Don Murray Taught Writing By Writing
Written by J. Dennis Robinson
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UNH Prof. Donald M. Murray (1924 – 2006) won a Pulitzer Prize, but will be best remembered for mentoring hundreds of writers. The only way to write well is write often, then revise, revise, revise. Here one of those writers offers a tribute.
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One doesn’t meet many gurus in New Hampshire. Don Murray was one. He dispensed more encouragement and wisdom over coffee at Young’s Restaurant in Durham than entire departments at the University nearby. That’s because, in true guru fashion, Murray was as hungry for what his students had to say as they were for his advice. Every day, as the song goes, was like a winding road for Donald Murray, and no matter what appeared around the corner – Don wrote about it. And as he wrote, he talked about the process of writing, stripping away the mystique and fear to reveal the structure and craft beneath. In their search for perfection, most gurus leave bits of wisdom like breadcrumbs for those who follow. Don Murray left billboards.
As a teacher Murray was a gyroscope. He never believed, like so many of his colleagues at the University of New Hampshire, that he knew the answers. As a teacher of writing, he was not burdened by books full of facts. His students brought the content in their writing. His job was simply to steer them towards more effective communication. Over the years he developed uncanny instincts for guiding other writers as well as a superb tool kit of tactics for tinkering with one’s creative engine.
As a writer Murray managed to remain as vulnerable as a student in Freshman Composition. He feared the blank page. He trembled over word choice. He came to accept the fact that even the master struggles and that the struggle is what keeps the writing honest. And he shared all these feelings with his students, turning the writing process into a partnership between them. Writers, who work most of their lives in isolation, need partners. There was only one cardinal rule – the writer must write. You can improve only if you are doing it, Murray insisted. The corollary to the rule, that the teacher of writing must also be a practicing writer, became his guiding principle for half a century.
I was never technically a student of Murray. That is, I never paid money to attend his journalism classes. Like so many hundreds of other writers I simply got close enough to warm myself in the glow of his conversation. By 1969 when I arrived he was already a fixture in the UNH English Department. Having worked his way into academia from journalism, Murray seemed to stand against everything we literature majors believed. We saw writers as gods and studied them as such. Murray saw writers as skilled craftspeople. We thought art came from a lightning bolt on high or via a half-dressed Muse. Murray said good writing came from practice, experience and constant revision.
This philosophy had to be threatening to literature professors, most of whom wrote only stiff didactic essays and taught us to write the same way. But Murray had won a Pulitzer Prize for journalism in his youth which rendered him untouchable in the academic realm. When I started a weekly newsletter for English majors, Murray quickly contributed a poem. When the newsletter appeared he grabbed a dozen copies, locked himself in his corner office in Hamilton Smith Hall and began revising his own verses. Deadlines, he noted, were simply a blessed excuse to stop rewriting.
DON MURRAY continued
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