Donald Murray (writer)

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Donald Morison Murray (1924 – December 30, 2006) was a Pulitzer prize-winning journalist and long-time teacher (eventually Professor Emeritus of English at the University of New Hampshire).[1] He wrote for many journals, authored several books on the art of writing and teaching, and served as writing coach for several national newspapers. After writing multiple editorials about changes in American military policy for the Boston Herald, he won the 1954 Pulitzer Prize for Editorial Writing.[2] For twenty years, he wrote the Boston Globe's "Over 60" column, eventually renamed "Now And Then".[1] He taught at the University of New Hampshire for twenty-six years.[3]

Personal life

Murray lived in Durham, New Hampshire with his wife, Minnie Mae. They were married for 54 years.[4] Murray and his wife had three children, Anne, Hannah, and Lee. Daughter Lee preceded Murray in death at 20 years of age and Murray later wrote about the experience in The Lively Shadow: Living with the Death of a Child.[5] Murray encouraged other writers to establish a routine or habit of practicing writing. Through this encouragement, Murray often wrote of his own writing habits which involved waking up at 5:30 in the morning to write every day. He is known for using the phrase "nulla dies sine linea" or "never a day without a line" to motivate his daily writing ritual.[6] He also said of his writing habits, "I am promiscuous--as a writer. I take on too many projects and try to split my writing mornings into two or three tasks…It doesn't work. Each night I write down tomorrow's single writing task on a card, assigning the writing to my subconscious, where most of the writing gets done".[6] Most surprising about Murray, the Pulitzer Prize Winner, was the fact that he himself dropped out of high school twice. He embraced this idea when educational psychologists contended that many gifted youth process information in the concrete random learning style identified by Anthony Gregorc. In his books and articles, Murray often mentions his struggles adhering to conventional classroom behaviors. In her article, "Anatomy of a High School Dropout: Pulitzer Prize Winner Donald Murray," (The World & I, July 1998, pg. 307-319), Jeanne Jacoby Smith, a McPherson College (KS) professor, examined Murray's struggles based on personal interviews with him at Conferences on College Composition and Communication and in his home in New Hampshire. Murray interviewed with Smith for her dissertation to more accurately reflect his new pedagogical style (Her dissertation: "The Origins of the Individual Voice in Writing from 1890 to 1990" by Jeanne Jacoby Smith, Ed.D.).

Smith postulates that Murray was a genius by birth. A concrete-random learner, he assimilated material in greater depth than other students at his grade level. However, because American classrooms tend to focus on the 'average student' rather than gifted under-achievers, Murray lost interest in school and diverted his attention to subjects with personal intrigue for him. In spite of the fact that he was a high school dropout, later in life, he amazingly captured the Pulitzer Prize.

In several of his books, Murray claimed that he listened for his 'voice' "creating, unraveling, revising, envisioning, and re-envisioning as the writing came together." Elsie "Talu" Robinson of Antioch/New England Graduate School claimed that many gifted young people like Murray process information in the concrete random learning style identified by Anthony Gregorc. These students are naturally bright, and they march to the tune of a different drummer in what they'll learn and how. They plunge into activities of their own choosing and work obsessively until satisfied. They don't stop reading or working when the time has expired. They defend their views adamantly and detest time constraints in the classroom. They, also, need space to read, experiment and discover on their own." Murray's learning methodologies clearly fell within the concrete random learning style.

Robinson concludes that <"Gifted dropouts appear on a self-actualizing quest; the wander-lust is a means to an end.... When school does not offer them these options, their ultimate weapon may be the act of dropping out." <Redding, "Learning Preferences." Gifted Child Quarterly 34 (1990):74.>

Murray died in December 2006 from heart failure at the age of 82.[7]

He donated over 100 of his writing journals — or, as he called them, "daybooks" — to the Poynter Institute, a non-profit school for journalism with which he had long been associated.[8]

On writing

Murray chronicled his relationship with writing until the day he died. In a column published just before his death, he wrote, "Each time I sit down to write I don't know if I can do it. The flow of writing is always a surprise and a challenge. Click the computer on and I am 17 again, wanting to write and not knowing if I can".[1] His final column was published in the Boston Globe five days before his death.[1]

