UNH Alumni Write About Don
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By John Christie
Kennebec Journal and Morning Sentinel, 1/7/07
I'll write this the way he would have. I'll begin with a line and see where it leads, faithful that the writing will reveal what I want to say.
His name was Don Murray -- Donald M. Murray if you want to Google him and find the many books under his byline.
His bio is impressive: Pulitzer Prize, a dozen books, founder of the newspaper writing coach movement, 20-plus years as a Boston Globe columnist, university professor, recognized leader in the teaching of writing, novelist, Time magazine writer, WWII paratrooper.
He looked like a writer: barrel-chested, full white beard, wavy white hair, a warm and confident smile. (Don: I just revised that last phrase from "a smile that spoke of warmth and confidence." Fewer words -- better, right?)
He was "Mr. Murray" on the campus of the University of New Hampshire, and, in my time there and afterwards, too, recognized year after year as the best teacher in the school.
Not everyone felt that way, though. I talked a friend into taking one of Murray's writing courses, and he dropped out after a few classes.
"That guy acts like his class is the only one we're taking. He wants you to write every day," said my friend. "Who does he think he is?"
I knew then who he was, and I've known it every day since, 41 years later: He is an actual hero. He saved many lives right there in his classroom in Hamilton Smith Hall in Durham, N.H. and his little adjoining office.
In came the students, and out went writers.
In came those with plans that went no further then the weekend frat party, and out came newspapermen and newspaperwomen.
In came students who believed they were "creative" because they wrote flowery poetry in their rooms.
In came the mill town kids who were scared to write because they thought it was about diagramming sentences and memorizing the parts of speech.
And in came a few kids from Long Island or New Jersey, kids whose parents actually read books, but who still had to learn writing wasn't big words and grand ideas.
We all had to find out what writing really was.
And what was it? Writing, Murray said, was rewriting. And rewriting. Writing is work, work like your fathers did in the mills.
Murray did not believe in "writer's block." Truck drivers didn't have truck driving block, did they? Neither will you, said the big man in the plaid shirt and suspenders -- and then told us to rewrite all the beginnings (the leads) of the page one New York Times stories. And make them better.
His classroom was set up like a newspaper city room: desks and typewriters. He would talk about writing as a craft that anyone could master. Writing wasn't inspiration; it was a process.
If you couldn't come up with a good first line, write anything. Just get going; get a draft you can work with.
But there was inspiration in his classroom -- it was him. He believed in words and sentences and paragraphs and spoke of them so passionately that, as Yeats wrote of the great poets, "one believed he had a sword upstairs."
You, he said, you shy teenager who the nuns said couldn't make it in college -- you can be a writer.
You, the big-sweatered girl from the little White Mountains village, away from home for the first time -- yes, you can write.
I know writers, he said. I am a writer. I'll write with you, and we'll both be writers.
The other professors didn't act like that. They didn't think anyone in their huge classrooms could do what they did. They had knowledge. You didn't. Listen, take notes and the next time there is a test, tell me what I told you to tell me. Get it "right," and get a good grade. End of story.
Not Donald M. Murray. You started writing in his class, he figured out what you could do and then graded you on whether you got better. If you started writing stuff that sounded like a greeting card, but you did all the assignments and got better, then you got an A or a B. Didn't matter that it really wasn't A or B work. But there you were, with a grade that said you were a writer. What did you do? You signed up for another Murray course; you had the confidence to go write for the college newspaper; you began to think: I can be a writer.
The courses added up. So did the newspaper bylines. You got better, good enough to get a summer job at a local newspaper. One day, you're a graduate working for a daily newspaper and loving it year after year, maybe even decade after decade.
That's saving a life.
Not one life, but scores of lives at newspapers in New York and Washington and Boston; and teachers of writing at high schools and colleges; and reporters and editors and even a few publishers all across New England.
Don Murray died last weekend. He was 82. He wrote until the end; his last column for the Boston Globe appeared three days after his death.
He died visiting a friend in Massachusetts, not in a hospital, not in a nursing home. I'm sure he had written something that day in the little notebook he carried everywhere, all the time.
I'd like to know what that last line was, but whatever it was, I know this for certain: If he had lived another day, he would have revised it.
