A conversation about the writing craft with Don Murray, conducted by Chip Scanlan for Writers@ Work: A Process Approach

CHIP SCANLAN: Good afternoon, Don.

DON MURRAY: Good afternoon.

It’s been 25 years since you walked into the Providence Journal editorial board conference room and made what was an astounding statement to me, that “good writing may be magical, but it’s not magic.” That’s influenced me ever since. But you came much earlier to that discovery.  When did the idea of a process approach to writing come to you?

When I started teaching: 1963. I was hired at the age of 39 as a teacher [at the University of New Hampshire] and I didn’t know how to teach. I looked at the textbooks—one of them was the Fowler approach and things like this. I read a good many of the books on the train between Durham and Boston at the time in the summer. I came here in July and I was going to teach in September and they made no sense at all, any more than my high school and college texts had. They were written by people who didn’t write, and if you followed their instructions you’d write badly. And so I said, what am I going to do? I thought of a way of breaking it down. I had done an intercontinental missile story as a reporter. And they had black boxes…they didn’t really know what happened in it, but they knew that it would probably land in Moscow.

So when I came to teaching writing that summer,. I kind of looked at it and said, ‘There’s prewriting, which is like the front part of the missile that takes you there; and there’s rewriting which is the back side of the missile; and there’s writing itself which is the black box in the middle where nobody knows what’s going on.

So I started studying prewriting and then I moved to rewriting, which was obvious. and then I got the courage to speculate about writing.

Can I ask you about a bit about that. You’re saying prewriting before writing? What does that it encompass? What goes on during that part of the process?

I’ve written a couple of articles called “Writing before writing.” And I’ve begun to come back to that and feel that the most important perhaps of the writing process is what you do before you put a single thing on the page.

At the moment I have to write a long biography for a project I’m doing and I haven’t got anything on the page.  But I have the lead which is ‘Why should I listen you to about writing?’ or something like that. And then I have some ideas about where I’m going. Mostly it’s not outlining, but it’s playing with fragments of language and play with approaches. And I’m never bored because I’m writing all the time in my head. And I think that by the time I get to write or even the time I make notes if I do make notes, I’m already on my way.

Okay, so the black box. You said you tried prewriting and that seemed to be useful and rewriting, at the end of the missile, was useful. Then you said you finally screwed up the courage to tackle the black box, the technology in the middle of the missile.

And of course that’s the mystery. But I really think that writing is a craft and if you follow a sequence that will change according to who you are, according to the topic, according to who you’re writing for and also according to your experience with this. I’ve now written 1500 columns. The first columns were rewritten a great deal and now they’re pretty much first draft because I already know the territory.

You came to the Providence Journal and introduced the process approach to an entire newsroom over a period of several years. That approach, as I recorded it back then began with:

  1. idea
  2. second step was collect, what we called reporting in the newsroom
  3. then focus, finding out what the story was really about?
  4. then order, where am I going to begin, where am I going to end, what am I going to do with the middle, what’s the shape?
  5. and then the writer begins to draft
  6. and finally the writer revises.

And you taught us about the recursive nature of the writing process, the idea that you would circle back and forth as the needs of the story demanded. That’s what I've taught ever since I learned it.

I’ve only made one departure, I think I've told you about, and that’s moving focus up to the second step…it’s moving focus alongside the five steps, and drawing a line, if you will, that runs up and down parallel to the writing process in a linear set of steps and saying that you begin focusing from the moment of assignment through the moment of revision.

I’m surprised at that sequence. I don’t remember it. Some poor graduate student can go through eight editions of one of my textbooks and I probably have eight different sequences. Graham Greene said disloyalty is the writer’s virtue as loyalty is the soldier's. And I have no loyalty to what I have written or said or thought the day before. I’ve kept moving forward. But It’s interesting that people have picked up the writing process and they are frozen in one point of it and it’s hilarious for me to see somebody who picked up what I was saying in the 60s, or the 70s 80s 80 and saying that’s the way it  is when it changes all the time for me.

Why do you continue to revise it?

Because I continue to learn. I’m 82 years old and I started learning; probably before I could write words I was making up stories in my head. And so I’ve been working at this craft a long time and I keep looking at it in a new way. When I taught I would tear up the syllabus from the last semester. I also usually chose the thing that really worked the best and I wouldn’t do it.

Why didn’t you do it?

