| Don’t Write Alone
Notes on Craft Who Is Steven Hotdog? Or, Untangling the “Braided Essay”
A personal essay of the Steven Hotdog form needs the interior experience, the exterior fact, and the meaning that connects them—in order to work its magic.
When I first heard the term “braided essay,” a form of creative nonfiction that interweaves multiple storylines or topics, I felt an immediate spark of recognition—and an equal one of embarrassment.
Like many people without formal training who stumble into a pursuit for which training very much exists, I had been assembling obvious, time-tested concepts about writing from scratch. In this case, I’d been going around for at least a year touting the benefits of an interlocking three-part personal essay structure, as if I’d invented the idea. But of course I hadn’t invented the idea! Of course it had a name, and a history, and a set of best practices! I’d stumbled into using the format, despite my inexperience, specifically because it was such an obvious, natural move: a sort of controlled juggle, over-under-over, weaving parts together so that each strand touches each, securing them into a stable, structured pattern. When I read an essay with this structure—say, Elissa Washuta’s intricate, staccato “ Apocalypse Logic ,” or the chunkier farm-girl braid of Helen Rosner’s “ Christ in the Garden of Endless Breadsticks ”—it felt like having an epiphany: of course, of course . By the same token, I wrote with this structure not because I had any grounding in nonfiction technique, but because I wanted to tee up those epiphanies for my readers, to draw disparate elements together and show them slotting into place.
If I’d known anything, I would have been able to track the term “braided essay” back to the creative writing resource Tell It Slant , written by Brenda Miller and Susanne Paola Antonetta in 2003, the definitive text on structuring nonfiction work. (The actual technique probably goes back further—I can’t be the only person who discovered it independently—but this was its formal debut.) In the book, Miller describes introducing the structure to her students by bringing to class a loaf of challah, three hanks of dough snugly interwoven. But, with apologies to the person who really did invent (or at least name) the braided essay, this doesn’t strike me as a very good metaphor. A challah is homogeneous, the same across strands and within them. It’s challah all the way down. That may express the aesthetic form of a braided essay, but it doesn’t actually get at why this format is effective, or how to use it most effectively. For that, we need something more savory, more piquant. Meatier. We need, perhaps, a hot dog.
Let me back up. In November 2020, although it feels much longer ago to me, the writer Jake Wolff—who is a creative writing professor and an excellent essayist in his own right—drove the literary nonfiction corner of Twitter into a small mania with the following observation :
Creative nonfiction writers be like:
I first ate a hotdog when I was six years old. I remember the taste, the scent, the summer.
Hot dogs were invented in 1693 by Steven Hotdog. According to Scientific American, the hotdog is
As of this writing, the tweet has 300-odd replies, most of which are some variation on “I feel attacked,” and 1500-ish quote tweets, ditto. I felt attacked too, needless to say. Steven Hotdog is coming for us all! But beneath the surface of this weenie roast, I think, is a really profound commentary on why we feel so personally implicated—which is to say, why we all keep doing this move in essay writing. What’s Steven Hotdog to me, or I to Steven Hotdog, that I should weep for him?
Like a Chicago-style hot dog, which famously can not be served with ketchup (yes, I looked up some styles of hot dog, leave me alone), what’s significant about the Steven Hotdog tweet is not only what it includes but what it omits. It gestures toward a braided structure, with two ideas set in parallel, but it’s missing the third. I think part of the reason the tweet feels so incriminating is that for writers or even readers of personal essays, that absence is loud . It resonates. The elision highlights the alchemy of metaphor; we can’t help but imagine a third part, born of the relationship between strand one (the writer’s hot dog memories) and strand two (the history of hot dogs). It’s this final strand, the synthesis, that will give the work its shape.
The tension of the tweet comes from not knowing yet what that synthesis will be. (And probably, at least a little, from knowing how easy it is to construct an essay that simply juxtaposes its elements, without explicitly exploring the relationship between them! There but for the grace of Steven Hotdog go we.) The reader stands, at the end of this tweet, at a pivotal moment: Will the writer leave these strands to lie flaccidly side by side? And if not, which way will the waveform collapse? We are waiting to find out which theme of hot dogs—Their ubiquity at sporting events? Their endless regional variations? Their immortalization in the form of a novelty car?—the third strand will emphasize, establishing the relationship between inner and outer history and bringing the essay home.
You don’t need to have exactly three elements in a braided personal essay, of course—whether you’re making challah or writing, there are all kinds of complicated braids. But, to move rather abruptly from food to geometry, just as three points define a plane, three elements define the field of an essay. When we read the Steven Hotdog tweet, we see the two points defining a line between the writer’s experience (hot dog memories) and factual research (hot dog history). But we also, consciously or not, see the infinity of possible planes including that line, and the way that a third point would collapse all those possibilities into one relationship, one interdependent structure. In that moment before the third nail goes in, we know that these two strands relate , but we don’t know what they mean . Meaning is defined by at least three points: the personal, the factual, and the resonance between them.
Meaning is defined by at least three points: the personal, the factual, and the resonance between them.
What does the rest of this essay look like? Perhaps we’ll see Steven Hotdog, in his seventeenth-century breeches, discovering that a hodgepodge of cast-off meat bits can become something greater than the sum of its parts; perhaps, in that case, we’ll also see the writer’s childhood memories through this lens, focusing on their outcast identity and how they found a community where they made sense. Or maybe the third strand is the idea of authenticity, and we’ll trace the history of the hot dog from Steven’s honest homemade kitchen to its current status as überprocessed semi-food, while the writer also grapples with their growing sense that no experience has ever been as pure and unmediated as that first taste of hot dog at six years old. Or it’s a meditation on maturity, and we trace its evolution from a humble sausage to the wide world of chili dogs and pigs in blankets, while the writer also grapples with the lost simplicity of that six-year-old summer, now hopelessly buried in the complexity of adulthood. An aged man is but a paltry thing, a hotted dog upon a stick.
These are oversimplifications, obviously. Not every essay splits cleanly along personal-versus-research lines, and there will often be more than three elements or even possibly fewer. (Though, given that one of the core elements expresses the relationship of the other two, I hasten to emphasize that where there are fewer sets of footprints, that is probably where Steven Hotdog carried you.) And of course, the braid is only one of many possible shapes for an effective essay. But broadly, a personal essay of the Steven Hotdog form needs to cover these elements—interior experience, exterior fact, and the meaning that connects them—in order to work its particular sympathetic magic.
This is why the term “braid”—and especially the challah comparison—feels insufficient for this type of work. A challah is a bread made of three identical breads, fractally bready; the weaving is cosmetic, neither supporting the structure nor altering the taste. A babka might be a little closer to the mark. But really, if you’re going to seek a metaphor to embody this type of writing, you need an image that suggests three distinct and irreducible elements: the meat that gives it a core, the bun that holds it, and the toppings and condiments that define its identity. What other food could it be?