Mindfulness begins with the breath. We start here because it’s simple, accessible, and something we rarely consider closely.
But maybe it’s not that simple. Breathing itself is automatic. We breathe in and out without thinking all day, every day. But some of us breathe easier than others. It’s something I’m embarrassed to admit I hadn’t thought much about. I knew the effects of stress on breathing and overall health. But I hadn’t made the connection between systemic oppression and breath until I read Craft in the Real World by Matthew Salesses.
Those who suffer prejudice and discrimination, who are in poor health, who struggle financially, who are trauma survivors, all live in a heightened state of stress. Stress often manifests in quick, short, labored breathing. Imagine a mild anxiety attack but all the time. Deep breathing is accessible to just about everyone, but people who live in stress rarely have the time and energy to dedicate to mindfulness practice.
Craft in the Real World is part technical manual, part thoughtful critique. Salesses dissects the outsized role of whiteness and maleness and heterosexuality in writer’s workshops and how they’ve shaped the guidelines most writers use to produce “good” writing. It’s in his section on pacing that he talks breathing:
“Some authors have been taught to speak quickly if they want to get a word in; others have been taught to hold forth. Breath, too, is about power: it is gendered, raced, etc. To modulate breath means to think about the frequencies we’ve been taught to speak on, and to tune in to how we transmit information and what kind and to whom. To modulate breath means more awareness of when we speed up or slow down or pause, the variations within our breath and between breaths, and the effect of sharing breath with a reader…”
In other words, the pacing of your story should mirror your characters’ breathlessness or ease. This got me thinking about some of my favorite stories. In Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake, our main character, Gogol, who’s the son of Indian immigrants, contrasts annual vacation preparation for his upper-class girlfriend’s parents with that of his family.
“In June, Gerald and Lydia disappear to their lake house in New Hampshire. It is an unquestioned ritual, a yearly migration to the town where Gerald’s parents live year-round. For a few days a series of canvas tote bags accumulate in the hallway, cardboard boxes full of liquor, shopping bags full of food, cases of wine.”
Gerald and Lydia breathe easy. They’re going on vacation.
“Their departure reminds Gogol of his family’s preparations for Calcutta every few years when the living room would be packed and repacked, fitting in as many gifts as possible for their relatives. In spite of his parents’ excitement, there was always a solemnity accompanying these preparations. Ashima and Ashoke at once apprehensive and eager, steeling themselves to find fewer faces at the airport in Calcutta, his father was always anxious about the job of transporting the four of them such a great distance. Gogol was aware of an obligation being fulfilled; that it was, above all else, a sense of duty that drew his parents back. But it is the call of pleasure that summons Gerald and Lydia to New Hampshire. They leave without fanfare, in the middle of the day, when Gogol and Maxine are both at work.”
You can feel the tension in Ashima and Ashoke’s preparations. The weight of the long trip, heavy with expectation. The passage is a beautiful illustration of constriction and expansion of breath as pacing.
So, how can we consider breath when we create? Start by connecting with your own breath. Start with awareness, taking in what’s there. Maybe you’re starting from a strained breath, maybe you’re more relaxed. Don’t try to change or “fix” anything. Just notice. If you’re in a state of stress, consider why. If you’re relaxed, consider why. Consider what you’re feeling in your body and where.
Then we work to expand. How is your character like you? How are they different? How’s their breathing? How is your breath different from theirs? Is there something in their life that causes constriction or expansion?
Now, can you mirror your character’s breath on the page? Give the reader a sense of your character’s stress or ease through their actions, mannerisms, body, and breath.
For our characters to be fully-formed people, for our nonfiction to ring true, we need to harness the power of breath. We need to sink deeper into what daily life is like for the people we’re trying to inhabit. We need to recognize how their experiences differ from ours and bring that to life on the page.
For me, this was an exercise in unraveling my own privilege. I spend a lot of time breathing easy. I have time to be mindful of my breath and body. That’s not something to be ashamed of. It just is. We all experience privilege and disadvantage. Taking a close, mindful look at them only makes us better, more thoughtful writers.
Michelle Regan is a writer and yoga teacher who's passionate about sharing all the ways in which yoga and creativity can be transformative forces in our lives. In her free time, she enjoys reading, hiking, and petting all the dogs.