metaphor) the entire thing, somehow, into a more dynamic and hopefully relevant story that speaks its truth to others far removed from your life. Loved the quotes from Mary Karr…a reminder that I must read that book…and also the lines Charli pulled out. And yes! “Sharing our raw beginnings brings us, I believe, to a place of conviction and ownership of our stories, a place where we write without fear and where we gain victory over crushing self-doubt.” Thanks for your example of courage and perseverance. I so want to read your book!
Thank you so much Jeanne, fellow memoirist! I’m humbled by your lovely comment, there I was thinking I had a monster mess with such a large first draft word count. Of course, it didn’t help when I merged the draft as it was into a second one (when my laptop ended up lost in the Czech Republic…oh the memories!…and I updated Word). I got in such a horrible muddle, and began to write chapters I realised I had already written. So a draft within a draft, sort of! Oh I have always enjoyed our memoir discussions so much, and I know well of your challenges with your neurosurgeon’s memoir. It sounds as if your wrangling has paid off, so proud of you Jeanne…I hope we will be hearing your publication news soon! I am getting plenty of practice with the lasso myself. I look forward to many more discussions with you…
Interesting that you both found your beginning in the middle, as memoir writers. In writing fiction, I’ve found my beginning elsewhere, too, but only after getting that muddle out of my head and onto the page. I’m glad we can come across genres and discuss the creative processes involved!
Me too Charli, it’s great!
Great start to the series, Charli and Sherri.
I love that line “It’s who I am, I can’t help it” – it did make me smile as so often we seem to feel a need to apologise for doing it our way. But to continue our discussion about our divergent ways, I wonder whether you had that idea how you knew you wanted to write it as memoir? Was that related to what you like to read?
Thanks so much Anne…and how much I enjoy discussing our ‘divergent ways’! Ha, yes, very true about that need to apologise. What a great feeling it is to be able find our way and stand by it!
Hmmm…now that’s a very interesting question. I knew from the very start I wanted to write my story as a memoir, but I didn’t know if I could do that, meaning, I didn’t know that just anyone, an unknown like me, could expect to publish such a book, but that was always my intention. I didn’t want to write it just for myself. Although I have always read biographies (but not exclusively, I also read psychological thrillers, true crime and historical fiction), I don’t think it had any bearing on the way I wanted to write my story. It was something that came to me out of a strong desire to share my story as it was. And that is how it has always been. Which I have tried to make sense of all these years, and which forms the basis of many of our discussions as you know! It never occurred to me to fictionalise it as some do if they struggle with the idea of memoir. I wouldn’t do it justice, it would fade away if I tried to do that. Before the thought of writing a memoir occurred to me, I wrote poetry, song lyrics and the odd attempt at a short story. If anything, it was poetry I hoped to pursue. Heck…now I’m going off on a tangent, as per my long reply to your succint and great question, which I hope I’ve answered after all that!
Good question, Anne. When I write fiction, especially historical, it’s out of curiosity to explore the human behavior and intentions behind an event or situation. So, I really do enjoy discussing our divergent ways! Thank you, Sherri for such a fascinating answer. You say you never thought about fictionalizing your story. What I find an interesting contrast is that there are life events I’ve had that people say, I should write “that story.” It usually makes me feel rebellious! I know all the mind-process that goes into writing; I know how obsessive I can get when I’m in the flow. And I think I don’t want to give it that kind of space in my life. You know I love rocks and history and can get nerdy over those interests. That’s where I want to spend any of my obsessive energy. Going back and adding some of my own experiences into the fiction is proving interesting — again, I find I’m writing away from my experience and not into it. I think this requires a deeper, longer conversation (over Prosecco), but I find it interesting. Thank you for opening up about this!
