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Janet Burroway carries on, reinvents self

Janet Burroway takes the stage at Women & Children First bookstore on a Thursday evening. She's appearing with her close friend, the award-winning writer Rosellen Brown, to promote the new anthology "A Story Larger Than My Own: Women Writers Look Back on Their Lives and Careers," recently released by the University of Chicago Press. New essays and poetry from writers older than 60 occupy its pages: Margaret Atwood, Erica Jong, Edith Pearlman, Julia Alvarez.


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Maxine Kumin's final essay is there.

But the star is Burroway, its editor. Every one of her movements, every syllable of her speech, is about elegance, elocution.

Burroway is a legend in literary circles, but not necessarily the way she has wanted. She's the author of "Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft," one of the most widely used textbooks on the writing of fiction. When introducing Burroway before a reading several years ago at Florida State University, where Burroway taught for 30 years, the writer Mark Winegardner calculated that the text had been assigned to enough students to fill the university's Doak Campbell Stadium (capacity 82,300) three times. The ninth edition of "Writing Fiction" was released last month, and each edition outsells the previous one.

Thomas Balazs, associate professor of English at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, calls "Writing Fiction" the "Bible on fiction writing."

"Writing Fiction was the first work on craft I read as a graduate student at Columbia College in Chicago," he says. It "undoubtedly influenced my own writing for the better, and I was so impressed that, when I began teaching fiction writing, I used her book in all my classes."

Another fan is Jocelyn Cullity, visiting assistant professor at Trinity College in Hartford, Conn. "I use her textbook 'Imaginative Writing' for my introduction to creative writing class all the time," she says. "She talks about the elements of craft (image, voice, character, setting, story) and how they work across genres. So this way I can show students what the genres of fiction, creative nonfiction, poetry and drama share — before going on to show how each genre is different. Her textbook is set up to really get at what the literary is in creative writing in a very simple and accessible way — by focusing on these five elements of craft."

Author Ayelet Waldman uses Burroway's books regularly. "I don't teach writing, and I never got an MFA," she says. "In fact, I've never taken a writing class. I read and reread 'Writing Fiction.' It's my at-home writing program."

"In a way it's an albatross, and in a way it's just glorious," Burroway says. "I mean, those books are funding our retirement, and we're very comfortable because of them. But I wish it were the novels. When I go to a conference, there'll be a stack of 'Writing Fiction' like this (raising her palm 2 feet above the table top) and a stack of my novels like this (indicating a decidedly smaller stack). And the 'Writing Fiction' sells out, and nobody buys the novels."

Burroway, winner of the Florida Humanities Council's 2014 Lifetime Achievement Award for Writing, has written eight novels, but the most important book she has ever written doesn't come out until April.

It's a memoir called "Losing Tim," Burroway's story of grieving for her son, Tim Eysselinck, who served in the U.S. Army, became a contracted de-mining specialist in Iraq, and took his own life upon returning to his home in Namibia on April 23, 2004. He had just turned 40.

Burroway hadn't planned a memoir about her son.

"At first I was just angry," she says. "The first thing that came out was a letter to the NRA, and that went into the St. Pete Times together with two earlier essays that I had written about the boys." (Burroway's younger son, Alex, resides in London.)

The first of those essays was written in 1984, 20 years before Tim would take his own life.

You will have figured out that I love these kids. If you have also raised a human offspring to as many as 14 candles, you will also perceive that it's too late for me to do anything. Whatever it is, I've already done it, and I can't for the life of me figure out what it was.

Thirty years after she wrote that essay — and 10 years after losing her son — Burroway is still thinking about what she could have done.

"Well, I sort of felt he was making the wrong decisions, and you can never be sure," she says. "I mean I could have pushed harder, argued harder, about the simplicity of the moral framework that he was buying.

"After the NRA letter, I wrote in my journal almost every day. I had some pressing facet of grief that I needed to write about, and of course like most writers, I know what it is: Writing makes order for me. This was the severest chaos I had ever experienced.

"Trying to understand what happened to him became the project of the book, the plot of the book."

The plot of Janet Burroway's life begins on Sept. 21, 1936, in Tucson, Ariz.

"My folks were terrific about taking us around the country every summer, and I don't think my dad ever made more than $3,000 a year. He was a builder and an inventor."

