Wednesday, March 25, 2009


If each of us reflected back, we could probably pinpoint a prophetic moment, a moment that would help define a part of who we are today. Janet Burroway describes such a moment in I Didn't Know Sylvia Plath, an essay from her collection, Embalming Mom. "I did not then know that I would spend my life teaching young people scribblative ilk, nor that the muted depression I felt would later earn my daily bread, but I took the discovery personally and very much to heart." Burroway was writing about her experience reading entries for the Poetry Center Award when she discovered "mountains of mediocre" among the handful of excellent and poor poems. Plath's husband, Ted Hughes, won the prize.

There are a lot of writers who owe Burroway a big thanks. I am one of them. Although I never sat in her physical classroom, I grabbed a front row seat in learning what she had to share in her book, Writing Fiction, A Guide to Narrative Craft. The book is now in its seventh edition. I own the fourth and its dog-eared condition proves its value to me. Time and time again, I return to those pages.

Recently a young writer that I mentored through her high school years wrote to tell me how excited she was when she realized that her college creative writing class was going to use Writing Fiction for the textbook. Actually it is a textbook with a textbook price tag. And it's worth every penny. Burroway explores in-depth more lessons than any other writing book I've ever read--structure, showing and telling (my favorite part is the chapter, Significant Detail), characterization, point of view, setting, comparison, theme and revision.

Please don't get the wrong idea. Burroway is not the kind of writing teacher who traded in her pen to solely discuss the craft. She actively participates, having written plays, poetry, novels and children's books. Her picture book The Giant Jam Sandwich uses whimsy and rhyme to delight readers.

Today is the publication date of her new novel, Bridge of Sand. The Washington Post calls it, “Dazzling . . . Like John Updike, she can eke out the poisonous beauty of suburban routine. Even her most ordinary characters are capable of unusual panache and introspection."

Because of my admiration for Burroway, I was nervous about contacting her. But she graciously accepted my invitation to do An Author at Home profile. Now I extend an invitation to you. Won't you join us tomorrow?

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