Okay, bring out the Prosecco, pull up some chairs and let’s talk! Ha! Oh I would love that! I get exactly where you’re coming from Charli. I would love to know Anne’s further thoughts on this too. It might surprise you that I know exactly what you mean about your rebellion, because it’s happened to me too. There are many events in my life I ‘could’ write about, but won’t for the very same reasons you explain, not wanting to give any power or energy to that part of my life. And this is where writing flash has been so great; it’s taught me how to take a tiny seed of true experience and write it out as a fiction. I love it! I totally get how that works for you in your fiction writing, and how liberating it is for you to soak in your love of history and rocks. It’s where you belong and where you write from your heart. Yet, writing ‘into’ my memoir (and yes, I get obsessive too, which is why I think I take those breaks – although often they are enforced – which as we both know, are not so much about procrastinating, but necessary for that all-imporant processing!) for this particular story empowers me, puts me where I know I belong, for now. It’s exhausting at times, I get lost back there, in the way I need to in writing, and it’s not what I expected (as I said, I didn’t write it for carthasis), yet perhaps that is what I’ve found anyway. Oh we could talk all day! Thanks again Charli for this wonderful Raw Literature series. I am very much looking forward to reading the other essays 🙂 <3
We could talk all day and we haven’t even added essay to the discussion! Or creative non-fiction! You get it exactly: “…not wanting to give any power or energy to that part of my life.” Whatever it is we write, I suspect we need to feel compelled to write it. Thank you for adding so much to the discourse!
Yikes…you’re right! I would love to talk more about personal essay and creative non-fiction…more discussion to come! Thanks again to you Charli!
What a wonderful first guest raw literature post, Sherri. Thank you for sharing your process so openly, paring back the layers for us all to see. Your courage in doing so will inspire others to do the same, I am sure. I, too, enjoy memoir, and have read many of late, including Mary Karr’s “The Art of Memoir”, which I thoroughly enjoyed. What a fabulous quote from her you have shared. I don’t think I’ll go down that writing path. I’m not that strong. Although I am intrigued by it, I am also fearful of it – too many dark spots I don’t wish to revisit if I can help it. And too many other things to do first.
Like Jeanne, I am gobsmacked by the volume of your work. So much to say. I look forward to reading it as soon as you are ready to share it. I’m sure it will help me bring clarity to some aspects of my own life. They always do.
Your words that Charli pulled out, are powerful, and appealed to me also. Your response to Charli’s flash fiction challenges is similar to my own. They are something very different for me, but I appreciate the way they challenge my thinking and skills. Learning how to say something in a few words takes practice. And look at the length of this comment. Perhaps I should stop. Just want to say – great post, thanks for sharing, I look forward to reading. 🙂
Thank you so much Norah, you are very kind and always so generous with your support and encouragement…although I don’t see myself as courageous more a glutton for punishment! Seriously though, I have so many other writing projects bubbling away on the proverbial back burner, but I can’t get to them until I finish my memoir. Reading Karr’s ‘The Art of Memoir’ was liberating for me, as I finally understood why I embrace the darkness even though I am also afraid of it at times, but it’s because this particular story is one I know I have permission to tell, that conviction that it’s my story to tell. But I understand it’s not for everyone. And how wonderful to keep a conversation going here about our different processes and what Raw Literature means to each of us across the genre board. It’s great the way flash fiction has helped us both in similar ways. And your comments are always great and very welcome Norah, long or short (and look at mine, ha!) 🙂
A glutton for punishment! I think we all have a little of that in us. You need to get that memoir written so we can all read it and you can move on to that other writing! Best wishes. No pressure intended. 🙂
I do need to Norah, you’re right! Perhaps I need to drink more champagne to get it done, lol! And no pressure at all 😀 😀 😀
Never! Just get sloshed and let it all pour out! 🙂 Kidding!
LOL…sounds good to me!!! 🙂
Oh, Norah, that’s funny! The secrete to writing raw literature revealed!
It seems writers in general are thinkers and we have so much to say and share about our inner discoveries. The constraint of 99 words is such a puzzle to the brain and forces us to consider different ways to show our stories. Yet the discussions afterwards adds to the fuller understand and starts the exploration cycle anew.
And what better place than Carrot Ranch to meet up and share our thoughts and discoveries … 🙂
Yes, it’s funny that: it can take longer to explain our story than to tell it! 🙂
Norah, I think your observation is the wisdom behind, “show, don’t tell” in writing fiction!
Sherri, glad we can meet up here and play, ponder and progress!
