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

The Braided Essay

Creative Nonfiction Magazine just released an amazing issue called Adaptation. Essays by Sarah Minor, Lawrence Lenhart, Elizabeth Bobrick, Renee D’oust, Itzel Basulado Murillo, Hope Wabuke and many others. I am amazed how many essays Hattie Fletcher was able to pack into this issue. I’m teaching from the magazine this fall because it strikes two of the topics I want to cover: how to write about adaptation, especially as we confront climate change, and how braided essay is a form of political resistance. Hattie was kind enough to make the essay I wrote for the magazine available not only in the print issue but on their website. Check The Braided Essay out here.

How We Speak to One Another

 

Dear Governor Ducey,

I’m at the Tucson Festival of Books at a workshop teaching people how to write letters to Governor Ducey.

Not really. Actually, we are in a session called How We Speak to One Another—an Essay Daily Event named after the anthology Ander Monson and Will Slattery put together from essays we wrote on the Essay Daily Website.

The idea behind the workshop is to suggest to students that one of the most generative forms of writing is the letter. This is an idea I can get behind since this is letter #115 in the series of letters I’ve been sending you for two years now. I told the students that a primary catalyst for writing is being mad enough to write a letter to the editor. Admittedly, sometimes I talk myself out of being mad as I write. Usually, I spend enough time in the letter to lose some of the vitriol and start imagining how you would take my argument. By the time I start talking about my kids, I am thinking about your kids. By the time I start explaining how much my students mean to me, I think of you as a student, how you must have had one or two teachers who made an impact on you. The letter writing is generative but it generates toward empathy. By the time I’m at the end of a letter, the thought of you has flowered in my heart.

The students were receptive, immediately putting pen to paper. Ah, how I love to teach. I I love to convince people to act. The smallest detail the writers could think of the better. Perhaps this is a little meta but, to give an example of how the small detail brings us together, remember the letter I wrote to you about fractions? Remember the one about dog hair? The one about fly fishing? Oh, dear Governor, almost any small detail of the word reminds me of how I want you to act. Maybe one day you’ll put pen to paper to write me back and although you might be mad at me in the beginning, perhaps by the time you get to word 363, you will begin to soften. Think of where I’m coming from. Perhaps get a little behind my point of view.

The students wrote letters to the board of directors and to ABOR and to the writers of Disney fairy tales. They wrote letters to Stephanie Meyers and to the Three Little Pigs. To get people to write when they don’t know me, when they could have a hundred better things to do on a Saturday. It’s inspiring. The whole Tucson Festival of Books is inspiring. Tent after tent of book publishers. Hundreds of people milling about, listening to writers, talking to each other, buying books. NPR is broadcasting live. The Tucson Book Fest is the third biggest in the country. Thousands of people descend on Tucson, spending money, buying art. The Northern Arizona Book Festival might be one of the smallest in the country but we still bring in a thousand people to downtown to spend money, to buy art.

So much of the work behind these festivals is volunteer work. I sometimes wonder, Governor Ducey, if you think people who volunteer are nuts. Why would people put on workshops, host guest writers, put together panels for free? What is in it for us? I think the same thing is in it for us as is in it for you. To make the community a better place. It’s our definition of ‘better’ that differs but still, I can imagine you don’t want books and art but you must love people to buy stuff. I imagine that as subversive as art may be, the money people spend is as ideologically acceptable as any other money spent on food and drinks and hotels. Sometimes, the National Endowment for the Arts gives seed money to book fests–not enough to replace all the volunteers with working positions but enough to pay for some big name writers and some committed organizers, enough for the seed to secure itself and for those volunteers to come in and help it bloom. Without the seeds, there are no flowers of art or flowers of money and I know that although you may say you don’t need the former, the latter is where your heart lies. If you have any say in saving the NEA, I ask you to follow your flowering heart.

Happy Birthday

Egg is officially released today although yesterday, I saw smatterings of posts on Facebook showing me it had arrived at some people’s houses. There is so much kindness in someone purchasing your book. A book is not free and, while a book is also not super expensive, it’s still a portion of money people could use for something else–a sandwich and a pint of beer in Flagstaff. Two sandwiches and a pitcher of beer in Portland. The work people put into making a book astounds me: reading the early drafts (thank you, Erik), inspiring the book (thank you, Rebecca), contributing to the book, (thank you, Margot, Okim, Tanya, Hailing Lou, Wiehong Wang, Hui Lang) reading the proposal, (thank you, Ian and Christopher), reading the later drafts, (thank you, Christopher), reading the final draft (thank you, Haaris!), marketing the book (thank you, Laura) proofreading (thank you, Anita Singh), writing jacket copy (thank you, Lucy Corin), interviewing me on Essay Daily (Thank you, Ander Monson), posting about it on Facebook (thank you, Heidi Czerwiec, Valerie Koonce, Paige Walker Ehler, Angie Hansen, Todd Grossman, Todd Kaneko, Erin Stalcup, Justin Bigos, Bryan Asdel, and Stacy Murison), hosting a book release party (thank you, Lawrence and Andie). It’s incredible to me that people are willing to invest time, energy, and money into a book. This book tries to show my gratitude to the people who have made the idea of creation, destruction, fertility, potential, and kinesis as clutchable as the egg. Eggs as gifts. I believe.