She attended the University of Arizona but left for New York and Barnard College in 1955 after winning the prestigious Mademoiselle Guest Editor Contest, whose winners also have included Sylvia Plath and Joan Didion.

She met Rosellen Brown in 1957, and the two appeared together for the first time in the pages of Focus, Barnard's literary journal, where the Columbia Daily Spectator called "Jan" Burroway's poetry "the best of the lot."

"As a teenager, and even through college, I used 'Jan' in bylines and submissions, partly because my adored journalist brother used 'Stan' instead of 'Stanley,' " Burroway says. "But also, mainly, because I figured that if editors thought I was a man, they would judge me as a writer. 'Feminism' was not a word in my or my classmates' vocabulary, except for bluestockings that had fought for the vote."

The embodiment of "feminism" sits on the stage at Women & Children First Books, where Burroway and Brown are appearing together, again, nearly 60 years later. They're still talking about "Good Girl Theory": Meet your deadline, adhere to the length requirement and make sure the topic is covered.

At the end of the reading, Burroway is still all elegance: seated upright, hands neatly folded on her knee, feet crossed at the ankle, every vowel and consonant pronounced with precision. Ask her to say the word "poem." Hear the slightly distinctive "-em" that makes it the two-syllable word it was meant to be.

The next day she says, "My mother wanted to be an actress and was not allowed, because actresses are wicked, and it was too dangerous to allow her to think in that way. So she became an elocution teacher. She had me up doing little pieces, and I loved it, until I hated it.

"There was this pattern of 'You're going to say a piece at the Methodist Friday Night Social,' and I would learn the piece and she would direct how I should say it. Then as it got nearer the dread would build in me, this terror, and then I'd get up there on the stage and think, 'Got no option. Here goes.' And then I got praised. I was told I was smart and pretty, and so that pattern: Dread, Resignation, Praise. Dread, Resignation, Praise has stood me in good stead my whole life. I mean, I knew I was going to be nervous before the reading last night."

Heather Sellers, a former student of Burroway's, is an English professor at the University of South Florida's MFA program. "She was interested in my interests (fabric, sewing, teaching, children), and for perhaps the first time in my life — I was 19 — I felt seen as an adult, taken seriously, known and knowable, this brilliant woman asking me questions as though my opinion was actually interesting," Sellers says. "Under her warm, kind, vibrant light, I flourished as a person.

"And, she has two desks. So I got two desks. They face away from each other, so there's this kind of channel for working. When I saw her office, I made my office just like it."

Today, Burroway splits time between a home in Lake Geneva, Wis., and Chicago with her husband of 20 years, film and Utopian scholar Peter Ruppert. Her other love is Chicago Dramatists, an organization dedicated to the development of playwrights and the writing of plays.

"That's where I found out how ignorant I was about writing a musical," she says. "I essentially did my apprenticeship for two years there."

At 77, Burroway is reinventing herself, apprenticing.

"I think it's one of the things I wanted," she says. "My social crowd was all from the university for 35 years, and now it's the theater. It's going back because I started off as a playwright — I started out writing poetry, but I wanted, above all, to be a playwright."

Nearly 60 years removed from Barnard, eight novels, plays, essays, poetry and children's books, America's fiction writing teacher has become a student again.

"Two weeks ago in the scene shop at Chicago Dramatists, I found myself on the one hand announcing that I had been awarded the Lifetime Achievement Award for Writing and (on the other) 'Did the workshop leader think I was ready to apply for a residency at Chicago Dramatists?'"

She laughs. "And I may not be."

The opening chapter of "Losing Tim," due out April 7, seems to bring her together as teacher, student, mother:

The end of the story, I told my students, is the most important part. We can't help it. It happens willy-nilly — the last sentence echoes backward through all the rest. You cast back over the scenes to understand how the parts fit together, how character and chance and history converged, what clues you missed, how differently this or that scene looks in the light of what happened after.

It sets up the structure of the memoir, and it places emphasis on how a person chooses to end: stories, lives, careers. "Chooses to end" is the wrong phrase here, because she isn't looking to the end. Janet Burroway is still getting started.

Frank Tempone is a writer and teacher at the Latin School of Chicago. He writes at absolutegentleman.net.

"A Story Larger Than My Own"

Edited by Janet Burroway, University of Chicago, 192 pages, $55

"Losing Tim"

By Janet Burroway, Think Piece, 160 pages, $14.95

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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