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Don Murray Taught Writing By Writing





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.


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