The Think Piece Interview: Janet Burroway

22 making gravyIt’s no exaggeration to say that Janet Burroway is the person most responsible in the past 30 years for teaching America college students how to write. Her book Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft is in its eighth printing and is considered biblical in MFA programs. And of course she’s no slouch at it herself. She’s penned several acclaimed novels, including Raw Silk, which was nominated for a National Book Award, and The Buzzards, which went up for a Pulitzer. She’s also dashed off plays, children’s books, volumes of poetry, all while teaching at Florida State University. Writing is joy for her. But Losing Tim was hard. It’s about the grief she experienced after the suicide of her son, who was a military contractor in Iraq. It took her years to write. We’re so glad she did because it’s beautiful and it helped her come to a level of understanding, if not acceptance, about her son’s decision. We couldn’t be more proud to know her and be associated with this book.

TP: How were you able to manage your emotions while writing Losing Tim?
JB: After his death I knew I had to talk and I had to write. I had to have words around it. Words distanced the event for me and gave me some kind of order that I could contain in my head. At first I wrote just blasts of anger. But I was also keeping in my journal what was going on in me. The progress of grief. It’s interesting. That progress from anger to bargaining, you know, that’s been thoroughly discredited by psychologists. That in fact what happens is you experience these emotions—those five and probably another 17—out of order, and they keep coming back, not in the same order. You go back and forth with them.

TP: How confusing.
JB: It happened often that my first thought of Tim was anger. Why did you do this? You didn’t need to do this. I found myself one day walking along the Atlantic Coast in the sand just shouting at the top of my lungs, You loved all this! How could you do this! You know? But that thought, whatever it was, the angry thought, immediately went into guilt. How can I be angry at him, my poor son.

TP: That’s a lot to absorb.
JB: It was, and I just put it all in my journal, whatever it was I needed to say. It took a couple of years before I began to see that there was a possible book in writing about Tim. I had read a number of books about suicide, about grieving, and those books had been enormously helpful to me.

TP: Which ones?
JB: William Styron’s Darkness Visible for one, because though he did not kill himself his description to how near he came to it was extremely moving. And it had a kind of comprehension and capacity for me to get inside his head, and that was what I needed for Tim.  I needed some way to understand what happened to him. And The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion was helpful for some of those silly things. When she writes, “These shoes, he might need them when he comes back.” I had in some ways the opposite reaction. I needed to put everything in order, including his things. When I found how many pairs of khaki socks I had in my attic I was just angry at him all over again! (Laughs) But I began to see that there was a book in these journal entries that might be helpful to people. Also, I had started a novel before he died, which became Bridge of Sand, and I felt that after he died that the best thing I could do was carry on with what I intended to do with my life. But I couldn’t do it. I got about halfway through the novel and I was totally stuck. Both my husband and my best friend said, You can’t go any further with the novel because you’re getting ready to write a book about Tim. I recognized that was right so I stopped writing the fiction and wrote a draft of the memoir, and then went back and finished the book.

TP: How did the writing go once you committed to the memoir?
JB: It did not do what I had wanted it to do. Early in the book I recall speaking to a friend who said you’ll never understand it, you can’t go down that road. And another friend said, Maybe not, but you have to come to an understanding that is satisfying to you. I suppose that’s what’s meant by closure. I mean, nearly everybody, including me, hates the word closure, but it seems to me that the memoir did not come to an understanding that was satisfying to me. So I went back and rewrote. The first half was pretty good but it was the second half that I wrote over and over and over, and it got shorter and shorter and shorter. And also it moved forward in time since I failed to finish the book to my satisfaction, my emotions were changing. So ultimately, though it’s an angry book in some ways, it did start to bring me understanding. I did not want the book to come to an all-is-well closure conclusion because it would not have been true. I say in the book that moving on is not a sprint. I eventually did move on. I didn’t set out to but the world came knocking.

TP: From reading the book it seems as if your understanding ended up in how Tim’s life lives on in the lives he touched, all over the world.
JB: Yes. But it isn’t closure. It is satisfying though to me to think of him in that way. It’s a small triumph. I think it’s as positive an idea as I could come to.

