Tuesday, October 27, 2009

The Braided Essay

My College Comp class is trying their hands at the braided essay. I've never tried this with a class before. I've written them before when I was in grad school, but I've never tried it with a class.

So here we go.

So far the results are encouraging.

The focus on the braided essay with be a passion or expertise. Students will write three essays and then braid them together later this week.

The first one just called for students to write about or explore what they consider to be their passions or expertise.

The second one was a narrative examining their best moment related to their passion or expertise.

The third essay is an analysis of their passion or expertise. This could be a how to, a personal history, a critique, or whatever they want to explore.

So far I spent my first College Comp block just reading their drafts and offering them ideas and suggestions. I also tried to give them some hints as to where they can divide their essays in the chunks that will be braided together.

I hope to get some examples that I can share on here.

Here is a braided essay I wrote in college - and loved every minute of it. In the original essay, I was able to actually scan in the first piece I ever wrote called "Nhom the Warrior: The Quest for the Three Crowns," which I wrote at around ten or so. I built the rest of the essay around what inspired that tale and how it affected my imagination.

Adventures of a Young Warrior (and Writer)


Some of the most influential books I have ever read are the Prydain chronicles by Lloyd Alexander. There are five books in the series: The Book of Three, The Black Cauldron, The Castle of Llyr, Taran Wanderer, and the Newberry Award winner The High King. I was in fourth grade when I first encountered this land and its inhabitants. It was a serendipitous event when I found the first book, The Book of Three, tucked away in the library. The cover instantly captivated me: a shaggy haired youth, who I would later find to be Taran, was in some darkened wood facing down the most evil looking villain I had ever seen this side of Darth Vadar. The villain was riding atop a snarling white steed reared up on its hind legs. A crimson cloak flowed from his rippled torso, and he brandished a long sword high above his head. But what stood out most, however, was the villain's head. He wore a pale white skull that seemed to snicker and smirk. The eyes flamed and massive antlers sprouted from the skull. Basically he wore an antelope skull from hell. I would later learn that he was aptly named The Horned King.

I could not believe that the crummy little library in J.A. Hughes Elementary School contained something so cool. I had tried some books by Louis Lamour and Jack London, but this book was unlike anything I had ever seen. A banner in the library proclaimed "Don't Judge A Book By Its Cover" and that was our librarian's creed. But judging from The Book of Three, if it was half as good as its cover, I would be ecstatic. I was not disappointed.


Taran, a young and brave warrior, and his stout blade, Dyrnwyn, fresh off a battle with a hoard of ravaging beasts in his home land, Prydain, strode into his home. He was in need of a feast and then rest. The hero stalked through the kitchen. His hand still rested on his sword's hilt. He was constantly ready for battle. The only possible threat could come from the cook's food. Luckily, she was preparing stew, one of his favorites. The warrior told the wench that he was in need of nourishment and a nap. Then he proceeded into the main room to rest his weary limbs.

As the young barbarian began to slip into slumber, his acute ears picked up a hissing coming from across the room. Without showing any alarm or fear, he cracked an eyelid and peered out through the mesh of eyelashes. His arms still rested on his chest folded across Dyrnwyn.

He spotted the intruder.

A great snake slipped into the room. Its head oscillated from one side to another in search of easy prey.

"Ha," the young warrior thought. "That is exactly what the snake can think. He'll feel the wrath of my blade."

So Taran continued to lie still, feigning sleep, until he felt the thing’s breath rustle his shaggy mop and trickle across his arm. Then just before the serpent could strike, he leaped to his feet, brandishing his sword.

The enemy, startled by the warrior's super human speed, backed away but continued to sway its head. Finally it coiled itself in the middle of the room for a final stand.

The warrior tossed his blade from one mighty fist to the other, testing the enemy's gaze and searching for weak points.

Finally, he spotted one and lunged.

The serpent had thick skin and easily rebuffed his lashes.

Then he noted a chink in the snake's scales and plunged his blade into the beast's swiveling head. In what should have been Taran’s shinning moment, his troubles really began.

A loud clanging and shattering sound erupted from the felled beast. Before the boy's very eyes, his enemy suddenly transformed - as if a sorcerer’s spell had been shattered - from a snake to a teetering fan, whose large blue plastic blades had suddenly been shattered.

Then thunderous footsteps stormed toward him, shaking the very floor. Before the boy's eyes his dwelling changed from a chamber to his living room. Instinctively, the young warrior looked for a hiding place. But it was too late, for the wench who had been preparing his feast, now changed into his enraged mother.

Taran dove behind the recliner.

“Come out from there! What did you do to my new fan?"

Uh-oh. Suddenly the boy changed from the mighty warrior Taran into a frightened nine-year-old who had just mortally wounded his mother's new rotating fan.

The footsteps came closer to the boy quivering behind the recliner. With the strength of the Cauldron Borne, she hauled him out from behind the chair by the scruff of the neck.

