Issue #64, Adaptation
The Braided Essay as Social Justice Action
Between the Lines
The Braided Essay as Social Justice Action
I was born in Salt Lake City, Utah. The nouns in that sentence define nearly all of my writing. I write from a first-person point of view, from a place that defines and makes that “I”—I am as much Salt and Lake and City as anything. Salt is a place noun but, here, also acts as an adjective, describing the kind of lake. Salty also describes a kind of writing—irreverent, maybe even sailor-like. The lake part is misleading if it suggests to you potable water and schools of fish. This lake is undrinkable. Until recently, the city part also seemed inaccurate. Tumbleweeds still roll down State Street—street number one on the grid, a perfect square, each road big enough to turn an ox-cart around. The city seems more like a map of a city than a city itself.
Salt Lake City is an intense kind of place. The Mormon Church dominates most of everything—or at least it did while I was growing up. Or seemed to. My parents, having both been raised in the church, then having left Utah so my dad could go to grad school in New York City, thought Mormonism stifled their hippy ways. They would have stayed in New York, but the job market was weak, and my dad, a geological engineer, found a job with his grandfather’s drill-bit diamond company back in Salt Lake.
Geology, or at least the results of geological formations, brings a lot of people to Utah. Brigham Young, the second president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, after trekking up the Rocky Mountains, wended his way down through what is now called Emigration Canyon, saw the vast bowl that was Salt Lake Valley, and declared, “This is the place.” No matter that the big body of water—which would have suggested to any pioneer that this valley was a good place to start a new civilization—turned out to be full of salt. The mountain streams would supply the pioneers with enough water to turn this desert into a Midwestern oasis, with less persecution than they had suffered in Illinois and Missouri.
The glaciers that cut through the canyons of the Wasatch Mountains; the rivers that flowed between banks of granite cut by those glaciers; the water that irrigated farms and chchchchchhed out of lawn sprinklers; and the river Jordan, which collected all the canyon streams, and their attendant sewage and pollutants, into one and funneled the leftovers into the stagnant Great Salt Lake, were powerful forces. The Mormon Church, Manifest Destiny, and 19th-century Revivalist culture proved to be equally powerful at shaping those mountains and those rivers.
The church pushed, tucking rivers underground, turning a brown valley green, pumping water up and down and around the valley until it looked like a kind of Eden—a green Zion. Orchards and gardens, fountains and trees. Sometimes, though, the mountains pushed back. In 1983, 700 inches of snow, rather than the usual 300, fell. That spring, rain compounded the melting snow, and those ox-cart wide streets turned to rivers. As much as the Mormons had sculpted those mountains to fit their grid, the mountains took their turn to undo it.
What is creative nonfiction writing but the shaping and reshaping of self against fact? You take a personal story and give it syntax, grammar, language, punctuation. The simple fact of putting it on paper reshapes it. But now you’ve got to give it context, associate meaning to it. So next to that personal story, you set a paragraph about apples, or condoms, or chickens, or gun violence. Suddenly, your personal story is reshaped by these new facts, and the facts of your personal story cut into the hard statistics of your paragraph about imported apples or the failure rate of condoms.
The facts are the glacier to the soft canyon of your own history. You see the history newly. You see the facts a little more softly.
The geological forces that shaped Salt Lake City, and the work the church did to shape the geology, played out on the bodies and psyches of Mormon children. Or, at least, this child. Technically, I was Mormon if only by relation. My grandmothers were both LDS. My parents were both baptized although I never was. I went to church on Sundays only when I slept over at my grandma’s on Saturday nights. School was mostly fine, except when it wasn’t, or when my friends couldn’t come over to play because my parents drank wine, or when my friends went to after-school church activities like Mutual and I went over to the non-Mormon neighbor’s house where my body got shaped further by the neighborhood boys. At some ages, we’ll do anything to belong. In my book Quench Your Thirst with Salt, in an essay about a slide that happened after that 700 inches of snow melted and changed the landscape of many parts of Utah, and also about the hernia I developed from carrying my twin sisters around, I braided together scenes of land and scenes of body.
