Raw Literature: The Power of Words

Written by Charli Mills

Charli Mills, a born buckaroo, makes literary art accessible at CarrotRanch.com. She writes about the veteran spouse experience and women forgotten to history.

July 11, 2017

Essay by C. Jai Ferry, a member of the Congress of Rough Writers.

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The process of writing is unique to each writer, but the longer I write, the more I realize that many readers have no understanding of the writing process in general—which for the most part, I am perfectly fine with. I’ll be honest, I kind of like being perceived as a magician who strings together words that pack an emotional punch. Something that feels so natural to me (although far from easy) awes and (hopefully) inspires many of my readers, and that is an incredibly euphoric realization.

But like I said, not all readers understand that creating a story is a process. I was reminded of this recently when a friend accused me of stealing her family’s stories for my own personal gain.

After the initial shock and anger wore off, I was somewhat amused by the accusation. Anyone who knows my writing style and the areas I tend to explore in my writing would probably agree that being the subject of my stories is not a good thing—certainly something you would never admit to! Many of the people important to me won’t even read my work. My writing partner is incredibly supportive of all of my writing efforts, but she has clearly defined rules for what she will and will not read from me. More often than not, a story falls in the latter category. My brother also supports my writing in ways that truly humble me, but he has made it crystal clear to me and his quickly-becoming-adult daughters that they will not read my stories. Ever. Friends on social media block my writing-related posts and even unfollow me altogether.

As much as such reactions hurt and frustrate me, I totally understand these actions. I write about things happening in our world that most people don’t want to—or can’t—think about. I tend to put a sympathetic face on evil—not because I promote evil, but because there’s some dangerous stuff happening in our own backyards (and sometimes in our own living rooms), but many people choose not to see these things, pretending they happen somewhere else, affect someone else, are carried out by someone else. This is a mentality that I genuinely abhor, so when I write, I often am reacting to my own disgust and frustration: How can you let this happen? Yes, you. You let it happen day in and day out by refusing to even consider that it could be happening right in front of you!

So when a friend says I stole her family’s story, I take the accusation seriously as a writer and as a human being. The story in question tackled a less scary issue, but the main character was dealing with more than a few issues, which were subtly woven in through the storyline: spousal abuse, PTSD, debilitating fear causing him to act out in dangerous ways. I tried to reassure my friend that the story was not taken from a few episodes that she shared about her family (episodes that had none of those issues from the story, by the way) and in fact had been written several days before we even got together and discussed these issues. I hoped that if she could understand my writing process, she would see that the story triggered such a strong reaction in her because of what her family was dealing with, not because of the words I had strung together on the page.

Unfortunately, that part of the situation does not have a happy ending. She and I are no longer friends, and I doubt we ever will be able to be in the same room together much less talk to one another. But I did learn something valuable from this entire experience:

I’m a damn good writer.

I wrote a 99-word story in response to a one-word prompt that evoked an incredibly strong reaction in a reader. No, it was not the reaction I wanted, but as writers, we don’t have the luxury of telling readers how they must react. We hope they will react a certain way, we envision them having the same reaction to our words that we might have had while writing them, but ultimately their reaction is theirs alone to have. And that reminds me of a maxim often bantered around the writing groups:

Writing is a lonely profession.

I have most often heard this said in reference to the writing process (e.g., locked away at our writing desks for months at a time), but the more I write, the more I believe that some writers become ostracized by friends and family because of what they write. Readers often think erotica authors are having sex all the time, so writers who focus on darkness and horror must be demented in some way, right? (Just to clarify, that’s sarcasm.) What about authors who demonstrate their power by making unsavory characters sympathetic in some way? Did Nabokov feel isolated and alone, ostracized even, after writing Lolita? He certainly struggled with his decision to seek publication, fearing he might lose his friends and even his job if his name was attached to it, but he ultimately did submit it for publication—and continued to do so when publisher after publisher rejected it.

We’re writers, magicians with words, and although the spells we cast may not always produce the expected effect, that shouldn’t stop us from writing and sharing the result. Indeed, it can’t stop us.


C. Jai Ferry grew up in a small rural town in one of those middle states between New York and Los Angeles. She put together her first book of poetry, complete with a lime green cover, for a class assignment in fifth grade. Today, she focuses on short stories with narrators who are often described as brutally honest and who likely need some form of professional help.

