Thursday, January 04, 2007

Remembering a Writing Teacher

Donald Murray

The deaths of three prominent men have dominated the news recently. Former President Gerald Ford was laid to rest in Grand Rapids, Michigan accompanied by countless retrospective accounts of his short-lived but critically important presidency. As far as I can tell, he had no detractors, no enemies. Having been appointed by Nixon to replace Spiro T. Agnew, who resigned in the shadow of financial scandal, he was our only president elevated to the office without having been elected as vice president. His pardon of Nixon was the single most ontroversial act of his presidency, but history has gazed sympathetically on the pardon, many pundits arguing that it was an essential step in the process of national healing that had to follow the Watergate coverup and the dramatic Senate hearings that gripped the country for months in 1973 and then again (with Judiciary Committee deliberations) in 1974.
Simultaneous with the news honoring the life of Gerald Ford was the sudden announcement that Saddam Hussein had been hanging following his conviciton in an Iraqi court. Magnifying the impact of that grisly event was the video recording surreptitiously made (apparently by cell phone) and distributed almost immediately on the internet. The outrage expressed by Sunni Muslims is predictable, although his death was not followed by as much turmoil and violence as some had anticipated. The Bush Administration has tiptoed around Hussein's death, careful not to appear too gleeful, while reminding everyone of the evils he wrought. Christopher Dickey's commentary on the hanging, as well as full coverage of Gerald Ford's death may be found in Newsweek.

Another recent death worth noting is that of James Brown, "The Hardest-Working Man in Show Business," who has a legitimate claim to his title as "Godfather of Soul." In recent years, his reputation has been marred by a string of arrests on firearms and domestic abuse charges. He was jailed for two and a half years as a result of a police chase between Georgia and South Carolina. Brown's BBC obituary.
As notable, in radically different ways, as the lives and deaths of those three men are, of more significance to me personally is the December 30 death of Donald Murray, which was announced in The Boston Globe on New Year's Eve. Murray, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist with The Boston Herald, joined the faculty of the University of New Hampshire in the sixties and forged a highly successful second career as a writing teacher. He, along with Peter Elbow, was a primary influence on the "writing as process" movement that took hold in the seventies and has continued in composition classrooms to the present. His countless articles, as well as books such as A Writer Teaches Writing and Write to Learn, have motivated a generation of teachers and students. A characteristic excerpt:
Writing is a craft before it is an art; writing may appear magic, but it is our responsibility to take our students backstage to watch the pigeons being tucked up the magician's sleeve. The process of writing can be studied and understood. We can re-create most of what a student or professional writer does to produce effective writing. (AWTW, 2nd ed., p. 4)
Murray, more than anyone else writing about composition, was capable of instilling confidence in the writing process. He demonstrated this repeatedly in a rare openness about his own writing and in his practical in-the-trenches approach to gathering and gradually working through ideas on the page. Although retired from teaching, he continued to write a newspaper column about aging, often focusing on his Alzheimer's-afflicted wife, Minnie Mae, until her death in 2005. He was an admirable, approachable man in person as well as in print.

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