Braiding Your Writing

This is the written version of the workshop I presented at the Chuckanut Writers Conference on June 21, 2013.

You don’t really have a workable idea until you combine two ideas. Twyla Tharp.

As a writer, I’ve always loved form. My first novels were historical romances and I currently write mystery novels with my friend, Curt Colbert. Both have certain constraints. For romances: two star-crossed lovers and a set of societal conventions they must flout. For mysteries: a murder, suspects and a confrontation with the killer. Yet within those structures, there is enormous room for creativity and innovation.

As a teacher, I focus on classes about craft and one of my favorite classes to teach is a class called Shapes of Stories. I introduce the writers in the class to five basic structures—the classic story arc, collage, braid, frame and circle—and ask them to try writing an essay or short fiction or poem using each shape. My goal is to have them experience how the structure shapes the piece or suggests the story and I think the best way to learn this is to try it.

For the class at the Chuckanut Writers Conference, I focused on the braid. It’s one of the shapes Brenda Miller and Suzanne Paola discuss in Tell It Slant: Creating, Refining and Publishing Creative Nonfiction. Brenda brings a loaf of challah bread, the braided bread served at Sabbath in Jewish homes, to class when she talks about the braided essay:

The braided challah is a fitting symbol for an essay form closely allied with collage: the braided essay. In this form, you fragment your essay into separate strands that repeat and continue. There’s more of a sense of weaving about it, of interruption and continuation, like the braiding of bread, or of hair. You must keep your eye on the single strands that come in and out of focus…

I most often see the braided form in books, rather than short pieces, because it’s harder to recognize the shape (which relies on repetition) in a short piece. Although in the class at Chuckanut, we looked at an excellent poetic example, the poem “Terra Incognita” by Kathleen Graber. The poet describes the decline of her old dog, and then the dwindling of her elderly father, and the braid allows us to see the similarities between the two, and the different ways the narrator relates to the impending loss. There is one line in the poem that is not tethered on one side of the braid or the other so we can enjoy the ambiguity and mystery.

Fiction writers usually use the braid form to present the viewpoint of two different characters, for instance, most elegantly in Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier. The novel tells the story of a Civil War deserter, Inman, who is trying to get home to his sweetheart. On the way he faces countless obstacles: starvation, marauders, bounty hunters, witches. Meanwhile his sweetheart, Ada, struggles to survive on the farm she inherits after her father’s death. The chapters alternate from his point of view, then hers. Chapters often end at a high point (the cliffhanger ending) when the character is in desperate circumstances. This technique creates suspense, driving the story forward. And we expect, as we do with any braid, that the two separate strands are going to come together at the end. They do in Cold Mountain, but in a surprising way.

Although no one could ever confine Charles Dickens to the strict pattern of a braid, the start of Bleak House has a braid-like structure. We are introduced in the first chapter to the fog of London and the legal fog of the Chancery lawsuit Jarndyce vs Jarndyce. The second chapter takes us to Lincolnshire and the melancholy estate of the Lord and Lady Dedlock. And the third chapter, with a surprising shift into first person, introduces Esther Summerson, who is seen, in the first interlacing of the braids, to be a ward of a Mr Jarndyce. For a few more chapters, the novel alternates between Esther’s story and the Dedlocks, before splintering, as do most Dickens novels into multiple subplots. Still the braid implies, as turns out to be true, that there is some connection between Esther and the Dedlocks and Jarndyce vs. Jarndyce.

The shift between first and third person in Bleak House reminds me of the shift between first and third person employed by bell hooks in her memoirs, Bone Black and Wounds of Passion. She braids together a first person passage with a third person reflection on the same experience. She says this about her use of third person:

The inclusion of the third person narrator who has both critical insight and an almost psychoanalytical power that enables critical reflection on events described is an act of mediation. When we rewrite the past, looking back with our current understanding, a mediation is always taking place. I give that mediation a voice rather than mask this aspect of any retrospective reflection on our lives.

Another memoir that employs the braid technique is James MacBride’s The Color of Water, about his attempt to understand his mother, a Jewish woman from the south who moved to New York where she married a black man in the 1940s, raised twelve kids while living in a housing project in Brooklyn, and always insisted (when asked about her past) that she was black (just light-skinned). Chapters alternate between first person accounts of his mother’s life (transcribed from interviews he did with her) and his first person accounts of his relationship with his mother and how it shifted over time.

Judith Barrington in her book Writing the Memoir, in a section on “Finding Form,” talks about the difficulty she faced writing her memoir, Lifesaving, which focused on the period in the Sixties when she lived in Spain, while trying to mourn the drowning death of her parents. She interwove stories about her parents and about her life in Spain but felt she had not discovered the right structure for her book until she dreamed one night abut the lifesaving classes she had taken as a child. She wrote out the dream and at first inserted it as an additional chapter, but it seemed out of place, until she broke it up into smaller pieces and inserted it between the other stories. Then she discovered amazing resonances with the material she already had written, plus, of course, an evocative metaphor tying together the other two strands of her memoir.