John Christie (UNH '70) is publisher of the Kennebec Journal and Morning Sentinel.
By MEG HECKMAN
Concord Monitor, 1/7/07
This begins the most daunting column a journalist, especially one educated in New Hampshire, can write: a tribute to Donald Murray, Pulitzer Prize winner, author, writing coach, teacher of my teachers, founder of the journalism program where I wrote my first leads and, throughout the last year, my friend.
It took five years of urging from colleagues for me to seek out the man whose work guides my career. When I did meet Don, he was 13 months away from the heart attack that ended his life Dec. 30 at the age of 82. He took a handful of pills each day, struggled with health troubles and mourned his late wife. His hands shook so much he could barely autograph a book, and hearing aids made the clack of computer keys unbearable.
He adopted me anyway, just as he had so many other writers, young and old, famous and fledgling, at newspapers and in classrooms across the country.
I'd already assumed many of his habits - customs he'd bestowed on a tribe that included my professors at the University of New Hampshire. He's the reason I call my journal a daybook and why I keep note cards in my purse to capture a fleeting phrase. Because of him, I draft quickly and fuss later, ignoring the voice in my head chanting, "You can't, you can't, you can't." One of his books, Writing to Deadline, comforted me during my first year as a reporter when I lived in a dingy apartment, sustained myself on canned soup and worried that, despite these sacrifices, I had nothing much to say.
In the week since his death, many people close to Don have written about his influence. To them, his ideas about writing were revolutionary. Teachers, editors and reporters learned from him that writing is a process, a series of logical steps. You do not wait for some mystical muse or fret over perfect punctuation. Instead, you embark on a path to discovery, one that each person follows a little differently.
For me, born a generation later, Don's method was commonplace. From first grade, I learned to brainstorm, free-write, structure, draft and edit. What I didn't know until I began this column is that Don's creed of discovery by writing may have been my academic salvation.
See, my brain is wired differently. When I was a child, letters danced around the page, refusing to form the words everyone else could see. The physical task of writing longhand was the bane of my grade-school existence. Spelling confounded me. Thoughts were geometric shapes, not strings of characters. But even in the deepest fits of frustration, stories formed like shiny crystals in my head, spilling out in speech and, later, through a computer keyboard.
If not for Don's books and seminars on writing instruction, my teachers might not have allowed this convoluted process. Instead, they could have chided me for misplaced modifiers, crummy penmanship or out-of-whack verbs. They might have labeled me stupid or lazy before letting me think. Sweat the details, I learned, once the story is told.
My struggles with the nitty-gritty of language continue today, but I've been blessed with patient mentors preaching Don's ways. As a student at UNH, in a journalism lab bearing his name, I learned, per Don, that journalism is as simple -- and hard -- as these three things: You ask. You listen. You write.
Later, I studied at another outpost of Don's disciples, the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Fla. Chip Scanlan, a faculty member there, learned I was from New Hampshire and asked if I knew the man who had changed his writing career and become a dear friend. Chip looked disappointed when I told him no, so I promised I'd find Don when I got home.
That was more than five years ago. It wasn't until November 2005 that I kept my word.
My pilgrimage to Don's Durham home was a specific quest for advice on writing about aging, an area of journalism he pioneered with his Boston Globe column, called "Over 60" and, later, "Now and Then." My editors had just assigned me to the Monitor's first-ever aging beat, a topic that, at 27, I struggled to comprehend. It was a nervous trip: In my literary pantheon, Don ranked near the top. I chanted to myself: "Ask. Listen. Write. Ask. Listen. Write."
It rained buckets and I got lost in a circuitous housing development. I finally found Don standing in his garage wearing his signature red suspenders waving me in. He talked about his wife, Minnie Mae, who had died the previous year. He returned to her throughout the afternoon, perking up each time he said her name. I decided I will only marry a man who loves me the way Don loved her. He talked about fighting in World War II, about drafting a novel and learning to paint. He told me to cover aging as I would any other beat.
