Teaching Brevity: Christine Byl’s “Bear Fragments

May 21, 2021 § 1 Comment

By Suzanne Roberts

  1. Choose a subject. It could be mineral, plant, or animal. Christine Byl’s “Bear Fragments,” takes on the subject of bears: actual bears (black bears and grizzly bears) and human interactions with them (both gentle and gruesome), bear folktales and legends, and the bear within.
  2. For Byl, bears are ideas and emotion, language and representation. Bears are art and story. But in the end, we understand that bears are bears—beings of wildness, separate from our human imaginings of them. Make your own subject into an abstraction and then ground it in the thing is really is, the animal body. Byl does this by moving from a friend’s fearful imaginings, to legends, to the animal, back to language, to the realities of a bear encounter, back to myth, and finally to the physical fact of the bear. Try a similar pattern in your own essay.
  3. Like Byl does in her essay, choose one of the senses for each segment. In section one, Byl focuses on the sounds, section two on sight, three on taste, four on thought, five on touch, six on sight again, and seven on smell, which finally grounds the ideas in this most primal sense. Try adopting this arrangement or use your own, focusing on one of the senses in each section.
  4. Escape the circle of “I” and let the subject take over. Byl stays at the periphery of her subject until the end. She writes, “I have never had to try” and “I knew a photographer” but the first person “I” hovers on the outside of things until the very last line: “It brings to mind adrenaline and rot and sex, and everything I’ve ever known that’s wild.”
  5. Incorporate dialogue in section five. Make it surprising.
  6. Find a way, as Byl does, to combine science and imagination: “Mid-winter, cubs are born. For months in the den, they suck the sow’s mile-grub-moth-root-beetle-seed while she lies on her side dreaming of glacier-lilied fields.” We cannot know what the bear dreams of, but we can imagine it.
  7. In the last section, address the reader, using the second person “you.” Write it in seven sections. Make sure that through your juxtapositions, the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. And that the last line brings it all together.

    Suzanne Roberts is the author of the memoir in travel essays, Bad Tourist: Misadventures in Love and Travel (NATJA Bronze Medal Winner and Finalist for the Gilda Award and Foreword Reviews Best Book of the Year in Travel) and the memoir Almost Somewhere: Twenty-Eight Days on the John Muir Trail (Winner of the National Outdoor Book Award), as well as four books of poems. Her collection of lyrical essays, Animal Bodies: On Death, Desire, & Other Difficulties is forthcoming from the University of Nebraska Press in 2022. Named “The Next Great Travel Writer” by National Geographic’s Traveler, Suzanne’s work has been listed as notable in Best American Essays and included twice in The Best Women’s Travel Writing. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, CNN, Creative Nonfiction, Brevity, The Rumpus, Hippocampus, The Normal School, River Teeth, and elsewhere. She holds a doctorate in literature and the environment from the University of Nevada-Reno and teaches for the low residency MFA program in Creative Writing at Sierra Nevada University.



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