Her most recent collection of microfiction, “Unraveled,” earned a 5-star review from Readers’ Favorites, and her award-winning short story “Skeleton Dance” was made into a short noir film that was chosen by the Prairie Lights Film Festival for its Nebraska Noir anthology project. To learn more about her publications, get a free collection of short stories by signing up for her newsletter, and read her (more or less) weekly musings and stories, visit www.cjaiferry.com.

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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 wordsforpeople@gmail.com.

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  1. Charli Mills

    C. Jai, I appreciate that you thought of this space to generate a discussion on the power of words — it is what I believe to be the underlying power of literature. When we write and read there are both conscious and subconscious activities firing in our brains. Discussion is where we can connect these ideas and have a-ha moments. Readers and writers can both experience the unexpected in reading or writing, and as this reader of your discovered, it can be unsettling. Interesting that she saw her own family mirrored to the degree that it must have been her story. I do think the “image protectors” of families and groups are naturally paranoid about their secrets escaping through cracks, and blame can be a great distraction if the truth is nearby. As a survivor, I appreciate writers who write into the shadow self of humanity because it validates the truth survivors are often denied. You are a damned good writer!

    • C. Jai Ferry

      Charli, I so appreciate this space you have created. Although I didn’t get the opportunity to respond to this week’s prompt, I would say that Carrot Ranch is a beacon for writers, especially those of us trying to figure out the next steps in our journey. The prompts have gotten me writing even when I felt like I had nothing to write, and each time I come away from the experience with a deeper understanding of what writing means to me. The essays inspire me to delve deeper into the creation processes, explore new rabbit holes, and become more confident in the overall journey. I can’t wait to see how Carrot Ranch continues to grow, and I feel so lucky that I get to tag along for the ride 🙂

      • Charli Mills

        Thank you, C. Jai! I appreciate that you can connect at Carrot Ranch and my ongoing hope is that each writer can connect how and when it feels best. My job is to keep the beacon fire going! And what I gain in return from you and other writers is also the challenge to go deeper into the process and pull out the unexpected from the depths. It gives me more confidence, too. I’m lucky to have great writers to ride with. Hang on to your hat! 🙂

  2. julesdixonauthor

    I agree, C Jai. Words are meant to be explored and challenged. All writers all do that in different ways and even with the same story prompt 100 authors will write 100 totally different stories, but there always can be nuances which end up in more than one. Whether they be tropes or just personal experiences that have affected two people the same, I think that’s the brilliance of humanity–we can share the same story! And that fact should bring us closer together, not divide us.
    I’m sorry your friend reacted poorly and couldn’t listen for the truth. Sometimes a story that reveals our inner truths and makes us uncomfortable, that’s not a reason to end a friendship, it’s the reason to continue and develop an open and honest discussion.
    Hope that you can recover with friends who really appreciate who you are and what you offer the writing world.

    • Charli Mills

      Jules, I’ve always said my favorite part of the flash fiction challenge at Carrot Ranch is the compilation for the reason you state. What it creates from all those diverse responses is a collaborative dialog in literary form. C. Jai reminds us, too that how the dialog is perceived by readers is beyond our control. Thank you for adding to the discussion with your insights!

    • C. Jai Ferry

      Hahaha, as you know all too well, Jules, I can be a little (ahem, a lot) too honest for many people to handle (full disclosure: Jules is my writing partner, and she’s getting awfully good at cracking that new whip of hers). Thanks for not running away when you had the chance 😉

      • Charli Mills

        Jules, you sound like a wonderful writing partner, whip and all!

  3. D. Avery @shiftnshake

    “Just put down the pens, nobody gets hurt!”

    Dang it. I was just going to relax, watch the water, grill some cauliflower, and now I am busy contemplating the writing process. And the reading process. Wondering that I have had a blast writing these last four months here at the Ranch and haven’t shared this form of publication with my family, or too many friends. Writing a paradox braid of private and public.
    I lost a friend over writing. That’s okay, in the end.
    I can’t explain cranking out 99 a week; if you have to ask, you’ll never know. I’ve been happy with myself for managing to do it.
    Impressed that you actually state that you are a damn good writer. (Not saying you’re not, just impressed that you can say it.)
    Damn good essay.

    • Charli Mills

      “Step away from the page.”