Throughout his book, Crafting a Life, Murray demonstrates his writing process and provides guidelines for readers developing their own writing. He notes authors who have provided inspiration for his personal writing like Graham Greene and George Orwell. Orwell's essay Why I Write is especially apparent in Murray's motivation to write. When considering how to begin his own writing, Murray said, "I remembered them as being unexpected but true to what happens in the essay".[6] In Crafting a Life, he lists and explains his manifesto: I write to say I am, discover who I am, create life, understand my life, slay my dragons, exercise my craft, lose myself in my work, for revenge, to share, to testify, to avoid boredom, and to celebrate.[6] Murray compared a writer's voice in language to music and deemed its significance as the key factor in capturing an audience. In addressing the complexities of voice in writing, Murray noted the following elements as important to developing a writer's voice: revealing specifics, the word, the phrase, the beat, and the point of view.[6] He encourages writers to write with their readers as new stories are composed. To demonstrate this, he provides examples of his own writing and along with that, writes what the reader might think or say in response.[6] He then discusses, briefly, researching certain topics to strengthen the ethos of the writer.

Murray encouraged the writer to embrace and not fear self-exposure. "In effective writing and, especially in personal-essay writing, the author exposes himself or herself, revealing thoughts and feelings that the reader had also experienced but may have denied…and that is the strength of many essays. It is, however, a problem for the writer who is usually uncomfortable about this exposure".[6]

When writing fiction, Murray provides a traditional scene[6] for writers to follow:

  • Two or more characters: The back story—their relationship before the scene
  • Conflict or tension between them
  • A place
  • Dialogue—what is or is not said
  • Physical action—what they do or do not do
  • The narrator who tells the story from an omniscient, godlike point of view; or from the first-person point of view

Writing as process

Murray deemed writing as a process to discover meaning and develop that discovery by working towards clarifying the meaning.[9] Within this process are three stages—prewriting, writing, and rewriting. With his writing habits in mind, Murray emphasized this process by stating, "Before writing and during writing I see far more than I can record. And the more I see, the more there is to see as I pass from this world to the remembered or imagined world".[6]

Prewriting, Murray contended, should take eighty-five percent of the time dedicated to the writing process.[10] According to Murray, this stage can involve strategies such as brainstorming, organizing, activating prior knowledge, and even daydreaming.[10] Murray recommended using the "discovery draft," similar to Peter Elbow's freewriting in which the writer writes as fast as possible without stopping. Murray believed this process would lead to new discoveries and an element of surprise that is not realized by the writer at first. Once ideas are generated by the writer, then, writing or drafting occurs. As a result, the first-draft is created.

The first-draft is not polished and needs revision (the third part of the process), and because the draft is incomplete, the writing stage of process takes about one percent of the writer's time.[10] Murray insisted that writers should have multiple drafts over the course of the writing process. He urged writers to respect their draft and be open to revision.

The third stage of the writing process involves rewriting. This stage calls on the writer to evaluate what has already been written and determine what changes should be made in delivery and organization through revision. Revision is different from editing in that this stage is not concerned with making grammatical and spelling corrections. Only until the content has been revised through multiple drafts, should editing take place. When editing does occur, Murray recommends reading the essay aloud to edit.[6] Murray believed fourteen percent of writing time should be dedicated to the rewriting stage.[10] As Murray prescribed specific stages and time frames to the writing process, he also believed that the approach to process writing depended on the individual writer. He said of writing, "all writing is experimental".[11]

Teaching writing

As a proponent of process theory in composition studies, Murray is credited for applying this theory in the classroom. He advised teachers, when teaching writing, to "be quiet, to listen, to respond".[12] Murray advised teachers to avoid making editing corrections in early drafts as meaning is not always discovered by the writer in the first draft. Instead, he called on teachers to provide time to students for revising multiple drafts and promote revision as a natural occurrence as opposed to a tedious task or punishment.[13]

While Murray's teaching strategies were especially popular in the late 20th century, his perspective on the writing process is found in the contemporary classroom for both secondary and postsecondary composition.


Because Murray emphasized the importance of the individual writer, composition theorists including James Berlin, contended that he neglected the social aspect of writing.[14] Post-process theorists also saw Murray and other proponents of process theory as enabling prescribed rules that limited the writer's ability to explore through writing and harkened back to Current Traditional Rhetoric.