Micrograms

“There is no other writer like Nicole Walker for weaving a fabric that incorporates all the threads of her reality: the scientific and the poetic, the trivial and the dire, the mundane and the apocalyptic, all held together by her deep pleasure in the operations of language itself.” –Katharine Coles ”

Like Galeano’s BOOK OF EMBRACES or Weil’s GRAVITY AND GRACE, Nicole Walker’s MICROGRAMS portray the force of a keen mind fully engaged with disparate, successive parts of the world, which unify, reconfigure, and become new things in her strange, wondrous prose. These essays are not description or depiction but revelation; they both show and prophesy.” –Patrick Madden

“Though I’m tempted to applaud the micro-joys, micro-fascinations, and micro-revelations of Nicole Walker’s MICROGRAMS, the truth is that this miniscule book of micro-essays offers inquisitive readers gargantuan pleasures. A micro-burst of essays, fresh and intriguing.” –Dinty W. Moore

“MICROGRAMS by Nicole Walker is a cause for swooning and celebration. I cleaned my glasses and caught my breath. She is a microscope and a telescope, gives us a book writ large, writ small. ‘Let’s go smaller,’ she asks us, but never in import as, in her delightful deadpan, she leads us through life and death. Yes, it’s a small world after all. And an extraordinary book about looking close, and thinking far.” –David Lazar

Egg

“This is the eggiest book ever, and the egg is everything. Egg is forthright, joyful, mournful and charming, as personal and expansive as the good great egg.” –  Lucy Corin, Program Director of Creative Writing and Professor of English, University of California, Davis, USA, and author of One Hundred Apocalypses and Other Apocalypses (2013) – See more at: http://www.bloomsbury.com/us/egg-9781501322877/#sthash.lUS77uL2.dpuf

Object Lessons is a series of short, beautifully designed books about the hidden lives of ordinary things.This book is about a strange object-strange in part because it is something that we all have been, and that many of us eat. Nicole Walker’s Egg relishes in sharp juxtapositions of seemingly fanciful or repellent topics, so that reproductive science and gustatory habits are considered alongside one another, and personal narrative and broad swaths of natural history jostle, like yolk and albumen. Mapping curious eggs across times, scales, and spaces, Egg draws together surprising perspectives on this common object-egg as food, as art object, as metaphor and feminist symbol, as cultural icon.Object Lessons is published in partnership with an essay series in The Atlantic.

– See more at: http://www.bloomsbury.com/us/egg-9781501322877/#sthash.lUS77uL2.dpuf

Bending Genre

Ever since the term “creative nonfiction” first came into widespread use, memoirists and journalists, essayists and fiction writers have faced off over where the border between fact and fiction lies. This debate over ethics, however, has sidelined important questions of literary form. Bending Genre does not ask where the boundaries between genres should be drawn, but what happens when you push the line. Written for writers and students of creative writing, this collection brings together perspectives from today’s leading writers of creative nonfiction, including Michael Martone, Brenda Miller, Ander Monson, and David Shields. Each writer’s innovative essay probes our notions of genre and investigates how creative nonfiction is shaped, modeling the forms of writing being discussed. Like creative nonfiction itself, Bending Genre is an exciting hybrid that breaks new ground.

Quench Your Thirst with Salt

Quench Your Thirst with Salt won the 2013 Creative Nonfiction Prize and was published by Zone Three Press.

Literary Nonfiction. Memoir. “Part affecting memoir, part lyric meditation on water, part cultural critique, but finally about all that is unquenchable in the human experience, Nicole Walker has created a book that is truly sui generis. By turns wry, elegiac, and always elegant in its precision and force, Walker investigates all that is contradictory and curious in the micro climate of her immediate family and the macro climate of Utah to create not a dry treatise, not a windless flight of experimental prose, but a natural history of thirst in all its manifestations, at once compulsively readable and intensely personal.”—Robin Hemley