      It beckons us to think as much as to write, and read doesn’t it? Many people write, especially now with blogs being “online journals.” But I think there is a subtle difference between the one who thinks the best part of writing is “to have written” and one who cannot help but write because the need to explore, reveal, process, create is too strong to deny. I’m sorry you lost a friend to writing, but I’m happy to have gained the writer. And yes, it is an evolution to reach the point in making that declaration. I can tell you all at Carrot Ranch that you are damned good writers but what matters is that you take it up with the pen and page.

    • D. Avery @shiftnshake

      PS, best damn cauliflower ever (Bacon infused) and a productive contemplation. So, thanks again. [Shorty beware; others developing campfire cooking]

      • Charli Mills

        Oh, good gracious! I’m going to have to try that style. Sounds like The Kid got bacon around that welcome fire!

      • D. Avery @shiftnshake

        “Kid, what are you doin in there?”
        “Nothin’ “
        “Well if yer doin’ nothin’, git out. I gotta go.”
        “I’m busy.”
        “What are you doin?”
        “Yer doin somethin’.”
        “It ain’t nothin’. Now go away, I’d like some privacy.”
        “Oh… You know, Kid, it’s ok, everyone does it.”
        “Even you?”
        “Yup, since I was knee high to a grasshopper.”
        “Did ya worry about someone catchin ya at it?”
        “Used to, but now I jist do it when ever and where ever I like. Ta heck with ‘em if they don’t like it.”
        “So… you write too.”

      • Norah

        You’ve got to be the Quick-Draw Kid, fastest pen in the west. Love these stories. That Aussie does all right considering she’s walking upside down all day. You’d think the blood would rush to her head and explode! 🙂

    • D. Avery @shiftnshake

      [Lawd help me]

      “So yer sayin’ everyone does this?”
      “Gosh, yes. Can’t help herself. Even likes to do it with friends. Does it real heartfelt.”
      “What about CJ?”
      “CJ will do it when no one is lookin’ and even when they are.”
      “Does Aussie do it?”
      “Oh, yeah. You can learn a lot from Aussie. Really gets down under. Does it real meaningful like.”
      “Is there a wrong way to do it?”
      “No, Kid, that’s the beauty of it. It’s all good. Just do what feels right for you.”
      “What will people think, I mean…”
      “Ah, Kid, just write already.”

      • Charli Mills

        Ha, ha! You have the fever. Write on, D.! 😀

    • C. Jai Ferry

      I have one piece of writing that was published early in my career (my first short story ever accepted for publication) that I have never shared with my family. My brother knows of its existence and has threatened to hunt it down, but luckily he has not yet. The story was a reflection on a difficult time for my family (the hospital stay leading up to my mother’s death), and I have almost surreal memories of those days. I remember the odd glow of the parking lot lights and seeing my mother in the way my brother stood in the doorway of her hospital room. I took all these odd visual recollections and wrote a story about a daughter losing her mother. It was both a memory and complete fiction at the same time, if that’s possible (I think it is, but I might just be telling myself that to avoid therapy). At any rate, I know that if my family reads that story, they would conclude that it was my actual experience, and it was to a point, but it absolutely was not at the same time. The details were real, but the story was made up. Someday I might be able to sit down with my brother and help him understand this (and he would absolutely be able to understand it), but I also think reading the story would be difficult for him because it really would blur the lines between fiction and reality. But I have a history of this, too. In high school, I wrote a story about being the daughter of an alcoholic. Some of the details were taken from real life, but the story itself was pure fiction. My father read it and was terribly hurt, thinking this was how I perceived him. He actually started arguing with me about what the characters did (things that never happened in real life). It was my mother who explained to him that it was fiction–born of my personal experiences, yes, but fiction nonetheless. My mother got it. She was a writer, too. I relish the anonymity that writing can provide (that is, being able to write with having to share it with anyone who actually knows you) because it gives me a freedom to explore really flawed characters. Sometimes I share my work with my family and friends. Sometimes I don’t. But whenever I have pieces that excite me while simultaneously scaring me (that people I know might read them)–yeah, those are the ones I find a home for. They need to see the light of day…just maybe not the light in my neighborhood. Not yet.