Symptom: I was showering in my mom and dad’s bathroom when my mom opened the shower curtain to hand me a washcloth and noticed the lump. She asked how long it had been there. I did not like her looking at my vagina. I told her as much. But she kept looking anyway. I told her I was OK and showed her my neat trick. If you pushed on the lump, it went away. I thought she would like that—it was a little like ironing—press it down and the protruding wrinkle goes away. She did not like it. She called the doctor.
Symptom: For a while, those floods transformed the riverbeds and the canyon floors, but the most dramatic changes came from underneath. As the water sopped into the sandy ground far above in the mountains, the underlying valley aquifers began to fill. The aquifer just above Thistle filled to the brink and then it bubbled over like any lid that tries too hard to hold the contents of its burgeoning cup. The land that capped the groundwater spectacularly split from the underlying ground and steamed right in to the town of Thistle. Thistle—dry, pokey, brittle. Nothing wet about it. Not usually. Not until 1983, when the rules changed and the lid was no longer tight enough and the cup no longer big enough and the whole side of the mountain shifted its weight up and over and then down on the town of Thistle.
How literally can you take the metaphor between land and the body? My body houses a number of species of mite and yeast and bacterium and occasionally another human body. A chemical imbalance of any sort can disrupt that number, but even if I manage to kill all the mites off of my eyelashes, if they were to go extinct all over me, six billion other human-planets would continue to sustain the very same species of mite. The Earth, though it may have six billion other brothers and sisters in the universe, as far as we know, is the only one to house anywhere from one-and-a-half to six million species on it. See how a body repairs itself. See how a planet does.
Reality is not my strong suit, which is rough for a nonfiction writer. Happily, the braided essay lets me pop in and out of different realities—not so much manipulating the facts as pacing them—and digest reality in drops.
Forces that shape your childhood parallel forces that shape the natural world. That should be an easy enough metaphor to make. But add toxins to the mix, and you have a ready-made drama on your hands. In Salt Lake, drought presses down from the parching August sky. Mercury and nitrates trickle downstream, layering the Great Salt Lake with bird-killing bands of poison. Oil refineries hidden behind the folds of the mountains spew layers of carbon, which combine with the parching sky to stave the clouds off. In Salt Lake, there used to be rain in August. Combine that dark narrative with a story about a girl who was born in that valley, whose friends weren’t allowed to come to her house because she wasn’t a member of the predominant religion. Add a trickle of paternal alcoholism and a band of sexual abuse. Press those layers together in memory’s time-lapse. Let them sit for a few years. Start writing. Start digging.
A problem for both memoir and nature writing is that some authors assume that nature and hardship inherently signify meaning: an addiction overcome must be meaningful; a bird, flying, must be meaningful.
I do think, depending on how you write it, that birds and addictions can make meaning, but I think meaning often lies in what F. Scott Fitzgerald called “first-rate intelligence”: the ability to hold two opposing ideas in your mind at the same time. The tension between two unlike things working against each other does, with enough stress and repetition, press out meaning.
Environmental writing, like any political writing, can be preachy, overly earnest, and super reverential. The authorial habit of invoking birds and trees and turtles, and imagining that just invoking these names conveys significance, can be off-putting to anyone who doesn’t think turtles or birds are inherently significant. As for critics of memoir, there’s a whole contingent of people who say, You’re only twenty-seven years old: how can you write a memoir? You haven’t even lived yet. You’re not famous. You’re not an addict. Your insights about life and living cannot possibly be significant.
In fact, it is memoir that offers something unique to environmental writing. By situating the self in the story, the writer personalizes what in some nature writing might come off as eulogizing and obvious. When I toggle between myself and the rest of the world, not only do I stop myself from boring myself with what I already know, I also find surprising commonalties with prairie dogs, or gutters, or the way geological formations seem permanent until they’re not, which reminds me that my bad habits or unattractive character traits, like writing about myself, are not necessarily permanent either.
