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.


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. 

Of Swerve: The Apology Epistle

September 29, 2009 § 9 Comments

Brenda Miller reveals the roots of her Brevity essay “Swerve,” and offers us a writing prompt along the way:

This little essay is a testament to many things: to the power of friendship, the efficacy of assignments, the resonance of small detail, and trust in one’s own intuition.

Friendship: It’s mid-autumn, and I go to a bookstore café to meet with two women I don’t know very well yet. We’d met through a service-learning program at the university, discovered we all want more writing time, more excuses for writing. So Kim, Marion, and I gather in this café—where the service is surly and spotty—at the table next to the poetry bookshelf. This lone bookshelf is hidden away here on the top floor, almost as an afterthought, poetry relegated to the corner where it takes some effort to find it.

We’re not sure how to begin. We sip our lattes, gossip about school. My eyes wander toward the poetry bookshelf, and my hand reaches out to grab a book, Late Wife, by Claudia Emerson. I’ve heard about this book, I say. Do you want to read it together?

Assignment: So we do. And we come back together the following week, excited by her “Divorce Epistles,” by the way Emerson is able to return to the past, to pain, to loss, through directly addressing the ex-husband. We all have something in our past to address, some complexity that hasn’t been easily resolved, perhaps never will be. So we give each other an assignment. Write an apology, we say, to someone in your past. An “apology epistle.” I’m not sure why we come up with apology. It’s just the first thing to come to mind.

Detail: I sit down at home and write the first words, I’m sorry… And immediately the image of that piece of wood in the road comes into my mind. It doesn’t arrive with a blare and a bang; it just emerges there in my brain, crystal clear, as if it had been waiting all this time for me to blink it into focus. I’m sorry about that time I ran over a piece of wood in the road. I haven’t been thinking about my ex-boyfriend, a man I knew thirty years ago, a relationship that had been fraught with alcoholism and emotional abuse. I had been a young woman, very young, still a child. And so, with the image of this small piece of wood, this roadside debris, the entire relationship comes back full force, everything that had transpired between us distilled into the essence of that road trip across the desert. The essay comes out of me in one piece, in about thirty minutes, one image leading to the next.

Intuition: I bring the piece, three copies, to our meeting the following week. We’re all a little nervous, so we spend most of our time gossiping before turning to the pages in our hands. I read “Swerve” aloud, and as I’m reading I see what I’ve really written. I didn’t know it until I shared it with them; I had just been following that piece of wood. But now I see that while I truly was sorry about running over it, I was really sorry for subjecting my young self to such a harsh and terrifying experience. And behind it all was the fact that I had gotten into the relationship in the first place out of a kind of penance: guilt over something that had happened to me just before I met him. So the entire time was tied up with apology, with truly being sorry for so many things.

I could never have written the essay deliberately, trying to work with all those complex emotions head-on. I simply had to trust in that piece of wood. The second paragraph came out in one long line, because I couldn’t risk stopping: I had to keep going to see where we would all end up. I had to let my intuition guide me to that dangerous place, knowing I’d be safe in the company of newfound friends.

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