The Braided Essay

The image of the braid is powerfully suggestive of attempts to reconcile threads that are sometimes difficult to reconcile.  In this way, the braided essay can be a helpful teacher: an exercise in creative nonfiction that encourages non-linear storytelling.  Three narratives are brought together by connecting words or images that puts the threads into conversation with each other.  This can be a refreshing change of pace in the ELA classroom, where so much essay writing instruction is built around the five-paragraph essay rarely seen outside the classroom.

Photo by Sonny Sixteen on Unsplash

Off the Beaten Path
The memory images so faded they appear to be edged in sepia, the echo of a character’s voice from something dear and dog-eared, the conversation fragments still playing in our heads on an unpredictable loop: bringing the flotsam and jetsam floating around in our minds into contact can produce new stories of self.  In their book Beyond Literary Analysis, Allison and Rebekah describe how we can help students explore ideas by inviting them to sort evidence by categories.  I love this suggestion because it asks students to identify connections while looking for footprints.  The braided essay offers a similar opportunity by asking students to traverse memory lane by visiting it in a deliberately roundabout way.  The braiding paves the way for exploratory writing that can help them see every thought and image as a new, possible fruitful connection.  What may appear off-topic or loosely connected in a different type of essay is, in the braided essay, seen as worthy of further contemplation.

Before we wrote our braided essays, we studied three mentor texts.  We looked at Brian Doyle’s essay to study explicit craft writing moves in prose, while we looked at Heather Swan’s and W.H. Auden’s poems to study the use of structure and allusion:

The stated parameters for writing the braided essay were as follows:

  • At least one of the braid narratives should be personal and involve details from memory 
  • At least one of the braid narratives should include factual information gleaned from research 
  • Use at least three mentor text moves we’ve studied together (from “Joyas Voladoras,” “Victor,” and/or “Musée des Beaux Arts”)  to help you build your narratives
  • Use connecting images, words, ideas or even events that can get these narratives to speak to each other as you braid them

Mentor Text Move: Repetition

A hummingbird’s heart beats ten times a second. A hummingbird’s heart is the size of a pencil eraser. A hummingbird’s heart is a lot of the hummingbird. (“Joyas Voladoras”)

Doyle’s essay is one that can be revisited endlessly for its delightful consideration of the hummingbird.  As the reader is led through a maze of facts about this “flying jewel,” they began to realize that Doyle is talking about more than one thing at once: the hummingbird’s heart, the size of one’s heart compared to the interior chambers of the blue whale’s heart, the question of how one will spend their heartbeats in their lifetime.  My students and I discussed how skillfully Doyle’s essay stages an animal encounter as an opportunity for self-confrontation.  The roundabout path to the question of how one will spend their heartbeats was mapped out by the careful layering of facts, extended analogy, and use of repetition.  We can observe how one of my students adopted these craft moves in one of her “threads”:

The repetition of the word, “Butterflies,” at the beginning of successive sentences mimics Doyle’s use of anaphora with the phrase, “A hummingbird’s heart.”  Exploring the experience of introversion through the image of butterflies beautifully weaves the next thread’s reference to the words “floating” through her head – she recalls the times when she’s been asked, “Why are you so quiet?”.  The poignant mention of how a human’s touch will erase some of the butterfly’s wing color, thus making it more vulnerable to predators, indirectly yet effectively suggests how an introvert may feel enervated after spending too much time interacting with others.

Mentor Text Move: End with a question

What war do we think / we’re winning? (“Victor”)

The braided essay is often woven by threads representing the past, present, and future.  It occurred to us as we read and studied Heather Swan’s poem “Victor” that the present of the poem registered the process of disappearing – how bee populations are declining as a result of toxic pesticides.  “Victor” is the brand name of a line of pesticides; by giving the name to the poem, Swan invites the reader to think about the cognitive dissonance involved with linking victory with chemicals that contribute to the decline of our precious pollinators.  In one of his essay threads seen below, my student deliberately invokes the antithesis of “slowly” and “fast,” as he draws attention to the declining health of the global ocean.  Much like the beekeeper in Swan’s poem, my student contemplates the deterioration of something inextricably linked to human survival.  In his earlier thread, he makes reference to the coral composing reefs, something not frequently thought about but another example of a rapidly vanishing keystone species.

By ending his thread with a question – “Who will this really be hurting at the end?” – this student mimics the closing lines of Swan’s poem.  This terminal placement has been a powerful craft move to imitate.  Usually, my students reserve questions for an essay’s opening “hook.” Placing it at the thread’s closure keeps the conversation in play with the other essay threads and hammers the point that self-annihilation constitutes the void where other species disappear.

Mentor Text Move: Use a line from one of the mentor texts as a sentence starter

About suffering they were never wrong, / The old Masters: how well they understood 

(“Musée des Beaux Arts”)

The pleasure of writing a braided essay can be found in abandoning non-linear storytelling about the personal – the pressure to plot a narrative onto a trajectory of unfolding points in linear time may create some artificiality in how the topic is being discussed.  Instead, introducing a topic in the first thread of the narrative braid, then temporarily abandoning it in the second, only to loop back and pick up the thread again can be the circular motion creating a pressure valve that gives vent to difficult-to-express emotions.  As I was thinking about which mentor text writing moves to practice with my students, my mind kept returning to W.H. Auden’s “Musée des Beaux Arts.” This ekphrastic poem embeds narratives: a myth (Icarus) is alluded to in a painting (Bruegel’s “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus”) that is described in the second half of Auden’s poem.  The idea of nested stories is a helpful model to have in mind when trying to braid unwieldy elements and create texture.  Most interestingly from my students’ perspective was how the embedded myth of Icarus – and the image of his fall from the sky – offered a cautionary tale about the limits of human ambition.  As seen below, my student’s final essay thread begins by echoing Doyle’s description of the hummingbird flight, which is physically demanding.  The image resonates with the description of the drowning Icarus in Auden’s poem, who tried to will an illusion – a boy who could fly with artificial wings – into existence.

My student cleverly weaves in the imagery for these nested stories as she ponders the transition from youth to adulthood – something Icarus was not able to do.  By echoing images and lines in her braided essay, she contemplates her own coming of age story and how the journey began seemingly without hardship, “just cruising through time.”  These echoes almost work like a musical riff, creating an expectation that you know where the writer is going.  By incorporating the poem’s first line (“About suffering they were never wrong”) as a sentence starter for her concluding thought, she invokes the speaker’s thoughts about the skill of the painters whose works are displayed on the museum wall in Auden’s poem.  The common experience of human suffering, so vividly expressed on painting canvas, is undeniable, but my student’s variation on the theme – “but what we do with that suffering is ours to decide” – circumvents an attitude of defeat and inevitability.

Writing braided essays mid-school year strengthened the sense of community in our classroom.  For many teachers, personal narrative writing is reserved at the beginning of the year, when we’re trying to connect new faces with new names.  Giving students the opportunity to express stories of self-identity in an exploratory, experimental manner during a time associated with all kinds of tumult was the right chord to strike.


How would you teach the braided essay in your classroom?  How can we rethink the role of essay writing in school? Share your reflections in the comments below or find me on Twitter @dispatches_b222.

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