"How many times have I told you to keep that stick outside!" Suddenly, the blade in his hand changed from Dyrnwyn to a lathe taken from a snow fence and whittled sharp at one end and the hilt , replete with jewels and etchings, drawn into the wood with crayon.

"Get that thing outside now! I don't want to see you back in here until I call for supper," she yelled and set the boy down. He instantly bolted for the back door.


The hero of this Prydain series is a young boy named Taran, an orphan who works as the Assistant-Pig Keeper for the wizard Dalban on his estate, Caer Dalban, and longs for adventure and manhood and excitement in his dull life. Taran was the literary equivalent of me. While Taran was often excluded for being an orphan, I faced my own form of ostracism for my weight. When I was in first grade I broke my leg and spent a summer sitting watching TV and eating. Thus I went from an average skinny kid to the fat kid in the class. So every time some nobleman insulted Taran for being an ignorant commoner, I felt his anguish. And every time Taran vanquished an enemy and saved his friends, I felt his elation and longed for the same kind of kind of success. Taran did all of the great things on the page that I longed to do in real life. Of course, I did do those things, but they were all in the real life of my imagination in the confines of my room or house or yard.


As soon as the child escaped near doom and fled to the back yard, the boy transformed himself into the valiant warrior Taran again. The stick in his hand was once more Dyrnwyn. One of his pant loops became his sheath for his all-powerful blade.

He scanned his terrain, which rapidly changed from a neatly mowed lawn to a deadly battlefield in Prydain. He strolled amongst the vanquished foes - which had once been dandelions - and dispatched any that were still drawing breath with a quick lash from Dyrnwyn.

The lone tree in the back yard suddenly became the warrior's refuge. The young champion scaled it and plopped his battle weary frame into his throne, which had previously been a tiny, rusty metal chair in his tree house. Indeed, the incident with the vicious snake and the evil sorceress (who apparently had owned the snake and was cursing him for its death) had nearly cost him his life, but he had escaped to fight another day.

Taran hadn't rested in his throne five minutes before he heard some rustling below the tree in the alley bordering the backyard. As the warrior peered down, the alley transformed itself into a barren, horse worn path that vandals and rapscallions traveled in search of victims.

"Well," thought Taran, "I will show them who the victim will be!" Then the boy peered over and found his next battle.

Below the tree house the neighbor's dog shambled over and began sniffing the trash cans. The trash cans were suddenly transformed into the boy's horse and his bag of loot. The dog was transformed into a vicious hell hound of the Huntsmen's of Annuvin, who served Arawn. If the hell hound was there, his master couldn't be far away.

"Let him come then," the boy thought as he slowly drew Dyrnwyn. "If they dare, they will find their doom, just like that wretched serpent," the boy thought a split second beforehe leaped into battle

The vicious hound yipped in surprise and was beaten away - with its tail between its legs - with several furious lashes. The boy's horse and treasure were once again safe.


I still read, well re-read, the Prydian series once a year, usually over Christmas break. It is funny how I used to think the books were so long and thick, they average about 200 pages - with wide margins and large font. Of course, I can polish the entire series off in a day now, but I still savor them as much as ever.

The books change with every reading. And it is in this change that I can see my own evolution as a reader. I never realized the religious and mythological symbolism and allusions Alexander uses. As a nine-year-old, it never occurred to me that the character Medwyn in The Book of Three, is caretaker of a secret valley which is a refuge to all of the animals in the land. I noted how Taran observes a huge ship resting at one end of Medwyn's hidden valley and how all of the animals are in pairs. An obvious allusion to Noah.

Likewise in the final book, The High King, Taran defeats the dreaded Death Lord, Arawn, along with his band of undead warriors, The Cauldron Borne. Arawn is the antagonist of the series, yet Alexander never has him actually appear until this last book. And only then does Arawn take the form of a snake. Obviously an allusion to Satan as the serpent in the Garden of Eden.

In the third book, The Castle Llyr, Taran and his companions are at the mercy of a giant who is going to eat them. It is only through deception that Taran is able to escape. Again as a mature reader who has read The Odyssey I see the allusion to the Cyclops and Odysseus and his men.

I also gained a new respect for Alexander's handling of Taran. As a young boy, I wanted Taran to be indestructible and superhuman. I wanted each book to end with Taran victorious and revered by all. But I was always left a little disappointed. For all of his victories and conquests, he still remained so ordinary, so human, so much like me. Now I can see how deftly Alexander handles Taran's character development to render him authentic and genuine when he easily could have turned him into a comic book hero or a cliché.


Then later, when Taran was lounging in his tree, a piercing scream caused his warrior's blood to chill and the warrior to plummet off his throne and onto his steed below. Luckily his large bag of loot cushioned his fall.

"What are you doing digging in the garbage? I told you to get rid of that stick. Now come in and eat."

