Issue #61, Learning from Nature
Connecting the Dots
A Conversation with Yelizaveta P. Renfro
Connecting the Dots
Yelizaveta Renfro is the winner of Creative Nonfiction and the Biomimicry Center at Arizona State University’s "Learning from Nature" Outstanding Essay Prize. Her prize-winning story, "The View Through the Crack," selected from almost 500 submissions, recalls her experience as a writer-in-residence at Denali National Park. Renfro explores the idea of Alaska as America's final frontier and the relationship between the park's wild residents and visiting tourists. One memorable creature is the artic ground squirrel, which can drop its body temperature to -2.9 degrees Celsius to avoid freezing in the harsh Alaskan winter. Another character is a pestering woman from Cincinnati, who, after learning of the author's writing project, continuously asks, "Are you being inspired now?"
Yelizaveta P. Renfro is the author of Xlotheque: Essays and A Catalogue of Everything in the World, which won the 2008 St. Lawrence Book Award. Her fiction and nonfiction have appeared in Glimmer Train Stories, North American Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, Witness, Blue Mesa Review, So to Speak, the anthology A Stranger Among Us: Stories of Cross Cultural Collision and Connection, and elsewhere. She was a writer-in-residence at Denali National Park and Preserve in 2015.
CNF: What inspired you to take the first step and apply for the Denali National Park and Preserve residency? Were you looking for a secluded place to write? New territory to explore? Did you apply with a premise for an essay and leave with an entirely new agenda?
RENFRO: For a long time, Alaska represented for me what still remained of the American myth of the West, a place that was wild and rugged and unpredictable and astonishingly beautiful and physically unforgiving. I had visited many Western states—and I grew up in California—so for years I had wanted to see this last, most remote place in our country. The residency seemed serendipitous: here was a reason to finally go to Alaska, and I also had friends from graduate school who were living in Fairbanks, so I had local support with the logistics of getting to and from Denali. I did not have any particular essay in mind before setting out. I did do a lot of reading in advance, but I went there with an open mind, waiting to experience the place, waiting for the story to come to me.
CNF: The focus of this essay, the ground squirrel, came from a brief note in your journal. How did you decide that this would be the topic to expand and explore, especially considering that you had ten days of observations to choose from?
RENFRO: To be honest, when I saw the subject of Creative Nonfiction’s upcoming issue on “Learning from Nature,” I immediately thought of the arctic ground squirrel. I didn’t even know I was going to write that essay until I saw that call for submissions. I had otherwise been at work on essays with more predictable subjects—for example, I am working on a long essay on bears. If I had known I was going to write about the ground squirrels, I would have tried to pay even more attention to them. This is exactly why, as I write in my essay, I write down everything—or as much as I can—because I never know until later what I will use.
CNF: When you read that scientists are studying the bodily functions of ground squirrels for ways to provide aid to Alzheimer patients, were you surprised? How do you view learning from nature?
RENFRO: When I first read about those studies, I recall being very surprised. At the time, I didn’t have plans to do anything with that information, but obviously I stashed it away in my mind. The way that scientists are able to learn from nature—to take observations from one area and yoke them to questions in a completely different area—reminds me, to some degree, of the way that writers work. If we look at a lyric essay or a braided essay, we can see similar same leaps of thought and associations. It’s the way that meaning is created in many fields.
CNF: Your time in Alaska seems idyllic, with a cabin to live in for ten days and a bus pass to access trails, and it’s bright with a sun that never seems to set. How did these changes to your normal routine affect your writing?
RENFRO: While I was at Denali, my life really was idyllic. I spent all of my waking hours writing, thinking about writing, and gathering material for writing (exploring the park). It was ten days of luxury. Never before had I been able to focus so completely on one goal. I can’t even say that I have a “normal routine” for writing when I’m home. Because I teach and I have young kids, other demands often have first claim to my time. Some days—indeed, some weeks—I don’t write at all. So the time I spent in Denali was like stepping into a completely different life.
CNF: Did your residency at Denali National Park and Preserve heighten your senses to the natural world?
