When Craft Becomes an Act of Love: An Interview with Gayle Brandeis


Gayle Brandeis is glowing on my screen, talking about the body’s part in her creative process. That same morning, she and her friend, Rebecca Evans, led a class called “Musings and Movement,” where participants were encouraged to wear comfortable clothes and “have something to write with, and something to write on.” This made me think of Brandeis’s new essay collection, Drawing Breath: Essays on Writing, the Body, and Loss (Overcup Press, 2023), which is a celebration of the things we are taught to keep hidden, especially our bodies. Movement and dance have always been a big part of Brandeis’s creative process: “I listen to that part of me that wants to move, wants to write,” she says. “It leads me into an intense place of focus.”

This focus has served Brandeis well. Writing across genres, Brandeis is a prolific author, respected teacher, and beloved mentor. Her nonfiction books include a hybrid memoir, The Art of Misdiagnosis: Surviving My Mother’s Suicide (Beacon Press, 2017), and Fruitflesh: Seeds of Inspiration for Women Who Write (Harper One, 2004). Her novels include The Book of Dead Birds (Harper Collins, 2009), which won the Bellwether Prize for Fiction of Social Engagement, and My Life with the Lincolns (Henry Holt, 2010), which received a Silver Nautilus Book Award. Her recent novelette in poems was the terrifying Many Restless Concerns: The Victims of Countess Bathory Speak in Chorus (A Testimony) (Black Lawrence Press, 2020), which was nominated for the Shirley Jackson Award. My personal favorite—maybe because it contains one of my favorite poems, “Jacaranda”—is her poetry collection The Selfless Bliss of the Body (Finishing Line Press, 2017).

Drawing Breath is Brandeis’s newest offering: a collection of personal essays examining our breath and breathing from different perspectives. From birth to adulthood, Brandeis’s life, loves, losses, and tales of writing about it have been ordered into sections (Eupnea: Quiet Breathing; Hyperaeration: Increased lung volume; Ponopnea: Painful Breathing . . . ). Fluctuating from humorous to horrifying, the essays are honest depictions of what haunts us, helps us, and heals us. A couple of the essays originally appeared in The Rumpus, including, “Get Me Away from Here, I’m Dying,” published in 2012, a groundbreaking essay for Brandeis. It was the first time she had published anything about her mother’s suicide, and the supportive response she received was instrumental in giving her the courage to write other essays about her mother, and, ultimately, her memoir, The Art of Misdiagnosis—a book that changed my life.

Brandeis and I exchanged a series of emails before our Zoom interview, where we reconnected and talked about Drawing Breath, the book’s examination of the grief and sadness associated with loss and trauma, the writing process, and this marvelous container we call our body.


The Rumpus: Your collection of essays has been described as a love letter to your readers. Maggie Smith says, “This collection draws inspiration from form—form of the body and form on the page.” I completely agree. How did this collection come together? Did you breathe in the air of your world, and breathe out these essays?

Gayle Brandeis: I didn’t have this collection in mind as I wrote each essay—each had its own sense of urgency and wholeness within me. I get a bit of tunnel vision when I’m in the thick of an essay, and it feels like the only thing I’ll ever write; I don’t consciously think about how it connects with my other writing, or how it could be part of a larger body of work (though my process is always evolving; perhaps someday I’ll write an essay collection with the bigger picture in mind along the way.) At some point, I realized I had more than enough essays to pull into a collection, and as I sifted through my files, I could see the underground rivers that flowed between them, the subconscious threads that stitched my work together. These essays were written over the course of more than twenty years, and I clearly have a stubborn devotion to subjects I keep returning to in my work, including breath, which became a meaningful organizing principle for the book.

Rumpus: You write: “The word ‘essay’ shares the same root as ‘assay,’ a verb used in metallurgy, chemistry, alchemy, meaning to test or weigh a substance to determine its composition. I think back to childhood collections, my intuitive groupings of pebble and shell. I similarly tested and weighed these essays as I put this collection together, tracing their origins of heat and grief and heart.” Your scientific curiosity, combined with an unflinching nerve, is beautiful alchemy. How did you find the perfect balance of science and heart?

Brandeis: Roxane Gay gave a guest lecture at Antioch several years ago called “In & Out” that was such a revelation to me in this regard—she spoke about the importance of looking both inward and outward when we write creative nonfiction; that’s where the alchemy happens, she said. It later occurred to me that I had being looking both directions in some of my work without articulating it as such, starting with the title essay, “Drawing Breath,” that’s divided into Inhales, where I look inward toward my own experience with breath, and Exhales, where I look outward toward the literature and science of breath. Her talk inspired me to continue to try to find this balance, to look both directions in a way that can both ground my work on an embodied level and make it more intellectually capacious (of course I don’t always find the ideal balance.)