I wrote a short article from my interview with Don, and he e-mailed me a few days later. We met for lunch and swapped e-mails. He offered story ideas and I sent him links to my projects. A few times, I found thick envelopes in my mailbox, the packets of advice Don often sent to writers. Each delivery included a laminated card: nulla dies sine linea, never a day without a line.
He told me about his childhood, about meeting Minnie Mae, about caring for her when she fell ill with Parkinson's disease, about how the UNH journalism faculty adopted him in the months after her death. Sometimes he'd tell the same story over and over, but I was never sure whether it was the result of age or because he wanted to make a point.
Don said often that good writing isn't magic, but knowing him was. I am grateful for our brief friendship and for a final favor he did for me in November. I was organizing a conference at UNH for high school journalists and invited Don to keynote. He could have charged hundreds, even thousands, of dollars, but he spoke in exchange for a jar of my homemade dilly beans and the promise of an audience of 100 young, inquisitive writers.
Despite a recent hospital stay and grumpy hearing aids, Don captivated the students. He slipped out the door before I could say goodbye, taking the beans but forgetting his cue cards. I have them now, four pages of jumbo type, a how-to guide for the writing life.
Now that I've drafted this column, I wonder if maybe he didn't forget.
Copyright © 2007 Concord Monitor
By Joseph Elias Hight '65, Springfield, Va.
Published in Foster's Daily Democrat, 1/14/07
I remember Donald Murray's rich baritone echoing off the classroom walls at the University of New Hampshire in Durham. He was 6 foot 3 with blue eyes and square-framed spectacles. After winning a Pulitzer Prize in journalism, he was starting a career that would rock the writing-teaching world from grade school to university, beginning with his path-breaking 1968 book A Writer Teaches Writing. The book helped launch a movement where students practice the phases of writing that most professional writers use — prewriting, drafting, revising, and editing. Integral to the new movement, writing teachers would share their own writing with students.
The National Council of Teachers of English honored Donald Murray at a conference in Charlotte, N.C., in 1997. Hundreds of participants packed the session. Tom Romano, Murray's friend and colleague, wrote, "They leaked out the doorways into the lobby and adjacent room, where more people stood or sat on the floor." Dozens of Murray's former students paid tribute, including Michael D'Antonio, winner of a Pulitzer Prize in journalism; Ron Winslow, a writer and editor for The Wall Street Journal; and Janice Harayda, novelist and journalist. Another Murray student, Kevin Sullivan, won a Pulitzer Prize in journalism. And another, Michael Kelly, editor-at-large for the Atlantic Monthly and a columnist for the Washington Post, was tragically killed while covering the war in Iraq.
There are hundreds of others, some professional writers, some teachers of writing, others who just write better than they ever would have if it had not been for Don Murray.
In his course in 1964, Murray sought subject-verb-object sentences and economy of words. In one exercise he told us to choose a magazine article and cut the words by one-third without losing the essence of the writer's message. Then he told us to cut by another third. To this day I can't break the habit of going back over my writing searching for words to cut.
When Murray told us to write about someone we knew, I chose Mr. Finnegan, who worked the steel mill with my Dad. Finnegan told me stories about the mill that my Dad never talked about. He told me about Manny the foreman, who got hit with the red-hot steel and was working in the mill with a patch over the eye that got burned right out of his head. I wrote this for Murray's class. And I wrote about how I followed my Dad into the mill after high school and ended up working for that one-eyed foreman. I worked the mill for a year before going back to school and ending up in Murray's course.
The first draft of my first assignment in Murray's class came back with so many red checkmarks floating in the left margins I thought I was getting an "F." But I learned that Murray never graded on a first draft. He would say, "Don't fear shitty first drafts." After a meeting with Murray, my revised draft became an "A" paper about my Italian-American mother and about me growing up in an Italian-American ghetto saddled with a name sounding nothing like Italian, so I used the nickname "Hightsiano." The high school football coach called me "half Roman nose." Murray liked reading about the half Italian-American boy trying to be more Italian than his 100 percent Italian-American peers.
