The concept of “breath” in a story is something I’ve been experimenting widely with recently. As a writer who started out in the poetry genre, this idea of rhythm and pace throughout the story, throughout the white space of the individual words themselves, is, to me, integral for capturing an essence of the character’s internal conflict, especially when used in first-person perspectives. It was through this concept of “breath” in a story that I wanted to lay out a protagonist’s internal psyche, thought process, and their coping with trauma.
Now when I say “breath” I obviously don’t mean the literal act of breathing that we all do in order to live (not that there’s nothing important to praise about that), but rather, the internalized breathing and breaths our minds do when we are reading something. Just like how I am now going to write a long sentence with no breaks or pauses or commas or periods or anything that can help your (dear reader’s) mind to cope or structuralize the words of this sentence which in turn feels like your mind while reading this is holding its breath and turning purple. Analogously, I have now used a word like analogously, followed by an intentional knife-cut of a comma, to let your mind parse these words more seamlessly, taking smaller breaths through each clause, letting your mind breathe with peace as you read. Though it may have been cynicism that led me to want to write a story with the prior philosophy in mind: that of a drawn-out exhale as the protagonist travels with their partner to Squamish. I can assure you, it was with a clairvoyance and perhaps a hint of 1 a.m. writer’s clarity that I chose empathy, not cynicism.
And much like how the words appeared to be laid out in the story, I can confirm the story, in its most fundamental, came out as a thirty-minute exercise in cutting off a reader’s source of air. Which was done in order to better understand the protagonist’s own struggle to “breathe” as they have come back to a “normal” reality after anything but a “normal” past few months.
While it was certainly an engaging inception that worked well for the first half of the story, it seemed obvious, as I kept writing, that the so-called “shift” in the narrative I wanted was to be this very shift in the pacing of the words themselves. And this I wanted to employ most readily with the scene near the end of the piece where two characters hold hands and sit in a car. That of pause. That of brief peace. That of breath. That even though the words might have come like a swarm of flies in the beginning, they’ve slowed down now. This will all end soon. And everything will be okay.
LUKA POLJAK is a writer and recent alumnus of the University of British Columbia Creative Writing Program. He was a finalist for the 2022 CBC Literary Prize and the 2023 RBC/PEN Canada Emerging Writers Award. Read his work at CBC Books and find him on Instagram @luka_poljk.