Lesson No. 2: The Braided Essay

Braid image





In his visual craft essay “Picturing the Personal Essay,” Tim Bascom shows the various way a piece of writing can be organized in order to create a structure that heightens the overall narrative. He describes how writing can veer off into directions different from the writer’s initial intentions. Neat, huh? Because here we are with this perfectly structured and well-organized essay stewing in our heads, and then when we go to write it down it looks like a sprawling maze that doesn’t lead anywhere—at least not where we thought it would lead. This experience can lead to confusing thoughts of what, exactly, we’re trying to say. But it can also lead to something greater and more complex than our original idea. 

Key thing to remember: we might not know what we’re trying to say. 

And that’s okay. Go with the sprawling and see where it goes. One way to bring the endless maze into focus is to look at the main themes and/or narratives you have started to discuss in this essay zygote. Though something you will most likely start to see as you look at all of these disorganized elements is that there are some main strands of ideas running through the mess. What to do next? Enter: the braid. 

The structure of a braided essay is pretty basic: take at least three different narratives, break them up into different segments, and then organizing them by mixing them together. While basic, this type of essay isn’t necessarily an easy one to write. How can you get seemingly unrelated narratives to speak to one another? 

The key points to a braided essay are an overarching theme and juxtaposition. The success of the braided essay is dependent on how you use these elements in order to make three different narratives speak to one another. So get ready for some free-association. Think of it this way: you might not know what you want to say, but you can look at what you have already written or the different experiences you have/want to write about and see if there are any connecting images, words, phrases, ideas or even loosely-related events that can get these segments to speak to one another. You might have to tinker with the segments to get them into a dialogue. You might have to leave some segments out. Regardless of what you do or do not include, look at each segment as a separate entity, but also as part of a whole. Because this is what a braided essay is: disjointed thoughts juxtaposed in such a way as to create a connected narrative, a larger meaning. 



  1. What are the three strands of Jo Ann Beard’s “The Fourth State of Matter”? In what ways do they carry equal weight? In what ways do they not? And what do you think is the theme that connects these three topics together?
  2. The execution scene in Beard’s essay brings a type of disruption not just to the narrative, but to how that narrative is told through braiding together three story lines. In what ways does Beard begin to braid again, and how is this different from how she braided the strands before the execution scene?
  3. In “Prelude: The Box,” Eula Biss brings small segments from three different types of narratives into conversation with each other: quotes from family members, Biss’s own thoughts/reflections, an airplane’s black box. What theme(s) do you think bring these strands together? How do the narratives build on one another in order to fully examine the theme(s)?
  4. What are some of the moments in Biss’s essay in which you think the segments most affectively speak to one another?


Writing Exercises

  1. Blindly flip through the dictionary and  put your finger down three different times. Take the three words your finger landed on and write about what color has to do with each of them.
  2. Make a list of 5 objects you can see from where you are sitting right now. Cover that up and make a list of 5 different physical actions you have done so far today (walking, sitting, writing, etc.). Look at the lists, and write about each noun using at least one of the verbs you wrote down. Once you have a few sentences per noun, write a paragraph or sentence in between each segment that helps to connect them thematically or visually.
  3. Print out THIS document of opening paragraphs of famous novels and cut it up so that each paragraph is on its own slip of paper. Now take the paragraph bits and organize them in a way that makes sense to you.


Weekly Deadlines

  • Saturday at 6pm:
    • All readings are to be completed
    • At least one discussion response is to be posted to the FORUM below.
  • Sunday at 6pm:
    • Weekly draft of essay(s) (no more than 1000 words total) is to be posted to the FORUM below.
  • Tuesday at 6pm
    • Chelsey will respond with feedback


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