One last lesson from Don Murray, America's greatest writing coach
There were five huge boxes sitting at the loading dock of The Poynter Institute yesterday, waiting for the FedEx truck to pick them up. They are filled with more than 125 file boxes containing the literary effects of Donald M. Murray, in my opinion the most influential writing teacher America has ever known.
The precious content of those boxes — including 100 of Murray’s experimental daybooks — are now headed home where they belong: to the University of New Hampshire. Our hope is that students, teachers, scholars, and journalists will now be able to get their eyes and hands on those documents. When they do, they will see a writer and a teacher hard at work, trying to make sense of the English language and the writing process, and trying to help all of us get better as writers.
Good writing may look like magic, Murray argued time and again, but the magic is produced by a rational process, a set of steps. Part of Murray’s genius was his ability to make that argument, to demonstrate it, without making writing feel robotic. Creative acts will still be filled with mystery, and Murray tapped into that energy as well. He was always waiting to learn what surprises were ahead of him as he sat down early each morning to write.
[caption id="attachment_456852" align="alignright" width="302"] Murray. Photo via University of New Hampshire.[/caption]
Murray had a profound influence on those of us who taught writing at Poynter. If I was Arthur, he was Merlin. If I was Frodo, he was Gandalf. If I was Luke Skywalker, he was Yoda — only a very big Yoda with a round face, a Santa beard, and a wardrobe — with suspenders — purchased at Walmart.
Don and I arrived at common ground from opposite directions, like two trains in an algebra equation. He flunked out of high school twice, experienced World War II as a paratrooper, got an English degree from UNH in 1948 and headed for a Boston newspaper. In 1954, at the age of 29, he won the Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing for a long series of opinions on military preparedness. He was the youngest writer ever to win this prize.
A decade later, he returned to UNH as a writing teacher and became one of the founding parents of an approach to composition teaching that emphasized process as well as product. His approach to writing helped changed the way it was taught at every educational level. At professional conferences, he held, but did not desire, a kind of papal status, and his disciples, including me, maintained a zealous appreciation of him as a kind of tribal leader of the word.
I came to journalism from the opposite direction, as a teacher of literature and composition, hired to coach writers at the St. Petersburg Times in 1977. He was hired to coach at The Boston Globe, developed a popular column there, and continued to write almost every day until his death in 2006 at the age of 82.
In 1995, Poynter published an essay by Murray titled “Writer in the Newsroom.” We still distribute it, in monograph form, on special occasions. Like Elvis in Las Vegas, the Don Murray papers have left the Poynter building. In honor of their odyssey back home to New Hampshire, we publish here some of the highlights of Murray’s essay.
Writer in the newsroom: A lifetime apprenticeship
By Don Murray
Sixty-one years ago Miss Chapman looked down at me and said, “Donald, you are the class editor.” So much for career planning.
Forty-seven years ago, after having survived infantry combat, college, and a first marriage, I found myself in the city room of the old Boston Herald, determined to learn the newspaper craft and get back to writing great poems.
Now, at 70, I return each morning to my writing desk apprenticed to the writer’s craft.
Monday morning I write my column for the Boston Globe; Tuesday through Sunday I draft yet another book on writing, a novel, a poem. Unemployed, I am blessed by not having to take weekends and holidays off, do not suffer any vacations. “Nulla dies sine linea” [Never a day without a line]: Horace, Pliny, Trollope, Updike.
Chaucer said, “The lyf so short, the craft so long to lerne.” I now know he did not speak with complaint but with gratitude.
The Japanese artist Hokusai testified: “I have drawn things since I was six. All that I made before the age of 65 is not worth counting. At 73, I began to understand the true construction of animals, plants, trees, birds, fishes, and insects. At 90, I will enter into the secret of things. At 110, everything — every dot, every dash — will live.”
My bones may creak, I may live on a diet of pills, I may forget names, but when I shuffle down to my computer I see Miss Chapman standing in the corner of the room, nodding encouragement.