Again, the wonderful land of Prydain was suddenly transformed back into their backyard. He was no longer the valiant warrior Taran. He was again a nine year old boy whose mother was ready to go into his father's closet and find one of his spare belts and brandish his backside with it.

"Yes, Mom!" he called, dropping the blade instantly, which suddenly became just a wooden lathe. He brushed the refuse from his arms and hair. He flew in the screen door his mother held open, not daring to meet her glare and clenching his tiny buttocks together for fear of a lash from the belt.


For an entire week I was entrenched in The Book of Three. I quit coloring and playing during free time in school, preferring to hunker down in my desk and enter the other world of Prydain. There were times when the bus driver would repeatedly have to yell at me to get me to get off at my stop because I would be so engrossed in the book.

Unfortunately, I was rapidly finishing the book; the adventure was drawing to a close. Taran helped destroy Arawn's henchman, The Horned King. He was honored by the prince of Prydain, Gwydian. He had met the Princess Eilonwy and helped rescue her from her evil aunt Achrin. He unwittingly discovered the lost sword, Dyrnwyn, and gave it to Gwydian. This drove me crazy.

Taran found this all-powerful sword and had to give it to Gwydian because only those of royal blood could draw the blade from its sheath without injury. I felt Taran's pain and envy when he offered that magnificently jeweled blade to Gwydian. By the time I finished the last sentence on page 224, I was shaking with anger. To my nine-year-old brain I could not possibly fathom how Taran could lose out on both the sword and the princess, even though she was to remain and work on Caer Dalban, but Taran returned to being an Assistant-Pig Keeper. I remember fuming that had I written the book Taran would have won the sword, the princess, and promptly set out of all kinds of adventures.

Frustrated, I returned the book to Mrs. Purath the librarian. Then she said something I will never forget, "are you going to read the next book in the series?"

I was shocked. There were more? Four more to be precise. Over the rest of that school year I hoarded over these books as if they were my own personal property. I absolutely devoured them.
Then I noticed in one of our monthly book order forms that students could actually order these books. Needless to say before the school year was out I had my own personal collection of the Prydain series.


I never really understood how profoundly this series influenced me. But it was from around that time that my first writing attempts can be traced. Young kids already have active imaginations. But this series somehow threw mine into overdrive.

Suddenly, my back yard transformed itself into Prydain. I, of course, became Taran. I was able to pry a long thin lathe from a neighbor's snow fence and whittle down on one end and draw a hilt on it. I even carved a tiny hole in the hilt and worked a toothpick into it, just in case The Horned King or any Cauldron Borne tried to sneak up behind me. One quick tap from my hilt and they would be wounded. This became my Dyrnwyn.

That summer I spent nearly every afternoon exploring or battling and vanquishing hordes of evil doers around the neighborhood. I must have been I sight. A plump nine-year-old wielding a sharpened fence post down the sidewalk.

Of course, in my mind, I was a whole land away battling hordes of evil doers trying to win Eilonwy's hand and destroy Arawn and become the High King of Prydain. I still have the original books and many of the stories that this series inspired me to write. There is not any amount of money that I wouldn't pay to be able to go back in time, even for a mere hour, and rediscover my lost Dyrnwyn and vanquish some more imaginary evildoers around the block.


After supper, which had been just a quiet meal between a boy and his still simmering mother instead of a mighty banquet in celebration of the day's victory, the boy went up to his room.

He had gotten off easy. No whipping, just grounding. As he climbed the stairs, he ceased to be the nine-year-old boy and became the proud warrior Taran again. He had narrowly escaped the sorceress's spell. He received no curse, but had been banished form Prydain and imprisoned in the high tower.

Worst of all, the sorceress has deprived him of his dear blade.

Taran plopped himself upon the lone cot in the cell, which had previously been his bed, replete with several species of stuffed bears and Star Wars bed sheets. The stuffed animals now became his cellmates.

"How long you been in?" the warrior asked the troll, who had previously been a koala bear.

The prisoners were not talkative. They were probably under a different spell, the warrior reasoned. Or maybe they were spies. That sorceress was cunning one. He began jumping on the cot in protest.

"Son. Knock that off. I'm warning you. Don't make me come up there," the sorceress screamed up at him, shattering his imaginary world. Again, the cell was his room.

Vanquished, he strode over to his desk and planted himself in the chair. He dug around beneath some Pac Man folders and found some clean paper. He also found a pencil that looked more like a carcass attacked by piranhas from all of the bite marks in it.

Then he began to do what seemed so natural to him, but which he had never tried before. "I'll create my own story. My own book. At least then I won't get grounded for breaking anything else," he thought. Maybe even the sorceress would be happy with it and shorten his sentence. "I'll tell the world my story," the boy thought and began to write "Nhom was on a ship to Africa . . ."

Here is one of my favorites to come in so far.

My First Deer (Edited)

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Brilliant!!! I loved your story!