Whether they’re brooders or plungers, all writers suffer the same problem, how to discover and recognize their good stuff or even to find their true subjects. Writers lament how much material they must produce and then cut. Writing can seem so wasteful, and that’s painful: the useless work! Art seems to rely on having lots to select from, but getting bogged down in the swamp in the middle of the pathless forest can dishearten: Where is this thing going?
For writer Heather Sellers, the key to strong content and to reader and writer interest is structural: she advocates interweaving multiple stories. As she points out in “Use Braiding to Layer Your Story Line,” in the current issue (July/August 2009) of Writer’s Digest magazine, this works because it fosters discovery and juxtapositions. And it mimics the way people discuss several topics with each other at the same time.
It also reflects how we think. I realized the other day, while taking a long walk on the bike path with my terrier, that I was thinking about at least three different things. Sellers says she judged an essay contest in which ninety percent of the pieces failed because they concerned one predetermined topic. “No room to wiggle around . . . discover the interesting, previously unnoticed thing,” she writes. “Art relies on surprise. In order to engage the reader (and yourself as a writer), you have to braid. You can’t be confusing, but you can’t spell it all out, either. The human mind, when it reads, needs something to figure out.”
In her current project, a memoir about her neurological disorder that impairs her ability to remember faces, she’s interweaving three narratives with images that refract off each other: childhood, problems from her condition, and her marriage and divorce. “When I tell the story of my Florida childhood, divorce will be in some of the images,” she writes. “Marriage is about recognizing another person, deeply, profoundly.”
Her structure works to discover her material: “[T]he book teaches me what it is about as I write it. That’s the best way to write a book: to follow a structure that allows you to discover wise insights, images, and a natural organization as you go along.” She adds for emphasis: “You need more than one thing going on at a time. And you don’t need to know how everything will work out. When you braid, happy accidents occur . . .”
I intuitively braided my essay “Remembering Paul,” which was a breakthrough for me. I’d been worrying, as I drafted my memoir of farming in Appalachia, how to write about the death of my hired hand. I feared it would feel arbitrary and heavy-handed to just launch into it. One day when I was cleaning out the barn, Paul’s image came to me—it was the first time I’d done that chore without him—and I got a notebook and recorded such memories as they arose throughout the day. My essay was embedded in the present, in the scene of me and my feisty terrier in the barn (he was killing rats) but was intercut with stories of Paul. The main barn setting resonated with loss of its own—my energy, animals’ deaths, disorder and entropy—that was deepened by Paul’s loss and by my seeing what he had meant.
A more instructive essay, and a better one because its past thread is shown so vividly as an unfolding parallel story, rather than told in expository anecdotes, is Sellers’s own “Tell Me Again Who Are You?” collected in The Best Creative Nonfiction, Vol. I, edited by Lee Gutkind. Her story of undergoing face-recognition testing in a scanner at MIT is intercut with a narrative in the past of going away to college and finally breaking away from her crazed parents. There’s a lot going on in the essay but it’s always clear where she is physically and in time. A sad motif arises as she calls her husband nightly to report her ordeal at MIT and he can’t remember she’s not still there for a writing meeting. He’s not impaired, just doesn’t care.
Sellers says she uses braiding as a revision strategy, too, believing that simple pieces won’t come to life until they’re “spark fed” complexity with two more braids. And she uses braiding in teaching. She has students take three unrelated topics to construct an essay. Since undergraduates can struggle with one story, this sounds like a recipe for disaster, but I think the key is her instruction that the elements must “mean a lot” to them. Thematic connections will surprise and delight. Even so, such essays will tend to be segmented—three discrete chunks—and as a reader I prefer stories like Sellers’s memoir essay where one thread is a through-line that provides cohesion in a layered narrative. Her MIT adventure in the story’s present is related to her trials shown in the flashback narrative as an odd little girl with “criminally insane” parents and her poignant first experiences at college, including failing to recognize her date after she returns from the restroom.
Her Writers Digest essay was excerpted from her book on writing, Chapter After Chapter, which is about how to live the writer’s life, in the vein of Bird by Bird and Writing Down the Bones. But in the middle of Sellers’s encouragement and her rules and her tough-love advice (she’s made all the mistakes herself—has faded away on books and has dud books under her bed), is that amazing chapter about her favored construction.
Braiding is just a term some now use—call it flashbacks, story lines, backstory—but words for the same technique have different implications and can inspire. Someone else’s nomenclature and her examples can help a writer see his true task.