Rumpus: The subtitle of the book is Essays on Writing, the Body, and Loss. This really is a book about writing through our lives, isn’t it, and writing about the body?

Brandeis: Yes! It has been a lifelong interest of mine, the connection between writing and the body, a connection that really came into focus for me in college, where I created a degree in Poetry and Movement: Arts of Expression, Meditation, and Healing. Dance and writing are both forms of expression, both forms of language that spring from and find interconnection in the body. Looking back, as I do in my essay, “Portrait of the Writer as a Young Girl,” I realized that when I was a kid, I was already writing about things like mental and physical illness. Things I still write about today. So, writing the body has clearly interested me since I started writing. It’s one of my most long-standing devotions.

Rumpus: “Portrait of the Writer as a Young Girl” is also haunted by the desire to be seen, to be known—a setting that feels both sad and familiar. How did your emotional neglect (like so many of us) feed the desire to create art?

Brandeis: I should preface this by saying I had a wondrous childhood, overall, and certainly a privileged one. My sister and I had a lot of freedom to play, to roam, to explore, to create, and we were exposed to art and culture and other enrichment, all of which I’m so grateful for.

At the same time, I recognize the deep wound I carry from having a narcissistic mother who instilled a lot of shame and guilt—sadness, too—in me when I was a child, and made it hard for me to express some of my deepest, truest thoughts and feelings. Writing was (and continues to be) a place where I could give those deepest, truest thoughts and feelings a voice, where I could truly be seen and heard, even if only to myself. It feels like an act of both resistance and joy that I’ve built a life around writing, around the place where I’ve felt most free.

Rumpus: “Drawing Breath” is a shaped essay that explains the desire for cohesion, as a person, as an artist, as a female, as a mother. What was the inspiration to craft the essay into (seemingly) hour-glass and bee-hive shapes?

Brandeis: I have to give credit for the visual shape of this essay to Jenny Kimura, who designed the inside of Drawing Breath. She had the idea to shape the essay so that it expanded and contracted like inhales and exhales, and I was delighted by this idea, by how the text breathes on the page, thanks to her genius. This essay is one of the older ones in the book—I wrote it over twenty years ago as my critical paper when I was getting my MFA at Antioch. I was fascinated by the connection between breath and writing, and am grateful I had an opportunity to explore that connection in such a deep way through the critical paper component of the degree (and am grateful to my amazing mentor Alma Luz Villanueva, who supported my unconventional approach.) I love that this essay has new life all these years later, and in its beautiful new shape gifted by Jenny.

Rumpus: The language in “Thunder, Thighs” is informed by a research questionnaire you made for women participants, one for a project about the cultural history of the thigh! It includes various sources: ancient texts,  the Indo-European etymology of the word “teu,” a diet booklet from 1953, and even Mad Magazine. Are these sources, from the serious to the flimsy pulp of pop culture, complicit in shaming of women in their bodies?

Brandeis: Most of the sources in this essay are indeed complicit in the shaming of our bodies, other than the sources that celebrate our bodies, like the ancient Egyptian prayer for abundant thighs. The advertising industry, the diet industry, etc., are arms of the patriarchy and capitalism and white supremacy, which all benefit from making many of us feel bad about ourselves. There’s always a product or service we can buy to try to fit unrealistic beauty standards—products and services that keep us from loving ourselves as we are. I’m glad the piece made you laugh as well as cry—I’m a pretty silly person, but I tend to skew towards seriousness in my writing, and I’m happy when some of my humor finds its way into my work.

Rumpus: “The Women Who Helped” is an incredible essay, all about an assault you had to endure. You address the power in the supportive sisterhood that helped you afterward. What was it like to revisit this trauma, including what you call “the most important part” of the ordeal?

Brandeis: The way the women in my dorm supported and nurtured me after that experience of assault was life changing. I’d always had small groups of friends growing up, usually just one or two friends I was close to at any given time, and I hadn’t experienced being part of a larger circle of women until that moment. My mother was distrustful of other women, competitive with other women, so I didn’t have the model of communal sisterhood growing up (though I had the most beautiful and profound direct experience of sisterhood with my own sister.) The #MeToo movement prodded me to take a fresh look at many experiences of my life, and I was startled to realize how when I’d told the story of this assault over the years, I’d completely left out the women who’d helped me afterward.

