Photo Credit: Jennie Anne Benigas




February 2007

"I am afraid of height. I do not like to stand near the edge of a cliff, climb a ladder, look down from a skyscraper, or drive across a high bridge, but I served in the paratroops during World War II. I was trained to overcome my fear, to jump despite it. Yet, as much terror as I felt stepping out of an airplane, I feel more terror facing the empty page."


Donald M. Murray, A Writer Teaches Writing. Houghton Mifflin Company,
Boston, MA, 1968.


A Tribute to Donald M. Murray

Dear Reader,

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: There is also an opportunity to send your condolence to his family.

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 (