Shop Talk

This month we’re talking about writing lives with Janet Burroway

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“What lasts, what changes, what matters, what is the story of a writing life?” asks Janet Burroway in her introduction to A Story Larger than My Own: Women Writers Look Back on Their Lives and Careers. Burroway is part of a remarkable cohort of women who pushed their way onto the writing scene at a time when female writers struggled to have a voice. Throughout her own writing life she has been an author, editor, writing teacher, as well as novelist, playwright, children’s book author, and memoirist. With five new books or new editions coming out this year, as well as a musical under development, Janet talked to us about her writing process and how to make time for writing in an already busy life.

You’ve written in a wide variety of formats, from novels, to plays, to children’s books, to a memoir. Do you go into each style with a different mindset? Which one have you found to be the most personally challenging?

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 already inherent, 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 pretty well pleasure from beginning to end. That is: 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 the character’s voice. Then I study what’s on the page, circle whatever seems interesting, cogent, 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.)

There’s no doubt that a novel is the most challenging. It’s a commitment of years, and relatively little can be known about it at the outset. Everything evolves: story, characters, setting, imagery, meaning. Of course, I never remember this or I’d never take it on. At the outset it’s luminous in my mind, and I think it will unroll itself like a red carpet under my prose-y toes. 

You’ve balanced a writing career with teaching at Florida State University as well as supporting a family and, presumably, taking a moment to breathe here and there. How did you carve out time to write?

“Carve” is the operative word here, not “balance.” It was a difficult life, in which I often realized that although I identified myself as a writer first, that didn’t match the reality. If the baby was crying, he got first attention; if the class needed preparing, that was next. Often the leftover third-energy was just not enough. I call myself a slow writer, but in fact the writing comes pretty fast. It was the getting to it that dogged my teaching days. The rewriting is a long process, but it doesn’t take the same kind of preparedness as early drafts. It’s just work, so I can take it on at once and spend long hours at it.

Now that I’m retired, I still follow a pattern of domestic order-making before I can get to the desk. I felt guilty about this until my husband Peter pointed out that those morning tasks are a ritual, akin to stretching before exercise. I’m preparing myself, and probably already writing, as I put away the dishes or water the plants. 

A Story Larger than My Own is the first time you served as an editor for a collection. Can you talk a little bit about this process? What goes into a project like this? Were there any surprises? 

The process didn’t hold many surprises— except of course for the delicious phrase or unexpected insight in the essays themselves—in other words, the pleasures of reading.

I knew that proposing the collection, collecting the essays, making decisions about them, gathering permissions, proofing and so forth—that all this would be a long job and sometimes tedious. I wasn’t daunted by that, because I needed this particular perspective. Loss and change in my late life had made me greedy to know what other women writers were experiencing, writers who had like me, started their writing lives in a world that now seems quaint, in some ways ridiculous and in some ways richer than our own. I had arranged panel discussions in three different years for AWP conventions to fill this need (arranging panels is more like editing than you might suppose), and I was thrilled with the result. It seemed to me that other women (other writers, other humans) might find these perspectives illuminating too.

Although I hadn’t been an editor before, I had been edited a gazillion times, often well and a few times badly, and I had an inkling of how to make a suggestion or elicit a change, with due respect to the author and her process. As has often been observed, these writers were raised to be good girls, and they nearly always met deadlines, turned in clean copy, were eager to improve their essays if they could see sense in my suggestions. That made the job pretty easy, and in the process I made friends of many of them. Of course, many wonderful writers turned me down—too busy, too involved with a new book, too weary to take on another thing, too wary of the label “older woman.” Those rejections were gracious too, and cheered the project itself on.

Since you’ve been on both sides of the manuscript, so to speak: As an author, what do you wish editors knew? And, in turn, what do you wish authors knew about working with editors?

I want editors to know that writers are as vulnerable as new-born birds, but they mostly do know that. I want writers to know that editors are mostly right, but I think down deep they do. 

After my novel Bridge of Sand was published in America by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, it was taken on by a small British publisher, Hopcyn Press. The editor, with the incomparable name of Marguerite Shakespeare, wanted me to cut ten thousand words, or ten percent. It would read faster and better, she said. Several people close to me were offended on my behalf, but I’ve always known that I have a tendency to write long, and I was interested. I set myself the task of identifying where I had used one too many images, phrases, sentences. And it was a revelation. I found that I tended to put four instead of the magic three things in a series, that in my eagerness to show, I often described one gesture more than the reader needed. Sometimes I killed a paragraph with an anticlimactic sentence. Etc., etc. I ended by cutting the ten thousand words without cutting a whole paragraph anywhere. I guess what I mean by this, in relation to the question, is that I think editors should not be afraid to ask, and that authors should not be afraid to try. If only someone had set me this task four novels ago, or six!

In A Story Larger than My Own you gather together a number of “women writers of a certain age” to tell their stories about writing. What’s the one piece of advice you would give today’s young women writers?

The best first advice I ever heard was from the poet Richard 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? 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 established a pattern that will let you continue, and if you continue, writing will help order your life. Unlike sports or dancing or acting, writing is a source of knowledge and pleasure that need not diminish with age. You’ll never need complain of boredom when you retire. Still, 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. 

Finally, what are your favorite writing resources?

Because I’ve been working for the past year on new editions of Writing Fiction and Imaginative Writing, I have a shelf of helpful sources beside my desk. For technical matters I like Miller Williams’s Patterns of Poetry, Will Dunne’s The Dramatic Writer’s Companion, Ross Murfin and Supryia Ray’s Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms, and of course the Chicago Manual of Style (who can get a reference right without it?!) My second Roget’s Thesaurus is battered and bruised. There’s no perfect rhyming dictionary, but Paul Zollo has done a good job of updating Schirmer’s Complete for songwriters. 

Somewhere between technical good advice and a joy to read are Susan Bell’s The Artful Edit, Carol Fisher Saller’s The Subversive Copy Editor, Vivian Gornick’s The Situation and the Story, and Bonnie Friedman’s Writing Past Dark. 

There are some that use a reflection on writing as an exploration of life itself, and of those I love Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life, Jane Hirshfield’s Nine Gates, Ellen Bryant Voigt’s The Flexible Lyric, Robert Pinsky’s The Sounds of Poetry, Glynn Maxwell’s On Poetry, and Abigail Thomas’s Thinking About Memoir.  

That’s a long list—I’d argue that you could do worse than make it your bedtime reading—but I have probably left out crucial books just because they’re in some other room in the house. I’m pleased to notice that, in making my list, I felt not the slightest strain in tipping the gender-balance toward women.

Of course, the best “sources” for a literary writer are the ones we still call “primary:” fiction, poetry, memoir and drama. 

Janet Burroway is the author of the newly released collection A Story Larger than My Own: Women Writers Look Back on Their Lives and Careers as well as eight novels, including The Buzzards and Raw Silk; two best-selling textbooks, Writing Fiction and Imaginative Writing; and the memoir Losing Tim. She is also the author of numerous plays, short stories, poetry collections, and children’s books. She is Robert O. Lawton Distinguished Professor Emerita at Florida State University.