An Appreciation of Don Murray: The Things He Gave

I think I know what it’s like to be an apostle.

I don’t mean that in a blasphemous way. I make this claim because for the last quarter-century, I have dedicated a big part of my life to spreading a gospel.

It all began one day in 1981 when a burly giant with beard and hair of snowy white walked into the newsroom of The Providence (R.I.) Journal, where I was a reporter struggling to master my craft.

The stranger’s name was Donald M. Murray, a professor at the University of New Hampshire who had come to help us become better writers and editors.  

Now, chilly receptions often greet academics who venture into newsrooms where cynicism reigns, and murmurs of “those who can’t do, teach” are never far from journalists’ lips.

Don Murray was different. There was no doubt he could “do.”

In 1954, he became the the youngest person ever to win a Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing when he was awarded the honor for a series about national defense written for the Boston Herald.

He had worked for Time magazine, and then went on to a prolific freelance career, turning out pieces for The Saturday Evening Post, Reader’s Digest and the era’s other so-called slick magazines. Add to the pile more than 10 books of fiction, memoir, poetry — and, his first love, ignited as a boy prowling the stacks of the Wollaston, Mass., Public Library — the craft of writing.

And he could teach as well. To insure health care for his wife, Minnie Mae, and their three daughters, Anne, Lee and Hannah, he took a pay cut to return to his alma mater, the University of New Hampshire. He soon established a journalism program that produced some of the finest journalists of our time: Michael Kelly, the gifted editor of The Atlantic who died in the early days of the war in Iraq; Denise Grady, science writer for The New York Times; Pulitzer-winner Kevin Sullivan of The Washington Post. He helped develop a composition program that spawned influential writing teachers scattered across the country.

I knew none of this when Don arrived in Providence, but the memory of that first encounter is indelibly stamped in my brain. A group of reporters and editors gathered for his first workshop around a long and gleaming oval table — a hallowed spot where the Journal’s publisher met with the editorial writers to decide on the paper’s stance on issues of the day.

Standing at the front of the room, Murray began to speak in the wooly voice of a Scotsman born and raised in Massachusetts. I’ve always thought, again with no blasphemy or grandiosity intended, of this as my Moses-and-burning-bush moment.

“Writing may be magical,” Murray told us, “but it’s not magic. It’s a process, a rational series of decisions and steps that every writer makes and takes, no matter what the length, the deadline, even the genre.”

That message remains to this day the single most important element of my education as a writer and subsequently as a teacher; so powerful it transformed me into a disciple dedicated to spreading his word as often and far as possible.

Until that day, I believed just the opposite — that writing had everything to do with magic and that to be a great writer you had to be a magician, a God, or at least a genius — preferably one who received regular visits from a Muse.

In the quarter-century since then, I have been an ardent follower of this gentle giant. Never a seminar, a workshop or even a casual conversation about writing goes by without me prefacing a statement with “My mentor, Don Murray, says,” or in recent years when I felt comfortable enough to call him “my mentor and friend.” It’s been my privilege to spread his message of hope to all of us who struggle to master the process that was his life’s work and passion, until his death Saturday at the age of 82.

Relying on his own experiences and research into how writers work, Murray pulled off the shroud of mystique that snared so many writers. He did so by studying how writers, including himself, worked, just as athletes study films of their performances. By doing so, he made it possible for mere mortals to set off on regular journeys of discovery that led to good stories. 

Instead of magic formulas, Murray’s process approach had steps, ones that all writers could follow, use to chart their progress, and draw in their editors as collaborators rather than the newsroom’s natural enemies.

  • Idea
  • Collect
  • Focus
  • Order
  • Draft
  • Revise

It was the first of many gifts Don Murray gave to me, and to hundreds, if not thousands, of writers, editors and coaches who struggled to write better.

Don lived by a simple rule, a Latin phrase he had regularly laminated, shared with me and other fortunate disciples, and kept close by his writing desk. “Nulla dies sine linea.” Never a day without a line.

But of course he wrote more than a single line. Don counted his words, religiously, and those figures, kept daily, later totaled by month and year, regularly surpassed tens of thousands. They became a legacy of books, articles, poems, fiction, and columns, whose influence continues to be felt.

