An Interview with Janet Burroway

Posted on Tue, Apr 15 2014 9:00 am by Lindsey Giaquinto

You may have first encountered Janet Burroway in a college writing class, studying her text Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft. But Janet's expertise doesn't stop at fiction—she is the author of plays, poetry, essays, children’s books, and eight gorgeous novels. A woman of letters, she has cast her literary net wide. So naturally, we were thrilled when Janet agreed to chat with us about craft, writing habits, and her new memoir.

You’ve worked in nearly every genre—fiction, nonfiction, children’s books, plays, poetry. How does your writing process differ across genres?

Usually a piece comes to me with genre attached: it’s an image or a line of a poem, or a relationship with novel-sized implications, or a vision of how the characters might inhabit this theatrically interesting space. Sometimes toward the end of a long project (and a poem or a story can be a long project) I get bored, not with the genre, but with my own rhythms and techniques in that genre, and then an idea of a totally different sort can break those habits. Once I’m working, the process is much the same in every genre: the effort to get myself to the computer, a period of grumpy struggle, despair, the luminous solution that appears in bed or bath, joyful work; repeat; repeat; repeat.

The only real exception is a musical lyric, for which I follow a pattern suggested in an essay by Stephen Sondheim, and which is pleasure from beginning to end. That is: I put myself in the position of this particular character at this particular moment in the story and flash down a page or two of monologue in that character’s voice. Then I study what’s on the page, circle whatever seems interesting, accurate, well said; take note of rhymes, rhythms, assonance. Then I pull out the thesaurus and the rhyming dictionary and set to work. (Yup, I use both, a lot.)

How do you write? Do you have a daily habit, a favorite writing desk, a preferred writing snack? Do you listen to music while you write? Do you require solitude?

I’m a night person. All those who adjured me to get up before dawn only made me feel slutty and ashamed. It used to be guilt that finally (three in the afternoon, anyone?) got me to the desk. But many years ago my husband, observing my mindless morning routine, pointed out that I was performing a ritual much like an athlete’s; that my mind was doing stretches and then jumping jacks before the race. This is true. When I’m writing I must be pumped up and sprinting. When there’s only work to do, like research or proofing or certain kinds of revision, I can start at once and keep going all day.

My study in our house in the country in Wisconsin is a fabulous indulgence. I have the walk-out basement, which looks out on the woods and is large, light, and thickly carpeted. I have four desks, each with a different project (of which one is a hopeless attempt at a sculpture; the others are for writing). I have a sixteen-foot bulletin board that is a collage of our life in photos and paraphernalia. It’s a fantasy-incarnation of “a room of one’s own.” I thought I must have it, must have solitude, silence, and a glass of ice-cold water. But it turns out that isn’t true. In Chicago we have a one-bedroom condo with a table in the corner, and it turns out I can work while Peter watches basketball from the couch. Who knew?

When you are in the middle of a project—whether a book or a shorter piece—when do you consider potential readers?

In first draft I don’t think of anyone except the characters in their setting. I try to “see” as deep as I can, and follow that sight with ego blinded. Then as I shape the story or shine the prose I try to be my own best reader, having long internalized the just critiques of editors and readers: be clear, just tell the story; no verbal acrobatics—and so forth. I have a few ideal-reader friends who come to mind at this point, because there is always an ideal reader, the one who gets what I’m doing and has pleasure in it. As for “readers” in the sense of how to get a lot of them, I’m at a loss. I go blank. My mother used to say, “Write for the masses, honey; they need to laugh, they need to escape.” Sorry, Mom, I dunno how.

Your new book Losing Tim (April 2014) centers around the death of your son. How were you able to write through the emotion of that loss and has writing been part of the grieving process for you?

Writing is always my way of making order, but looking back I can see (which I could not at the time) that there have been distinct periods of writing about Tim’s death, with different purposes.

I started writing as soon as the first shock began to wear off (on the plane back from his funeral in Africa, in fact), an outburst of rage as a “Letter to the NRA.” Then, perhaps strangely, the habit of the years took over and I began to rewrite those lines, to shape them into an essay. Over the next several months all I wrote was journal entries, still outcries of anguish thrown out raw.But six months after they had published the first essay, the St. Petersburg Times (now the Tampa Bay Times) asked me to do a follow-up, and that task was distinctly order-making for me; I was able to look at how grief had changed over those six months. I continued to use my journal almost daily, for anger, grief, memory, surprising tenderness, reflection, sometimes even surprising calm.

Meanwhile I was reading, reading about PTSD, about suicide, about war (all the time Tim lived obsessed with the “warrior spirit,” I had called up no glimmer of interest in war), even about the history of attitudes toward death. I found Joan Didion, William Styron, A. Alvarez, James Hillman, Judy Collins, Chris Hedges, David Finkel—as well as Robert Frost, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Thomas Hardy, John Donne, even Chaucer—each—I hesitate to say healing, but helpful, enlarging, and enlightening my tight little world of loss. I don’t remember when it first occurred to me that my journal could become a book, perhaps one that could help other people as I had been helped, but at some point when I expressed a doubt about the propriety of doing such a thing, my husband said, “It’s what you do. If you were a carpenter, you’d make a cabinet.”

Now, and this may be the strangest of all, I find that, having written a memoir as close to the truth as I can make it, I am freed of that kind of truth, free to write a play “about Tim” with any sort of theatrical and fictional elements, in order to explore another, metaphorical and metaphysical sliver of the truth. This is a “distancing” that I feel as the very opposite of denial.

If you could give one piece of advice to future and aspiring writers, what would you tell them?

The best first advice I ever heard was from the poet Bob Howard, and my version of it is now always my first advice to writers: The thing you must do now, over the next few months, no matter where you are in your writing life, but especially if you are in a writing workshop or program, is to figure out how you are going to make writing a continuing part of your life. Get up at dawn? Go to bed after everyone else? Weekends only? After a nap? The lunch hour? Two hours after dinner? Nobody else’s advice or pattern matters. Figure out how you are going to do it. Because although you are busy and beleaguered, you will never be less so. There will be a job, marriage, children, divorce, loss, illness… None of those will stop you from writing if you have learned the pattern that will let you continue.

So many talented writers just drift away or stop, which is not a mere loss for them but a national diminishment. What matters is not publication or success (success is bad for your prose) but the practice of the imaginative act. Our damaged values depend on it.

Janet Burroway is teaching “Where the Wild Things Are: Getting to the Plot,” August 16 at the Loft. She is the author of eight novels, plays, poetry, essays, texts for dance, and children’s books. She was nominated for the National Book Award in 1977 for her novel Raw Silk. Her Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft is the most widely used creative writing text in America, and her multigenre Imaginative Writing is out in a third edition. Her most recent novel is Bridge of Sand (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 2009), and her play Medea with Child was produced in 2010 by Sideshow Theatre Company in Chicago. She is at work on a musical adaptation of Barry Unsworth’s novel Morality Play with composer Matthew M. Kiedrowski. She is the Robert O. Lawton Distinguished Professor Emerita at Florida State University. Her book for Think Piece is Losing Tim, a memoir about her son, a private contractor in the Iraq War. It will be released on April 7, 2014.