Braided essays, Tibetan sky burials, and desirable difficulties

I recently stumbled across a past email I wrote to my mentor as I was conceptualizing an essay about my friend’s experience photographing a Tibetan Sky Burial. The extremely truncated version of my message went a little like this:

Hey, I want to submit an essay that has to do with monstrosity. I’m thinking of using my friend’s experience photographing a sky burial in Tibet as the main premise, but weaving together two narratives: one about modern capitalist life as an interpretation of monstrosity, and one detailing and reflecting on this unique burial practice. By many Western standards, the practice appears monstrous at first glance — they hack up a body and expose it to the elements so the soul can ascend through the bellies of sacred vultures — but I see in it a beautiful rawness and honesty that’s missing in Western life. And while capitalism can often look pretty at first glance, this system leaves in its wake a legion of monsters. In a kind of East-meets-West tale, these two narratives will create a new take on the whole “things aren’t always as they seem” premise.

So now I’m left with the question of how. How do I weave these two narratives together to tell a story about monstrosity? A piece like this will live or die in the execution, and the organization is critical to making it work. Oh, and I’ve got to be on point with my detail, imagery, and storytelling as well. So here’s my plan:

Step 1 — Read.

Research the burial practice to add background and context to my friend’s personal experience. Also, bolster my ideas about the downfalls of western society with some sexy, timely nonfic.

Step 2 — Mind map.

Start two separate mind maps to brainstorm and tease out the main points for each narrative.

Step 3 — Find the throughline and chart the course.

I’m picturing a T chart of sorts. The vertical line will represent the chronological layout of the piece. Each narrative will be placed on either side of the line, and the main points of each will be placed along the chronology. This is where I’ll start overlaying the main points of each narrative on top of each other and putting them in relationship to/partnership with each other. This way I can see how I will move back and forth between the two stories in a way that articulates and amplifies the throughline.

Hi tech t chart.jpg

Step 4 — Write the damn thing.


Step 5 — Revise.

Ask smart people for help.

Step 6 — Finalize. Git er done. Submit. Drink wine after.

You’re invited.

Sincerely, Danielle.

Then, about a month after I sent my mentor this manic rant, I found out that the entire process I had outlined was already a thing. Unbeknownst to me, I did that thing I often do: I worked myself into a tizzy trying to figure something out only to realize that the thing I was trying to create already had a name and a history and a set of best practices. In this case, it was called “a braided essay.”

I had powered through the thicket only to arrive at a starting line, not a finish line. Had I found the starting line initially, I could have been much further down the path, and sooner.

According to Dave Madden in The Brain is a Masterclass, a braided essay is an essay in which “two or more topics are woven together to form an essay’s throughline.” So, of course, I then went on to spend hours researching the braided essay, trying to figure out how to approach it. The good news: I pretty much nailed the approach when conceptualizing my monstrosity essay. The bad news: I didn’t have to. Others had already done it, before me. I had powered through the thicket only to arrive at a starting line, not a finish line. Had I found the starting line initially, I could have been much further down the path, and sooner.

In that same article, Madden identified this struggle of mine as a “ ‘desirable difficulty’: [a condition] that appears to impede performance during training but which actually lead to better long-term retention and retrieval of the material.” And as frustrating as it was to find information about the braided essay after the fact, I admit that wrestling with those concepts and arranging the puzzle pieces on my own allowed me to internalize the process on a level I likely wouldn’t have otherwise. I worked hard for that knowledge, for those takeaways and aha moments. Those bits of wisdom are now deeply embedded in my brain, thus creating a solid foundation from which I continue my work.

…the struggle gives you material that can help you relate to your reader.

I imagine this frustration is similar for many writers who didn’t go the academic, MFA, or PhD route, or even those who never got their young feet in the door at a major publication or outlet with literary giants serving as mentors — a group also known as most writers. Without formally learning these techniques, tricks of the trade, and best practices, we’re left to discover them on our own.

Yet Madden touches on something I recently heard author Steven Kotler hint at during writing workshop as well: the struggle gives you material that can help you relate to your reader. Write it as you learned it was Kotler’s general sentiment when discussing what he coined as “the voyage of ideas.” To know how to move and present an idea, we can think first of how we, ourselves, initially arrived at it. By struggling through something — a concept, a story structure, whatever — we now have fodder to reverse engineer our struggle to create a flow of ideas. Thus, if nothing else, my struggle to come up with the concept of a braided essay better equipped me to describe my desirable difficulty here.

Now I’m off to invent the ABC/D story structure before John McPhee writes a book about it