Braided Essays

I turned the talk I gave last year in Melbourne into an essay for Creative Nonfiction magazine. Now, I’m kind of obsessed with braided essays and am looking forward to working with my colleague, Gretchen Younghans, who teaches at Flag High. As part of the Alpine program, she and I and a few grad students are taking her Alpine students out to Clear Creek Reservoir to kayak and write.

I suggested we do a braided essay exercise where the students make observations about the tiny things, the mosquito hawks on the surface of the water, the kinds of graffiti on the rocks, the spinning leaves, the wind broken trees. Then, when we take a break for lunch, the students will use their observations as one thread of their essay. Then, they’ll switch to writing a personal narrative that uses scene and dialogue to really root us in their experience–they could write about their emotional experience being on the lake, they could write about a past memory of another lake, they could write about their childhood kitchen or the time they dropped their school lunch on the lunchroom floor and everyone laughed. After five minutes of personal narrative, we’ll ask them to return to their “research,” again dispassionately describing what they saw. Then, after five minutes, we’ll ask them to return to their personal story finishing, for now, this process.

In revision, what the students might discover is how certain word choices, images, or motifs appear in all four sections. To make those synchronicities stronger, the students can emphasize them by writing a little more, and a little more slowly, around those repeated moments. They can change some words so more words do repeat. And, they can see how, by putting these two seemingly random stories together, they learned more about themselves and the place they visited by pressing the two so closely together.

In order to give the students a sense of what these essays might finally look like, here are some examples.

Brenda Miller’s Swerve

Lee Ann Roripaugh’s The Wardrobe’s Best Dressed

Nicole Walker’s Superfluidity

Matthew Komatsu’s When We Played

The above essays show how moving from topic to topic between paragraphs can provide multiple perspectives on the same topic like a prism. The following essays, though longer, provide that true braid where the back and forth phenomenon leads to a new and integrated understanding of the subject.

Chelsea Biondolillo’s  How to Skin a Bird

Nicole Walker’s Abundance and Scarcity

Joann Beard’s The Fourth State of Matter

Eula Biss’s Time and Distance Overcome

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