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Michael Steinberg's Blog--Fourth Genre: The Art and Craft of Creative Nonfiction

# 30, The Three Stupidest Things I've Done as a Writer by Donald Murray

Blog # 30

Note: Ever since I turned 60, I’ve been thinking about mentors. That’s mostly because, for the last several years, I’ve been a mentor myself. As I’ve often told my students, I never would have become a writer, much less a teaching writer, had it not been for the support and encouragement of one of my own mentors, Donald Murray. Partly as a result of his generosity of spirit and his willingness to share his knowledge, not just with me, but with literally hundreds of others, I’d hoped that someday I’d get the chance to do for others what he did for me.

I think that turning 60 became a marker for me. Perhaps that’s because for many years Don wrote a Boston Globe weekly column “Over Sixty,” on/about practical matters of writing and teaching writing.

I could go on, but I’d much rather have you read some of Don’s pieces.

Those who visit this blog know that its main concerns are specific matters of genre and craft. But the short essay I chose for this entry “The Three Stupidest Things I’ve Done as a Writer” offers, for the most part, practical advice and wisdom on/about the writing life and what it means to be a working writer.

He passed away eight years ago, but among his eleven books and several poetry collections, Murray’s nine books about writing/teaching are still relevant to all of us who work at this game. In the coming months, along with my own craft essays, I’ll post other short pieces Don wrote. For those who want to know more about his life and work, click on Donald Murray (in yellow) below.

Donald Murray

MJS

Guest Post: The Three Stupidest Things I’ve Done as a Writer
by Donald Murray

1. I believed there was an aesthetic genre hierarchy:

1. Poetry
2. Literary fiction
3. Essay of literary criticism
4. Drama
5. Popular fiction
6. Screenwriting
7. Essay of personal experience
8. Journalism.

At age 77 I realized I am a storyteller who must tell the stories life has given me. The genre must come from the story to be told not the literary ambition of the writer.

2. Not finished drafts of books that could have been published because of lack of faith or deadline.

3. Took seriously the criticism or destructive praise of those who wanted me to write their poems, stories or books not my own.

The three smartest things I’ve done as a writer.

1. Tried to follow the advice of Horace -- nulla dies sine linea {Never a day without a line}– and counted words.
2. Assigned specific tasks to my subconscious which kept writing
during the 22 and1/2 hours I was away from the writing desk.
3. Established deadlines, then met them by breaking long projects
into brief, achievable daily tasks.

The four best pieces of writing advice I’ve been given.

1. I believe that the so-called "writing block" is a product of some kind
of disproportion between your standards and your performance....one
should lower his standards until there is no felt threshold to go over in
writing. It's easy to write. You just shouldn't have standards that
inhibit you from writing…..I can imagine a person beginning to feel he's
not able to write up to that standard he imagines the world has set for
him. But to me that's surrealistic. The only standard I can rationally have is the standard I'm meeting right now...You should be more willing to forgive yourself. It doesn't make any difference if you are good or bad today. The assessment of the product is something that happens after you've done it.
William Stafford

2. To write you have to set up a routine, to promise yourself that you
will write. Just state in a loud voice that you will write so many pages a
day, or write for so many hours a day. Keep the number of pages or
hours within reason, and don't be upset if a day slips by. Start again; pick up the routine. Don't look for results. Just write, easily, quietly.
Janwilliam van de Wetering

3. Imagine yourself at your kitchen table, in your pajamas. Imagine
one person you'd allow to see you that way, and write in the voice you'd
use to that friend. Write about what makes you different.
Sandra Cisneros

4. We write about what we don't know about what we know.
Grace Paley

The three worst pieces of writing advice I’ve been given.

1. If you like it cut it out.
2. Know what you are going to say before you say it.
3. That’s been said before.

The six most valuable tricks of my trade.

1. I don’t start within an idea but a line or image with an unresolved tension.
2. I write for surprise, not what I know, but what I do not yet know.
3. I write out loud. My voice instructs.
4. I write fast to outrun the censor and cause the instructive failures
necessary to effective writing.
5. I try to anticipate and answer the questions the reader will ask.
6. I revise by developing my strengths more than by correcting error.

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