Poet Marie Ponsot shared the following memory with her students
last summer at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, MA.
In January 1939, she went to her English literature class, and
her professor was sitting at his desk. When the students had
assembled, he looked up and said, "William Butler Yeats
has died. Class dismissed." That moment made an impression
upon the young and future poet. Whether or not her professor
knew Yeats personally was unimportant. He knew Yeats, as we
all do, through his work.
I was lucky. I knew Donald M. Murray. He was my mentor and
teacher at the University of New Hampshire in the 1980's, but
I knew him long before that. I showed him my 1969 first edition
of A Writer Teaches Writing, which I had bought for a
graduate class at Fitchburg State College. For $3.95 (new),
it became the book that made me believe I could be a writer.
By the time I sat in his class at UNH, I thought of him as God
the Father of the writing process movement. Come to think of
it, I still do.
Don and Minnie Mae Murray
Don revised that book many times. It stands as the book that
demystified the act of writing, explained the complex processes
at work in concrete and accessible language, and invited a fledgling
writer to do the work necessary to earn the right to call herself
a writer. He described a writer's thought processes, identity,
work ethic, and habits. His mantra was: nulla dies sine linea
- never a day without a line. He offered me the burden of commitment
to the art and craft of writing. He told anyone not ready to
make the commitment, to "go sell junk bonds." There
was no whining in his presence.
Don acknowledged the all important time spent at our writing
desks (now computers), but also urged us to be awake and alert
to writing ideas as we progressed through our days. He kept
a notebook in his bag to jot what he was thinking, hearing,
and seeing, no matter where he was. He also sketched in it.
Don taught me that being a writer is putting myself in a constant
state of collecting. Yesterday, walking from one room to another,
I asked myself, "How do people react when a great and esteemed
person dies?" I hadn't even realized that I was thinking
about my lead when the Marie Ponsot incident surfaced. Thanks
to the habits that Don taught me, I immediately opened to my
web (a diagram of ideas on a sheet of paper) and wrote down
enough to help me remember it for today's drafting. Because
of him, I never come to writing a piece without pages that tell
me what I am thinking about or need to look up. "Facing
the empty page" is not one of my fears, thanks to him.
Don taught me to take risks in writing and in life. His weekly
Boston Globe column, "Over 60/Now and Then"
earned him legions of readers because he faced life ready to
write about his experiences. We read about his war and "jumping
out of a perfectly good airplane," about his daughter Lee's
death, about his wife Minnie Mae's illnesses and death, about
people and places that were his, but somehow became ours. A
writer writes. He did, and now so do I, along with who knows
how many others he influenced.
If you wish to read more tributes to Don, go to the Poynter
Institute's link: http://www.legacy.com/Link.asp?I=GB000020504527.
There is also an opportunity to send your condolence to his
Next month's Judy's Journal will have an art theme. Contact
me with your questions and/or comments about art, poetry and
the creative process (email@example.com).