A remembrance of Don Murray

Professor Emeritus at UNH, prolific writer, master of the one-liner

Jack Driscoll

Murray (above) greets attendees at Water Street Bookstore in Exeter for signing of his book, "My Twice-Lived Life". He often personalized autographs as he did (left) for a man--who, like Murray--had a white beard.



My most vivid image of Don Murray is of him sitting outside a restaurant on a bench, wearing his customary chinos, head down, writing away in his daily journal—or maybe even drawing sketches.  He is alone in his writer’s world as chatting customers pass him by.

He is early for our lunch, a monthly ritual the last dozen years (his late wife, Minnie Mae sometimes joined us, an honor).  Prior to that we had been professional colleagues for several years, then just friends.  It was a loss to me to learn of his sudden death at age 82 on December 30.  But it was also a loss to thousands of others—-former students he had in class and in dozens of seminars during his days as a professor, colleagues at the University of New Hampshire with whom he had long, close relationships, readers of his many books and of his weekly column in the Boston Globe, his morning breakfast group in Durham and so many more.

He was a magnificent writer.  No, he was a magnificent teacher.  Indeed, his writing was teaching.

“In writing about myself, I am writing about others,” Murray would say.  He was tricking us into thinking we were absorbed in his memories, when in fact he was awakening our own stories.

He was absorbed in the craft of writing, whether in the midst of writing or during everyday activities during which he was collecting nuggets of information almost unconsciously.  He once shared some of his daybook jottings with some of us, and I was struck by his April 24, 2001, entry:  

“There are two glass patio doors to my right facing the woods, a window just to the left above my computer screen.  The squirrel circus does not distract me when the writing flows.  And it isn't just when I am at my computer.  James Thurber once said, "I never quite know when I'm writing. Sometimes my wife comes up to me at a party and says, 'Damn it, Thurber, stop writing.'  She usually catches me in the middle of a paragraph."  I write in the car, across the dinner table from my wife, in front of the television, waiting on the bench at the front of the supermarket, visiting the doctor, waiting in line at the post office, watching my grandchildren play.  I am in this life and in the other, writing.”

He encouraged all levels of writers, from beginners to the accomplished, who couldn’t get enough of his insights.  He once wrote about older people as writers:  "Youth is an advantage to a ballet dancer or a basketball player, but it is a disadvantage to a writer. The writer needs distance from experience, and the young writer does not yet have that.  Harriet Doerr left college before graduating and published "Stones for Ibarra" when she was seventy-three and won the American Book Award for First Fiction the next year.  It helps as a writer to see childhood from the distance of a parent, the job from the perspective of one who has lost a job.  Age brings us the many levels of vision we need in order to write. We know health and illness, joy and sadness, belief and doubt. We need the blend of thought and feelings, memories and imaginings, caught and mixed together by words and the pauses between words that flow toward significance.”

Murray at seminar in Melrose, Mass., for SilverStringers, a seniors publishing group.

For several years he was writing coach at the Boston Globe (as he was for the Providence Journal and more recently at the Portsmouth Herald).  I had the pleasure of sitting in on those sessions and jotted down a few of his tips:

--"Corduroy writing is when you use quotes every three paragraphs."

--"Some writers think color can be laid in like raisins in raisin bread, but it should only be used to progress the story...If I'm doing a mural or if I'm doing a postcard, it's different, like the difference between a novel and a poem" (referring to short stories vs. long)...

--"I like the word `voice' rather than style, because style sounds like something you buy off a rack...When we say voice, we should mean the voice of the text, not the voice of the writer...Voice is flavor, voice is the music of writing matching the meaning of the story.”

--"Writing is one-on-one, not like TV announcing...”

--(On insecurity of writers) "At 64, I'm 19 years old when I write.”

--"Too much thought can be harmful; at some point you have to get up to bat...it's a cliche, but at Time Magazine we used to say you judge a good story by the amount of information you throw away.”

Murray was the master of the one line.  He advised writers that every story has one line that captures its essence.  It might be at the start, in the middle or at the end.  He taught that a writer should find that line even before writing a story by trying out a number of lines until they found the one that clicked. He said when he was at Time Magazine it wasn’t unusual to try 20 or 30 lines before he hit on the right one.

Here are a few from one of his daybooks:

--You don't know what you are going to say until you say it.

.--Write the first thing in the morning before reading the newspapers, hearing TV news, peeking at e-mail, picking up the phone.

--Know tomorrow's writing task today.

--Five hundred words a day is long enough to produce something worthwhile,
short enough to be achieved before bed on bad days.

--Write what you don't yet know.

--Failure instructs.

--There is always a good excuse not to write.

His one-liners ring in my head.  My favorite occurred the day I hired him as writing coach at the Globe when I was Editor there..  He meandered across the cityroom and entered my office with the boast:  “I know who three of your best writers are.”

I fell for the bait.  “Who?”

“That woman there, that woman over there, and that man there.”

“OK,” I conceded.  “You just pointed to three of our very best writers.  How did you know?”

“Because,” he said, “their lips move when they write.”



January, 2007



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