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Friday, December 18, 2009

Essential, Literate, Academic: Essays for the Serious Writer

The Essential Don Murray
Subtitle: Lessons from America's Greatest Writing Teacher
Edited by Thomas Newkirk and Lisa C. Miller
Afterword by Chip Scanlan
Boynton/Cook Publishers
ISBN: 9780867096002
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Reviewed by Carolyn Howard-Johnson, award-winning author of This Is the Place and Harkening: A Collection of Stories Remembered, Tracings, a chapbook of poetry, and the author of the HowToDoItFrugally Series of books for writers.

The miracle of books from an author's point of view: They live beyond the author's last breath. Of course, it is really the sharing of that breath, the soul, that they care about. Thanks to Boynton/Cook Books, Thomas Newkirk and Lisa C. Miller have been allowed to resurrect Don Murray's essential wisdom for writers several years after his demise.

Don Murray, a popular columnist, journalist and writer, died in 2006. And though this book definitely celebrates Murray as a writer in his own right, it is—at its root—Murray the teacher of writingthat has been brought to life in these pages.

This is important because Murray's emphasis on creativity and the writing process as opposed to the stress so many teachers and writers' programs put on product and genre is fit so well with my own teaching philosophy. I love them because they are similar to mine and, sure. It feels like validation in a writing world become more commercial and less author-centered as time goes on.

But I'm recommending this book comes because I think that Murray's techniques may very well eradicate the disease known as writer's block and do very much the same for joyless writing. It may even do that for writers who are completely comfortable with product-oriented writing.

Murray's message should definitely be heard by all writers--especially beginning writers. Having said that, I think this book holds more value for teachers of writing. For one thing, there is a distinctly academic quality about many of the essays chosen by the editors and about the foreword, too.

With that in mind, I advise new writers to skip the foreword and go to some of the middle chapters that reproduce some of Murray's methods. His keeping of a day book, his note making, his process of drawing inspiration and even his sketches. It is in those chapters one will get an idea of the man and what made him a formidable writer in many genres. It is in those chapters he does his best job as teacher, too.

It is in those chapters that Murray is allowed to teach by example. At one point he talks about the importance of a teacher sharing his or her own work with students, that this sharing is vital to the teaching process. I suspect it is those middle chapters he wouldn't have wanted his students to miss. It is in those middle chapters, the teacher is intent on sharing what brought him joy, the wonderful exuberance of discovery in writing.

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