Yelizaveta P. Renfro is the 2014 Sarton Award winner for Xylotheque, a collection of nine very personal and revealing essays that combine memoir and nature writing. She is also the author of a collection of short stories, A Catalogue of Everything in the World, winner of the St. Lawrence Book Award. She holds an MFA from George Mason University and a Ph.D. from the University of Nebraska. Born in the former Soviet Union, she has lived in California, Virginia, Nebraska, and Connecticut.
Tell us about your writing life. When did you begin writing? What’s your favorite place/time to write? How do you fit it into the rest of your life?
In a sense, I’ve been writing my entire life (or at least as long as I can remember). I have various diaries and journals going back to when I was about eight years old. I haven’t always done the same kind of writing—I spent a period of time studying journalism and writing for daily newspapers, for example—but I have been pretty consistent about doing some kind of writing since childhood.
I have no favorite time or place to write. It’s whenever I have time and wherever I happen to be. I teach writing full time at Westfield State University in Massachusetts, I teach writing part time online for UCLA Extension Writers’ Program, and I have two kids in elementary school. A set writing “schedule” just doesn’t work for me. When it’s the end of the semester and I have over fifty essays to grade, I don’t write at all. On the other hand, over the summer I might write a lot.
Yet in another way, I’m writing all the time. Let me explain. I have numerous notebooks of different sizes that I carry around with me pretty much all the time, and I jot notes down wherever I happen to be—at my daughter’s swim practice, during my office hours, waiting for a flight, etc. At any given moment I am mentally working on a number of different projects, and whenever I have a thought about one, I jot it down. Then, when I actually have writing time, I sit down with all of my notebooks, and I type up all of these notations, stringing them together, bridging the gaps between them, until I have a story or an essay.
I was asked a couple of years ago to write a short piece on “the place where I write,” which explores some of this further (read the article here).
You’ve written a collection of short stories, A Catalogue of Everything in the World. Which form do you like best, essay or fiction? Why?
People often ask me if I consider myself primarily a fiction or nonfiction writer, and my answer is that I am both. I can’t choose just one genre as my favorite. There is some material that seems to lend itself better to fiction, some to nonfiction.
That being said, I should add that I came to creative nonfiction and the essay form rather late—and I love it! When I first started college, I was planning to major in journalism and become a newspaper reporter. As I describe in the essay “Quercus” (in Xylotheque) I discovered that this was not the kind of writing I wanted to do. Rather, I wanted to tell stories that mattered, stories that withstood the test of time, stories that I polished and perfected—and so I decided that I should become a fiction writer, because fiction was “literature” in a way that journalism was not. So I majored in comparative literature, read the classics of world literature, and then went on to get an MFA in fiction writing and then a Ph.D. in English with a creative (fiction) dissertation.
Along the way, I wrote a few essays, but I kept thinking that a “serious” writer would write fiction. It was only after completing my Ph.D. that I came to realize that creative nonfiction was just as serious and enduring as fiction, that the essay form was expansive and full of potential, capable of taking on the kinds of stories I wanted to tell. In a sense, I went from one extreme (journalism) to the other (fiction) and then came back to the middle: creative nonfiction. It’s a genre that allows me to take my training in journalism and training in fiction and marry the two.
The essays in Xylotheque were written and published over an extended period of time—ten years or more. What prompted you to pull them together into a collection? How much rewriting did you have to do in order to fit the essays together?
At first, my essays were a side interest—a diversion—while I worked on my “serious” work of fiction writing. The first essay that I wrote is the first one in the book, “Living at Treeline.” When I was working on my MFA in fiction, I was required to take a class in another genre, so I took a nonfiction class. One of the assignments was to write a pastiche based on one of the essays in Annie Dillard’s Teaching a Stone to Talk. I was fascinated with her essay “An Expedition to the Pole,” the way it twined two very different topics together, so I modeled my assignment on that one. (You can read a bit more about this here.)
