When I wrote “Living at Tree Line” some ten years ago, I had never before written a braided essay. In fact, I didn’t even know the form had a name, and what’s more, I didn’t consider myself a writer of creative nonfiction. At the time, I was working on my MFA in fiction, and as part of the requirement for the degree, I enrolled in a class in another genre, creative nonfiction. It was in that class, taught by Alan Cheuse, that I read Annie Dillard’s “An Expedition to the Pole,” an intricately constructed piece that brings together the history of Arctic exploration with the author’s own personal experiences attending church and exploring her faith. This was the first braided essay I encountered, and I was enthralled by its possibilities.
After reading Dillard’s essay, I used it as a model to write my own braided essay—though I still didn’t know the name for it. The resulting piece, “Living at Tree Line,” was about bristlecone pine trees and my experiences working at a cemetery (the job I held while working on my MFA). I found the form to be freeing and innovative; I was especially taken with how placing two unlike things side by side causes each to cast a light on the other, illuminating previously unseen facets of both. Continue reading