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Reading Lessons: When Breath Becomes Air

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Reading Lessons: When Breath Becomes Air

I’m one month into the new year and holding true to my resolution to read more for both pleasure and to hone my skills as a writer and an editor. I’m enjoying myself too. I can’t say it enough: if you’re a writer, you need to read. Period.

Paul Kalanithi offered many writing lessons in his posthumously published, best-selling memoir, When Breath Becomes Air.

Paul was not only an immensely gifted writer, he was a neurosurgeon at the top of the list of residents ready to graduate from Stanford when he was diagnosed with lung cancer. I recommend reading his book for so many reasons:

  • It’s gorgeously, honestly written.
  • Paul was a thinker, and he takes the reader along with him as he considers what to do with his life, where to do it, and what in the world gives life meaning in the first place.
  • It’s a human story. You will get to know Paul so well, it will be visceral when he dies. Yes, it will wrench your guts out, but I promise, it’s worth it to get to know him, to take that trip into his life and his way of thinking. I promise.

As a writer, I encourage you to pay close attention to the words Paul chose to use and the way he strung them together. Look for his deft use of figurative language: the similes and metaphors that you can almost imagine his surgeon’s fingers tying together in an intricate web that we might only be able to make a tangled mess of, should we try the same thing.

Here are some examples; there are so many more:

“Books became my closest confidants, finely ground lenses providing new views of the world” (27).

Paul constructs a metaphor here, comparing books and eyeglasses. But he doesn’t say “eyeglasses,” does he? He says “finely ground lenses,” which is so much clearer, so much more distinct.

“Openness to human relationality does not mean revealing grand truths from the apse; it means meeting patients where they are, in the narthex or nave, and bringing them as far as you can” (96).

Paul used a lot of religious imagery in his writing; this one above is only one beautiful example of it. First of all, in having to discuss life-threatening illnesses and conditions with patients, it’s easy to understand how religion could enter into the thoughts, if not the spoken words, of those taking part in the conversation. But look at how gracefully he brings religion into his thoughts here; look at his comparison of the church and the conversation.

He’s saying that he, as the doctor, can’t preach to (or lecture) his patients “from the apse,” that part of the church where the altar usually stands. He says he has to get on their level, to meet them as equals, “in the narthex or nave,” either at the back of the church, where they’re only just entering, or among the pews, if they’re still struggling to find their place. Can you think of a more beautiful way to describe a diagnostic conversation between a doctor and his patient?

“Instead of being the pastoral figure aiding a life transition, I found myself the sheep, lost and confused” (120).

In this metaphor above, the last I’m going to share, Paul had just been given his cancer diagnosis, and you can see the religious imagery is still there, but it’s been flipped, hasn’t it? He was no longer “the pastoral figure,” the shepherd; he was “the sheep, lost and confused.”

“I prefer a more tortoiselike approach. I plod, I ponder. Some days, I simply persist” (197).

I haven’t mentioned Paul’s sense of humor, but he had a fantastic wit, and occasionally he opened up and revealed that about himself. This last example I’ve clipped from his book is a great demonstration of using alliteration to emphasize an attempt to inject a little levity into a dire situation. (Notice approach, plod, ponder, persist.)

Paul Kalanithi had so much more to offer this world, his patients, and most of all, his family, and he left much, much too soon. However, in his words:

“Looking out over the expanse ahead I saw not an empty wasteland but something simpler: a blank page on which I would go on” (195).

Read his book, and then please, let me know what you thought of it. What did you learn? What made you laugh? What made you cry? You can leave comments here, you can find me on Facebook, or you can join the discussion on Goodreads.

If you would like help polishing your own book so that we might approach the brightness with which When Breath Becomes Air shines, please send me an email at and tell me about your story. I’d like to help you.

*Page numbers are taken from the Kindle version.

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