When I first started reading and writing creative nonfiction, I was particularly struck by the “braided essay”—its poeticism, its interlacing movements, its endless possibilities. The beauty of a braid lies in the way it weaves distinct strands into a coherent whole, the way individual strands intermittently appear and disappear.
If you’ve ever felt like your essay was missing something or needed more texture, or if you’re someone who loves miscellany, a braided essay might be right for you. But before I wax eloquent about the braided essay:
What is a braided essay?
A braid is a structure commonly used in the genre of creative nonfiction, though it can easily be adapted for use in other genres. Richard Powers’ The Overstory and Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84 are great examples of novels that use braiding as a structure.
Simply put, a braided essay is one that weaves two or more distinct “threads” into a single essay. A thread can be a story with a plot or simply a string of thought about a specific topic.
A braided essay is one that weaves two or more distinct “threads” into a single essay. A thread can be a story with a plot or simply a string of thought about a specific topic.
If all of this sounds abstract and complicated, don’t fret: the good news is that a braided essay is much easier to understand in practice than in theory. Consider, for instance, Roxane Gay’s “What We Hunger For,” which consists of two threads. In thread A, Gay writes about The Hunger Games and the representation of female strength in pop culture. In thread B, she recounts memories of her childhood as a girl. Gay breaks up these two threads into smaller fragments, then alternates fragments from thread A with those from thread B.
This alternating movement draws out themes and ideas from each thread, such that the essay as a whole points to larger ideas and themes.
This alternating movement draws out themes and ideas from each thread, such that the essay as a whole points to larger ideas and themes. In the case of “What We Hunger For,” the result of braiding is an essay that combines The Hunger Games and the writer’s personal experiences to gesture to the themes of strength, trauma, storytelling, the power of reading, and hope for healing. This happens often in braided essay: the whole becomes greater than the sum of its parts.
What counts as a “thread?”
For something to count as a “thread,” it has to be sufficiently distinct in terms of style and/ or content. To braid these threads together, break each into fragments, then alternate a fragment from one braid with a fragment from another braid. Check out the following diagram to see how this works:
To help your reader distinguish one thread from another, writers often add a visual break between fragments from different threads. This usually means inserting either an additional section break or an asterisk between fragments.
In addition, while there are no maximum number of threads you can include in an essay, an essay with too many threads can get out of hand really quickly!
What makes a braided essay coherent?
Distinct threads often speak to one thing (or a few things) that unifies the essay. In Maggie Nelson’s Bluets, it is the narrator’s love of blue—established in the very beginning of the book-length essay—that provides coherence to the many threads in the essay, which range from philosophy to personal suffering, vision to pain. In other essays, what unifies the threads becomes apparent only as the essay develops; the pleasure of reading such essays comes from seeing how disparate threads gradually come together. A good example is “Time and Distance Overcome” by Eula Biss, which begins as an essay about the history of telephone poles and develops into a meditation on race. Another wonderful example by Biss is “Babylon,” which can be found in her book Notes from No Man’s Land.
The best braided essays, however, unfold associatively, even ambiguously.
The best braided essays, however, unfold associatively, even ambiguously. While coherence is important, making the links between the various threads too neat or too obvious can make an essay feel contrived and boring. When writing a braided essay, it’s always good to remember: your reader is often smarter than you think!
Before we explore how to write a braided essay, let’s look more closely at braided essay examples for inspiration.
Braided essay examples
- Rebecca Solnit’s “The Blue of Distance” is a classic braided essay that weaves the narrator’s meditations on the color blue in 15th century paintings and her personal reflections on distance, memory, and longing. This unlikely pairing plunges the reader into a poetic, blue-hued aura, inviting us to contemplate our own relationships with distance and longing. “The Blue of Distance” can be found in A Field Guide to Getting Lost alongside two more essays of the same name.
- In “The Empathy Exams,” Leslie Jamison draws on events in her personal life and her experiences working as a medical actor to craft a moving meditation on the concept of empathy. This essay also uses the form of a hermit crab essay (for more on hermit crabs, check out #9 in this article) with deftness and to great emotional effect. This essay can also be found in Jamison’s book, The Empathy Exams.
- Annie Dillard’s “An Expedition to the Pole” is a fascinating braided essay that interlaces the narrator’s religious experiences in church with reportage on famous polar expeditions. While this essay is rather long, the ending – in which the two separate threads fuse into one – makes it entirely worth it. “An Expedition to the Pole,” which opened up my ideas of what’s possible in a braided essay, can be found in Dillard’s essay collection, Teaching a Stone to Talk.
