Don Murray Taught Writing By Writing
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Written by J. Dennis Robinson

Donal Murray / SeacoastNH.comLITERARY LIONS

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.






SEE ALSO: Max Maynard Tribute


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.

Donald Murray 1944  (c) Murray Family on SeacoastNH.comAs 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





I briefly dated one of Murray’s three daughters. He came home from the university one evening to find me sitting at his supper table. Murray off-duty was exactly like Murray at work – amiable, inquisitive, vulnerable and yet somehow imposing. Physically a cross between a polar bear, Santa Claus and Ernest Hemingway, he dominated any room he entered and somehow still remained aloof. We talked after dinner in his study. He showed me his novel, probably the least read of all his many books. He was never able to make the leap from nonfiction to fiction. "Teaching in an English Department," he said to me out of the blue, "is like being trapped in a submarine with the same crew for the rest of your life."

Donald Murray / SeacoastNH.comI later joined that submarine crew and taught writing to freshman and grad students on the English faculty with Don Murray. It was a short cruise. I jumped ship the following year and, encouraged by the ever-encouraging Mr. Murray began a freelance career that continues to this day. The next time I saw Don he had taken early retirement thanks to a heart attack at age 62. But he was still writing. That was what we shared. It is what writers do. Writing is our way of processing the world. Life flows in through the senses, gets analyzed by the brain and exits through the fingers. It is our addiction. It is our prayer. Writers understand things only after they have written them. If they are good writers, with a voice that readers can trust and follow, that understanding spreads.

Whatever comes around the winding road is the writers next topic. When Murray’s daughter Lee died at age 20, he wrote a book about it. When his wife Minnie Mae was afflicted by Parkinson’s disease and then dementia, he told his thousands of readers in his weekly Boston Globe column. People who never met him fell under his healing power. They felt, and were correct, that he needed them too for his own healing process. When I last bumped into him a few months ago in Barnes & Noble, I showed him my new book and he showed me his. In his last days, 20 years after his first heart attack an retirement, he was still meeting students for breakfast at Young’s in Durham. Like the dutiful journalist, he filed his weekly column at the Boston Globe on a Friday and died the next day.

The great legacy of Donald M. Murray is that he had one brilliantly simple idea – that writers must write – and he spent 50 years refining that message in workshop after workshop, book after book, chat after chat. It’s the simple idea that needs the most protection. For every Don Murray there are thousands of obscurers, confounders, misdirectors and doubters. Editors belittle their journalists. Teachers red-pencil their students. These leaders, who rarely write well themselves, believe they can craft excellence from the outside with hammer and chisel. Murray respected writers because he was one and could feel their pain.

Good writing is hard to teach because it is more than the sum of its many parts, more than grammar, style, vocabulary, knowledge and passion. Like Don Murray himself, the sickly kid with the permanent self-doubt turned war reporter, the writer must be nurtured and encouraged. The Truth needs its champions and none was more stalwart than this shy polar bear of a man who told thousands of potential writers – if I can do it, you can do it too – and they believed him.

Copyright © 2007 by J. Dennis Robinson, All rights reserved. Robinson was a member of the 1978 Exeter writing Project that incorporated the ideas of Don Murray and others into high school and grammar school classrooms.