I have just been browsing in an old collection of essays on the teaching of writing: Learning by Teaching: Selected Articles on Writing and Teaching (Boynton/Cook 1982) by Donald M Murray, and the title of this entry reflects one of those essays. I note that Don Murray (right) died last year after a distinguished career in teaching and journalism — he was a Boston Globe columnist. See Donald M. Murray Dies. See also this moving Guest book for Donald M Murray. I met his esteemed New Hampshire colleague Donald Graves on a number of occasions some years back. Visit the New England Writers’ Project. “Prof. Donald M. Murray (1924 – 2006) won a Pulitzer Prize, but will be best remembered for mentoring hundreds of writers. The only way to write well is write often, then revise, revise, revise.” Read the rest of that obituary by J. Dennis Robinson.
As a teacher Murray was a gyroscope. He never believed, like so many of his colleagues at the University of New Hampshire, that he knew the answers. As a teacher of writing, he was not burdened by books full of facts. His students brought the content in their writing. His job was simply to steer them towards more effective communication. Over the years he developed uncanny instincts for guiding other writers as well as a superb tool kit of tactics for tinkering with one’s creative engine.
As a writer Murray managed to remain as vulnerable as a student in Freshman Composition. He feared the blank page. He trembled over word choice. He came to accept the fact that even the master struggles and that the struggle is what keeps the writing honest. And he shared all these feelings with his students, turning the writing process into a partnership between them. Writers, who work most of their lives in isolation, need partners. There was only one cardinal rule – the writer must write. You can improve only if you are doing it, Murray insisted. The corollary to the rule, that the teacher of writing must also be a practicing writer, became his guiding principle for half a century.
A decade or two ago Don Murray’s work was very influential here in Australia, but the Donnellied elite have despised it, and the battling linguists have treated it too with some disdain. I found his work wise and practicable. If you are truly interested in literacy, and in quality, go back to people like Murray. BTW: Murray said “practising” (Aussie spelling) writer, not “published” writer… Not in the conventional sense. Blogging and Murray would have gone well together, I feel, though he may have deplored so many blogs being revision-free zones. (I do revise, but probably not as much as I should.)
If you want to get down and dirty, participate in a little project I have going on my English and ESL site: Creative writing Year 10 age level, six months in Australia. There you will see a raw draft by a 15-year-old who has been in an English-speaking school for only six months. You are invited to help her… Say something more constructive than “Awk!”
Murray is one of those extraordinarily wise mentors of teachers and writers that Kevin Donnelly has no time for, if he has ever heard of him… Graves and Murray (and locally Sutherland Shire’s R D Walshe) certainly influenced my practice, and I never departed from that core wisdom, even when (especially as an ESL teacher) I grafted onto it a more sophisticated linguistics derived from M A K Halliday and others. The reason? Graves, Murray and company were simply right in what they said. It was a matter of sense, not of politics or pomo or trendiness. It was just good practice which worked better than other practice. You will find more reflection on that in my paper on literacy.