At this point, I had no intention of writing an essay collection, so I continued writing fiction. A few years later, I saw a call somewhere for submissions on the topic of “translation” (loosely defined), and it was at that time that I wrote “Translation: Perevod.” I didn’t submit the piece at that time because it was too long, but I did eventually place it in Witness. And still, I had no intention of making a collection.
The next essay that I wrote didn’t even make it into the collection. It was an essay titled “Planting Trees” that came out in Fourth River in 2009. The reason I mention it is that after writing that essay, I came to realize that I was really interested in trees and that I could basically create an entire collection of essays linked thematically around trees. (I should also add that by this point I had finished my collection of short stories and placed them with a publisher, but I was having trouble working on any long pieces—like a novel—because I was taking care of a preschooler and newborn and my attention was always interrupted. Working on essays—something that I could easily see through to the end, something not too daunting—seemed like a good diversion while my kids were small.)
The remaining essays I wrote over a period of a couple years with the collection in mind, and as I finished each essay, I would send it out. All of them appeared in print before I put them all together and sent the book out as a whole. Because most of the essays were written with the collection in mind, I did very little rewriting to make them fit together.
Once your collection was complete, how did you go about finding a publisher? Did you have an agent? How long did this part of the process take?
Figuring out when my collection was “complete” was a challenge. But once it was complete, or as complete as it could be at that time, I began to send it out to publishers. I didn’t work with an agent because there isn’t much money in essay collections, and most agents won’t take them (unless you’re already a best-selling author). Instead, I researched the “small” presses that accepted queries directly from writers, and I sent out my book (or a cover letter with sample essays, depending on the submission requirements).
I started sending out the book in late 2010, and it was finally accepted by the University of New Mexico Press in May of 2013. In the interim, I sent the manuscript to seventeen different presses, and I did get a number of positive responses (editors asking to see the entire manuscript, editors praising the writing but claiming it wasn’t quite right for their press, etc.). I should also note that the book I first sent out in 2010 is very different from the final book I delivered to the University of New Mexico Press in 2013. In the two and a half years that elapsed, the title changed, the contents changed, and the ordering of the essays changed.
The essays in your collection are a form sometimes called “lyric essays.” They are revealingly personal, which makes them an ideal form for memoir. Which of the essays in Xylotheque reveals most about you? Did you learn anything about yourself as you worked on it? Is there a special challenge for you in revealing yourself?
I certainly learned a lot about the lyric essay form as I was writing the essays; I also learned a lot about trees and a lot about myself, though I’m not sure I can easily summarize these personal “lessons.” I think what I learned about myself is in the book. And yes, I think that revealing oneself in writing is challenging. The most revealing essay is probably “Translation: Perevod” since it deals with some difficult times during my teenage years and in my relationship with my mother. There’s even more to this story that I haven’t yet told, but I think sometimes the revelations occur in stages.
The lyric essay is, as you note, revealingly personal, but to some degree I think it allows for reticence as well. Here’s what Brenda Miller has to say about the lyric essay:
Many excellent writers and thinkers have tried to pin down the lyric essay, defining it as a collage, a montage, a mosaic. It’s been called disjunctive, paratactic, segmented, sectioned. All of these are correct. All of these recognize in the lyric essay a tendency toward fragmentation that invites the reader into those gaps, that emphasizes what is unknown rather than the already articulated known.
Those gaps or that white space also allows the writer to hold some things back, to make it the reader’s job to create the transitions, the connections, between one section and another, between one part of a life and another. That makes it possible to present highly revealing scenes (such as the series of scenes with my parents on pages 72-74 of Xylotheque) without a great deal of commentary or analysis or emotion, and then trust the reader to put together these discrete pieces of the mosaic and stand back to look at the full image. This way, I am giving glimpses of my life without a torrent of sentimentality or raw emotion, and this doling out is the way that I, being a reserved person, am able to reveal myself on the page.
