Janet Burroway

Janet Burroway, known best for "Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft," is back with an anthology by women writers as well as a deeply personal memoir about her son's death. (Mary Stephan photo)

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.


This piece first ran in Printers Row Journal, delivered to Printers Row members with the Sunday Chicago Tribune and by digital edition via email. Click here to learn about joining Printers Row.


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."