      • D. Avery @shiftnshake

        I totally get what you say about total fiction and actual experiences. Even when something is labeled as fiction, people want to know if it’s real, is it based on….? It shouldn’t matter. Of course life informs art, and it is still art, made up, created.
        Guess experience, life, is the soil, which contains all sorts of seeds. Writers recognize them, encourage them, grow them. Some will see the result as a weed, some will see a flower. Both flower and weed could wonder where the seed went. Are they the seed? Is the seed the flower?
        I don’t have your family issues; I just like my space. Don’t want to see my stuff on my mother’s refrigerator.
        I got from your post that it would be ok to respond with fiction. I think it’s to your points. Anyway, it’s out there now.

      • Charli Mills

        C. Jai and D., this is an interesting look at the anonymity of writing, of being the secret gardener of those seeds that can become difficult gardens to explain, thus we simply tend to them and hope the garden is what’s seen and not the gardener. With a different perspective, I insist on putting out my identity, my name, my gardener’s badge. Claiming my stories is empowering to me. And yet it also makes me think full-circle about what I write, even fiction. Before we left Idaho, the Hub and I went to visit his folks in Nevada. His Aunt was there and she and her husband have long been supporters of my writing, a rarity, I think because most people don’t possess that kind of patience or depth to long-term a writer in a relationship. Before her husband died, my Aunt (his, but I claim her) read my raw draft of Miracle of Ducks to her husband. I can’t tell you how touching of an act that was, to know that even on his death bed he still wanted to be a part of the process. The book, when it finally gets the light of day, is dedicated to them. Anyhow, I wanted to read a revision to her and my MIL listened in, too. I suddenly felt exposed because with her in the audience I realized that this fiction relayed truths I didn’t even see but she reacted to. All I could do was say, it’s fiction. But it is MY fiction. It’s my story (and I’m stickin’ to it!).

  4. Liz Husebye Hartmann

    I’d always heard that art is created by both the artist and the person experiencing the art. When a person resonates to whatever truth we put out there (art, music, writing, ??), and feels a sense of betrayal of secrets shared, it may be that we’ve hit the jackpot, done it right.

    It’s a kind of validation, as painful as it may be to us (and the gentle reader).

    • Charli Mills

      Liz, I agree that it’s a shared experience, and better to elicit a reaction than gain none. And some art takes more courage to write and read, but I feel we need a wide swath and not just pretty pastoral scenes. It is validating, but can be painful.

      • Liz Husebye Hartmann

        Absolutely! And the ability to perceive and have a reaction from the gut shows some permeability to the pain of stretching one’s mind/heart. A good thing, disguised as a rejection/negative reaction?
        (Hope that doesn’t sound creepy/stalker-ish–not meant to be!).

      • Charli Mills

        Not at all, Liz! I think there is pain in stretching one’s heart and mind, but without the stretching we languish.

    • C. Jai Ferry

      Yes, absolutely a shared experience, and as writers, it’s easy to forget that. I have a couple of stories that help remind me of that because people will mention some detail from them months and years after they read them. (yeah, my writing has a tendency of disturbing people) But every time, it’s like a shock to me. No matter how many times I am reminded that readers are part of the process (beyond the support they provide me for my career), it is still almost paralyzing when something like this (my friend’s reaction) happens, especially when it was completely unexpected from my end. Working through the experience for this essay helped me realize that we must keep writing. Just like I can’t change myself to make others happy, I can’t subdue my writing to ensure that I don’t provoke too much of an emotional response. That response is absolutely a validation (and a costly one, in this instance) but I guess when we are creating–no, after we are done creating a piece!–we have to consider whether we want to release it to the world or not.

      • Liz Husebye Hartmann

        ” I can’t subdue my writing to ensure that I don’t provoke too much of an emotional response.”
        Agreed! How much is too much varies from person to person, so you can’t always win. Your friend may come back, once he/she feels safe with him/her self.

      • Charli Mills

        This makes me realize why I have difficulty with non-writing relationships — I go too deep, see too much and want them to do so also. Maybe only deep sea writers are willing to go there yet the land-lubbers need the insights from the depths to grow on their own terms. It gets lonely underwater until we spot another in scuba-gear, packing a pen like a spear.

  5. Lisa @ The Meaning of Me

    This is tremendous, C Jai. We hear about the loneliness of writing – as you said – but not the loneliness after we write. I think that’s one of my fears about putting stuff out there. What if X person reads this and thinks Y about it? About me? Have to get over that hurdle for sure.
    I, too, love that you said out loud here that you are a damn good writer. You are. We all are. And it’s OK to say so.
    Loved this essay – thanks for opening this conversation here with all of us.

