Raw Literature: Variations Within Memoir

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 18, 2017

Essay by Irene Waters, a member of the Congress of Rough Writers.

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This writing is raw. Most of my writing that you may have seen to date is raw. By that I mean it is uncooked, the first draft without changes and alterations. The grammar may be imperfect, it may have spelling mistakes, it may be lacking in description and there may be the odd inconsistency. It is done quickly, allowing creativity to flow unimpeded. Blogging raw I find helpful in the creative process. I don’t spend a lot of time on the posts but it kickstarts the flow of ideas, allowing work that I plan on editing and re-editing – cooking  it and processing it – to be written to the page.

For a memoir writer there are a couple of other types of raw writing. The first is a type I rarely do and for some, including one of my thesis examiners, my writing is not raw enough. Some think that memoir should be an open cut, exposing bleeding wounds and laying open the scars for all to pick at. Certainly some types of memoir call for this. The misery memoir is a good example. A few memoirs in this group are Mary Karr’s and Frank McCourt’s three books. Although I am now tackling a memoir that will have this type of raw writing, my previous two memoirs have been written purely for the story where true life adventures are related.

In memoir there should also be a distinction between what is private and what is public knowledge. Whilst maintaining honesty the memoir writer should sift through the raw material and decide what belongs purely in a diary and what can be shared with the world. Elizabeth Gilbert said of her memoir Eat Pray Love that it was so finely tuned (no longer raw) that the reader doesn’t get a sense of her. She is unrecognisable. She said that if you wanted to know her, read her fiction work as there, believing that she was anonymous, she did not censor her writing and to her surprise found that more of her showed through in it than in her memoir.

Another type of raw that the memoir writer needs to be aware of and avoid is writing when the emotions are still raw. The passage of time is essential to enable the episode to be viewed dispassionately. The others in the memoir must be treated ethically – for when you write a memoir you also write someone else’s biography. If you write with raw emotion (useful as a therapeutic tool but not for publication) the purpose for writing is often slanted, and may be judgemental, a desire to hurt someone, to pay them back and this may not reflect well on the writer. Rather than sit in judgement, time allows the memoirist to write in a sensitive manner that will show the reader, through the actions of the characters, what manner of person they are.

For me, memoir is the making of identity. Without memoir, such as when a person is suffering from dementia, the person’s identity fades with the worsening of the condition and eventually is lost to them and kept alive only by others who can tell their stories. Depending on what you tell will depend on the identity you give yourself. But I digress from raw literature.

To conclude I will give an example of raw literature from the first draft of my manuscript Nightmare in Paradise.

My fear as to what I might find on arrival at the volcano overrode the abject terror I normally experienced every time I travelled the road over the mountain to the other side.  It is also the only time I had been over that stretch of road at speeds far exceeding that which would guarantee a safe arrival at the other end.  My head was spinning. Had I brought sufficient equipment with me to deal with anything I might find? What might I find? It just couldn’t be true.

After editing this passage is no longer raw although I feel as though it has more rawness. It gives, I hope, the reader an idea of what travelling to the volcano was like the night one of our tourists, along with a local guide, was killed by a lump of lava from the volcano.

The troop carrier sliced through the dark heat of the night as it sped, at speeds none would attempt in daylight, towards the volcano. I knew I was with other people but apart from Jim, the owner of Tanna Beach Resort I had no idea who was riding in the back with me. No-one spoke, everybody lost in their own thoughts. Mine were a nightmare. A nightmare that allowed the terror I normally felt when negotiating the sharp hairpin bends over the steep mountainside to remain hidden. The visions in my mind were vivid, in full red colour, whilst the reality of where I sat was grey, as though a mist had descended obscuring the others who sat with me.


Irene Waters blogs at Reflections and Nightmares where she focuses on photography and writing challenges. She has written a memoir Nightmare in Paradise which she hopes to publish in 2017. As a memoirist she found that there was little scholarly scrutiny on the sequel memoir. She carried out research on this subject gaining her Master of Arts in 2017. This also saw the completion of her second manuscript. She is now working on a novel way of writing raw memoir.

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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. dgkaye

    Fantastic post from Irene. As a fellow memoir writer, I concur that writing in memoir and bringing the other characters who are part of our stories in is to aid in the essence of our stories, not as an opportunity to publicly bash them as some sort of penance, and certainly not to use them to portray a woe is me attitude. 🙂

    • Charli Mills

      I found that point enlightening. Even if you don’t intend to, I can see how raw emotions might color and warp objectivity. And I hadn’t thought about others as being characters in a memoir. I love that we can talk shop about literature regardless of genres we each might write. 🙂

      • Irene Waters 19 Writer Memoirist

        Yes I love that we can talk despite our different genre preferences. I love playing with the differences, such as character names in fiction. I love the freedom in fiction to find names for them that have another layer of meaning that adds to the story where in memoir you are stuck with the names that they have been given. I also love finding the similarities.

