Teaching Brevity: Brian Arundel’s “The Things I’ve Lost”
May 18, 2021 § Leave a comment
By Shuly Xóchitl Cawood
I open up each session of my five-week memoir and personal essay workshop with a writing prompt. The first session is probably the most challenging and also the most important because this is the start of the students’ journey and they may be nervous about meeting a class of eleven strangers and about what will be taught, especially if they are beginning memoir/essay writers. I often use Brian Arundel’s “The Things I’ve Lost” for that first opening lesson and prompt, as I think this list essay has a lot to teach, in an accessible way.
First, I love list essays as prompts. They provide structure to a writer—and structure can make things easier. If I told my students, “Hey, write an essay about what you’ve lost,” I know some of my students (beginning ones, especially) might be overwhelmed, but Arundel provides the scaffolding: the essay is made up of not just a list of things he’s lost, but each item has a particular format. First, the name of the item itself. Second, a colon. Third, when Arundel lost the item, or sometimes where. And fourth, a tiny bit of context. For example, his opening line: “Fleece hat and gloves: in the backseat of a Boston cab in 2002, before driving back to Maine.”
I should also add here that every week of my memoir and essay workshop, we focus on one main learning goal, and for that first week, it’s all about detail—sensory detail and the importance of description and specific examples. This list essay is a gold mine for that.
Arundel starts with concrete objects—hat, gloves, sunglasses—and then moves on to abstract items: a ‘“measurable dose of self-skepticism” and a “school-wide presidential election in sixth grade” and in doing so, this essay begins its first deepening. Arundel returns, however, to concrete objects throughout his essay, and I think this grounds the reader.
In the second paragraph, he begins weaving the items more tightly together. He dedicates this paragraph to the things he’s lost related to romantic aspirations and notions—a chance to kiss someone, his virginity, his heart. These items move, seemingly, chronologically as well, and this, along with their thematic connection, do the further work of deepening the essay and what we know about the narrator. If I said to my students, “Make sure you are developing character along the way!” they might look at me with wide eyes. But Arundel’s technique allows this character development to happen naturally, almost without our noticing he is doing it, one of the signs of good writing.
The third paragraph is largely focused on beliefs he has lost, and isn’t that the sign of wisdom gained through life lessons? The essay here is moving more into the abstract, but he ends this paragraph with something concrete, a shift. I point out to my students how Arundel mixes big, important items (“[g]eneral insecurity and inadequacy”) with smaller, less important items (a “taste for soy sausage patties”). These contrasts (concrete and abstract, larger and smaller, as well as serious and funny) create a texture to the fabric of the essay.
As the essay moves along, Arundel doesn’t exactly stick to his format—it flexes and changes, and you could argue that this is what he is showing: the flexing and changing that happens in a life.
After examining and discussing the essay with my students, I ask them to write their own “The Things I‘ve Lost” essay. I tell them that they can start by just brainstorming the items—they don’t have to yet think of where and when and context. They can just start jotting down whatever items come into their head when they think of things they have lost. I encourage them to start with concrete things before moving into the abstract, and to let their list get big before deciding which items they will actually use. Then, I ask them to try Arundel’s four-part format for each item, or come up with their own.
I have used other Brevity list essays in my workshop as well for writing prompts, most recently “Some Things About that Day” by Debra Marquart and “Work Lessons” by Lizz Huerta. They all give some structure to students and offer wonderful lessons on detail and specificity.
I don’t expect my students to have all the details in their first draft at all. But I hope that once they have the scaffolding of their own essay they will add the sensory details and descriptions that Arundel has in his essay. I hope, most of all, that my students will let their own essay take them wherever they are meant to go in their writing that day, even if it ends up being that they focus solely on one item on their list. I tell them to trust their mind to lead the way (even if it’s unexpected), which is maybe the greatest writing lesson of all.
Shuly Xóchitl Cawood is an award-winning author. Her books include the memoir, The Going and Goodbye (Platypus Press) and A Small Thing to Want: stories (Press 53). She teaches memoir and personal essay workshops. Learn more at www.shulycawood.com.
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