Because I would find out that something else was more important. In journalism, I thought that skills were ultimately important. By taking more and more of the skills out and my students doing well as they got out on the job I realized I was teaching attitude more than skills. And so they weren’t surprised when the city editor said, ‘You’ve got 12 minutes to do this.

And so when the city editors say you’ve got 10 minutes what should the attitude be?

Hey, that’s fun. I got a call recently from the Portsmouth Herald; they wanted me to do a story on Little League and their team was way up high on the thing. And they called about nine in the morning and I delivered it about 10:30 in the morning. I love that. I did a memory piece about of how we played ball before parents were concerned and uniforms and all that sort.

I have to confess that when I hear you saying you throw out your process and redo it…I’ve remained loyal to what you taught me because, as I’ve often said, it was and remains the single most important element of my education as a writer.

You’ve taught me more than I’ve taught you but if I’ve fooled you, fine.

Well, is there a problem? I’m wondering about the participants, the 12 reporters who are in our course Writers@ Work: A Process Approach listening to this and wondering if, ‘Well gee. Murray says he throws things out, so why should we pay anything to this process Scanlan’s talking about, maybe it’s static?’

It’s a departure point. In other words, when I do a different job as I’ve said, my experience changes, the subject changes, my audience changes. My views for example on combat in the Battle of the Bulge is influenced by information about Iraq so we keep growing and changing and I think it’s great fun. This isn’t brain surgery; we’re trying to figure out how we can each best write and it may be very individual.

That’s true.

You like to do research I detest research. And I don’t do much and you do a lot.

Well, of course, my explanation or confession to that is, Oh yeah, I love research. It keeps me from writing and revealing what a fraud I am.

I’m comfortable being a fraud, I guess.

I’m thinking about what you just said about what works. What I like about breaking the process down into steps is that we do begin with an idea, it may be somebody else’s idea, known as an assignment, but there are a whole variety of ways of generating ideas, mapping and brainstorming and branching. I love the fact that under collect or reporting. There’s this whole set of skills, such as interviewing, noticing, as you say, what’s not being said, as much as what’s being said.

There are several important things I think about getting ideas: It’s very easy for me to have ideas. One thing I do is pay attention to my own response. Many people don’t pay attention to their response. My feeling is that if I feel this way, other people will feel this way. So I pay attention to how I feel about it. I don’t really look for ideas I am aware of what isn’t and should be and I’m aware of what is and shouldn’t be.  I very much like connections and I’m quite comfortable using my own autobiography to make connections. I’m looking for tensions between things. 

One of the things that occurs to me as I’m listening to you is we’ve talked for a quarter of a century about the writing process. But for the first time what occurs to me is that the writing process is a learning process, a process of learning. You’ve taught me it’s a process of discovery and surprise, but I don’t know that I’ve very really grasped like I have in the last couple of minutes listening to you that whatever process you use, it is a way to learn, not just to write  or to revise,  but rather to learn the craft that you and I are so obsessed with.

 I don’t want to be imprisoned by my own writing process. This should be play. There’s no one way to write and no one way to screw up. There’s about ten thousand ways to screw up and ten thousands ways to write. It should be fun. Its not brain surgery. No patient’s going to pass away and bleed to death under your hand.

So what do you tell a writer who wants desperately to improve?

Write the stories they think should be written. It’s up to you. If you want to be a  writer you’re going to be an outsider. You’re going to be a self-directed person and you’re going to reveal yourself. Sandra Cisneros says write about what makes you different. And all the things that made me different; in school, and in church, and in family are the things I've lived on. My columns are a documentation of a crazy teenager who was excited about life and was looking at things as if they were new. Nobody wanted me to do this; be critical and question, but it’s been a great life.

Also by doing this you become flexible.  I’ve written some for television and radio and magazines and books. We’re in a period of intense change. This course itself is evidence of a whole important way of teaching, a way of learning. As a writer you take advantage of it. Do what the task is in front of you. My son-in-law who’s an orchestrator and composer on Broadway, takes the job in hand. It may not be the one you want but then you do the best job you can at it. I learned from the most crazy kind of inferior writing but you can learn your craft….I’m sermonizing here.

It’s a great sermon and it’s the kind of sermon that I first heard 25 years ago and in weekly and in several times daily conversations we've had about our craft it’s been so important to me. It's helped give me an identity, helped me embrace an identify that was so difficult to embrace sometimes.

Incidentally, it’s always two ways. I do find that opening myself up and giving things to people about writing I learn every time I do it.

What question haven’t I asked?

What’s the best question to ask, which is, what surprised you?