We read Xylotheque in one of our Story Circle reading groups, and several readers felt that the ordering of the essays is important. What can you tell us about this? What effects were you seeking as you ordered the pieces in the collection?
This is a challenging question. There are reasons why I ordered the essays the way I did, but I’m not sure I can articulate them (or that I am even aware of them all). As I sent the book out, I kept working on it—reordering the essays, taking some out, adding others, etc. I have a very difficult time deciding when something is “finished.” As far as I’m concerned, it’s never really finished until it comes out in print. So the version of Xylotheque that finally did appear in print became my finished book simply because a publisher decided to accept it and publish it at that time. (I have since written a couple more essays that could have easily been included in the book, but now I’m saving them for a future volume of essays.)
I wasn’t even aware that my collection of essays might be a “memoir,” and memoir wasn’t something I consciously had in mind as I put the book together. A memoir, as far as I knew, was a single, sustained narrative (like a novel, but only nonfiction). What I had written was, to my mind, a collection of essays loosely linked by their theme of trees. It was the publisher that decided to label my book as a “memoir” and later reviewers and readers who read it in that way. It was eye-opening to learn my book was a memoir. And now, I agree that it is. Just in the way that lyric essays leave white space or gaps where the reader is asked to make connections or interpret, so the essays leave between them the same kinds of gaps or white space that the reader fills in.
Originally I put my essays in the order that they were written, because I thought perhaps they revealed something about the development of my thinking. In other words, I was more interested in tracing the development of my internal life than I was in placing the external events of my life in chronological order. Later, I switched some of the essays around. I decided, for example, to group the essays that did not discuss my children in the beginning of the book to represent my writing and thinking before I was a parent (and so the first three essays do not mention my children). I wanted “Translation: Perevod” to be in the middle of the book because it felt like an anchor to me, a long, expansive piece that gave context to the essays on either side of it. Originally I had “Navel Country” as the concluding essay, but it felt a little dark, not as hopeful as concluding with the redwood essay, so I switched those two around. These are some of the reasons for my ordering of the essays.
One of the essays, “Soviet Trees,” is written in second person, present tense—a compositional challenge that you have beautifully met. Please choose a couple of sentences or a paragraph that we could include with this interview, and say something about the effect you were trying to achieve. Or just tell us, in general terms, why you chose this person and tense for this particular essay.
I originally wrote “Soviet Trees” in the first person, but something about the voice and the tone felt wrong to me. I let it sit for a while, and then I tried to revise it, keeping it in first person, but I wasn’t happy with it. Finally I decided to change the tense. Why not implicate the reader in my story? Why not ask the reader to take on my story? I knew it was a risky move to make; some readers don’t like the intrusion of that “you,” that insistence that the reader be an active part of the narrative. I think pulling it off depends on many elements—the voice, the tone, the subject matter. In the case of “Soviet Trees,” I wanted to convey the sense that despite the somewhat foreign or exotic setting, the story I was telling was a basic one, a coming of age tale that could happen, with different details, in many times and many places. I wanted the reader to feel that connection to the material, and so I made the material the reader’s. Here’s a section from the essay:
Walking through the spongy duff of the forest floor, you think about many things at once. Your thoughts explode, embryonic but powerful, not yet born into language. You understand that all summer you’ve been yearning for a transformation, and you wonder, if the transformation refuses to come, can the very yearning effect a transformation? Do you have that power? Can we make things happen to us, not just on the outside but on the inside? Can carrying your body away through the forest cause a revolution in your mind? You don’t have words for many things. You don’t know what to ask but feel that you are brimming with nascent questions.You tell yourself the words you know. You’re an American girl walking through a Soviet forest. You’re a Soviet girl running through a Russian forest. No, these statements are too limiting. There is more. It goes deeper than labels, than senseless words like Soviet or American. Highland. Riverside. The wind rushing in your ears insists it’s so. The trees insist it’s so. You want to make so much more of this than it seems to be. You want this experience to take on the quality of myth. You want your likeness to be embroidered on a tapestry, etched in wood, set down in a book. You want this day to be deeply symbolic, pivotal, a turning point—or else you want for there to be a moral. You want at least to be a character in a tale larger than your own scrawny life. You want others to look on you running in the forest and to learn, or to be awed, or to be swept away—or at least to acknowledge or remember you. You don’t want to be swallowed by time, pressed away in its folds. You don’t want to forget or be forgotten. You want to live forever and for there to be meaning, everywhere, all the time. And you don’t want the meaning to be in blue jeans or hamburgers. You realize that you want the meaning to be in the sky and the earth and the trees, in what preceded us, in what we recognize as home, more elemental than the name of a nation or a political system, in what we share in common—or should share in common—if we weren’t surrounded by and distracted by and dazzled by stuff.