      • dgkaye

        So true Charli. Aren’t we all a fascinating lot? 🙂 x

      • Charli Mills

        Much more interesting and different expressions to explore. Yes, we are all a fascinating lot! 🙂

    • Irene Waters 19 Writer Memoirist

      Thank you Debby. Personally I think the only person you hurt when you approach people, even horrible people, in a non sensitive way is yourself. I purchased your memoir a while back and am looking forward to reading it soon. Time is so scarce it seems.

      • dgkaye

        Thank you Irene. I do know all about the ever-expanding TBR. If I could read memoirs all day I’d be a happy camper. And you are so right. Bashing people in our stories is a poor reflection on us as writers. 🙂

  2. Shareen Ayoub Mansfield

    These are always fun to read. I wish I could do flash fiction!

    • Charli Mills

      You are always welcome, Shareen! The Ranch is a safe space to explore. Irene is one of several memoirists who discovered they enjoy writing flash fiction and they taught us fictioneers about BOTS (based on a true story).

      Okay! I have a challenge for you: next prompt, set a timer for 5 minutes and just free write, go with any crazy flow that comes to mind. Then set a timer again for 5 minutes and revise it into 99, cutting away what is not needed to tell the story.

      There’s no judgement or critique here. Just a place to explore, play, practice, refine and talk among others doing the same. 🙂 I’d love to change your statement to you can do this!

    • Irene Waters 19 Writer Memoirist

      Like Charli, I have the greatest confidence that you could write flash. I have found that flash really makes you focus on what is essential to your story and gets rid of the fluff. I think it hones your writing skills and like all writing practice makes it better.

    • Norah

      You can do it, Shareen! Do join in!

  3. Charli Mills

    Great essay, Irene, and enlightening. I hadn’t thought of all the possibilities for memoir and didn’t know about misery memoir. I have read Frank McCourt, though and that’s an apt description of his writing. And incredible what Elizabeth Gilbert says regarding how much of herself she reveals in fiction, more so than in her memoir. Thank you for the insights! Good to know you are on to book three! You have them lining up just as I do. 🙂

    • Irene Waters 19 Writer Memoirist

      Thank you for the opportunity to look at raw variations in memoir. There are so many sub-genres in memoir with perhaps the most common is the bildungsroman (coming of age memoir) of which misery memoirs are a part, but their are grief memoirs, gastronomic memoirs, travel memoirs, jock memoirs (sport), true life adventures to name just a few.
      Yes I have a few things on the go at the moment. I have no doubt you will have your line up out in the world, for me I am only certain of one at the moment.

      • Charli Mills

        It makes sense, but I hadn’t really known about all the sub-genres. Really, a memoirist has much to craft from a single life! I don’tthink I’ll be writing a jock memoir soon. But hmm, maybe a fun fiction prompt!

      • Irene Waters 19 Writer Memoirist

        Haha. Neither will I unless of course I write about dancing and that could be a possibility. That prompt would certainly suit at least one of your flashers.

  4. Annecdotist

    Really enjoyed your essay, Irene, especially as it revisits and extends my thinking on some of the issues we’ve previously discussed. Thanks for including that raw and revised passage from your memoir – the first is fine but the second feels much more immediate and engaging.
    Which brings me to your tutor’s nagging to include more of the personal – I wonder if there might be an underlying assumption that that’s the best way to bring the reader up close to your experience. But your quoted revision shows that certainly not the only way – as you’ve shown, it’s perfectly achievable through the writing style. Indeed, too much of the personal, especially if/when it’s incompletely processed, can be offputting to the reader.
    I think the same is true when writing fiction which comes, to a greater or lesser degree, from an aspect of one’s personal experience. If it’s not processed, the writing will flop.
    Thanks, Charli, for instigating and hosting this continually fascinating series.

    • Charli Mills

      And speaking of processing — I come back to thinking about this and what you’ve said, too about completing the processing: “Elizabeth Gilbert said of her memoir Eat Pray Love that it was so finely tuned (no longer raw) that the reader doesn’t get a sense of her. She is unrecognisable.” Unprocessed we show ourselves. Processed, even in memoir, we can be incognito yet nail the intent of the sharing. I’m liking that we can examine process through this series and dialog!

    • Irene Waters 19 Writer Memoirist

      Thanks Anne. It was interesting with the examiners. One hated the memoir part of my thesis and said it needed to be rewritten in entirety. The other loved it and placed it in the top 10% of theses that he had examined. What I find interesting was that the one who hated it was a woman and the one who loved it was a man. I’d need a much larger sample group to draw any meaningful conclusions but I put it down to having a good story to tell but not getting bogged down in emotional traumas whereas I think that was exactly what the female examiner wanted. I can only hope that there are a lot of male memoir readers although I am certain that my first memoir about our time in Vanuatu will appeal to both genders.
      My first draft is always lacking description. It purely gets the story down. Then I go back over and over asking myself what does the reader need to know if they have never seen a particular scene or need to get enough input to put themselves in the position and feel it for themselves. This is a mute point and memoir purists would say that you have to tell more than show because without telling you are not showing how you found the experience and what you have learnt from the experience. As every reader brings their own world experience to the page the interpretation of a shown piece may not be as the memoirist experienced it. This is the problem I imagine for fiction writers and processing is definitely necessary so that the writing doesn’t flop.

