The Trick is to Keep Breathing


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The Trick is to Keep Breathing

How to use these resources

First of all, the important thing to say about these activities is that they don’t have to be done in the order they appear here, nor do you need to do them all! Pick and choose, modify as you see fit, and slot into other activities you’re doing around the book. We hope you find them useful, and always welcome feedback at

Interview with Alan Bissett

Alan Bissett speaks about his love of the book and its unique narrative style in the interview below:

About the book

The Trick is to Keep Breathing is widely regarded as a contemporary Scottish classic. It was shortlisted for the Whitbread First Novel, Scottish First Book, Italia Premio Acerbi and Aer Lingus Awards, and won the MIND/Allan Lane Book of the Year.

The Trick is to Keep Breathing is a challenging book on a number of levels. It is the story of a young woman who becomes completely detached from other people following an episode of severe trauma. The novel charts her attempts to find meaning and peace in her life and relationships. The challenging subject matter and innovative narrative style will give you and your pupils plenty to talk about! The book is bravely written and brutally honest, and many feel it is the most accurate portrayal of depression in contemporary literature.

About the author

Janice Galloway is an esteemed writer who debuted in1990 with The Trick is to Keep Breathing, and has since published a further two novels, two books of short stories, two collaborative books of short fiction and poetry with sculptor Anne Bevan and more. She has done extensive radio work for the BBC, including the series Life as a Man, Imagined Lives, and work on the travels of Wordsworth and Chopin. She is a writer in residence at four Scottish prisons, and also at Jura distillery as well as abroad in Belgium and France. She is currently working on a new book set in Naples.

Pre-reading 1 - The reasons behind mental ill health

Learning objective:

  • to understand why people develop mental health problems

Understanding the reasons for mental ill health is key to understanding how Joy feels. Ask your pupils to research the subject of depression to find out the answers to the following questions:

  • What kind of things can bring about depression?

  • What is it like to suffer from depression?

  • How might you be able to tell if someone close to you is suffering? Are there any behaviours to observe?

  • Are some people more susceptible than others?

  • What might help people recover?

    Here are some sources to get you started:

  • Neil Lennon talks about battling depression:

  • Frankie Sandford of The Saturdays talks about her experiences of depression:



Ask the pupils to present the information they have found out to another class. They must be prepared to answer questions from the other class.

Another possible activity might be to record a radio podcast where the above questions are discussed.

Pre-reading 2 - exploring alienation

Learning objectives:

  • to analyse what is meant by the term ‘alienation’
  • to investigate how people can become alienated

Ask pupils to study the image of Edvard Munch’s famous painting The Scream in Appendix 1. Explain to them that while the meaning of the painting has been widely debated, Munch is certainly seen as an artist who depicted alienation, loneliness and depression.

Tell them that they are going to note down some quick observations about the painting, and that they will return to these written responses after they have finished reading the book. You will find a worksheet with questions in Appendix 1.

After this, pupils should have a good idea of what the concept of alienation is. Ask them to write a definition, and ask them to share with the class, who can discuss the effectiveness and accuracy of each other’s definitions.

To consolidate the learning from this activity, you could ask pupils to imagine they are writing a summary of the painting for an art gallery. They should use the information they learned in the first pre reading activity to give a summary of what mental illness is like and the things that can cause it, and explain how some of these things are captured or conveyed in Munch’s painting.

Janice Galloway’s narrative style

Learning objective:

  • to understand how Galloway’s unconventional narrative style is effective in conveying Joy’s alienation from people.

This activity will ask pupils to consider Galloway’s narrative style by re-writing a section from the book in order to evaluate the impact of how they have been originally written.

Ask your pupils to look at page 8 of the book, in which Joy and a health visitor are talking.

Ask your pupils to look at the dialogue between Joy and the health visitor. Ask them to look at the re-written passage in Appendix 2, to give them an introduction to the exercise. Tell them that the passage has been re-written to include Joy’s thoughts and feelings, both about the health visitor and the conversation in general:

Now ask pupils to re-write the extract on page 164 including Joy’s thoughts and feelings, which are again conspicuously absent in the book. Ask them to mind map things Joy might be thinking and feeling before they do this.

After they have done this exercise, discuss what the effect of Galloway’s narrative style is in portraying this exchange between Joy and the doctor.

Joy’s attempts to create order from mental chaos

Learning objective:

  • to understand why Joy uses lists in the narrative

Look at page 198. Ask your pupils why we make lists: what are we trying to achieve by making them? How do they help us? How are the items listed by Joy on this page different to the items we would normally put on a list? Why do they think Joy makes so many different lists?

Ask your pupils to write a list of three things which Joy would need to change in her life to help her rebuild her self-confidence. For example, she would need to be able to let go of the past, to stop assuming that other people are right, to realise that Michael’s death was not her fault, to stop trying to live up to other people’s expectations of her and to accept that some of the questions she asks about the meaning of existence are unanswerable.

