It’s hard to imagine any writer not being influenced in some way by the now-late Donald Murray, even if the name doesn’t ring a bell.
I was first introduced to his writing and his teaching in 1989. I was a Summer Fellow at the Maryland Writing Project’s Summer Institute, a newbie still to the world of teaching, but a hack writer who knew only that this bug, this thing inside me that compelled me to write was here to stay.
The Institute, a five-week program that invited teachers from around the state to devote most of their summer to learning about writing and teaching, was supposed to prepare me to share this new-found knowledge with other teachers in my school and around the county. That was the goal. But I couldn’t plan the untimely death of my father just two months before our first meeting, and I certainly couldn’t plan the timeliness of just how life-changing the Institute would be for me as a person, me as a writer.
The teaching impact, that came later.
For me, on that first day, I bought my copy of Murray’s Write To Learn, a rather flimsy paperback book about how writing leads to discovery of our selves, and discovery leads to a life worth living, and a life worth living leads to–well, to everything good. Including all that happens with writing in the classroom.
The first section of Murray’s book was all about the Daybook, claiming your place to write, your place to be you. And with the timeliness of my father’s passing, I jumped headfirst into the pages of Daybook I, a cheap, green-blue spiral notebook of 70 pages that led me along the paths of self-discovery for those five weeks. I pondered Thoreau’s writings, my own father’s actions in his life, the power of spirituality, of love, of patriotism, of life itself. In those five weeks, Murray gave me license to be me, take risks, ask the questions I never had the courage to ask.
Since that summer, I have completed over 30 daybooks, some of them spiral notebooks, others with leather covers, some blank, some ruled, some large, some small (I’ve come to favor the bigger blank books, with the hard cover). Between the covers of all of these books remains me: raw, emotional, contemplative, happy, sad, angry, hopeful. Story ideas, examples of good writing, good living, life-changing quotes, drawings…it’s all in there, uncensored.
At just about the same time Donald Murray was leaving this world, I was making the decision to pack up all of my daybooks, finished and unfinished, and focus only on my one Daybook throughout 2007, a sort of tribute to the sanctity of this journal of all-things, all-thoughts, all-me. It wasn’t until a few days after I made this decision that I learned of his death.
Donald Murray worked tirelessly with writers and with teachers about the importance of relevance, the importance of understanding your audience, and the importance of taking risks. I can think of no successful writer who has not mastered any of these three essentials when it comes to communicating effectively. The fact that we are all better writers because of these essentials is due in no small part to Mr. Murray.
His passing comes at a time in my life where my writing and my career is in a wonderful but risky transition. After reading a memorial written by Chip Scanlan at the Poynter Institute, I feel like I’m back at the Maryland Writing Project’s Summer Institute all over again. But this time, it’s 2007, not 1989. The risks I am ready to take will begin on the pages of my daybook, just they always have, but thanks to the life Donald Murray lived and the countless contributions he made to writers all over the world, those risks in ink will spill forward into a new career of writing and teaching–one that I hope makes a difference not only to me, but to my family, to my readers, and to the many writers and teachers with whom I proudly share this profession.