On Writing “Breathless”

January 27, 2014 § 4 Comments


author_photo_homeHeather Sellers discusses the origins of her recent Brevity essay “Breathless“:

I began in my usual way.  I sit quietly for a period of time. Then, I rough out the scene with pencil—a kind of floor plan showing me who, what, when, where. I note in the margins of this diagram everything I see, smell, hear, taste. I try to feel what the air felt like on my skin. It’s mostly a listening practice and it’s the same kind of listening you do when you are with someone you value. You listen with the fiber of your being. I’m not sure what the fiber of my being is, exactly, but I know it’s real. Then, I followed this young part of myself as she walked across Orlando. I’ll never forget that day; I’ve written about it elsewhere. What haunts me from that day has, I think, the seeds of most of my work in it—the father-daughter relationship, the vulnerability of girls, seedy violence in an Edenic landscape, and desire.

I wrote the walk.  I got to the apartment and I got hung up at the fridge. A trusted reader helped me simplify the logistics of entering the apartment. I got to the bed. My favorite part is how the wave of the foot echoes my experimental, innocent, dangerous waves at men.  In the original diagram I did for the piece there was the death of a Florida girl in the news, and a dead Michigan girl, and two dead girls from my high school days .  Joyce Carol Oates’ portrayal of Arnold Friend was lurking around the edges, too. I remember reading that short story when I was in college and wanting to write my true story; Connie’s internal experience of the world of men led me to myself in a crucial way.

I began “Breathless” as a poem with a prosaic title, “Walking Across Orlando.” When I noticed all the lines went to the right hand margin and I’d filled a page, I re-formatted, and put the sentences in time order and when I read it aloud, I found my title.

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§ 4 Responses to On Writing “Breathless”

  • Jackie says:

    What a powerful piece “Breathless” is! I enjoyed reading about its genesis.

  • […] Heather Sellers’ memoir, You Don’t Look Like Anyone I Know, was Editor’s Choice at The New York Times. The Practice of Creative Writing (Bedford/St. Martins) is her textbook for the multi-genre creative writing classroom.  Recent essays appear in The New York Times, O, The Sun, Prairie Schooner, and Fourth Genre.  She teaches in the MFA program at the University of South Florida and conducts workshops Kripalu and in New York City as well as private classes. You can read Heather Sellers discussing the origin of her essay on the Brevity Blog. […]

  • Powerful. An evocative representation of the genre. I will carry this piece and my first foray into Sellers’ deft, concise, precise origami-unfolding of sensory experience and culled memory as a trusted friend. . .and I will listen.

  • Kat says:

    Beautiful. It got inside me. I, too, love and had a real deep understanding of “Where are You Going, Where Have You Been?” Thank you for writing this.

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