The braided essay isn’t a new form. In fact, I think nearly every essay uses a kind of braiding—a New Yorker story about Bill Clinton’s fundraising skills, for example, toggles to scenes from his Arkansas childhood. But radical braiding is a foundation of creative nonfiction. The first book I read that I consider creative nonfiction was Terry Tempest Williams’s Refuge. Braiding together stories of the Bear Lake Migratory Bird Refuge and her mother’s cancer, Williams develops the idea that environments, personal and global, are inextricably related: the way the cancer moves, conversations move; diagnoses, hope, healing, and death proceed as the plover, the seagull, and the long-billed curlew migrate.
Perhaps the braided form is most effective when the political and the personal are trying to explain and understand each other. The process of pulling together two disparate ideas allows for surprise. In an essay I wrote about geothermal power in Iceland, I asked the question: although geothermal power is a sustainable, green energy, is it infinite? Will the supplies run out? Research revealed that an overtaxed well could, in fact, run dry, and the power produced by that particular natural hot-spring could come to an end. In a parallel story, I got mad at my husband and stormed off, wondering whether or not a church on a hill was Catholic, and angry that he had made me walk there if he didn’t want to know. Neither of us would let the issue go. I wandered by the ocean long enough to make myself abysmally sad. I stayed gone long enough to get really mad. I came home and fell asleep on the bathroom floor. When I awoke, I couldn’t find my husband. I found him waiting for me across the street, letting it go, forgiving me. The essay led me to understand that our relationship might be elastic and strong, possibly infinite in its resources, but perhaps I should be cautious before I tax it.
The form of the braided essay embodies the subject of the essay. The braided form is one of resistance. The further apart the threads of the braid, the more the essay resists easy substitutions and answers. I write politically, but I have found that political writing is often shallow and ideological; in political writing I agree with, I often find nothing new, and in political writing I don’t agree with, I find nothing persuasive. I keep my Facebook friends close as we confirm each other’s beliefs, sarcastically commenting, “But her emails!” on every new political spectacle. We don’t even have to explain. But the braided form expands the conversation, presses upon the hard lines of ideology, stretches the choices beyond right or left, one or the other. Metaphor helps challenge the stultified pathways of our neural networks and test the elasticity of thought. Two ideas. One time. The brain resists new ways of thinking, but resistance is an important political tool. Resistance is the metaphor that will rule all other metaphors.
I tend to write in braided essay form, but in a recent essay about wolves, I took it to a different level. In this essay, I didn’t make so many explicit transitions. Instead, I used the research itself to catapult the essay’s questioning. I found “62 Interesting Facts about Wolves” using Google and considered how each one was really a fact about humans. If so many of the facts involve human-and-wolf interaction, can we imagine the wolf as a separate existence-worthy species? Or are wolves only a reflection of human fears, violent capacities, love of wilderness, ability to adapt? Should humans save them to save these elements of ourselves, or does wolf existence matter for reasons beyond its relationship to the human?
If the essay is a chalkboard onto which we scrape our ontological questions, then this essay fits right in. Who are wolves? Are humans wolves? Can facts exist without humans? If the wolf changes, does the very being of wolf change? As climate change and habitat loss force the wolf to breed with the coyote, do we lose not only a species, or even two species, but also a metaphor for how we understand ourselves? How is the wolf and human already a braided idea? If one is being eradicated, is the other? Or is it just the idea of the other that is eradicated?
Is braided form a broken form? Perhaps. If so, perhaps it is the form that best represents a broken self and a broken world. But there is also something reparative about the braided essay. The way one dips into one section of research, looking for that one right word to express the personal brokenness. As you stitch an essay together, you stitch yourself into the world. The world, stitched by you, is made more whole. I think it’s incumbent upon us to make a case for what we believe. I also think it’s incumbent upon us to check our beliefs against a prismatic understanding of facts. Humility and curiosity come from the same place. “How does the world work?” and “Who am I?” are two sides of the same coin. The personal story asks the reader to hear you say, Isn’t this what it’s like to be human? The research-based story says, See how being human is like being everything else in the world? Strange and wondrous. Wild and mutable. The job of the creative nonfiction writer is to say, Here I am world, and here is the world, and out of this oxymoronic writing, we are here to make each other.
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