  • Man Against Earth: The story of Tunnels and Tunnel Builders (J.B. Lippincott. Philadelphia, 1961).
  • The Man Who Had Everything (novel) (New American Library, 1964).
  • A Writer Teaches Writing: a Practical Method of Teaching Composition (Houghton Mifflin, 1968).
  • Learning by Teaching (Heinemann, 1982).
  • Expecting the Unexpected (Heinemann, 1989).
  • Crafting a Life in Essay, Story, Poem (Boynton/Cook, 1996).
  • Write to Learn (Harcourt Brace, 1998).
  • The Craft of Revision (Harcourt Brace, 1998).
  • A Writer Teaches Writing (Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1990).
  • The Literature of Tomorrow: an anthology of student fiction, poetry, and drama (1990).
  • My Twice-Lived Life: A Memoir (Ballatine Books, 2001).
  • The Lively Shadow: Living with the Death of a Child (Ballantine, 2003).


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 Marquard, Bryan (31 December 2006). "Columnist Donald Murray dies at 82". The Boston Globe. Retrieved 16 February 2012. Unknown parameter |subscription= ignored (help)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  2. "1954 Winners". The Pulitzer Prizes. Columbia University. Retrieved 1 October 2014.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  3. Romano, Tom (Jan 2000). "The Living Legacy of Donald Murray". The English Journal. 3. 89: 74–79. JSTOR 822100.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  4. Scanlan, Chip (December 30, 2006). "Don Murray Dies: Writer, Teacher, and Inspiration to Both". Poynter Institute. Retrieved 1 October 2014.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  5. Robinson, Dennis. "Don Murray Taught Writing by Writing". SeacoastNH. Retrieved 16 February 2012.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  6. 6.0 6.1 6.2 6.3 6.4 6.5 6.6 6.7 6.8 6.9 Murray, Donald. Crafting a Life in Essay, Story, Poem. Portsmouth: Boynton/Cook, 1996.
  7. Associated Press (December 31, 2006). "Boston Globe columnist Donald Murray dies at 82". News. Retrieved 1 October 2014.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  8. Clark, Roy Peter (March 3, 2011). "The Death and Life of Donald Murray". Poynter Institute. Retrieved 1 October 2014.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  9. Murray, Donald (September 1969). "The Explorers of Inner Space". The English Journal. 58 (6): 908–911. JSTOR 811666.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  10. 10.0 10.1 10.2 10.3 Donald Murray (2003). Victor Villanueva (ed.). Cross-Talk in Comp Theory: A Reader (2 ed.). Urbana: NCTE. pp. 3–6 [4].<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  11. Donald Murray (2003). Victor Villanueva (ed.). Cross-Talk in Comp Theory: A Reader (2 ed.). Urbana: NCTE. pp. 3–6 [6].<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  12. Donald Murray (2003). Victor Villanueva (ed.). Cross-Talk in Comp Theory: A Reader (2 ed.). Urbana: NCTE. pp. 3–6 [5].<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  13. Murray, Donald (1981). "Making Meaning Clear: The Logic of Revision". Journal of Basic Writing: 88–95.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  14. Berlin, James (Sep 1988). "Rhetoric and Ideology in the Writing Class" (PDF). College English. 5. 50: 477–494. doi:10.2307/377477. Retrieved 23 February 2012.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>

Further reading

  • The Essential Don Murray: Lessons from America's Greatest Writing Teacher[1] (Thomas Newkirk and Lisa C Miller, editors. Portsmouth, Boynton/Cook, 2009).
  • Inside Out: Strategies for Teaching Writing (Dan Kirby, Dawn Latta Kirby, Tom Liner. Portsmouth, Heinemann, 2003).
  • 9 Rights of Every Writer: A Guide for Teachers (Vicky Spandel. Portsmouth, Heinemann, 2005).
  • Write Beside Them: Risk, Voice, and Clarity in High School Writing (Penny Kittle. Portsmouth, Heinemann, 2008).
  • "Anatomy of a High School Dropout: Pulitzer Prize Winner Donald Murray" ( by Jeanne Jacoby Smith, "The World & I", July, 1998).

External links