The Braided Approach to Memoir
Our lives are made up of many strands—some of experience, some of memory, some of meditation and reflection, some of ongoing action. Those who write memoir must find the appropriate forms for ensuring that the textures of life will have their full expression.
What we know about the braided essay offers us a plan for making sure that we put a fully lived life on the page. Taking our cues from this form can invite us to dramatize important moments from our lives, blend the past with the present and the future, and find a place from which we can reflect, meditate, think, and make meaning.
So here’s a writing activity designed to allow you to wrap past and present through the lens of action and memory, to move from the role of participant to spectator, to project the course of our lives through the present and on into the future.
First, identify a line of action from your past, something that has stayed with you long beyond its resolution in real time. I might, for example, choose the night I stole my father’s car when I was a teenager. Write the first scene of this narrative thread.
Second, find another story line from the present that in some way connects to the one from your past. You don’t need to know how it connects at this point. Trust your instinct. Say to yourself, “When I think of that story from my past, I also think of this story from the present.” Write the first scene of that present-day narrative.
Third, slip into a more reflective mode. Maybe begin with the line, “If I could tell my younger self what I know now, I’d say. . . .” Speak from a wiser perspective. Allow yourself to make meaning from the past experience.
Fourth, attach what you’ve written in the third step to the present-day story line. Maybe begin with the line, “And what would my younger self tell me now? Maybe he or she would tell me to. . . .”
Fifth, continue to wrap steps two and three around the first one until you arrive at a place where you can make some sort of statement about the future. Maybe begin with the line, “I know that tomorrow. . . .”
Once you have a draft, you can decide whether to take liberties with the form of the braid. The purpose of the exercise is to invite past, present, and future onto the page through the discourses of dramatization and reflection. Now that you’ve gathered your material, you can relax the form if you wish or make it even more stringent, depending on how well it serves what you’ve come to the page to think more about.
The strands of our lives are multiple and complex. Our memoirs should formally allow those strands to converse, and by so doing, to make them resonate with us and our readers.
You have no idea how much your post helps me this morning. If only I could get some discipline and WRITE. I have a book inside of me dying to get out. I find some reason to ñot sit and my desk and WRITE. Time’s awasting. I’m not getting any younger. But meantime, I enjoy what others write. Especially your latest book: “Late One Night.” It kept me interested until the very end. Thanks!
I’m so glad to hear that his was helpful to you this morning, Eileen! And thank you so much for the kind words about “Late One Night.”
Brilliance, as usual, without pridefulness–not to overlook the part-the-waters miracle clarity. Wow.
Thanks, Roy. You have me wondering whether this braided approach works for writing poems–maybe through different images, etc?
Lee, you’re a godsend. I have spent three years on writing scenes for my memoir, only to hit a brick wall when I tried to find the right structure. After being suggested to write a braided narrative, i first tried a frame narrative, couldn’t get it to work for me. When I decided to write a braided narrative, I searched different articles online, and thankfully came across your piece.
Thank you so much for your wealth of knowledge on this subject!
You’re very welcome, Don. I’m glad I could be of help. I put a new post up every Monday. You might also be interested in my craft book, Telling Stories: The Craft of Narrative and the Writing Life, which will be out October 1, although friends tell me their pre-ordered copies from Amazon.com have already started to arrive. At any rate, thanks so much for visiting my blog and for taking the time to leave this comment. I wish you all the best for your work.
I am glad there is a name for what I have written. Critiques say I should be more chronological. Others like it, but they know me. I don’t know if I CAN rearrange it.
Thanks. I enjoy this and others of your posts.
Thanks for reading my blog and for taking the time to leave a comment. The thing I love about creative nonfiction is the fact that there are so many different approaches–and all of them are valid!
I am stuck on deciding on the right structure. I’m leaning toward braided narratives. Could you possibly shoot some advice? I’ll give you some info on my memoir if you email me. Thank you!
Josh, if you’re interested in braided approaches, find a book called “Writing Creative Nonfiction,” edited by Carolyn Forche and Philip Gerard, and read the piece on braided essays by Brenda Miller. Good luck!
A friend forwarded this to me. Your exercise just produced ideas and an essay outline ready for development. Appreciate the template. I have struggled with how to add complexity to linear pieces: braiding is the answer. Thank you!
Heidi, I’m so glad that my exercise worked for you, and I thank you for taking the time to leave this comment.