      • Annecdotist

        I think you’ve definitely got something when it elicits such polarised responses. Difficult though, when you’re trying to satisfy examiners rather than the wider range of readers.

      • Irene Waters 19 Writer Memoirist

        I was quite relieved Anne. It would have been better had they both loved it but I know from book club that it rarely happens that everyone likes a book. At least they both liked the exegesis which I was more worried about.

  5. D. Avery @shiftnshake

    Everyone said it and said it well, better than I could. But I like this. Call it what you will, you have some well turned words there. And my mind just got opened some more.

    • Charli Mills

      I never thought much of memoir as a genre until I met the Memoirists who ride at the Ranch, broadening the interpretation of “flash fiction.” Across genres we have much to share. Irene brings her knowledge, too which I find easy to understand. Yes, agreed, mind opened!

    • Irene Waters 19 Writer Memoirist

      Thank you. I think we can all add to each other and by doing so our writing will benefit.

  6. julespaige

    Irene –

    I really enjoyed your post. For a very long time I think most of my poetry could fit into Misery Memoir. Teen Angst plays a strong part in that type of writing – at least it did for me. But I suppose the same can be said for other unpleasant life experiences.

    I have missed writing to several of your posts for Memoir. Maybe I’ll get back to them… however sometimes as we all know – real life gets in the way.

    Cheers, Jules

    • Charli Mills

      Ah, great expansion, Jules, adding Misery Memoir to Poetry. So true, though with Teen Angst! Not much more miserable than that to process. 🙂 And like you, I’d like to revisit Irene’s memoir prompt as I find Times Past fascinating in its generational and regional comparisons.

      • julespaige

        We got home to find that the car we didn’t take needed repair, then I stopped at the farm market on the way home from helping to pick up the repaired car…Then made dinner and after that mowed the front lawn… Time EEk where does it go. I’ll have just a bit of time between laundry tomorrow 🙂

        I hope you are settling into your new place. And getting all the help that your guy needs! Now maybe you can enjoy the rest of the summer – even if the strawberries come late and autumn arrives early.

    • Irene Waters 19 Writer Memoirist

      I find Jules that I used to only write poetry at times of extreme anguish so I can understand totally how you used poetry in your teens. I did an illustrated book of poetry when my first marriage was breaking up violently. It reads like a horror movie.
      I know just what you mean about real life getting in the way. I no longer have the excuse of study when I can sit on the computer for hours ( with some of those hours blogging.) I am now becoming very erratic myself. Times Past will be there when you have time and if the mood takes you. You are always welcome.

      • julespaige

        Thank you… I think your particular prompts help direct us all to look back and pin point some memories that we might otherwise just pass by or maybe even ignore.

        It is also a trial I think for any writer who has family that really isn’t interested. I gave my sons a particular collection I had compiled when my father passed. And to tell you the truth I don’t think they have even read it through. I know they are busy. But what is important to one person isn’t always important to another.

        For a time I tried to send poetry to my hubby while he was away – but it made him too sad, especially if I was missing him. So he asked me to stop. And I write about what happens even if indirectly. So I just don’t do that anymore – I only show him humorous pieces now. That’s one reason why I enjoy the net communities because of the support of other writers.

      • Irene Waters 19 Writer Memoirist

        I think that the desire to know family stories comes as one gets older. I know that now I would ask my grandparents so many questions that it didn’t enter my head to ask when they were alive. I think these stories survive in societies that are aural story tellers but in our high tech society we have lost both the art of telling and the art of listening. I am sure your sons will appreciate your efforts somewhere down the track.
        My husband will not read one thing that I have written whilst my mother is my fan club convenor. The funny thing is – even if I get a good review I discount it. I do like the conversation and support of the other writers on wordpress.

  7. Norah

    Fascinating post, Irene. Thank you for sharing your memoir-writing process. I read quite a bit of memoir, including a few that you mention. I’m looking forward to reading yours.
    Thank you for sharing the raw and polished versions of your mountain experience. It is interesting to see the difference between writing to get the ideas down, and writing for a reader to appreciate the experience. Some may think memoir is only for the writer, but we readers have much to gain from reading about others’ lives, even if it be through fiction, as Elizabeth Gilbert says.
    The conversation instigated by your post has been very interesting. Well done, Irene and Charli. It is great to have a safe platform for such discussions and opportunities for learning.

    • Irene Waters 19 Writer Memoirist

      Thanks Norah. Yes it is wonderful to have that safe platform from which to leap and reading other writer’s processes makes us closely examine our own allowing changes to occur that are often beneficial. Pleased to hear that you are looking forward to my memoir. I am looking forward to getting it out there.

  8. Laleh Chini

    Great thanks

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