RENFRO: I think it did heighten my senses while I was there, because I was so carefully and purposefully paying attention and recording everything I saw and heard. I can’t say that effect has stayed with me, though, as in my everyday life I am often preoccupied with other matters. I do often go outside and try to pay attention to the natural world. Today, for example, I went with my kids on a long walk to look at the fall foliage here in New England. It’s just that these experiences are not all-consuming now, as they were in Denali.
CNF: What was it like to write under circumstances where bears, moose, and wolves could appear as quick as it took to scribble a thought into your notebook?
RENFRO: I found it exciting but also soothing. I think the prospect of living for ten days in a cabin with no electricity appeals to a certain type of person. The shutters to my cabin—which I had to close when I left it so no unwanted visitors got inside—were covered in sharp nails to deter wildlife. When I tell people details like this, they are often surprised that I wasn’t more nervous or frightened. I remember that shortly before I left for Alaska, a friend said to me, “Aren’t you afraid that you’ll get eaten by a bear?” But the truth is, I become more nervous and unsettled visiting New York City than I do a place with bears and wolves. That’s just my temperament.
CNF: You present scientific data as revisable stories with an “‘objective’ voice … as personal as a poem.” How did you perceive science before writing this essay?
RENFRO: For a long time, I had viewed science as rigid and prescribed, a kind of inside-the-box thinking that was anathema to creative thought. In fact, in high school and college, I did everything I could to avoid taking science classes, because they never seemed to tell me anything I genuinely wanted to know. I never internalized any of the science I was taught in school. But as I got older and read more about science and became more interested in it, I came to realize that scientific thought can be wild and brilliant and uncanny. The greatest scientists, in fact, are the ones who think outside the box. That’s how breakthroughs are made; that’s how we connect the dots between seemingly unrelated phenomena. This essay allowed me to express some of these ideas that I had been pondering for some time.
CNF: On one of the group hikes, you reference the woman from Cincinnati, who keeps questioning you after she discovers that you’re the park’s writer-in-residence. She probes, “Are you being inspired right now?” throughout the day. It’s as if she’s writer’s block manifested. How do you deal with lags of inspiration and ticking deadlines?
RENFRO: I think a great cure for writer’s block is having kids. Of course, I say that in jest, but honestly, I haven’t had the luxury of getting writer’s block since my kids were born. Either I do the writing when I have the time for it, or it doesn’t get done at all. I always have ideas for more projects than I could ever possibly get done, so if one isn’t moving forward, I just work on another. Here’s something I like to tell my creative writing students: If you’re a lawyer or a doctor, you’re not allowed to get lawyer’s block or doctor’s block. You show up for work, you do your job. If you’re a serious writer, you have to look at your writing the same way. Show up for work. Do your job. Some days will be better than others. But just keep doing the work.
CNF: You reference a few different scientific articles throughout the essay. Do you often find yourself weaving together data and description? How do you know when it’s time to stop the research and put pen to paper?
RENFRO: Yes, I often do find myself weaving research into my writing. And it can be tough to figure out when to stop researching. The research is so easy and so interesting—I could keep going and going, chasing down one thing and then another. There’s no easy answer to this. Sometimes, I force myself to start writing before I feel that the research is complete, because I’ve found that too much research can overwhelm a project. Sometimes I give myself a limited amount of time to do the research, and then I start to write, whether I feel ready or not. While I’m writing, I often have a “no Internet” rule because it’s so easy to go look for that one fact and then get hopelessly lost browsing article after article.
CNF: There’s a certain amount of pressure that accompanies residencies. You write, “The National Park Service believes that creative people—visual artists, photographers, writers, composers—can contribute to an understanding and appreciation of the park as well as the scientists, naturalists, and rangers who interpret the park in their own ways.” As a person on the creative side of things, do you feel like you’ve successfully accomplished this mission?
RENFRO: I think that I’m still working on this. I probably will be for some time. I find writing essays to be a slow, laborious process. I have to somehow internalize and digest material and experiences—something that takes time. As I mentioned above, I am still writing my essay on bears. It is a big essay, with a lot of research, and I’m still trying to figure out how to write it. I have other Alaska pieces in the works. The experiences that I had in Denali will continue to inform my writing in ways that I can’t even imagine yet for a long time to come.
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