Donald Murray Remembered
By: Susan Ahearn-Pierce
Date: April 9, 2010
Summary: This tribute to Donald Murray, a Pulitzer-prize winning journalist, teacher, and author of several books on the art of writing, appeared initially in Writing Works: The Newsletter for the Maryland Writing Project at Towson University.
The National Day of Writing makes me think of my inspirational college writing teacher, the late Donald M. Murray. I was an undergraduate English literature major at the University of New Hampshire in the early 1970s when I decided to take Murray's non-fiction writing classes. I wrote for the student newspaper and worked at the college radio station, but there was no formal journalism program at UNH at that time. Just Murray—a Pulitzer-Prize winning writer—teaching writing.
He was tall, with gray hair and glasses, often wearing a flannel shirt. We met in his office for conferences; when he looked over our papers and told us we know what to do. I was too shy to ask many questions and always hoped for more specific guidance, but he let our writing speak for itself. We didn't use a textbook and we typed our weekly papers in a room with tall windows in Hamilton Smith, the building that housed the English Department.
Sometimes we would go to Murray's house in Durham for our class meetings. On one of those occasions in a room lined with books, he told us that the teenage daughter of a faculty member had just published a novel. He assured all of us that we too could become published authors. Murray told us that talent is cheap, and hard work is what counts when it comes to writing.
Many of Don Murray's students went on to become well-known authors and writers. I spent my career as a broadcast journalist writing for radio news. I never stayed in touch with Murray, but tried to teach others the lessons he had taught me. In July, I took part in the Maryland Writing Project's 2009 Invitational Summer Institute at Towson University.
The Hard Work of Being a Writer
I was thrilled when I discovered that Murray had written the forward to What a Writer Needs by Ralph Fletcher, one of the two books we read for class. I raced to read Murray's words to see, once again, what important ideas he had about writing.
I find that even three years after his death, I am still looking to Murray for advice. He wrote 15 books, many of them about writing. I used one of them, The Craft of Revision, Fifth Edition, for my presentation on revision this past summer. In that book, Murray urged others to write with him, and even to fail with him as he wrote. Now that I am writing every day, I am coming to truly appreciate the example he set for all of us. The hard work, the craft, the shaping of words is our work as writers. Murray is still guiding me along the way to becoming a better writer.
I learned about the importance of writing from Murray as a college student in my twenties. He also told me "Writing is rewriting." Now in my late fifties, I think he still has some other lessons to teach me. Murray was writing up until a few days before his death in 2006, at the age of 82. He wrote about difficult topics in a direct and meaningful way. He kept writing through personal loss and tragedy. He did not flinch from describing the decline we all face as we age. He did it with grace and honesty, something I hope to emulate.
Even though Murray was Professor Emeritus of English at UNH, he never approached writing as an expert. He talked with other writers as fellow travelers facing the same difficulties and frustrations. Murray spoke about the fact that he was still learning to write, even after years as a teacher and published author. The former journalist told people that they know more than they thought when it came to writing.
Murray was a role model for me and for all of us who want to fashion words to describe our experiences. I plan to continue his legacy by crafting a writer's life into old age, just as he did.
A Brief Selection of Murray's Works
- A Writer Teaches Writing: A Practical Method of Teaching Composition (Houghton Mifflin, 1968).
- Learning by Teaching (Heinemann, 1982).
- Expecting the Unexpected (Heinemann, 1989).
- A Writer Teaches Writing (Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1990).
- The Literature of Tomorrow: an anthology of student fiction, poetry, and drama (1990).
- Write to Learn (Harcourt Brace, 1998).
- Crafting a Life in Essay, Story, Poem (Boynton/Cook, 1996).
- The Craft of Revision (Harcourt Brace, 1998).
- My Twice-Lived Life: A Memoir (Ballatine Books, 2001).
Copyright © 2009 by Maryland Writing Project at Towson University. Posted with permission.
Ahearn-Pierce, Susan. 2009. "Don Murray Remembered." Writing Works: The Newsletter for the Maryland Writing Project at Towson University, Fall 2009.