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 firstname.lastname@example.org.