You are, simply, a girl running through a forest. You are elemental. You stand for everything. Maybe it’s the nineteenth century, maybe the Revolution of 1917 hasn’t yet taken place, or maybe it’s the new millennium and the Soviet Union is a great wrecked ship. That’s how you feel, walking through trees. You’ve been lifted clear out of time.
I think the feelings this passage evokes are the heart of the essay—the sense that all of us, at one time or another, have wandered in a forest (real or metaphoric) in which we tried to find ourselves and in which we were able to feel something eternal. I wanted this to happen not just to myself but also to “you,” to the reader, to anyone who comes upon my words in another time and place.
What advice can you give to a memoirist who is working on the story of her life?
First of all, patience is critical. Wait. You might not be able to tell the story of what happened to you last week or last year or even last decade. Distance—not just in place but in time—can be crucial. For example, I couldn’t have written “Navel Country” until I was geographically removed from Southern California, but also removed in time—in that case, about fifteen years. Had I attempted the essay before then, I would have been too close to the story.
And second, come at your story from different angles. “Tell the truth but tell it slant,” Emily Dickinson wrote. There are many different directions from which to come at the truth. Your particular “slant” is what makes your story. So try telling the same story from different angles—as a lyric essay, as a braided essay, in the second person, etc. Remember that truth is subjective and fluid, that your truth is not the same as someone else’s truth (even if you witnessed the same event). And remember that your own truth changes with time. The story I write today is not the story I would have written ten years ago, nor is it the story I would write ten years from now.
Third, do your research. Interview people from your past who might have a different perspective. Read newspapers, journals, diaries, public records—anything that can help you to piece together parts of the story you don’t know. Read about the historical era to put your story in a larger context. Read all about trees, if that’s relevant, or about anything that fascinates you and that you can use as a “lens” through which to view your own life. (When I was working on the essays that would make up Xylotheque, I used to say that I was writing my life as seen through the branches of trees.)
And finally, keep writing. Don’t give up. Find a system that works for you. Write every day, if you can, or spend a whole weekend every month locked away with your computer. Make writing a priority. It can so easily slip to the bottom of that “to do” list. Give it a spot near the top. You can clean the kitchen later. Really. You would be shocked to see what my kitchen looks like most of the time, but for me, the writing is more important than the kitchen. You can set your own priorities. You have only so many minutes in a day. Spend them wisely.
Are you working on other pieces for publication? Essay? Short fiction? A novel? If so, what’s your timeline?
Yes, to all of those! I am writing essays and short fiction and a novel and a memoir. I have a completed draft of a novel, What Would Walt Whitman Do?, which I hope to find a publisher for soon. I’m also at work on a memoir that will take the material of “Translation: Perevod” and expand it into a book-length narrative. And I’m continuing to write short fiction and essays. For example, I recently had another “tree” essay published here. I’ve tried my hand at writing for children and am involved in a collaborative online writing project called The Great Connecticut Caper. Also, this summer I’m going to be a writer-in-residence at Denali National Park in Alaska, so I expect more writing to come out of that experience as well.