In the Middle Ages, devotional paintings rendered on two hinged wooden panels—known as diptychs—were used to depict religious scenes for meditation and contemplation. Portraits of Madonna and Child were common, as well as important biblical stories, like the Virgin birth or Christ’s betrayal and crucifixion. Many diptychs were created on a small scale so they could be portable, easy to store and convenient to prop open on a table for viewing, reflection, and prayer.
There’s something surprisingly potent about the number two when it comes to story. Perhaps it’s that we don’t expect it, so accustomed are we to three: beginning, middle, end. As Philip Graham observes, two in a story invites us to explore “not so much beginnings and endings as points of entry and points of departure.”
As we observe the diptych in art, our minds grasp for the link, search to discover a connection. Compare, contrast.
In “Regarding Diptychs,” Eric Dean Wilson observes this powerful dynamic at work in Andy Warhol’s famous “Marilyn Diptych”: “Each panel haunts the other, and they throw energy back and forth like a perpetual motion machine.”
My interest in the diptych developed as a lover, writer, and teacher of creative nonfiction’s genre-bending forms. I searched for examples of the diptych structure in literature, which led me first to poets: Susan Terris, Jim Moore, and Robert Gray. Then I discovered the work of CNF writer Katharine Haake. I fell for her essay “Diptych: Chrysalis, Prayer” and noted some interesting commonalities with medieval and Renaissance diptych paintings.
In her parallel essay, Haake offers
two stories, juxtaposed, depicting key moments in her life, at different points
in time with her two sons. She adopts the reflective voice, at times meandering
out of scene for a moment to contemplate its meaning, and “perhapsing” at times.
The two panels that make up the piece are, in fact, meditations on change and
When I read Haake’s work it struck me that, like the devotional two-fold paintings the literary form is modelled after, the diptych is an ideal form for wondering. For the experience of wonder, itself.
Search for “diptych
essay” or “parallel essay” and Google offers few examples. “Diptych narrative”
will bring up a reasonable share of photographic results. In modern times, it
seems, photography is the most common medium used for the two-panel form.
I wanted to read more diptych essays, to understand the limits and possibilities of parallel story structure. So I wrote one, then invited a handful of writers to take part in what I called “The Diptych Project.”
I gave myself permission
to draft in a more wandering, thoughtful way than I normally would for flash-length
work. I typically use present tense, linking scene to scene by segmentation
rather than exposition (to “show” rather than “tell”).
First I wrote about a religious object: the gory cross I inherited when my grandmother died. I allowed one memory to lead to the next, letting the reader in on what I was thinking at the time.
The piece that emerged surprised me. I wasn’t expecting to write about vivid memories I hadn’t considered as memoir material. It was a revelation, too, that allowing one moment to unspool after the next led me to something I had wanted to write about but was never sure how: the fact that my 94-year-old grandmother’s final wish was to be buried in a wedding dress.
With the first panel done, I excitedly wrote a second panel, this time choosing as an object of focus a pewter praying girl that had hung on my childhood bedroom wall. I formatted the two stories side-by-side on the page using a table in Word. Then I emailed my first diptych essay to a friend.
She observed that the two pieces had something in common beyond the obvious: the shared defiance and optimism of grandmother and granddaughter, who each in their way rejected the emotional weight carried by religious objects. I hadn’t seen that, but my friend’s observation helped me come up with the title for my diptych: Iconoclasts.
I loved the diptych as a form, but also adored it as a tool for contemplation and discovery. I loved that writing loosely, without an agenda—road tripping without a map—helped me unlock the door to memories I may not have otherwise written about. And that this form seemed to hold up without a strong narrative arc for juxtaposed meditations. That even in flash, there could be room for rumination.
I sent my writer friends guidelines, framing the diptych as a unique sub-form of flash in which rumination was a key characteristic. I suggested that writers approach the form either meditatively or thematically.
The writer of a meditative diptych contemplates memories and associations linked to objects of focus. In the process of reflection, the narrative unspools. I suggested anything that invites contemplation could be an object of focus: natural beauty, sentimental items, loved ones, a song, a work of art.
A thematic diptych is one in which the writer starts with a theme, then drafts two panels that convey the theme in different ways. The writer reflects on moments that may seem to have nothing but the theme in common—but that common theme creates resonance. (I came across the idea of approaching stories thematically in side-by-side panels in Theo Pauline Nestor’s description of the triptych form on her website, Writing Is My Drink.)
Meditative or thematic, the writer of the diptych essay first focuses on something outside themselves in order to see, and then, through meditation and writing, may begin to see more.
“I’m writing about
things I never imagined,” one writer told me after drafting her first diptych
“I’m seeing a way to upcycle a bunch of writing I didn’t know what to do with,” said another.
In my guidelines I asked participants to work with prompts I came up with after looking at photographic diptychs. For example:
Shot 1: A photo of a church wedding—a broad pan of the bride, groom, and attendants facing the altar from the pews.
Shot 2: An up-close image of the bride’s funky, bejewelled, multi-color shoes.
Rachel Laverdiere used this far away/up close technique to write her diptych, “Captured in Black and White.
I suggested that the diptych essay could bring together two autobiographical prose poems, micro-essays, or flash vignettes.
In “Fox and Woman,” Carolyn Moore combines two prose poems that could stand alone, but, juxtaposed in her diptych, become essential halves of the whole. The repetition of one word works to “hinge” the piece together, much the same way the symbol for inequation connects the two sections of Susan Terris’ poem, “Fish Eyes.”
Rowan McCandless’ “Mirror Image” conveys the unease of a subject that’s been treated like an object—made more uneasy when what is projected is mistaken for an accurate reflection.
With the diptych, the enchanted mirror may be an apt metaphor. The two stories, juxtaposed, are an imperfect likeness—but there is an echo that reverberates across panels, tying them together. I think perhaps it’s the distribution of weight—the similarities and differences in two side-by-side stories—that give the diptych its power.
The same way we look at fraternal twins, then look again.
Try these prompts to
draft your own diptych essay:
1. Brainstorm a list of pairs—objects, memories, images—that may make for an interesting juxtaposition. Is there a theme you could develop in the piece that connects the two?
2. Collect some images—photographs, magazine pictures, other ephemera—and do a free write on each artifact. How might two fragments come together as a diptych poem or essay?
Nicole Breit is a poet, essayist, writing instructor, and the creator of Spark Your Story—an online writing program for brave truth tellers who want to get playful with form. Nicole’s work has appeared in Hippocampus, Room, carte blanche, Event, Archer, After the Art, and The Puritan. Her award winning lyric essay, “An Atmospheric Pressure,” was selected as a Notable in Best American Essays 2017. She lives on British Columbia’s gorgeous Sunshine Coast.