The braid is also an effective technique for non-fiction. Erik Larson in The Devil in White City braids together two strands: an account of the construction of the World’s Fair in Chicago in 1893 and the story of the serial murderer who preys on young women who have come to the Fair. Larson’s novel illustrates one of the dangers of the braid format. Ultimately, the story of the serial killer became so compelling to me that I began skipping the slower, denser chapters on the World’s Fair, in my eagerness to find out how the murderer was caught. Both strands of a braid must carry equal weight and intensity for the format to work well. If one strand is not as interesting, the reader will only read it if they perceive it to be essential to understanding the other strand.

In my mind, Sin in the Second City by Karen Abbott is a much more satisfying use of the braid. Abbott writes about the Everleigh sisters, two well-bred Southern women, who opened up a high-class brothel in Chicago in 1900 and weaves their story together with an account of the religious crusaders and purity leaguers and community leaders who tried to shut them down. Unlike Cold Mountain, where you’re expecting the characters to get together, in this battle of points of view, there’s a fight to the finish.

Elyssa East also does a marvelous job of braiding together two stories in her book Dogtown: Death and Enchantment in a New England Ghost Town, about a mysterious and abandoned settlement in Massachusetts that was the site of a murder in 1984. She braids together the story of that murder and the search for the killer with her own investigations into the history of the place and the many rumors that swirled around it throughout centuries.

A braid is also an interesting way to move between the past and the present, in either a memoir or a novel.

When is a braid not a braid?

In a braid, the parallel stories move forward in time in a chronological way. This brings up one of the interesting distinctions between a braid and a collage. In a collage, vignettes are usually assembled out of order. The juxtaposition of images creates a total picture for the reader but one that is assembled in the reader’s mind. In a braid, it’s the pattern that stands out, and the pattern is usually told in a straightforward chronological way.

For instance, at the start I might have called Sam Quinones masterful  book Dreamland: The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic, a collage as he jumps back and forth introducing addicts, drug dealers, cops and doctors interspersed with short, brilliant chapters on the histories of the syringe, the opium poppy, pain relief, and Portsmouth. Ohio. But then he settles in for the story and the book proceeds, as a good braid does, moving forward chronologically in time, but with so many strands that the resulting braid is as complex as the topic, yet addictively easy to follow.

What makes the difference between a braid and a subplot? Another good question. Most novels have subplots, which are used to give depth or contrast to the main plot. And most subplots move forward chronologically along with the main story. I propose that in the braid, both strands have equal value, while in a novel with one or more subplots, it’s clear that there is one main story line and the other story lines are secondary.

But these subtleties do point out that the braid is simply a handy way to talk about a structure. It’s not a strait jacket for the writer. Nor is it set in stone. A braid can be a notion you try and discard, letting your story develop its own structure. Or it can dissolve into multiple subplots as in Bleak House.

When should a writer use a braid?

I think it’s a great form to use when you have two opposing views to compare and contrast, two themes you suspect are related or when you have two characters with equally compelling stories. Braids also are a natural way to create suspense.

Any time you are dealing with a complicated story with many elements, thinking of it as a braid may help you sort it out.  I’ve been working for years on a piece that has been at various times about the scent of flowers, taking a natural perfumery class, reading perfume blogs, becoming interested in chemistry and taking a class on the chemistry of essential oils. As I worked on my notes for this workshop, I realized that my essay could be broken into three strands, each with its own forward momentum:

  • my experiences noticing and trying to capture the scent of plants
  • the class I took in natural perfumery (which ends in my attempt to make a perfume)
  • and my education about the perfume industry.

I’ve also been grappling with an essay about walking which is another topic (like perfume) which could be a book (and has been handled so well by so many authors I admire). My friend, Dan Loewenstein, suggested that the way to approach that topic would be to break it down into three parts:

  • A description of the Long Walk (an art work created by Seattle artist Susan Robb)
  • How I experienced the walk (a subjective view, how I felt about it, how it affected me)
  • And a more analytical strand which would reflect on what it means

I like playing around with these different ways of approaching a topic. Another suggestion:

  • Your personal experience
  • Another person’s experience
  • A historical view of the topic

Brenda Miller and Suzanne Paola write in Tell It Slant:

When you write a braided essay, the fragmentation allows you, almost forces you, not to approach this material head on but to search for a more circuitous way into it. You must expand your peripheral vision, focusing on images that at first se4emed oblique to the stories. 

The braided form also allows a way for research and outside voices to intertwine with your own voice and experience.