Ahh…great wisdom! And Play, Ponder & Progress. Love it, what a great mantra for Carrot Ranch 🙂
Fascinating; I feel I should embrace memoir but yet I can’t think of that elusive entry point and somehow, with memoir I need it to contextualise the whole process. Unlike with fiction where i can write and revise that entry point, and have done more than once, I don’t know how to set sail without letting go the anchor. Probably a stupid analogy but you made me think of memoir as setting sail, more than fiction which is giving birth to something new; both involve journeys only difference ones.
What a great analogy Geoff, one I get completely and makes me rethink the birthing aspect of memoir, as I have always seen it. Loading up the ship, navigation at the ready, raising the anchor and setting sail out to sea. That’s it! Writing memoir is exactly that, thank you because I love the image your analogy conjures up! But true enough, you do need to know which dock to sail from, that ‘elusive entry point’. Even though my memoir essentially takes place between 1978 – 1981, the story already set in stone, it was the beginning I struggled most with…and the last chapter I thought was more of a wrap up, had more story to it than I realised, once the title came to me. I’m still changing things, still out at sea, popping seasick pills 😉 I think you would write a great memoir Geoff. I’m convinced you would find your context as a whole, through the purity of Raw Literature 🙂
I’m determined to bring together a piece on mum into a book. The batty old bird deserves it!!
That is an interesting analogy! And Geoff, I’d love to read more about your mum. 🙂
Yes, me too!
Primarily as a poet…I think I have hidden bits of memoir in my poems. No one else will ever guess at the associations of some, OK most of the pieces.
When I started writing one of my teachers/professors said write about what you know. And memoir is certainly that.
Thanks for sharing your experience 🙂
I find your comment fascinating Jules, thank you so much for sharing your thoughts. I have discovered that many memoir writers also write poetry. I have never studied poetry as a form, but I’ve always written it, at least, when the compulsion takes me. I think writing poetry is the rawest form of expression, that place you go when you need to spill your guts, writing what you know, yet thinly (or thickly!) disguised. You’ve made me think deeper about the link between poetry and memoir; perhaps the next step to writing memoir is rooted in lifting that disguise, knowing you will be sharing it with others 🙂
One day I realized that I could write what I know but it didn’t have to be me! I could imagine live of others in the past, but acknowledge it through my own lens. I think we all have pieces of ourselves in our writing…we leave the readers guessing if its not memoir!
What a great realisation for you Charli. Yes, I admit I am fascinated by the guessing element of fiction! A lot of my flashes are BOTS as you know, which was truly was a revelation, thanks to you! 🙂
Poetry, memoir, fiction BOTS — look at how much we have learned from a diverse group of writers!
It’s really wonderful!
Lovely essay, Sherri! 💖 Fling that clay at the potter’s wheel. Craft your memoir with perseverance and practice with flash. A great accomplishment (love the celebration of the shitty first draft photo) and one I’m looking forward to reading.
Ha! I need to get flinging again…time to peddle that potter’s wheel with a vengence! Love your comment Sarah, thank you so much for your wonderful enthuisasm and encouragement! 🙂 <3
I love it — fling the clay! 🙂
[…] my essay, Raw Literature: Memoir & What Lies Beneath, I share that ‘moment’ when I realised why I write memoir, always looking for the […]
It’s going to be a good un 🙂 🙂
I think so, too!
Aww…thanks so much Jo! 🙂 <3
Excellent post, Sherri. As usual, you write so honestly, it’s really refreshing! As writers we are all striving for something, whatever it is we are trying to say, or show, or share. An itch that can’t be scratched: how true. When the urge to get something down strikes, there is nothing that will divert my attention until that shitty first draft is there in front of me in black and white. I send you best greetings as always and wish you well with your writing journey…at least you are further along your chosen path now than when we first met😉xxx
Thank you for coming to the Ranch to read Sherri’s essay! You understand how long the path and those we meet along the way keep us in fine company.
Hi Jenny! Ahh…thank you so much for your great comment here at Carrot Ranch! Ha…so very true! Wow, thinking of those early days of blogging, and good old ‘Spamgate’…I had barely started that first shitty draft! So yes, it’s great to see how much progress has been made since then, despite the long gaps along the way. Your encouragement, support and wisdom along the way has been fantastic (and I absolutely love your writing…). It’s great to share that ‘itch’ we all get as writers, knowing we understand what it feels like! I’m so glad to walk with you along that path 🙂 <3
Yes, me too😉
Sherri, you always bare your soul so eloquently in style and prose. You have much to be proud of and you are a beautiful writer. I know how hard you’ve been working on your memoir and hopefully once you’ve published it, you will proudly acknowledge yourself as the published author you’re meant to be. 🙂 Big hugs! xoxo <3
I agree! Sherri bares her soul so elequently in style and prose. Thanks for visiting the Ranch, DG!