Another measure of his character and scholarship was his ability to straddle vastly different worlds. With his weekly column for The Boston Globe, he kept one foot in the newsroom where he grew up in the ’50s, and the other in the academy where he was a pioneering figure in the teaching of composition.

He banged out his first stories on manual typewriters, but was undaunted by the technology that transformed the way we write today. More than a decade ago, he went digital; just a few weeks ago, he purchased a new Macintosh desktop, the latest in a long line of computers, PDAs and other gadgets. He was on the verge of launching his own Web site. Even his e-mail address managed to capture his New England heritage, sense of humor and self-identity, regardless of medium: writah@comcast.net.
 
It was my great fortune that soon after we met he offered me the gift of his friendship, beginning 25 years of trading manuscripts, talking each other down from the precipice of despair writers so often cling to. First by letter, occasionally in person, but mostly by e-mail and phone calls that ranged from several a day to weekly, we shared our lives as well; he filled a special space for someone whose own father had died when I was a child. Like Don, my wife and I had three daughters. Don and I both married our best friends, women who believed in us when we lost faith in our own abilities. (Minnie Mae Murray launched Don’s freelance career when she retrieved a draft he’d tossed into the trash and, without his knowledge, submitted it to a magazine, which promptly accepted it.)

And he taught me some of the most important things I know about life and writing:

  • Never be afraid to admit you’re human.
  • It takes the greatest strength to admit you’re weak.
  • It takes the greatest courage to admit you’re afraid.
  • If a teacher asks a student to write, the teacher must write as well, for writing is the great leveler; students see that even the expert in front of the class struggles to make meaning with words. (Editors should do the same, at least a couple of times a year.)
  • All writing is revision.
  • When someone you love is sick, you become their caregiver, as he did during the long years of illness suffered by Minnie Mae before her death in 2005.
  • For writers, professionalism – making deadlines, rewriting when the need arose — is everything.
  • What you write is what you are capable of writing today.
  • You are a writer by virtue of one action: you write.

This morning, amid the steady flow of e-mails mourning Don’s loss, Geoff Edgers, a Globe arts writer, described how he had been meaning to visit Don — “just to learn a little bit more about how to do this thing from a generation of writers who obviously got it. Well, I just took it for granted, reading him, that he would always be there.”

“Fortunately, for us all,” I wrote him back, “he will always be there — in his books, his columns.” And, I could have added, in the memories of all those who learned from him and loved him.

There is so much left unsaid here: About the lingering effects of his World War II experiences as a paratrooper and military policeman that made him an unrepentant pacificist; his 54-year marriage to a young opera singer he met on a blind date, the crushing loss of a daughter, Lee, at 20, whose memory is enshrined in his memoir, “The Lively Shadow.”

But I trust others will fill the gaps with their own memories and tributes here. So I’ll heed one of Don’s other lessons: “Brevity is achieved by selection not compression.” That is, don’t jam everything into the story. Pick only that which supports the theme.

Through his example, Don gave another gift, demonstrating that the way to battle any challenge — from depression to grief over the loss of a loved one — was to make meaning of the meaningless with words.

The Boston Globe‘s Bryan Marquard, who wrote an obituary fitting for this master and student of words, quoted yet another of Don’s lessons, an apt choice in these sorrowful circumstances. 

“We don’t get over the death of those we love,” he wrote in a 1999 column. “Don’t tell those who have suffered such a loss to get over it. Think how terrible it would be if we could forget.”

The last time I spoke with Don was a few days before Christmas. A gift I sent him had arrived early — “a Morph electric blue ball-point pen with ergonomic profile and innovative silicone adjustable grip.”

It was just the kind of toy (correction: tool. That was the terminology we used to defend spur of the moment purchases of superfluous writing instruments to our spouses.) that a gadget hound like Don would appreciate. I also hoped it might combat the palsy that made writing by hand so difficult for him.

I can see it in his hand, poised over one of his trademark “Eye-Ease” green daybooks, where his stories often began.

A day after his death, I don’t know what it will be like without him. But for now, I like to think that sometime between our last talk and a week later when his heart finally gave out, he just might have written a line with that pen.

More than anything, I wish I could e-mail this piece to him, hoping he would say, as he so often did, that it was OK, more than OK, and that I should stop agonizing over it and hit “send.”

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