Back in 1975, Janet Burroway, a writer and teacher who will be visiting Truman State University, realized there was a problem in college classrooms across the country: no textbooks were available for creative writing students. Writing programs were appearing all over the country, but students were not provided with guidance from a text. Burroway said very few students even knew how to write, so she set out to write a book that would help students learn how to write short stories.
She said when teaching literature, there is class discussion of literary elements such as setting, characterization, plot and point of view. She realized those must have been put in there intentionally by the writer, so she focused on elements of the literary craft from the point of view of the writer and how the writer used these elements to create a story. She gradually taught herself how to use that vocabulary.
The result was “Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft,” now in its ninth edition and in print for more than 35 years. It has become a standard text for creative writing students throughout the country. It is also one of Burroway’s best-known works and among her proudest achievements.
“It was wonderful to hear from the number of people, both students and strangers, who have written to me to say that you helped me become a writer,” Burroway said.
Burroway also wrote another textbook, “Imaginative Writing,” which is currently in its fourth edition. On top of textbooks, Burroway has worked on novels, memoirs, short stories, poems, plays and children’s books. Of her eight novels, Burroway said she was most proud of “The Buzzards,” “Raw Silk,” and “Cutting Stone” because she felt they were the ones she really wrestled to the ground.
“Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft” has undergone many changes throughout the years. The textbook is divided into chapters that explore specific techniques of writing fiction, such as the writing process, story form and structure, and showing and telling. Each chapter also includes short stories, discussion questions and assignments. Burroway said the central changes over the years were the kind of stories used as examples in each new edition. The first five editions were focused more on realism and the American perspective. After that, Burroway started including more diverse writers and stories such as magic realism, postmodernism and political writing.
Another change to the 10th edition of the textbook will be a dramatic price reduction. Burroway said her income increased with the sales of her textbook, but she noted with despair how the book became more and more expensive. A student today would have to pay over $100 for the text on Amazon, which outraged Burroway. The 10th edition will be released in March 2019 from the University of Chicago Press and will cost just over $20.
“I’ll take a hit in my income, but I’ll be very happy that students can buy it,” Burroway said.
Burroway was an English professor at Florida State University until her retirement 15 years ago. She later taught at Northwestern University. When she is not redoing her two textbooks, Burroway mainly writes plays and novels. She is working on a novel about a young Belgian woman and tells her story from World War II through the year 2000. Each chapter looks at the main character from 25 different points of view as she travels to Belgium, England, New York, Missouri and Florida. Burroway said, in many ways, the story is autobiographical because the nomadic life of the character parallels her experience.
Burroway thinks writing students learn best by making mistakes, a process that never ends. She also feels students shouldn’t write because they want to become rich or famous.
“Your real joy should come from the page that you have wrestled to the ground,” Burroway said. “That’s where you need to find satisfaction because you will always face the blank page again.”
Burroway is coming to Truman State University this month. She will provide a writing master class from 2-3 p.m. Nov. 8 in the Student Union Building Conference Room 3000. She will also be doing a reading at 5 p.m. on the same day in the Baldwin Hall Little Theater, where she will read a short section from her novel in progress, several poems and passages from her memoir “Losing Tim.”