Writing this essay felt like an act of repair, of honoring, of healing. I was able to read it publicly during a college reunion (or “renewal” as the alternative program I was part of calls them) and found myself literally embraced by a circle of women after I read, some of whom had been part of that original circle, all of us crying and hugging each other, holding each other up.

Rumpus: The collective ‘we’ in “We Too” is mega-powerful and a masterpiece in language. Peppered with science, it is a fabulous, factual romp into our power. You end with the encouragement to “find our wider voice.” How did this essay evolve?

Brandeis: I wrote this essay around the time my novel in poems, Many Restless Concerns, was released. When I started writing that book back in 2009, it came to me in first person plural, a collective voice for the girls and women allegedly murdered by Countess Bathory around the turn of the seventeenth century. The only work I had read in first-person plural at that point was The Ladies Auxiliary, by Tova Mirvis, about ten years prior; I remember finding it really energizing and inspiring—it likely helped me find the collective voice in my work. I ended up setting Many Restless Concerns aside for many years—I was pregnant in 2009, and writing about torture and murder felt unsavory in that condition. Then my mom took her own life a week after the baby was born, and that was what I needed to write about over the next few years. I only returned to Many Restless Concerns after I finished writing my memoir, The Art of Misdiagnosis—I felt ready to write about a grief bigger than my own, ready to access a voice bigger than my own. In the intervening years, several other books and shorter pieces had been published in the first-person plural—it became a bit of a hot craft choice, in fact—and I thought it would be interesting to investigate what the point of view could accomplish on the page, especially for women-identifying writers. It made sense to write the essay itself in first-person plural, and it became a fun choral experience, merging my voice into a collective voice made of other collective voices.

Rumpus: Of all the essays, I enjoyed “Joy” the most! It was your mother’s fragrance, and the sense memory seems to match the relationship you had with her. The fragrance of the essay transcends language and lingers long after the last words (the haunting “Don’t Go Don’t Go Don’t Go,” repeated over and over by a little girl chasing her parents to the elevator). Why is smell so important to memory? Important to recognize as a trigger for an emotional response?

Brandeis: Thank you so much for these beautiful words! To get a little science nerdy here, smell is deeply entwined with memory and emotion because it accesses the same area of the brain—it bypasses the thalamus, which processes all our other senses, and goes straight to the primary olfactory cortex, near our limbic system, hippocampus, and amygdala, the parts that process memory and emotion. That can make scent such a powerful trigger, and the scent of my mom’s perfume (even just the memory of that scent) certainly causes our whole relationship to well up inside me, which made this essay both challenging and meaningful to write (it was also challenging because scent can be difficult to pin down with language, since it’s so evanescent—a word I just realized has the word “scent” embedded inside it, which feels so fitting!)

Rumpus: “Self Interview” was the essay that made me fist pump the air! It’s a post-memoir interview that reminds me how important it is to write our family stories, and how life changes after we write them! How has Gayle Brandeis, post-memoir, dealt with the sneaky grief that lingered after that cathartic book was written? After this one was written?

Brandeis: I asked myself the same question—“How did writing your memoir change you?”—so many times because I realized I could give many different answers. Writing The Art of Misdiagnosis profoundly changed me in some ways and also didn’t change me at all in others, and I wanted to try to capture that contradiction, that gamut. As for how I’ve dealt with that sneaky grief—such a powerful question!—that seems to differ from time to time. Sometimes grief still catches me off guard and feels like it will strangle me, and other times it arrives more like a soft cloud, a gentle passing pang. I guess I’ve gotten better at knowing grief will pass, even when it feels violent. I try to sit with it and feel it and breathe my way through it as best I can until it subsides. Enough time has passed that appreciation comes on the wake of grief now, and I can feel grateful for all I shared with the ones I lost instead of just feeling the ache of that loss. I’m thankful to be able to access that sweetness.

Rumpus: “My Shadow Son” was fascinating! I wrote, “Maybe this is a book itself?” I the margin. How does this essay speak to grief and the body for you? What was the reason for including it here?

Brandeis: It’s cool that you could see “My Shadow Son” as its own book; I had considered expanding this story into a book project after I wrote the essay, and was really excited by the idea—there’s so much more I could explore, and this is the most viral essay I’ve ever written, so there’s clearly interest out there—but the man who thought I was his biological mother for so many years (and has since become a friend) was worried any further digging would be difficult for his family, so I’ve let the idea go. I decided to include the essay because I felt it fit the type of breath I was exploring in that section of the book (Orthopnea: Breathlessness in Lying Down Position Relieved by Sitting Up or Standing). The essays in this section look at moments of relief after difficulty, and being able to find my shadow son’s real biological mother proved to be such a relief for both him and myself.

