Janet Burroway: Interview

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Janet Burroway’s writing career has encompassed all genres—fiction, drama, poetry and nonfiction. Her experience teaching writing is equally broad. She’s taught at the University of the State of New York; Harper College; the University of Sussex, England; the University of Illinois; the Writer’s Workshop at the University of Iowa; the Florida State University at Tallahassee; and now at Northwestern University. Her book Writing Fiction: A Guide to the Narrative Craft stands as the most widely used writing textbook in the country.

I spoke with Burroway about teaching creative writing as we took tea at Chicago’s Four Seasons.

TriQuarterly Online: What people or experiences have been most influential to you as a teacher?

Janet Burroway: When I was in the seventh grade at Emerson Grammar School in Arizona, my literature teacher, Mr. Allsworth, changed my life. I brought my poetry to him, and he agreed to stay after school on Thursdays to teach me the poetic feet. That a teacher could open up something in that way is very precious to me. He changed my life.

TQO: What writers have you learned most from?

JB: George Eliot, above all. I’ve learned that depth of emotion can come out of minute observation and that repetition and motif are hugely satisfying to the reader.

TQO: Why do you think we like repetition and motif?

JB: This is a topic my husband and I have a lot of talks about. My husband loves routine. He said living in the repetition of your life gives you a confident base to leave and come back and is in other ways unique and profound. We are very comforted by the recognition of a return, and we also want the journey out. Certainly, return is a profound part of poetry and a three-act play.

However, I had a friend who believed people are constantly seeking a balance between excitement and risk. There are those who shake up life and live on a psychological edge. My function in our marriage is to take the risks. He works the other way.

TQO: Should a teacher be clear about the goal of a workshop, or should it be open-ended?

JB: I would tend to the open-ended. A workshop is malleable enough to mean different things to different students. One student I think about was named Bucky McMahon, who is a writer in a Sports Illustrated way. He showed scattershot brilliance. I sat him down to talk about it, alone; to tell him he needed to harness that in himself. I think it was important for him to harness that talent. I would never stand up in front of the class to say that’s the goal of the whole class. I also have students who are too timid. My message to them is to flaunt it. Be a showoff.

TQO: How do you teach people in workshops to give notes to their fellow authors?

JB: The only requirement I have is that I expect everyone to read each thing twice, once without a pencil. It is important to receive the work first as a reader. Then, judiciously examine the piece and record your thoughts in the margins. Each week, one student begins the discussion about a piece. And I do ask them—this is the hardest thing—to try for a good length of the discussion to be neutral. Discuss the story’s events, what kind of story it is, its motifs, what tradition it is from. Just describe the story to the author. This way, the writer hears the distance between his or her intention and what the reader took away.

TQO: How do you pick readings for your classes?

JB: I teach mostly workshops. At Florida State University, that part of the workshop [assigned readings] was not the practice. This is the first time I’ve assigned published stories. But I did do that in my books: pick stories that help make points. So, for the class at Northwestern, I picked ten weeks’ worth of stories already in my books. All the stories were ones I loved, and I have a lot to say about them.

TQO: What are the similarities and differences between writing and teaching?

JB: The one big negative is that teaching takes the same part of the brain that writing does. When I was doing costuming during the day, it was very tactile and visual. I could come fresh to the typewriter. When I was just mothering, writing was a release, and I looked forward to the typewriter. Teaching does tire you in that part of the brain. There is a danger of becoming over-analytical as a teacher. But there are positives to teaching. When I started teaching [creative writing] in 1972, I was unable to articulate what I knew. When I could articulate that, I felt a relief that related to my teaching and writing. But it took me at least three years to get to that point.

TQO: How does teaching fiction differ from teaching nonfiction? Poetry? Drama?

JB: I’ve taught all of them. Fiction differs from teaching poetry in that I’m old-fashioned about my poetry. I want to start with the poetic feet Mr. Allsworth taught me in the seventh grade. Honestly, I don’t feel as comfortable teaching poetry and haven’t in several years.

Teaching fiction and nonfiction—well, there’s not a great difference. Both are telling a story in prose. Both have different attributions. But they are more similar than different.

I have taught drama in classrooms with both drama majors and literature majors. That’s good. Drama majors understand parts played by costumes and props but aren’t very good writers. But they do know how to tell a story in movement. English majors mostly tend to write in debates, not action. Generally, in an English department setting, drama is teaching the students to think in auditory and visual terms.

TQO: Do you have favorite exercises or prompts to use in your class?

JB: I now draw from many sources for exercises—a lot from psychology, and a lot from drama and dance. That’s because they get you up and get you into the body. We sometimes need to trick the body, I’ve learned.

Maria Irene Fornes is a great playwright. She’s an irredeemably off-Broadway playwright but writes wonderful plays. She came to FSU to do workshops. Her exercises, which I have adopted, had us draw and dance and do uncomfortable things, like center ourselves and practically say “Om.” It was part of her process. I had written a lot at that point, and I’d been working on my process. She said, “You must always change your process. You see, there are two yous. One of you wants to write and the other doesn’t. The one who wants to write has to be very careful because the one who doesn’t want to write is crafty and will always be there tricking the other.” Getting into the body to free the mind is essential.

TQO: What advice do you have for a new creative writing teacher?

JB: I guess the first advice I give is save some for yourself. It’s very seductive, teaching writing. It’s intimate in a way that teaching other subjects is not. At its core, writing is what these people care about. It’s their wants, needs, pains. They are giving you their darlings to kill. It’s highly emotional. It’s often hard to not give yourself away. Keep boundaries.

TQO: What do you learn from your students?

JB: So much. The first thing I learned has to do with technique. Whether they miss it or hit it exactly, it’s a tiny revelation of how you do something as a writer. Beyond that, being thoroughly engaged with young people keeps you young. They teach me a new language every five years, and they teach me a different way of looking at the world. Communicating with young people gives you an in into youth. I’m not happy with aging, but I do feel constantly younger than my age, which is seventy-three. Student energy keeps me young.

TQO: What direction should the teaching of creative writing go?

JB: Publishing has been tossed in the air like confetti. We don’t know where it is going to land. I was distressed during my last few years at FSU. I was hearing students talk for the first time about their “career arc.”  It was many years before I talked to my students about publication. I think teachers should stay away from suggesting that creative writing a way to earn a living. My sense is that, now that we have absolutely no idea where publishing is going, it’s a good time to feel quite free. Experiment with all the outlets and all the inlets, too. Do all the kinds of writing you can do. Now is the time.

TQO: What of the workshop? Is it of value or, as many have said, is it teaching people to please each other?

JB: There’s a genuine danger in thinking you’re going to be a great writer, and in getting that impression from too much praise in the workshop. We can’t teach greatness in a workshop, but we can teach good writing, and America desperately needs good writers. There’s an essay I’m working on called “The Imagination Proclamation.” The 9/11 Commission Report had stated there was a “massive failure of imagination” on the part of our government leaders—that these primitive men in skirts who live in caves could do such a thing. But a massive failure of imagination is no surprise. We teach less and less in the arts. I say, let’s expand our capacity of living in someone else’s skin. That’s the function that I’d like to see writing classes take.

Janet Burroway recently finished a memoir of her son, Behind Blue Eyes. Her play, Medea With Child, produced by Chicago’s The Sideshow Company, just finished perfomances at La Costa Theatre. She is also working on a musical version of Barry Unsworth’s novel Morality Play with composer Matt Kiedrowski.