Kathryn Wilder is the author of the memoir Desert Chrome: Water, a Woman, and Wild Horses in the West (Torrey House Press, May 2021),
Kirkus Reviews calls it “a spirited and impassioned chronicle.” Wilder’s essays have been cited in Best American Essays and nominated for the Pushcart Prize. They have appeared in such publications as High Desert Journal, River Teeth, Midway Journal, Fourth Genre, and Sierra, and in many anthologies and Hawai`i magazines. A graduate of the low-rez MFA program at the Institute of American Indian Arts, she was a 2016 Artist-in-Residence at Denali National Park and Preserve finalist for the 2016 and 2019 Ellen Meloy Fund Desert Writers Award and 2018 finalist for the Waterston Desert Writing Prize. She lives among mustangs in southwestern Colorado, where she ranches with her family in the Dolores River watershed.
“Testimony to the healing power of wildness . . . a candid memoir that interweaves a trajectory of loss, pain, and hard-won serenity with a paean to wild horses.” —KIRKUS REVIEWS
“‘Blame it or praise it,’ Virginia Woolf writes, ‘there is no denying the wild horse in us.’ Desert Chrome is the story of a landscape and the many ways the land sings us into being. It is the story of one of our most iconic North American species, Equus caballus, the wild horse. And, most of all, it is the story of a woman coming to know her own wildness—a wildness that is free, and sustaining, and on her own terms.”
—JOE WILKINS, author of Fall Back Down When I Die and The Mountain and the Fathers
Do you write in more than one genre? I write fiction and nonfiction yet publish mostly literary nonfiction (apparently, my fiction needs work). Occasionally a poem slips out—one in about every ten years.
Tell us about your writing process: I write first by hand, usually outside unless it’s too cold, sitting on a rock or the rowing seat of a raft, or in a camp chair on the cabin porch. Those journal entries, where I’m just recording what’s going on around me or writing a scene of fiction that’s wanting out, will be fresh and raw and unfiltered, like rainwater rushing over the edge of the cliff into the creek. I don’t have to finish those entries for them to be the first draft of something—because of whatever details I put in, I can go back, reread, and reconstruct where I was and what I was feeling enough to write more. I can feel the rain, hear it collecting, pushing, splashing; I can smell it; it becomes a thing, a subject, and a story gathers around it…as long as I have enough scribbled details
When I transcribe that material onto the computer, I make changes, add details, clean up wrong sentences, and start to see structure, which becomes the second draft. From that point, it’s a process of braiding: printing out a hard copy and again sitting outside if possible to edit and rewrite; taking those changes back to the computer; editing for a while there; and printing out and making notes on hard copy, etc. It might be ten or fifteen drafts before anyone else sees it.
What is the most challenging part of your writing process? Perhaps the most challenging parts are prioritizing and dealing with distractions. I read once, back when my kids were small, about a mother setting up the playpen and climbing inside with her typewriter, typing away while her kids played around her. I thought that was brilliant! Today, when I’m at the ranch headquarters, my son and his family in their own house on the same property, interruptions are constant—my sisters and mother will tell you that I cannot get through a single phone call without an interruption of some sort. It might be grandkids wanting to show me something (I am not complaining!), or cattle are out somewhere, and I have to jump up, pull on my boots, and race around afoot or in the side-by-side chasing cows; or it’s simply, suddenly, chore time. This happens whether I’m on a phone call or deep into revision.
I have found that I recover from interruption more easily during some parts of revision than in other parts. The final proofreading of Desert Chrome was interrupted constantly, but since I was reading carefully line by line and not needing to hold a whole concept or scene in my head, I could mark my place and return to it without stress (errors do occur in the book, however, which I may have found with better concentration).
For some of the revision, I had to go into isolation—days at the cabin alone. And I love those times, the creek, black bears, dogs, and mustangs my company. I understand now why going to a writer’s retreat is so desired!
Do you outline, or are you a pantser? I would tell my freshman comp students to outline after they had a first draft. Fresh from high school, they would look at me, confused, and I would say, how do you know what you want to write if you haven’t started writing? And then I’d say, shit-can the five-paragraph essay. Stop thinking. Start writing. When you have even as few as a couple of pages, we can look at what’s coming out and see if there’s an outline to be found. This paralyzed many of them.
I don’t think I’ve outlined anything since I was required to do so in high school, and I’m guessing I did it after that first draft, which was probably considered cheating at the time. When I’m beginning a project, if I force myself to think about something like organization, it will stifle me. I won’t be able to move, think, feel. Write.
Later, when I’ve got material all over the place and organization is imperative, I might panic first, then experiment with ordering chapters or paragraphs in different ways. Maybe a previously written outline would help me at this point. But. It’s not likely to happen.
When I wrote my thesis for the Institute of American Indian Arts, I chose the simple format of alternating longer, essay-type chapters with shorter pieces. It worked enough to get the job done but felt too regulated, constrained, linear, so as I moved material into what was becoming Desert Chrome the book, I mixed it all up and put the small pieces in where my gut told me to. That felt so much better.
Do you have any advice for new writers? In two ways, I am an old writer: I’m sixty-six, and I have been writing for a long time. That Desert Chrome came out two-plus decades after my first books (a children’s book co-written with the painter Redwing T. Nez and two anthologies), with only articles, essays, and some fiction in between, is, on the one hand, an embarrassment; on the other, it’s a nod to my perseverance (or stubbornness). I did not quit. I will not quit.
Writing is about writing first, and then it seems to me that it is about rejection and resiliency. Fortitude. Some people have great success stories. Most do not. My mother published a new book in her eighties. I want to do that. I’d also like to publish a few more before then. How do I do accomplish that? Keep writing, even in the face of rejection.
How do our readers reach out to learn more about you and your work?
Thank you so much for this opportunity, George, and your support of writers and IAIA alum!
Kathryn Wilder’s “Desert Chrome,” Tychi and Jasper, Brumley Point and
Temple Butte in the background; Spring Creek Basin Herd Management Area, Disappointment Valley, Southwest Colorado