- In “Reality TV Me,” Jia Tolentino’s reflection on her time as a contestant on a reality tv show is intercut with short, ekphrastic descriptions of various scenes from the show. The result is a fun yet compelling meditation on the concepts of reality and performance. This essay can be found in Tolentino’s essay collection, Trick Mirror: Reflections on Self-Delusion.
- Braiding Sweetgrass offers, in the words of its author Robin Wall Kimmerer, “a braid of stories” about nature “woven from three stands: indigenous ways of knowing, scientific knowledge, and the story of an Anishinaabekwe scientist trying to bring them together in service to what matters most.” Expect to be delighted, jolted, and awed by this brilliant book.
- Rivka Galchen’s Little Labors is a miscellany of thoughts on motherhood, children’s literature, and great women writers. Enchanting and entirely unique, Little Labors is a great braided essay example in book form.
- In A Twenty Minute Silence Followed by Applause, Shawn Wen paints a portrait of the mime Marcel Marceau with a varied collection of materials. At times cutting and moving, this innovative essay is a must-read.
Inspired yet? Follow this step-by-step guide on how to write a braided essay to write your own!
How to write a braided essay
The writing process, by definition, requires many rounds of drafting and revision. For a more general step-by-step guide to writing essays, check out the guides in these articles on writing lyric essays, narrative essays, and memoirs.
1. Get inspired and generate ideas
The best way to learn how to write a braided essay is to read one, and to get an idea of what’s possible. Next, begin making a list of ideas for your essay. If you’re in need of writing prompts, check out our Facebook group!
2. Do a freewrite
Once you’ve chosen one idea, explore its possibilities by doing a freewrite. While freewriting, be sure to keep your pen moving – don’t even stop to correct any grammatical or spelling mistakes! The point of a freewrite is to keep the ideas flowing until you arrive at an idea that feels right. In the words of Peter Elbow, who developed the freewriting strategy, “The consequence [of writing] is that you must start by writing the wrong meanings in the wrong words; but keep writing until you get to the right meanings in the right words. Only in the end will you know what you are saying.” In my personal experience, it often takes at least 10-15 minutes for a freewrite to yield the ideas that feel right.
3. Read your freewrite
As you read what you’ve just written, highlight important themes, ideas, words, and/or motifs. Rely on your intuition in this process. Of these, identify the core of the essay you’d like to write. This is the primary thread of your essay.
4. Begin writing your primary thread
Rather than starting from “the beginning,” however, begin with the thing that resonates most with you. Doing so not only helps you to maintain momentum in the writing process, but also provides an anchor for your writing. Because braided essays are so associative, it can be easy to lose track of what feels right in the process of writing.
5. Start on your other thread(s)
It is often much easier to build a braided essay when you do it bit by bit, rather than thread by thread. The reason is that, with a braided essay, development in one braid often affects another. It’s much easier to develop one thread alongside another. This also makes the final produce much more organic.
6. Read what you have so far
Now that you have written the beginnings of several threads, read what you have and notice how your essay has already morphed. Doing these regular “check-ins” with your braided essay can help you to stay on top of how it is developing. If not, a braided essay can get unruly very quickly!
7. Continue writing
If you’re not sure how to continue, do research. This can be any form of research – from interviews to googling, immersive to archival. As you do research, keep an eye out for opportunities for expansion. Ask yourself: what new associations emerge?
8. Repeat steps 4-7 until satisfied.
Good writing is often built section by section, rather than produced in one burst. As you read what you have written so far, note places to expand and places to cut.
Once you’re satisfied with your braided essay, begin paying attention to the finer things: word choice, sentence structure, figurative words. Revising and editing are key to making your braided essay work. If you’re looking for a fresh pair of eyes to look at your writing, check out our schedule of nonfiction workshops!
Writing a braided essay for the first time can be challenging, but remember to have fun in the process. If you’d like to learn about other forms of creative nonfiction, check out this article!
Write the best braided essays at Writers.com
What will your braided essay be about? Perhaps you’ll combine the most seemingly unrelated topics: your marriage with the history of paleontology; your time in high school with musings on the color orange; the anatomy of an orca with your favorite jacket.
Whatever the braids, write the best braided essays at Writers.com, where you’ll receive expert feedback on the essays you write. Find inspiration in our upcoming creative nonfiction courses, and forge new relationships between seemingly-unalike things.