He had been pouring so much pain and grief and anger towards me because he thought I was denying him connection to his roots, to his true story. It was painful for me to carry all his grief on top of my own. Once we could let go of that grief between us, we could find real connection.

Rumpus: Another fascination was “Anniversary Gifts” an essay chronicling your separation from and reunification with your husband. The grief that caused havoc in your marriage proved to be a lousy, impermanent substance compared to the titanium of your union. What does this say about the stubbornness of life? Like the cover of your book: roots cut and blossoming, despite their death sentence.

Brandeis: I love the phrase, “the stubbornness of life” (and love the connection you found with the book cover!) Life is so beautifully stubborn, indeed, and I’m grateful that my marriage proved to be beautifully stubborn, even after I selfishly blew it apart. The love was clearly still there, underneath all the resentment between us and the chaos I had wrought, patiently waiting for us to acknowledge it and nurture it back to life. I love that our marriage grew back sturdier than ever, and love that we both cultivate it mindfully now. We both know how lucky we are to have this second chance, and we want to do whatever we can to help our marriage, and one another, thrive.

Rumpus: You’ve said that when you start writing, “It’s like this is the only piece I’ll ever write, the only piece I’ve ever written.” Can you talk about that?

Brandeis: When I write something that’s meaningful to me, it tends to pull me into a hyper-present state. I get into a zone and get hyper-focused. I try to come to my writing fresh each time and give all of myself to the piece in front of me—body, mind, heart, soul. All of my energy is focused on the point of the cursor as it moves forward. There’s a place within me where the work comes from, and everything else blurs and falls away. Of course, I get distracted by my own thoughts and worries sometimes, but it’s a desire of mine to be as fully present as I can be.

I try to do this in other areas of my life as well—to be as present as possible with what is in front of me—even though I may not be able to do this one hundred percent of the time. I want to be fully present for whatever I’m doing, whether it’s teaching, or writing, or being with people I love.

Rumpus: Is this a discipline that you’ve learned through the years?

Brandeis: I’m a pretty undisciplined person. It’s kind of amazing I get as much done as I do! I’m always really happy to hear about writers who have specific disciplines, and specific schedules for their writing. I’m not like that at all. But somehow my various practices, as unruly as they are in my life, have always naturally taken me to a good, focused place.

I was a dancer and figure skater when I was young. I would learn these routines in my figure skating, but then, when it was time to compete or perform in a skating show, those routines would fall away, and I would let the music move me. I would improvise, much to the chagrin of my coaches. So, there’s always been this stubborn part of me that is following its own creative impulses. That part of me wants to move or wants to write without rules or routines. I get to that intense place of focus, and from there, it’s just a matter of listening to what needs to come through me at the moment. Once I tap into that, it kind of pulls me forward.

Rumpus: Your work is marvelously relatable. Do you focus on connecting with the reader?

Brandeis: I think that happens in revision. With writing, it helps to think no one’s ever going to read it, so I’m not holding myself back. When I revise, it’s very much focused on connection with the reader. I want to make sure what I’m writing will make sense to other people. I want people to be able to feel it in their bodies.

That early draft is really me getting out of my own way and then, with each successive draft, it’s just to connect more and more with the reader. I want to make the work as clear as it can be, as potent as it can be, for others to take it in. It feels like a sacred relationship, the connection between writer and reader, and I want to honor that through craft as well as through love. When it’s in service to that connection, craft becomes an act of love.




Author photo by Asher Brandeis

Janet Rodriguez is an author, teacher, and editor living in Northern California. She is the author of Making an American Family: A Recipe in Five Generations (Prickly Pear Press, 2022), a family memoir. In the United States, her work has appeared in Hobart, Pangyrus, Eclectica, The Rumpus, Cloud Women’s Quarterly, American River Review, and Calaveras Station. She is the winner of the Bazanella Literary Award for Short Fiction and the Literary Insight for Work in Translation Award, both from CSUS Sacramento in 2017. Her short stories, essays, and poetry usually deal with themes involving morality in faith communities and the mixed-race experience in a culturally binary world. She holds an MFA from Antioch University, Los Angeles. She is currently Assistant Editor of Interviews at The Rumpus . Follow her on Twitter at @brazenprincess. More from this author →