Some stories can’t be contained by the tidy linear narrative—they need to spill out into multiple streams, running alongside each other, telling more than one story at a time, bringing in research, art, and other outside references in order to make themselves clear. Braided essays are complicated and layered, like real life, built on association and resonance rather than a singular A-to-B storyline. They can let us approach stories from our lives that are overwhelming, either emotionally or conceptually—refracting and weaving can present new entry points into stories that may have felt intimidating or murky when appraised head-on.
This course will guide writers through the process of writing a braided personal essay that incorporates research, criticism, and/or other external elements—from generating an idea and identifying the various strands, to developing those strands, and, of course, braiding them together. We will discuss examples of successful braided essays from masters of the form Lidia Yuknavitch, Melissa Febos, Elissa Washuta, and others—dissecting these published essays to figure out the mechanisms at work. This class is recommended for intermediate nonfiction writers with some experience with personal essay writing and a grasp on the basic concepts of narrative arc, scene, and metaphor.
Class meetings will be held over video chat, using Zoom accessed from your private class page. While you can use Zoom from your browser, we recommend downloading the Zoom desktop client so you have access to all platform features.
- How to develop multiple narrative, researched, and critical strands alongside/in conversation with each other, without getting lost
- An understanding of the mechanics of braided essays—how, when, and why to switch to another thread
- A complete draft of a braided essay
- 10% discount on all future Catapult classes
Students will be expected to read the provided example essays before the course begins, which will be shared with the class the week before the first class session. Once the course is underway, there will be craft assignments (writing prompts, research, lists) to complete ahead of each meeting. Students will not receive feedback on their own writing nor will they be expected to provide feedback on each other's work, but they will be able to ask questions and talk through challenges in their works-in-progress during class meetings. Students will need to access a printer at some point between the second and third class meetings.
Week 1: What’s a braided essay, and how does it function? This week we will discuss the example essays, and work through some generative prompts to develop ideas for the essays students will work on for the rest of the class.
Week 2: Building the threads. We’ll return to the example essays, broken down into threads, to discuss how the individual pieces of a braided essay function. Students will start building their strands.
Week 3: The braid! We’ll weave the strands together to create rough drafts. Through a series of exercises, we’ll experiment with various formations, paying attention to what’s revealed when various pieces of the different threads are placed next to each other.
Week 4: Revise/polish/submit. The final craft lesson will walk writers through the process of smoothing out the braid, once the structure is firmed up. There will be prompts to add transitions and reflections, and make sure the essay draft feels like a cohesive whole rather than a jumble of parts. (No class meeting this week.)
Lilly Dancyger is a contributing editor at Catapult, and assistant editor at Barrelhouse Books. She's the author of Negative Space, a reported and illustrated memoir selected by Carmen Maria Machado as one of the winners of the 2019 Santa Fe Writers Project Literary Awards, forthcoming in 2021; and the editor of Burn it Down, a critically acclaimed anthology of essays on women's anger from Seal Press. Lilly's writing has been published by Longreads, The Rumpus, The Washington Post, Glamour, Playboy, Rolling Stone, and more. Find her on Twitter here.
“Catapult’s Narrative Arc class with Lilly Dancyger was a transformative experience for me. Lilly’s uniquely-tailored lessons, coupled with my classmates’ insights, helped me craft chapter summaries that were thorough, robust, and that captured the heart of my story. Shaping my memoir through this course was an empowering experience for me and I’m forever grateful for all I’m taking away.”
“It demystified the writing process a little bit, and made it feel like writing is more tangible, and less abstract – something I could achieve. Ms. Dancyger gave great feedback. She was approachable, engaged, and encouraging.”
“Lilly Dancyger is an enthusiastic and passionate instructor. She was well organized and provided a rigorous program for us to follow. Her criticism was honest and constructive.”
“Lilly is a thoughtful, considerate editor who combines her developmental skills with skilled line editing for a holistic editorial approach that makes the story sharper and cleaner, the narrative more compelling, and the piece's purpose clear. Lilly knows what makes a story effective, and how to employ the writing techniques that will sharpen even the best and most vulnerable personal narratives. She's attentive to the writer's needs, and knows how to ask questions that will direct the writer toward the best story possible while retaining their own artistic voice. Lilly's editing helps take the personal essay from personal to universal. It's not often I feel like an editor isn't afraid to give it their all in editing a vulnerable topic, but also isn't hunting for just the most shock value and ‘universally appealing’ parts of a story, all while wanting the narrative to actually be strong, tight, compelling, and effective.”
“Ms. Dancyger understands the craft of the personal essay, how to weave narrative with theme, how to make the personal resonate. She draws the reader into the scene, evoking our senses and emotions.”
“Lilly Dancyger is a lovely, incisive writer attuned to the emotional core of a story and the evocative details that bring it out. She’s able to be expressive while smartly avoiding sentimentality, and she's well attuned to structure.”
“Lilly has an innate understanding of what makes a memoir piece pop, which is evident both in her own writing and in her work as an editor. She is uniquely skilled at helping writers pull out the most interesting angles of their own personal experiences and present them in a way that reels in the readers.”