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.