    • Charli Mills

      Lisa, I was thinking about the same thing — about the loneliness after the writing. And yet, there’s also a tremendous sense of empowerment, too in not stifling our own voices, in expressing the things that hold meaning for us to say. We never can control what another thinks of our writing and I can’t tell you how many times I’ve written posts with my finger indecisive between hitting “publish” or “delete.” If it really is bothering me, I revise, looking to be fair and yet, as truthful as I feel I can be to my own voice. It’s the posts I fear the most that seem to resonate strongest with readers. Thanks for joining the conversation!

    • C. Jai Ferry

      A couple of years ago, I participated in several writing groups at the same time. One group would always respond to Chuck Wendig’s flash fiction challenges (he posts them every Friday or every other Friday). One challenge was to update a fairy tale–a pretty common writing exercise among writing communities. At the time, I was reading some fairly disturbing news articles about the depravity of contemporary humans, so my fairy tale went to a pretty dark place (along the lines of human trafficking and abuse/torture). I absolutely loved what I wrote and I was so excited to share it with someone (anyone!) to see if what I thought I had done successfully had really panned out as I expected it to (the story never really came out and said ABC did XYZ, but it turns out that leaving the deed unsaid can have an even more powerful effect on the reader, who knows what is happening anyway). So I sent it out to some trusted writing colleagues. I swear I could hear them shuddering through the computer, and the response was overwhelming: For the love of God, don’t share these stories with us! That was the worst point in my career to date because I felt completely alone. If professional writers didn’t want to read my work to offer feedback, what reader would want to read it for entertainment? Luckily I found one horror writer who will read just about anything (although she has certain limitations due to her own personal history). She is a master at separating reality from fiction, and she knows that what people write reflects only their skill in writing, not the number of bodies they have buried in the backyard 😉 I think we just have to keep searching until we find that person who can separate the story from the writer; once they read our work (and we don’t go up in a burst of “you really did this?” anxiety), sharing with others becomes easier. Not easy, but easier. Then again, if it was easy, we wouldn’t all be damn good writers 😉

      • Charli Mills

        That’s where I think other deep sea writers in the dark can buoy each other. I better drop this analogy! Anyhow, what I find interesting is that it’s not really the dark content, it’s the wiliness to mine dark places. Both my writing partner and I go deep but neither writes dark, necessarily, though we tackle hard issues. So, I’m thinking your kindred is not necessarily the writer of certain content, but the type of processor and the willing explorer of the shadow side of humanity. Anne Goodwin doesn’t write dark, but I know she goes deep into the dark and often writes from the point of view of a character most would deem evil. My writing partner can pierce hearts with her memoir writing because she’s poked the sensitive places of her own in the writing process. I don’t write about childhood sexual abuse but I go there to process my characters and to see history from angles others don’t even consider. C. Jai, you just make me want to read more of your writing!

  6. Marsha

    What an intimate and intricate conversation going on here. This is what blogging is all about, in my humble opinion. I am still afraid to write fiction. It can be offensive, in fact, it needs to be offensive at times to be interesting, I think. I had one beta reader that read my Nanowrimo book and liked it except for the main character who was”too far out there.” Since that character was the one I most closely identified, I shut it down for a very long time. It’s still sitting 3 or 4 years later. :(. Maybe I’ll get brave again some day. I admire your courage, C Jai. 🙂

  7. Norah

    What a fabulous conversation between writers who reflect upon their purposes and processes and bring wisdom and understanding of each to the discussion. I am sitting at the table listening intently, nodding madly, giving consideration to all thoughts expressed so openly, and contributing little in return. You are all damn good writers. I love that you made that statement C. Jai. It needed to be said. I’m sorry that your friendship ruptured over the content of your story. The truth can hurt. But what hurt is what your story helped her tell herself about her life and family; not what you told. It made her uncomfortable. There is obviously much she needs to accept. While I write little fiction at the moment, the reaction of others, and the truths I may expose unwittingly about myself and my family keep me focused on other things for the moment. There is hardly a situation I could write about that wouldn’t show connection to someone in the family. 🙂 Writing is a tough life, but hey, someone’s got to do it. I’m pleased there are some good ones (of you) out there doing just that.

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