TP: From reading your book it doesn’t seem that Tim was a lifelong sufferer of mood disorders, more that he was affected by something in his service. Is that safe to say?
JB: I don’t know. It does seem likely that mental illness and PTSD is what he was struggling with, but I also feel, and I feel this powerfully, who cares what label you put on it? He was devoted to the Army and devoted to family, and he came back from a war where he lost his devotion to the Army, and that had been absolutely the place he stood his whole life. It was a moral injury. I was so grateful to Dr. Jonathan Shay for were for those two words: moral injury. [Dr. Shay is the author of Achilles in Vietnam: Combat Trauma and the Undoing of Character, and wrote the foreword to Losing Tim.] Shay in his book describes exactly what Tim was like: he was always about what’s right. He was always in favor of what’s right. And he always believed that you cold find out what’s right. In our loving, difficult relationship, he would say that this is what’s right and I would say it’s more complicated than that. (Laughs) That was basically where our conversation lay.

TP: For some families it’s pretty evident that a child has a disorder from a young age, but Tim didn’t seem to present with those symptoms, did he?
JB: I think it’s possible that as a mother I could not look closely enough to see it because it would be too painful the possibility, but he might have had something like bipolar disorder. You know I once thought I was bipolar. I had terrific mood swings from magical energy to I can’t get out of bed. I’m so glad to tell everybody that it goes away. (Laughs) That you really can be happy and not manic.

TP: Suicide is always such a devastation but some families find some comfort that their loved ones aren’t suffering anymore. Any comfort?
JB: Not for me in Tim’s case, but I can understand that. I had a student at the University of Sussex in England who was deeply depressed, and she was depressed for eight years. Once on the phone I had forgotten to return a call and so she was annoyed at me, and so I said we could schedule it this way or that way because I’m very busy, and she said, Well, I’m very busy, too, but I can’t tell you if I’m going to be prostrate with grief next Thursday afternoon or in tears all day Friday. Wow. She did eventually take her own life and what I thought was she earned it. She didn’t have anything but grief for eight years. She knew that no one depended on her and felt keenly that she was a burden on everyone. After eight years she earned it. This was her decision. But I don’t think this was the case with Tim. I really don’t. Even if he had some serious bipolar swings earlier on but he came back from Namibia having lost faith in the Army and the warrior spirit, and found himself in a society that was against the war, and he took it personally.

TP: It does seem like Tim made a quick decision, and not a planned-out one with a note and a lot of indications. It seemed, and I hope this isn’t too negative a word to use, impulsive.
JB: Yes. Impulsive. And impulsive is a problem if you have severe depression.

TP: Did writing the book lead you to some acceptance with his decision?
JB: One of the things that happened is I absorbed it into my identity and accepted that. And if there’s any acceptance it’s not that my son killed himself. I can never accept that. But I can accept that I am a mother of a suicide and that’s part of my identity and it will never go away. You know, we have a way of talking about our feelings in the past tense if the person is dead. I really loved my father, we say. But that’s not the way it is. I love my father. I love my son. I don’t stop loving him because he’s dead. And I don’t stop being his mother. I am his mother forever. It makes no difference that he’s dead.

TP: How did writing the book change you?
JB: When I finally finished the book I felt that that represented a kind of control. I felt I told the truth as near as I can in this memoir. One of the odd things that that did was to free me to use that material to explore the metaphysical and metaphorical properties of what had happened without bothering about with whether it was true. That I could do a fiction. What I’m doing now with the story is writing a play, and in many ways it’s a harsh play. I’m discovering all kinds of things that are not true in life but come out somehow in using our situation. In the play it’s the aftermath that I’m writing about. The son is there, on stage, all the time, not as a ghost but as a memory. He doesn’t enter into conversation with anyone; he’s just there, which is one of the things I feel. It also turns out in the play that everyone is concerned with their guilt, which was not the case in our family. It’s not part of the memoir but it has come out in the play.

TP: How far along are you with it?
JB: It’s far from done, and it’s very difficult to write.

TP: What do you imagine Tim would be doing today had he lived?
JB: That’s a very interesting question to which I don’t have an answer. He hated desk jobs. He would have needed to have done something outdoors, and something adventurous, but I cannot picture what it would be.
—Losing Tim goes on sale April 7.

Adam Wahlberg

Founder of Think Piece Publishing