Murray was a natural storyteller and a World War II veteran. He told the same stories to all his students in all his classes through all the years. I know, because I've heard them from students who came after me. Murray told us how on the Monday after Pearl Harbor he tried to enlist in the Marines, but they rejected him because he was nearsighted. Then the Navy, the Army, and the Coast Guard rejected him. By 1943, the Army was more desperate, and Murray passed their physical with the help of a quart of Four Roses as a bribe to the eye doctor who rated Murray's vision 20/20. Murray volunteered for the paratroops.
Murray told us how in battle, in the dark, sitting on a fallen timber and resting his back against a church wall in a town square somewhere in Germany he reached down, felt around, and realized he was sitting on the body of a dead soldier. And he told us how he found warmth in the cold German winter by snuggling up close to a pile of steaming manure. And how he found the skull of a WW I soldier as he dug trenches in preparation for a charge from the Germans, and how that skull became a comforting companion throughout the night.
After finishing Professor Murray's course, I met with him to discuss my plans. He offered help in finding a newspaper job, but I decided on graduate school and the study of economics.
I lost track of Murray after that. I got my Ph.D., went to Honolulu to teach at the University of Hawaii, and then to Washington, D.C. , as a government economist. But Professor Murray was often on my mind, especially when I had to write. When I picked up magazines, I searched the table of contents for his name, but never spotted anything.
I took only one course with Murray. I missed out on his journalism courses and didn't work with him on the student newspaper. I spent only 48 hours in a 16-week course called Expository Writing, meeting three times a week. If we add in the one-on-one conferences outside of class, perhaps it was 60 hours I spent with him. Sixty hours out of a lifetime of over 500,000 hours. Why was he so often in the back of my mind? How in the hell did he do that?
Murray gave the answer when he wrote in line one of Chapter 1 of the second edition of A Writer Teaches Writing, "It is time to give away the secret: Teaching writing is fun." He was having fun, we had fun, and the memory of that stayed with me through the years.
Thirty years after I left Murray's course, I ran into a fellow who was working on a research contract for the government agency where I worked. His resumé told me he was a graduate of the University of New Hampshire. I had to ask him if he knew about Donald Murray, the writing teacher. "Of course," he said. "He is a legend at the university." It got me wondering if Murray would remember me, and on an impulse I sent him an e-mail.
I was surprised when Murray answered. "Great to hear from you," he said. He wanted to know all about what I had been up to. I could hear his booming voice in his return e-mail message.
I learned that Murray became emeritus at 63, and had been writing a column for the Boston Globe since 1986 — Boston Magazine named him best columnist in Boston in 1991, and The Improper Bostonian magazine did the same in 1996. In the column, "Now and Then," Murray chronicled life's curiosities and perplexities, triumphs and failures, reading and writing, war and peace, days of aging and days of youth.
Thirty-five years after I finished his course, Professor Donald M. Murray became a friend and confidante. In June of 1998, my wife and I visited the UNH campus and met Murray and his wife, Minnie Mae, for lunch. Murray had added a beard that matched thinning white hair, and the baritone I had remembered from the classroom so long ago had deepened. He and Minnie Mae sat across the table from us on a little restaurant patio overlooking a watery inlet. We talked of reading and writing and short stories and novels. My wife, a graduate in English literature, talked with Murray about Melville, Hawthorne, T.S. Eliot and Emily Dickenson, and about my wife's recent addiction to detective stories.
After lunch, Murray gave my wife directions to a mystery writers book shop in Portsmouth, where we stopped to pick some reading for our trip home. Back home in Virginia, I kept thinking of the visit with Murray and about the road not taken.
That winter I took my wife on a motor trip from Virginia to Florida. On a whim I wrote up the adventure in an 800-word article and sent it to a local newspaper. I heard nothing until my wife came home from work one day and showed me a copy of the paper with my article about how we had bought a ceramic alligator in Florida.
I e-mailed Don Murray the news. He e-mailed back, "Welcome to the club of published writers. Now sit your butt down in the chair and write your next piece."
Three days later I got a package in the mail from Murray, a plastic-encased copy of Murray's motto Nulla dies sine linea — Latin for "never a day without a line"; two books by Murray, The Craft of Revision and Writer in the Newsroom: a list of Murray's and Minnie Mae's favorite detective stories for my wife; and a sketch by Murray of a hilltop village in Tuscany.