Structures should resonate with the content of a story. So don’t try fitting a story into this format unless it seems right. Another way to learn the form is to try it out. Priscilla Long in her book The Writer’s Portable Mentor suggests making a list of topics that appeal to you, then considering other topics you might use for comparison or contrast.

Books and essays that might be braids:

These were suggestions from the class. Some of these might be braids. Some of these might not. In order to decide, we’d have to read all of them and then discuss them. Feel free to do that on your own.

Gone to Soldiers, Marge Piercy
Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon
As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner
Mrs Queen takes the Train by William Kuhn
The Nineteenth Wife by David Ebershoff
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
Midnight in Paris
Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace
People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks
The Dead Zone by Stephen King
Ken Follett (which book?)
Madonnas of Leningrad by Debra Dean
Prodigal Summer by Barbara Kingsolver

In the class, I suggested that Possession by AS Byatt was a braid, but when I got home and looked at my copy, I wasn’t so sure.  There are two distinct strands of the story: the romance of the 19th century Victorian poet and his mistress and the romance that develops between the two current day researchers who are uncovering the evidence of the affair, plus the many documents (poems, letters, diary pages) that help them, but the story is mostly told, at least at the start from one character’s point of view, and for this reason, I wouldn’t consider it a braid.

After the class, I also remembered that The Source by James Michener uses a braid format, in that there is a contemporary story of archaeologists uncovering artifacts at a tell and intervening chapters that tell the story of the lives of the people who lived there over centuries. I think, however, that it goes backwards in time, rather than forwards since the oldest artifacts would be uncovered last.

I mentioned Harold Robbins in the class. If  you don’t mind reading an old-fashioned potboiler, his novel,  Dream Merchants, has an interesting structure that might be consider a braid (or something more complicated). Chapters told from the point of view  of Johnny Edge (wish I had thought of that character name!), the head of a major movie studio, who is fending off a takeover, are interposed with chapters that describe the decades of Edge’s life as he clawed his way to the top.

I also mentioned Michael Datcher’s memoir, Raising Fences: A Black Man’s Love Story, which tells the story of his struggle in a difficult relationship (his girlfriend his pregnant and he’s not sure whether or not to marry her) alternating with chapters about growing up without a father in inner city LA.

One essay that I love that I would consider a braid is “Buzzards” by Lee Zacharias which I read in Best American Essays of 2008. It’s a marvelous piece in which she weaves together information about buzzards and their habits, with stories about her father who is dying. Obviously the thread that connects them is death, but she manages, as she goes along, to wring out every bit of resonance, possible in image and language.

Please comment if you have questions, corrections or other suggestions for great examples of braided pieces.

Photo credits: The Challah bread came from TheFreshBread.com and the braided wheat blessing was made by Sarah Paul. She has store on Etsy called ValkyrieOfOdin.

10 Responses to Braiding Your Writing

  1. Such an excellent summary of the braid form with so many examples. Thank you!

  2. Stacy Lawson says:

    Enjoyed your latest newsletter. Thanks for the summary of braid and collage structure. I am working on a novel which I am trying to get a handle on, but it keeps shifting underneath my pen. I am working with Ms P. Long on it, but I am thinking that your novel writing class, may be a way of keeping me focused.

  3. sarah says:

    I stumbled on this blog post today looking for information about braiding memoir. What a great find and thank you so much for this detailed description, terrific examples, and a way forward. I do think my memoir would benefit from this technique. So, again, thank you for the post!

  4. Pingback: “in the middle of things” | Chris Brennan

  5. Maya Mendoza says:

    I am working on a query to an agent and am not sure how I can explain my braided memoir. The braid is a particular experience I had in The Philippines during the Gulf War. The main story is how I dealt with mental illness by having adventures that although scary were good ways to deal with my anxiety. Do I say. parallel narrative or braided narrative in the query in this instance? Thank you.

    • admin says:

      Great question.I might use parallel narrative if one strand of the braid is progressing in a different time frame than the other strand of the braid. But either term would be correct and would be understood by an agent. I think you just want to make clear what the two (or three) strands of the braid are.

  6. Catherine Sutthoff Slaton says:

    Thanks much for the breakdown on slant and collage. I am working on an essay that tells of clothing, fabric, and colors – how they appeal to and empower/protect/affect us and am trying to determine whether to use braid or collage.

    • admin says:

      Just based on the many topics that could be included in an essay on clothing, fabric and color, and how they appeal to, empower, protect and affect us, it sounds more like a collage than a braid. I understand your quandary as I have been working on an essay about scents and perfume for a few years now and still have not decided if it’s a braid or a collage. I think for a braid to work best you want to have clearly distinct strands whereas with a collage you can include more variety. Let me know when you publish it. Sounds fascinating!

  7. Meg says:

    Barbara Kingsolver’s Prodigal Summer braids three characters over the course of one summer in one town and we only discover how they fit together at the end.

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