Discuss with pupils how many of the things on their lists Joy manages to achieve by the novel’s end.

Joy’s attempts to fulfil expectations

Learning objectives:

  • To understand why Joy attempts to fulfil others’ expectations of her

  • To understand what those expectations are and how she fulfils them

  • To find out where the turning point of the novel is

Joy is always conscious of the roles different people expect her to play: she rarely allows herself to consider what she wants.

First of all, discuss with your pupils where this mentality may have come from, using the following questions to lead the discussion:

  • What happened when Joy last did something that she wanted to do?

  • How do you think she feels as a result of what happened?
  • How do the other staff at the school treat her? Why do you think they treat her this way (for instance, Michael’s memory will be tarnished by their acknowledgment of her, they do not want to be seen as condoning her actions)?

Next, ask your pupils to think about other characters in the novel and what they expect from Joy, or what role they expect her to play. You can use some of the key quotes listed after these activities to aid their thinking.

You can use the table in Appendix 3 to help pupils gather their answers/thoughts. Alternatively, you could gather answers from the class and ask them to create a wall display.

Post reading

Based on what pupils found out in the pre-reading activities, do they feel that the portrayal of mental illness ties in with what they found? Is there still more to understand about Joy’s situation and behaviour before they have a clear picture?

Ask pupils to go back to the notes they made about The Scream. Based on what they have read in the book, ask them how well the painting works as a portrayal of mental illness, and Joy’s situation in particular.

This could be used as a tie in to the Expressive Activity unit in Higher Art and Design, where pupils are expected to produce an imaginative response to a given stimulus. They could produce an image based on their own perception of mental illness, incorporating elements of Joy’s situation.

Some key quotes

“Baked Alaska - new style.

Making the most of summer’s late harvest.

Our Best Ever Chocolate Cake.

7 Meals that Make in Minutes.

Diet for a firmer new you!

Converting a Victorian schoolhouse into a des res!

How do the royals keep looking good?

Kiss me Quick Lips - we show you how!”

“On saturday I work with men.”

“His face lights up when he tells these jokes. Any other way, he looks wrong. At the funeral, wearing a black suit and tie he settled on the grass and offered me a job in the bookies. Pleasure in breaking little rules.”

“BOSS: Yes. No one is against you. You’ll antagonise people if you don’t make an effort.”

“My mouth knew more than the rest of me put together. I had to trust my mouth. I closed my eyes and the mouth said

My mother walked into the sea.”

“The angels whispered Try. Dr Stead went to a lot of trouble to get you this appointment. You have to try.”

“Something about me kills people. I’m losing days and drinking too much. I’m not a proper woman...Sometimes I think I don’t exist.”

“When it was over I knew I was smiling. I had been afraid of wasting his time but I knew I had performed with dignity.”

“A good girl stripping for my pink pyjamas...The pyjamas look bloody awful. Tesco’s: girls’ aged 11. Terrible. But this can be a virtue. My renunciation of vanity. And it proves I’m trying.”

“Is this what you want? I said. Will this keep you happy?”

“Half-way into the silence for Norma Fisher, my arms were weightless. The rest came piecemeal as the moral started to compute.

1. The Rev Dogsbody had chosen this service to perform a miracle.

2. He’d run time backwards, cleansed, absolved and got rid of the ground-in stain.

3. And the stain was me.

I didn’t exist. The miracle had wiped me out.”

Appendix 1

  • Write down 3 words to describe the appearance of the figure in the foreground.

  • Why do you think the artist has made the figure look like this?

  • Write down 2 words to describe the people in the background.

  • Why do you think the artist has made the figures in the background and foreground contrast so starkly with each other?

  • Based on your answers to the above questions, what evidence is there to suggest that this painting is about loneliness, depression and alienation?

Appendix 2

Nothing else to tell me?” she says.

No. Nothing special,” I reply.

I know that she’s going to be disappointed with that response, and I can see it in her face. I think she feels that I’m not trying hard enough, that she’s only here for a short while and I should make the most of the visit.

I have a friend visiting tonight,” I say, wanting to make more of an effort. She’s trying hard with me, after all, and I know I’m expected to try, or how am I supposed to ever get better?

She perks up. “Anyone special?” I’m not sure if she’s digging for information about a love interest. “Going out?”

Just the pub. Have a few drinks. That kind of thing.” It’s not much, but it’s all I can come up with.

Lucky girl. I can’t remember the last time someone took me out. Lucky.”

I don’t know if she’s aware of how patronising this sounds. Anyway, I’m glad I’ve been able to lie convincingly.

Appendix 3


Expectations of Joy

Quotes to illustrate this

Does she fulfil this role? Explain your answer.

The doctors and hospital staff

School colleagues




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