A lapsed Baptist, I bear witness to the salvation of a writing life. I do not testify for all writers, just this apprentice to a craft I can never learn. The sculptor Henry Moore said:
“The secret of life is to have a task, something you devote your whole life to, something you bring everything to, every minute of the day for your whole life. And the most important thing is — it must be something you cannot possibly do!”
I evangelize. I wish you failure. I hope you have not yet learned to write but are still learning. If you are confident of your craft and are writing without terror and failure, I hope you will learn how to escape your craft and write so badly you will surprise yourself with what you say and how you are saying it….
I do not consciously seek; I lie in wait, accepting the lines and images that float through my mind, sometimes making mental notes, sometimes scribbled ones.
I live in a curious and delightful state of intense awareness and casual reflection that is difficult to describe. Perhaps it is like those moments in combat when the shooting and the shelling stop and you can hunker down behind a rock wall and rest. In a poem I wrote a few weeks ago, I found myself saying that I was “Among the dead, the dying,/ more alive than I have ever been.”
At that moment in combat I celebrated life, noticing the way a blade of grass recovers from a boot, studying how the sky is reflected in a puddle in the mud, even enjoying the perfume of the horse manure the farmer will use to nurture the spring planting — if there is a spring….
Readers create their own drafts as they read mine, they read the family history of their own blood. Reporters and writers — indeed all artists — set up shop where there is birth and death, success and defeat, love and loneliness, joy and despair.
After I leave my writing desk, I lead a double life. I am a mole, living an ordinary life of errands, chores, conversations with friends, reading, watching TV, eating and — at the same time — I am a spy to my life, maintaining an alertness to the commonplace, the ordinary, the routine where the really important stories appear.
I am never bored. I overhear what is said and not said, delight in irony and contradiction, relish answers without questions and questions without answers, take note of what is and what should be, what was and what may be. I imagine, speculate, make believe, remember, reflect. I am always traitor to the predictable, always welcoming to the unexpected….
I write easily, and that is no accident. I remind myself that John Jerome said, “Perfect is the enemy of good” and follow William Stafford’s advice that “one should lower his standards.” I write fast to outrace the censor and cause the instructive failures that are essential to effective writing.
I write to say I do not know. That is my terror and my joy. I start a column with a line or an image, an island at the edge of the horizon that has not been mapped. And I do not finish the column unless I write what I do not expect to write 40 or 60 percent of the way through. My drafts tell me what I have to say. That is true of my nonfiction books, my fiction, my poetry. I follow the evolving draft. …
I look back at that thin – no longer skinny – young man in the Boston Herald city room so long ago and realize that I did with dumb instinct what I do by design today.
After walking on my first byline when the cleaning women put the first edition down to protect a scrubbed floor, I developed a healthy disinterest in what I had published.
I felt no loyalty to what I had said and how I had said it. When I learned how to write a story the way the editor wanted it, I experienced a playful desire to unlearn it, to see if I could do it differently.
I kept saying I wonder what would happen if …
And today each draft is an experiment. I try short leads and long leads, telling the story all in dialogue or with no dialogue, starting at the end and moving backward, using a voice that I have not tried before, making up words when the dictionary fails.
I sought mentors, asking people at other desks how they were able to write a story I admired. I asked the best reporters if I could go along on my own as they reported a story. They were surprised and said yes; but when the union got wind of it, I was told to knock it off.
I looked at the assignment book and freelanced stories that were not scheduled to be covered. I tried features on my own and surprised editors with stories they did not expect — and often did not want.
I wrote weddings and fashions for a suburban weekly, volunteered to review books, freelanced on Saturday for the sports department, took graduate writing courses at Boston University and wrote stories so experimental I could not even figure out what they meant.
I drove Eddie Devin, the best editor on the city desk, home at 1 a.m., put a fifth of whiskey on the kitchen table, handed him a week’s carbons of my stories, and was taught how I could improve.
I read compulsively to see what others writers can do and I still do today; I hunted down craft interviews such as the Paris Review Writers at Work series and copied down the lessons I learned about my craft, and I still do that today…
I wish you a craft you can never learn — but can keep learning as long as you live.