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Donald Murray, Great Writing Teacher, Dies at 82

I remember very well the first time I heard Don Murray’s name. It was 1975, and I was sitting with Stephen Dobyns, the poet and novelist, at the kitchen table in my in-laws’ farmhouse in North Sandwich, New Hampshire. Dobyns, whose parents owned a house just down the road, listened as I told him how I had hit a writing wall. I was an okay feature writer and was trying to make a living as a freelance writer. I could see other writers doing great stuff, but I didn’t know how to do what they were doing. I had worked for a weekly for three years and was stringing for the Christian Science Monitor, but never had taken a journalism courseAn Appreciation of Don Murray: The Things He Gave. I needed help.

Dobyns said I should go see his friend Don Murray, who then was chair of the journalism school at the University of New Hampshire. UNH, Dobyns said, had a great Master’s degree program in nonfiction writing as well as in poetry and fiction. So I listened, but by 1975 I was not a kid. Everyone else I knew had already launched a career and the thought of going back to school just didn’t seem right. Still I went to see Murray, and I asked him what UNH could do for me. That was not, Dobyns later told me, the right approach. Murray wanted to know what I could do for UNH. Given my age I had pretty much decided, I really could not afford to go back to school for two years. However, when I tallied up my freelance writing income of just $1,200 for the first year, I went back to Murray and apologized and asked for second chance. He gave it to me, and it changed my life.

I had entered a program conceived by Murray, about whom Roy Peter Clarke would eulogize:

…was one of the original framers of an academic movement that revolutionized the way English composition was taught and written about. I didn’t know he had papal status at great gatherings of writing teachers across the world.

I was given the privilege of being a freshman composition instructor. So as I was learning how to improve my writing, I was teaching others to improve their writing, which is at the core of Murray’s philosophy. He believed anyone who teaches writing has to be writing. The primary rule of teaching those classes, and later sophomore composition classes, was that I had to have a 10-minute conference each week with every student. These pre- and post- writing talks were to first help the students frame their story ideas and then after the first drafts to help point out revision possibilities.

Thanks to the mentorship of Murray and Andy Merton, another professor at UNH, my writing took a great leap forward, but what would really change my life was that Murray’s writing and editing philosophy would seep into my very soul. Whether it is teaching students or working with professionals, the same lessons prevail. Talk through the story, do a draft, write notes to help the writer see what might improve the piece, talk some more if needed, and then get out of the way as the writer’s next draft improves. The philosophy helped me become the a.m. Magazine feature’s editor at the Allentown Morning Call, the Sunday Magazine editor at the Minneapolis Star Tribune, and the editor of Minnesota Monthly and now a professor at Kennesaw State University. I am overjoyed that Murray was a contributor to my book: The Complete Book of Feature Writing (Writer’s Digest, 1991).

The editorships, the book, the professorship, none of which would have happened if I had not met Donald M. Murray, who died two days ago. Nor is mine a singular story. Read the other eulogies and you will hear it repeated over and over. He changed people lives. He helped thousands of K-12 teachers understand that writing is hard work and that we don’t start out with a bunch of rules, but rather we allow the children to find the joy of writing, of discovery. As a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, novelist and poet, he practiced what he preached.

His students are everywhere and they worship the him, as well they should, because he was a great man who helped others find their way.

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