This is what I love about all braided things: bread, hair, essays, rivers, our own circulatory systems pumping blood to our brains and our hearts. I love the fact of their separate parts intersecting, creating the illusion of wholeness, but with the oh-so-pleasurable texture of separation.
–Brenda Miller, author of Tell it Slant
Think food. Think bland food. Long brown rice. Green lentils. Quinoa. By themselves, they don’t make the mouth water. Now, sauté some garlic cloves and diced red onion in the olive oil in your skillet. After they reach a texture and sizzle you can live with, add some celery and carrots to the mixture and bring these ingredients to a boil in vegetable broth along with those otherwise bland grains.
Bay leaves. Dried herbs. Salt and pepper.
Boom. Bland meets flavor.
Like food, some stories taste flat when told alone. Details, nuances, conflicts, place and space, context, and emotion may read as bland if not seasoned with adventurous structures.
Braided narratives weave separate and complete story lines, stand-alone strands, to tell a fuller, more distinct story by finding the reflective surfaces within each strand that allows the reader to see something that might not be visible without the juxtaposition. In this way, the use of the braided form unclusters the chunks of separate, but interlocking, threads that might get missed for their importance and connection if told in a merely linear or lyric way.
Superpowers and Place introduces students to the form of the braided essay, which will encourage students to combine their personal life experience with greater cultural research. In weaving together these separate strands of interest, the students will gain a deeper understanding of self while finding more connections to the world around them, connections that circle back around and inspire critical thinking, mirror multiple concepts, convey emotion, and reveal hidden truths that become evident in the reflective moments.
This assignment consists of braiding together three separate strands of writing to make a more nuanced personal narrative within a deeper worldly context. Sarah Minor suggests that creative writers are too comforted by the straight line of progression and theorizes that by “forcing our stories into a linear, sequential form, we risk oversimplifying the richness of human experience.” By breaking up a narrative in sections, and by breaking the sections themselves into strands that culminate in a larger plait of insight, the writer and the reader become invested in a more nuanced story, a more gradated narrative.
This exercise simultaneously solves conflicting challenges students face when writing memoir and personal essay; namely, the twin risks of navel-gazing and its opposite problem, remaining only superficially vulnerable on the page. Students are required to expose significant personal information (regret) while also reaching outside themselves via historical research and engagement with pop culture.
This assignment encourages students to engage in the writerly multitasking that personal essay requires of us, while also appealing to a sense of personal exploration, relevant research, and fun. Students learn how to employ the strategic craft elements of creative nonfiction, such as description and reflection, as well as weave in cultural context in a significant and energizing way.
By accentuating a common ground of personal experience (regret) with the cultural research strand (superpower), writers are then able to more succinctly draw attention to the emotional significance that is present in connections between themselves and the world they are writing about while staying grounded in place. By holding up their mirror to the strand of cultural research, they can see themselves more clearly through the memories conjured from these juxtaposing strands, as these separate threads open the conversation to multiple concepts inspired by research and personal narrative strands, which is necessary to the construction of a successful braided narrative.
Not only does the braided form allow student writers to weave in a deeper universal context to find commonalities in each separate thread, but it also challenges them to find a balance to their personal narrative, while also reaching outside their own persona story via historical research and an engagement with the culture around them. They find ways to give voice to the general populace impacted by similar threads. By offering different perspectives, writers allow for pause, reflection, and refraction in the separate strands that might not occur if the narrative were told without a break.
By breaking up a narrative with memoir, pop culture, and research from historical archives, the deeper emotional stakes that would have been explored only in a more traditional telling, get expressed in a tense and revealing way within the braided narrative, by way of self-revealing and emotional reflection resonated in adventurous structures.
This exercise can be used as a larger, multiweek assignment or as a shorter, in-class exercise.
For a Multiweek Assignment
- Ask the students to research superheroes they admire. When the students settle on a superhero they like the most, have them pick one superpower they feel the most connection with.
- Next, ask the students to write a list of three regrets. Students should pick the one regret that is significant enough to warrant extensive inquiry and exploration, that is safe and ethical to explore, and that they are comfortable sharing with peers and the instructor. To wit, by focusing on structure rather than personal experience, writers feel freer to write about deep feelings.
- Finally, ask students to pick a place of great personal significance and research its history. In researching the history, students should add their age plus fifty years to determine how far back in time to research. Have students choose the one fact they are most interested in pursuing.
- After they have acquired the basic information of these three strands—superpower, regret, and place of personal significance—ask students to write each part separately to find commonalities in each separate thread. Then work with each student to determine which sections of each strand belong together to construct the most cohesive braided essay.
As an In-Class Exercise
- Ask students to pick a superhero that they admire from a list of common superheroes. Students should pick the one superpower they feel the most connection with.
- Next, have the students write a list of three regrets then pick the one regret that is significant enough to warrant extensive inquiry and exploration; safe and ethical to explore; and something they are comfortable sharing with peers and the instructor.
- Finally, ask students to pick a place of great personal significance. This time, rather than researching the history of a place, students need only know one thing about the place of their choosing. This can be from public knowledge or personal understanding.
- After the students have acquired the basic information of these three strands, ask them to write each part separately to find commonalities in each separate thread. Then, work with each student to determine which sections of each strand belong together to construct the most cohesive braided essay.
- As an in-class assignment, each strand should only be between 350 and 500 words.
- Homework is to type the in-class writing and turn it in the following class for feedback and guidance.
Holly Spencer lives in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, with her three dogs and two cats. She attends Chatham University’s grad program as the Words Without Walls Fellowship Awardee. She has been published in Jet Fuel Review, Rise Up Review, Anti-Heroin Chic, Pink Panther Magazine, and Feckless Cunt Anthology. Her creative nonfiction piece “Stuck” was nominated by Jet Fuel Review for The Best of the Net 2016.