Donald M. Murray submitted his last Globe column on Friday Dec. 29. He died the following day. The Globe published the column on Tuesday. Don was working on a novel and a memoir, was experimenting with water colors, and was about to launch a new Web site.
© 2007 Geo. J. Foster Company
by Tom Ostenton '76
Every morning for the last four months, Don Murray brought me my morning coffee. It became ritual, he standing at the foot of the stairs with mug raised high: “Your morning coffee, sir.” This was his way. This is how he spent his life, day after day, driven to please everyone he touched. It was his way of proving that he was worthy, that he deserved the life he had. At the very core, it was his way of trying to accomplish the impossible: It was his way to please his mother.
Don Murray was my college advisor, my professor, my mentor, my confidante, my therapist, my friend, my fan, and in the end my housemate. We were working on a project that would allow him to teach writing online to aspiring writers around the world. Writewithdonmurray.com was to launch on January 3. Even at 82, he felt an overwhelming need to be productive -- using work as the currency to earn his life here.
Ironically, it was my father's death in 1972 that brought us together. I was a lowly freshman hockey player at UNH when I first spotted a pair of red suspenders against a bright yellow shirt in the stands directly across from our bench in the old Snively Arena at UNH. I elbowed Gordie Clark, who was sitting beside me, and asked, “Who the heck is that?” pointing to this larger-than-life figure who was creating odd jungle sounds in the stands across the rink. “Oh, that's the chairman of the English department.”
Suddenly, my confusion around choosing a major disappeared. “I have to meet that guy.” Within weeks Don Murray was my advisor, and my career path was set.
I found myself re-engaged with the man in the red suspenders as I looked for a new home in the New Hampshire seacoast area in recent months. Simply offering advice on real estate was not his style. Instead, he invited me to live with him while I found my way to a new life -- not unlike what he'd done for me in 1972. So in September 2006, I moved into one of his upstairs bedrooms in Durham. I was pumped. I was living with my mentor, two writers under one roof writing and talking about writing 24/7. What a gift.
Thus started 120 days of bliss for me -- living and working with Don on the craft of writing that he so loved. He scoffed at the idea of conventional retirement. “Play golf?” he asked. “I have work to do.” For him, work meant writing. Writing was the antidote that helped fill the hole in his heart left by a mother who sold all his clothes when he was buried in mud somewhere in Belgium during the Battle of the Bulge near the end of World War II. The mother who wrote him out of her will on her death bed as a final gesture to her only child. Ironically, she was penniless, leaving him nothing but a legacy of unpaid bills for which he took responsibility.
This was the fuel that drove Don Murray and shaped the person that he was -- the person who would edit 40 stories or more each night on the city desk at the Boston Herald in the 1950s. It was the balm that helped ease the pain of losing his wife Minnie Mae and his daughter Lee.
During these final months of his life, I would often find him sound asleep at the computer in his office -- fully dressed in a bright shirt with ink stains on both pockets bracketed by his fire engine-red suspenders. Startled, he'd wake up and almost always gave the impression that he had just fallen asleep.
“I've done some good work on our project this morning,” he'd say out of guilt for having catnapped for 10 minutes. He felt this overwhelming need to pull his weight in this life. To write an extra column. To respond to every letter. To show up an hour early.
One day we had a luncheon meeting in Dover, which is about 15 minutes from Durham. As always, he reminded me that we needed to leave the house early -- at 11:30 a.m. for our 12:15 pm lunch. Then he'd yell up to me at 11:15a.m., “Tom, we'd better get going." I called this the “leaving early for the leaving early” and would often kid him about this obsession -- his obsession not to disappoint. His obsession to please.
When I woke up on the morning of Saturday, Dec. 30, 2006, for the first time since Labor Day there was no personal coffee delivery for me. No early morning discussion of the day's headlines. No leaving early for the leaving early. I was left only with the realization that in some perverse way Edith Murray had given us all a gift -- a son who lived to please. And while in his own mind he probably felt that he fell short of pleasing his mother, I hope he realized that on some level the rest of us benefited greatly from his inexhaustible pursuit.
You pleased us, Don. You pleased us all.
Tom Osenton is a writer and adjunct professor of marketing at UNH.