What Readers Need to Know

“But you never say whether you found your brother’s bear. Readers will want to know,” my mother emailed me after reading “Silos,” a chapter from my book, A Bushel’s Worth: An Ecobiography. “Mom,” I wrote back, “that would be a different narrative arc, the ‘Did she find the bear?’ narrative arc.” And, mothers being mothers and brothers being brothers, I left it at that.

But what I might have answered was, “Mom, this story isn’t about my brother and his missing bear. This story is about my childhood discovery of independence based on an early memory of walking outside alone in the dark. The story is about something bigger than finding the bear or not. The missing bear provided the situation but was marginal to the discovery I made about myself. It’s that discovery that I want readers to understand by showing them a pivotal moment for me in forming a relationship with the natural world.”

All writers have to decide what goes in a piece of writing and what stays out. With memoir, the temptation can be to put too much in because, we figure, it happened in real life. However, memoir, unlike autobiography, is not an attempt to catalog the events of an entire life. Instead, memoir selects a moment or series of moments in order to explore the writer’s realization or perception of their significance.

This meaning is not drawn from the events as they occurred per se, but from the writer’s memory of them. As Judith Barrington suggests in Writing the Memoir, memoir both “tells the story and muses upon it, trying to unravel what it means in light of [one’s] current knowledge.” What memoir writers must show is not only what happened, but what new understanding—at the time or in recollection—emerged because of it. To take the reader along on this journey, the writer must ask which ideas and details shape the narrative toward that end.

When I taught writing at the university, the first piece my students wrote was a first-person essay about a significant life event. When they brought their first drafts to class, I asked them to cross out the opening paragraph to see whether they liked starting at the second one better. Almost every student preferred the new version to the original because they had started their essay with extraneous information or by telling the reader what the essay would be about with sentences like “Little did I know . . . .” The second paragraph, on the other hand, was usually where the narrative really began, often by providing a scene rather than a lecture. Students learned to not tell readers what the story was about but rather, to let the story unfold so that readers might discover its meaning for themselves.

Crossing out the first paragraph is an easy trick, but on a deeper level, we can think about what belongs in or out of a memoir if we remember how memoirs are shaped by the interplay between recollection and reflection. Following memory down the corridor of time yields many details, not all of which are important to the story we want to tell. Which details—of setting, background, character, time, intention—should be included will depend on what perception, meaning, or message the writer is pursuing.

When I write, I begin with a kernel of the story, often a scene, and build out from there by adding and subtracting ideas and information that lead the reader in the direction I want them to go. When I started A Bushel’s Worth, I drew scenes of my farming life from a journal I’d kept for years. I used these to create chapters based on broad themes like thrift, community, generosity, and grace.

But as I wrote, childhood memories of my grandparents’ farms kept coming to mind and I realized that to create what I call “ecobiography,” or ecology based memoir, I needed to go back further in my life. Those earlier experiences expanded the scope of the book by shaping it as a reunion with my family’s farming past rather than another memoir of escaping city ways. At the same time, some of the nuts and bolts of farming from earlier drafts had to come out, making the book more reflective of lessons learned from nurturing land, crops, and the community they feed.

And what of the bear? Perceptive readers will find him connecting my farming past and future with three little words: “another bear awaits.”

Kayann Short, Ph.D., has just published A Bushel’s Worth: An Ecobiography with Torrey House Press (abushelsworth.com). A Bushel’s Worth is a memoir of reunion with her grandmothers’ farming traditions and a call to action for local farmland preservation. Kayann teaches ecology-based memoir, digital storytelling, and lifewriting at her farm in Colorado. See www.ecobiography.com for more on writing consultation and retreats in a renovated granary.

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  • Kayann Short, Ph.D.

    I'm glad to know about your work! Ecobiography is a helpful term for the kinds of writing I do and for works to which I'm particularly drawn. I started having my students write their ecobiographies a decade ago and they found it stimulating to consider their lives in that way. I think we will need this kind of writing to face the environmental challenges ahead. So many things are changing ecologically, we'll want to look back at how things were and offer nature-based life stories in advocacy for environmental preservation--whatever that might come to mean. I'm working on a guide to writing ecobiography now so watch for that down the road!

  • Marybeth Holleman

    I'm curious about your term "ecobiography." All my memoir writing is grounded in experiences in the natural world. So I'm glad to see this new term of yours!

  • Kayann Short, Ph.D.

    I like that phrase, "early threads." One of the neat things about my piece "Silos" is that it started in my writing class as a response to a student's prompt. I used Natalie Goldberg's fabulous book, Writing Down the Bones, and the students also presented their own "bones teachings.' This student asked us to draw an object from our childhood and then write a scene about it. I don't remember why that trip through the tall grass was on my mind but I drew the bear and wrote the first draft of what became, a few years later, "Silos." 

  • Barbara K. Richardson

    It's fascinating how we fulfill the call of our early lives without realizing it—until later. I've known many writers and artists who follow the early threads.

  • Kayann Short, Ph.D.

    Hi Terry--I like the idea of guiding the reader through "why a sequel." I, too, use my blog pearlmoonplenty as a space for writing practice and incubation of story ideas. Pieces of the blog found their way into A Bushel's Worth. Thank you for your comment and good luck with future writing projects!

  • I do have a memoir, and its sequel, in print. In the sequel, I wrote a prologue to guide the reader through the 'why I wrote a sequel' and left it to the reader to decide whether they wanted to know that or not. My first chapter begins where the memoir left off.

    I often hear myself telling myself "Better to leave that in the journal." I use various blogs online as my journals ... places where I will dare to expose thoughts leading to future writings. I don't receive much feedback on those blogs, which is alright because they are primarily a conversation with myself, but one I'm willing to share with others who are willing to read. When I have something I want to be read by others, I'll write it up as a story, short or novel length, and self-publish it.