It was a pleasure. 🙂
Aww…thank you so much Deb…wow… published author… got chills! <3 Definitely time to just do it! Write, write, write! So kind of you to leave your lovely comment here at Carrot Ranch. Big hugs right back to you! 🙂 <3 xoxo
It was a thrill to see you hear Sher, truly. <3 🙂
OMG MY BAD, just saw my reply ‘hear’ ‘here’ LOL, fast fingers, Spelling alert! 🙂 <3
Haha…no worries, I do the same Deb, frequently!!! 🙂 <3
Lol, fast fingers! 🙂 xoxo
Yes, faster fingers than the brain…at least, in my case LOL!! Sometimes I wonder if I’m mildly dyslexic as I often type words back to front when in a hurry…or maybe I’m just weird, ha!!!! 🙂 xoxo
OMG, I do that too! I just think it’s that brain ahead of fingers thing. 🙂 <3
I think so too…we’re in too much of a rush, lol! 🙂 <3
🙂 🙂 <3
Wonderful post❤️ I recently began a blog to help promote a memoir I have been working on. I need some sort of feedback. Anything would help. Right now I feel rather unconnected.An Abortion Story – Dysfunctional Sarah
Thanks for visiting the Ranch, Sarah and joining our discussion on Raw Literature. I think you bring up a good point that when we are in the midst of that raw writing we feel disconnected. That’s one of the benefits of writing here weekly (or when you can) is to connect with other writers and step outside your work for a creative break. Reading your story, I can see you are bravely revisiting difficult decisions and past. As you can see, memoir writers are part of our community that writes flash fiction. Although we call it fiction, many here employ BOTS which is Based On A True Story. You might be surprised at what comes out in flash fiction, completely unrelated to your work in progress. Or you might want to fictionalize a section you are struggling with to get a different insight. We’re friendly and talkative here, but also welcome those who want to prompt and ply without the discourse, too!
Hi Sarah, thank you so much for reading my essay here at Carrot Ranch and leaving your comment. I can’t add too much more to Charli’s excellent reply, which hopefully encourages you with ways to help you feel a little less disconnected. I understand completely what that feels like. I’ll head over to your blog 🙂
<3 back Charli 🙂
Thanks for sharing your insights—what a lovely read!
Thank you so much for reading Tessa! It’s been an honour to guest post for Charli at Carrot Ranch 🙂
Thanks for visiting the ranch, Tessa!
A great insight into the journey of writing your memoir Sherri, the joy and the frustrations and the delight in finding something new you can do too 🙂
Thanks for visiting the ranch, Andrea!
Thank you so much Andrea. I could never have guessed that writing flash fiction would be so liberating while writing memoir. Especially as it wasn’t that long ago that I didn’t even know what it was! 🙂
Thanks for this, Sherri. That’s all I can say. I am right there with you. Posting this on my FB page in hopes a few others will find it.
Thanks so much Luanne…
[…] Memoir & What Lies Beneath by Sherri Matthews […]
[…] of this series, we’ve been exploring what it is to write first works. We’ve considered What Lies Beneath the ongoing process of a memoirist who digs deep. We’ve interviewed a writer newly elected as […]
[…] Matthews introduced the guest series with Memoir and What Lies Beneath, and reflects on her initial idea for a memoir. It’s a deep and introspective path to […]
Coming in very late to read the literature in the raw from the beginning and what a beginning. Well done Sherri. I’m glad that not only are you owning the story but are now proudly proclaiming yourself a memoir writer (which of course you are and always have been). I agree – the flash tightens the writing.
Thanks for joining in, Irene. It’s meant to be ongoing so timing is not an issue. I’d be interested to hear your perspective on raw literature with your memoir insights and knowledge.
I’ll gather my thoughts together.