Mud Season Review

“Ecobiography” — Mining Memories for the Larger Picture

An Interview with Kayann Short

by Coty Poynter, Mud Season Review Creative Nonfiction Editor

“I’ve always loved Annie Lamott’s idea of the ‘shitty first draft.’”

Kayann Short

“Front Range Triptych” is a wonderful essay filled with some lovely, beautiful moments. There’s something about each section that feels, for a lack of better words, incredibly human. What compelled you to write this essay?  

The first and last sections of “Front Range Triptych” were written close to the moments they describe in the hope of capturing my experience as accurately as possible. The middle section, though, was written nearly fifty years after it happened. I wouldn’t say it’s fresh in my memory, but rather that it’s become a touchstone moment for me. It’s one I return to in thinking about my younger self pushing boundaries, as teenagers do. I wanted to put it in words as a way of considering why it was so important.

In “Front Range Triptych,” each section provides an overarching narrative. When I read each one, I felt as if I was looking at photographs within an album. By definition, a “triptych” is a trilogy.  What made you decide on this narrative structure? How did this essay evolve as you worked on it? 

“Photographs in an album” is a perceptive way to read this essay. I tried to create a sense of immediacy for each of the sections as if I—or the reader—were there. I wrote the three sections as distinct pieces with no initial plan to connect them. But, as with much of my writing, I eventually realized they were connected by their sense of place. I liked the idea of book-ending the essay about a long-ago outdoor adventure with the two more recent experiences of living on the Front Range. While “Daredevil” is in memory of my friend Lisa, whom I miss immensely, it also pays homage to a place, giving the other two sections a sense of what’s at stake in time passing. 

Creating a triptych of these short essays let me portray the beauty and the danger of living so close to the mountains, ever more apparent with the losses wrought by urban development and climate change. Hopefully, the triptych structure creates a whole that’s greater than the parts.

Do you have any methods when it comes to writing about memories? What are some ways that you prepare when it comes to writing creative nonfiction, particularly those more intimate moments in our lives? 

Although I also write fiction, my primary writing in the last decade has been memoir. Perhaps that’s because as I’ve gotten older, I’ve been drawn back to memories that were important to me. In fact, my book, A Bushel’s Worth: An Ecobiography, alternates memories of a childhood spent outdoors in the mountains of Colorado and on vacations to my grandparents’ farms, with stories about my current life at Stonebridge Farm. 

When writing about memories, it sometimes takes me a while to recognize that some past experiences have enough importance to write about. I mean, my life is my life and doesn’t always strike me as interesting. When I think about certain memories—like with “Devil at the Red Rock Edge”—as containing a deeper meaning for me, and hopefully others, I can use the details of the event to create a larger picture.

How long did it take you to write this essay? How many drafts did you go through?

The first and last essays both came quickly, since they were written soon after they happened—the first in February of 2020, just before the pandemic began, and the second in October 2021. But “Daredevil” was written before either of those. It evolved much more slowly, perhaps because it came from memory, which can be a tricky thing. It went through many more revisions to get the feeling of the experience right.

Could you describe your writing process? Do you have a specific routine, time, or place where you write? Do you rely more on inspiration or steady work? What is revision like for you? How do you know when a piece is finished? 

I like to work on several projects at once so that if I need to pause on one, I can move to another. Different projects also seem to cross-pollinate each other. I wish I could remember which writer said they had a different room for each type of writing. That would be ideal! My current book project involves hundreds of documents to construct a collective biography of a Chicago women’s group that built vacation homes in Colorado for single, working women. The scope of that project isn’t something I can always approach, so I balance it with shorter pieces, both fiction and nonfiction, that rely more on inspiration than research. 

I reserve one day a week for writing and protect that time fiercely. Through the rest of the week, I try to write for at least an hour a day and I incorporate writing by carrying around little notebooks, showing up for other writers, and facilitating a writer’s group at my local library. I actually love revision. I enjoy building out from a basic draft, then honing the heck out of it until I worry I’ll make it worse, and stop.

What topics or themes do you find you’re most interested in exploring through your work? 

I’m always interested in writing about the intersection of human and other-than-human or beyond-human life in the natural world. I use the term “ecobiography” to describe first-person, non-fiction writing that places a person’s life in the context of their ecological location and circumstances. I write a lot about the impact of climate change (climate crisis, really) on our farm and our Colorado landscape. Combined with development in this area, our natural habitat has changed drastically in my lifetime. I try to document those changes in my writing. 

I’m also interested in how women in particular, navigate their relationship with the natural world. One of my published works is on the artist and scientist Maria Sibylla Merian, a forerunner of the modern ecology movement. Other pieces look at how the climate crisis is changing women’s lives.

What are you reading now? Is it inspiring or affecting your writing? 

I read a lot in both fiction and nonfiction (I keep track of my yearly booklists on a private Pinterest page). I’ve recently read Elizabeth Strout’s latest, Oh William! and Damon Galgut’s Man Booker Prize winner, The Promise. Both inspired me with their unique voices and looser narrative lines. The British writer Ali Smith is always an inspiration to me. Her books are not driven by a formulaic sense of plot, but rather by ideas explored in a more meandering, yet intense way. Louise Erdrich and Ruth Ozeki are also favorites. I keep Virginia Woolf’s A Writer’s Diary next to my bed (although not the first edition mentioned in my essay) because she’s a writer who pushed boundaries. In nonfiction, I read about the environment and about women’s history. I love biographies or memoirs of women writers especially. Recently I enjoyed Bernardine Evaristo’s Manifesto: On Never Giving Up; Ruth Ozeki’s The Face, and Sheila Munro’s biography of her mother, Alice Munro. These books nourish me with the force of their subjects’ creative lives.

What is the best advice about writing you have ever received? 

I’ve always loved Annie Lamott’s idea of the “shitty first draft.” If I can get something down to start with, I know I can fix it up eventually. I think of the first draft (and following) as a piece of clay to push, pull, and mold into the shape I want. When I taught writing at the University of Colorado, my students would laugh when I’d tell them I was completely confident they could write a really, really shitty first draft. Similarly, Alicia Ostriker’s idea of writing as “pursuing an elusive intuition into the forest of what I cannot yet understand” affirms writing as a process without which no product, so to speak, is possible. Also, the advice I get from my critique group is always the best. I rarely submit a piece before the writers in my group have given it a real going-over.

What is the most difficult part of your writing process? 

Without a doubt, it’s finding time to write. I have to protect my writing time and my writing energy, so I try to be conscious always of myself as a writer whose time is valuable and worth making the commitment.

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