Teaching Brevity: Brian Doyle’s “Imagining Foxes”

May 27, 2021 § 3 Comments

By Amie Souza Reilly

Brian Doyle’s essay “Imagining Foxes” remembers the afternoon he and his siblings spent playing in a tiny patch of cedar forest. However, the importance of that day does not come from what they witness in the woods, but from what they don’t actually see at all. His is an essay about finding meaning in absence.

In the beginning, Doyle lists all they observed, and readers, like the Doyle children, forget that the “forest” is only twelve blocks long. This is the way he leads us into imagination, by showing us how to forget while also remembering.

And interspersed in descriptions of the birds they saw, Doyle mentions the deer they didn’t see:

although we did see mats of grass, which sure looked like places deer would nap, like uncles after big meals, sprawled on their sides with their vests unbuttoned, snoring like heroes.

Like a balancing act, he continues to write of the real and imagined—holes where mammals live, the undeniable scratch marks of bears—though of course we know there are most likely no bears in this stretch of trees hemmed in by highways.

But after these teetering lists, in the third paragraph of the essay, there is a switch. Here, Doyle steps away from recollection and addresses his readers: “…but my point here is not what we saw…it’s about what we did not see.” The nostalgia-laden description, the nap of remembering, is broken.

The thing the Doyle kids did not see, not really, was a fox. He says they smelled him, heard him, saw the little dabs in the dirt were his feet surely trotted. But they never actually saw the fox. And the fact that it was never actually seen is precisely what Doyle wants to talk about. This essay is a lesson in writing as much as a lesson in life.

“Imaging Foxes” reminds me of what Vivian Gornick writes about imagination and memoir in The Situation and the Story. “What happened to the writer is not what matters; what matters is the large sense that the writer is able to make of what happened. For that the power of a writing imagination is required.”

Doyle’s essay is about imagination, about experience and wonder. The forest is the place that held the event, the experience inside it is the memory. There’s a tug at nostalgia in his words. How magical, the memory of childhood afternoons spent lost.

When teaching this essay to a class full of students, most barely out of childhood themselves, I ask them to write down that Doyle sentence, and to think of it as a key that turns in a lock, opening something special. Write it down, I say, in the middle of your paper:

But my point is not what we saw…it’s about what we did not see.

And then I ask them to think of a childhood space, perhaps somewhere that felt wonderous then, though they may experience it differently now. After, I have them imagine what they see, smell, and feel inside that place, and write it all above the Doyle sentence. Below it, I ask them to describe what is not there. In this act of separating the memory, of turning, briefly, outside of themselves, I hope that they find the meaning of that absence.

“If you stop imagining them then they are all dead,” Doyle writes at the end of this essay, “and what kind of world is that, where all the foxes are dead?”

It is not about absence at all, but about the fullness of wonder.

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Amie Souza Reilly is an MFA candidate at Fairfield University and is the Assistant Managing Editor at Brevity Magazine. Her work can be found in trampset, Catapult, SmokeLong Quarterly, Pithead Chapel, and elsewhere. She lives in Connecticut with her husband and son. 

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