Last Rites for One Who Could Write
By Liz Soares,
Kennebec Journal, 1/13/07
When Donald Murray, of Durham, N.H., died last week, I lost an old friend. I never met Murray, although I once caught a glimpse of him at a writing conference at the University of New Hampshire. It was his writings, about writing, that I knew so well.
An Emerson College professor introduced me to Murray. She assigned his classic text, "A Writer Teaches Writing," to my graduate-level class and gushed over him. He was clearly her idol. I was skeptical, until I opened the book.
Murray, a writing professor and consultant, described an idea new to me: Writing is a process. Writers collect information, plan how to use it, and then develop it into writing.
The writing process is now routinely taught in most elementary schools. But 22 years ago, reading Murray's words, I said, "Aha!" The concept gave me a framework to use with my students, but it also provided me with a way to think about my own writing.
If I struggled with a piece, I could review my assortment of building blocks -- ideas, opinions, facts. Did I have enough? Maybe I needed to step back and tinker with my design. What was the point I was trying to make? Finally, I could assess how well I'd developed the piece. Did it flow? Eagerly, I read on, highlighting in neon yellow as I went.
Not only was it permissible, but advisable, to write drafts as I did, in pell-mell and furious fashion. Murray called it "cultivating surprise." Writers must write to find out what they mean to say.
In a later section, Murray outlined his own method of keeping a "daybook." He says that though he continually searched for large blocks of time and quiet to write, such ideal circumstances didn't always produce the best writing.
He was a productive writer because he had learned to make use of small bits of time, and to use his daybook to capture ideas, plan writing, craft leads and review drafts. It was a simple, yet amazing, concept.
Suddenly I saw that even when I had pure "writing days," I would be called away from my desk to wash laundry, prepare meals and walk the dog. My writing time was limited by many commitments, including paid employment. There was no point in sulking about it.
A daybook would provide continuity and raw material. Whenever I found those elusive chunks of writing time, my daybook would ensure that I had something to write about. Murray recommended: "Nulla dies sine linea"-- never a day without a line.
He suggested that journalists close their notepads after they finish their interviewing, and write from the heart. In this way, they can nail the true story before reviewing their notes to flesh out the details and check their facts. I internalized these and other "Murrayisms" over the years.
In his second-last column for the Boston Globe, Murray wrote, "I try to capture a fragment of life and reveal its wonder to you. I never get it quite right, but there is a joy in the trying that makes me young at 83."
His love of the craft was evident in all he wrote, and the legacy that he leaves to other writers: his practical advice, and his assurance that ours is the best job on earth.