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A reader’s decision to read a narrative may be a greater act of surrender than the writer’s decision to write it.

Book Review: Breathing the Page: Reading the Act of Writing by Betsy Warland

What is the power of the written word for a reader? Author/essayist Betsy Warland offers a deep analysis of the functions of narrative writing, the clarity of storytelling, and examples of her own experimental techniques in writing. With her new book, Breathing the Page: Reading the Act of Writing, she leaves us richer, in our knowledge of the writer’s craft, and of the reader’s role in receiving a writer’s work.

When you pick up a book, how long does it take for you to settle in and commit to it? Readers learn how to pick up the cues, signals and gestures that reveal whether a story is engaging.

“Like dogs meeting in a park, scents are immediately exchanged, compatibility or lack of it is determined. Acted upon. When the scent is confused, overpowering, or too faint, the reader’s interest falters.”

When writing about fiction, Warland refers in depth to the concept of narrative. “Think of narrative as a triangle, with the reader’s pre-existing narratives on one side, the writer’s narratives on another, and the narrative the writer creates forming the base of the triangle. All three must collaborate with one another and all narratives build on other narratives." Clearly the writer’s obligations are great. In fact, she says “The body is far wiser about narrative than consciousness will ever be. All the formal and narrative elements of poetry and prose originate in our bodies.”

Breathing the Page covers techniques critical to all writers, and will especially appeal to creative writing teachers, for its openness and clarity. Warland devotes much time to techniques such as proximity, the importance of time, and the challenge to feed into non-verbal language when addressing the reader, indicating that as much as 90 percent of how we communicate is non-verbal.

On her website, the author describes this book as “a map of my writing quest as a writer.” The overall feel of Breathing the Page mixes lessons on writing, such as form and structure, along with Warland’s own essay excerpts, etymology, and informative Q & A segments. Essays on techniques that aid writers and poets include inscription, composition and the inescapable revision.

Warlland does an excellent job reminding today’s writers of the critical need for focus. Picture a basketball player who pauses and readies himself at the free throw line, or the way a diver internally organizes her whole body before springing off the high diving board. That’s true focus; containing three stages: circling, approach and active waiting.

My favorite essay, “The Table,” is a lovely work that deserves to be reread frequently and should inspire the essay writers among us. Throughout Breathing the Page, Warland teaches nuances of good writing and has fun with words along the way, yet says, “A word has almost no meaning in itself.”

“Sustaining Yourself as a Writer” is a long piece with generous insights and complex layers, including introspective notes on the writer’s life. While several of the books essays have been published elsewhere, a glance at the list of Warland’s publishing history can serve as a great resource for your own publishing aspirations, and act as a reminder of every writer’s need to keep writing, submitting, and succeeding.

Review based on paperback 2010 edition, provided by publisher.

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