The Trick is to Breathe

PhotobucketTherese here. Today’s returning guest is author Julianna Baggott. Julianna is multi-published with eighteen novels to her credit. Her most recent book, PURE–a dystopian, post-apocalyptic thriller–was released this past week. The reviews have been phenomenal. Said Publisher’s Weekly in their starred review:

Baggott’s highly anticipated postapocalyptic horror novel … is a fascinating mix of stark, oppressive authoritarianism and grotesque anarchy. Baggott mixes brutality, occasional wry humor, and strong dialogue into an exemplar of the subgenre.

And Pulitzer Prize winner Robert Olen Butler had this to say of PURE:

PURE is not just the most extraordinary coming-of-age novel I’ve ever read, it is also a beautiful and savage metaphorical assessment of how all of us live in this present age. This is an important book by one of our finest writers.

Julianna’s essays have appeared widely in such publications as The New York Times Modern Love column, Washington Post,, and Real Simple. Please welcome her back to WU.

The Trick is to Breathe

I’m writing here for the Writer Unboxed and the first thing that came to me was this Harry Houdini quote,

There is no invention to it, there is no trick, there is no fake; you simply lie down in a coffin and breathe quietly.

I like applying this quote to writing. The novel, in particular, is a daunting challenge. I wanted tricks when I was starting out. And there are some bits of advice that do sound like tricks. Just this afternoon, I sat in on a Q and A with Pulitzer-Prize Winner, Jennifer Egan, who happened to be in town. She talked brilliantly about many things and there was one thing that really struck me. She loves the contradictions within characters. There’s often the advice to make characters consistent. The problem is human beings aren’t. She gave the example of a careless person who is hyper attentive in one area of his/her life.

Contradictions. After writing the word on my hand and a few ideas, I realized that I was going to need more paper. I dug through my purse, found a receipt and jotted about the major contradictions inherent in each of my main characters. (I’m presently deep into the revision process for FUSE the second book in THE PURE TRILOGY; the first book PURE published this week.) This new way of getting at my characters was really incredible. I knew immediately what their contradictions were and it was crystallizing for me to have those ideas in mind, in particular right now, as I’m trying to crystallize the entire novel.

But that’s not really a trick. The answers came to me because I’ve been so deeply invested in them for so very long. Years and years and years of — as Houdini put it — breathing in these characters quietly.

PhotobucketI’d also like to confess that it struck me as interesting that this quote come to me at this point. PURE begins in a strange post-apocalyptic world and a sixteen year old girl with a doll-head fused to her fist, hiding in a cabinet in the back of a burnt out barbershop. It’s coffin-like. She’s breathing the ash-choked air, surviving. From there, the entire world took shape around her. The book quite literally begins in a box.

Maybe you’re thinking that, as a magician, Houdini did perform tricks; it’s what magicians do. But they’re only tricks if you don’t think of learning to breathe quietly as hard work, to hold your breath for incredible lengths of time as hard work, to dislocate your shoulders as hard work, to regurgitate keys as hard work, which I happen to do.

There are days when the breathing comes easier to my writerly self. And there are days when I want a damn trick. I want hidden air holes pumping in fresh oxygen! You read novels that are so beautifully structured, so elegantly put together and you think that there must be a trick — or hundreds, perhaps, all closely guarded secrets. But those novels don’t simply pop up structured and elegant, no. Someone breathed quietly for a long, long time.

The in and out of air. One sipped breath and then one more …

One word penned and then the next.

Thanks so much, Julianna. Readers, you can learn more about Julianna and her novel PURE on her blog and website. And you can follow her on Facebook and Twitter. Write on.

Photo courtesy Flickr’s Daquella manera



  1. says

    I agree. Writing novels doesn’t happen by taking shortcuts. It requires years of observation, listening, working with ideas, germinating seeds of characters and letting them grow up in a sort of community within your mental world. The best novelists make it look easy. That’s why I love to read so much; I love to immerse myself in good writing so that I will recognise my own poor writing when it happens. Thanks for stirring up the embers of thought!

  2. says

    I want to know the damn trick, too! This is such an apt metaphor. Some days I just want to pound on the lid, to jump out and say “Tah-dah!” But I know it’s not time yet. No one would be impressed just yet. Must continue to focus on breathing quietly. Thanks for the reminder.

  3. says

    I often find myself looking for a “trick,” but you’re right; taking it slow and breathing deep are the best ways to write a great novel. I often think of the Tortoise and the Hare when I write. I rushed my novel the first time I wrote it, and when I went to revise…oh my, it was awful. Now, I’m taking it slower and I can already see the writing improve. Thank you for the reminder!

  4. says

    i think remembering to breathe is indeed sage advice. being present to the work is kind of like the best meditation; staying open to inspiration. salut’ for Pure, sounds like a beautiful story.

  5. says

    Thanks for this. And I just jetted over and read the beginning of “Pure” on the site. Wow. Blew my little apocalyptic brainpan. Thanks for that, too. I’ll be picking a copy of that up, for sure.


  6. Kate says

    Beautifully said, Julianna. So, I’ll just keep breathing.
    Looking forward to reading Pure and passing it along to my daughter.

  7. says

    Okay, haha, I know it wasn’t exactly the point of this post, but THANK YOU for “contradictions.” That word is so enticing, so rich with possibility. Just what I need as I look at my finished manuscript with an eye for revisions.

  8. Densie Webb says

    Beautiful thought and oh so true. Yoga comes to mind, where the instructors often say, “It’s about the breathing; not the pose.” Their point? If you’ve got the slow rhythm of controlled breathing down, which requires long periods of concentration and patience, the pose is easier to maintain. As with your wonderful Houdini analogy, if we just get the breathing right (concentration and patience), the words will come. Thanks for this.



  1. […] Here is where I add that I am also a wife and mother of two children still at home and that my family is the priority in my life, the largest marbles that go in the jar first and that everything else gets arranged around. Here is where I tell you that, besides having a life partner who also works full time but who completely shares with you the work of raising a family (single parents exist on a whole other plane; I am convinced they have superpowers and we should all bow down and worship them and bring them gifts), there is no secret, there is, according to my friend Julianna Baggot, who trumps me with eighteen books and four kids (you’ve got to check out Pure, if you haven’t already), “no trick.” […]