Information Sheet #45

September 25, 1990


"Often I have to write badly to write well."

[The following "collage" by Donald Murray was excerpted from Reinventing the Rhetorical Tradition ('80), edited by Aviva Freedman and Ian Pringle.  As is typical of Murray's writing, he does a marvelous job of looking into his own personal experience and capturing what many of us have surely felt but ne'er so well expressed.  It seemed a good voice to hear as we start a new school year--particularly his advice about writing being "mostly a matter of listening."  The next Information Sheet will discuss some possibilities for designing collage assignments for our students.]

Emptiness.  There will be no more words.  Blackness.  No, white without color.  Silence.

I have not put down any words all day.  It is late, and I am tired in the bone.  I sit on the edge of the bed, open the notebook, uncap the pen.  Nothing.


Everything has gone well this morning.  I wake from sleep, not dreams, the car does not have a flat tire.  I do not spill the coffee grounds, I do not turn the shower to cold instead of hot.  The telephone does not ring, and I sit at the typewriter with a clean piece of white paper twirled into the machine.  Nothing.

If I can make myself wait, remain calm, ready to write but not forcing writing, then words come out of silence.  Out of nothing comes writing.

Now it is hard to keep up with the words which write what I did not intend, do not expect.  Often this is the best writing, and I know it, but I never welcome that emptiness, that terrible feeling that there will be no more words.

* * * * *

The student sits in my conference chair, a Van Gogh miner, his hands hanging down between his legs near the floor, his head slumped forward.  He mumbles.  "I didn't write nothing."  His head rolls up, his face defiant, and then angry when he sees me smiling at him.  "What's the matter?"

"You look like me, sound like me this morning.  Nothing happened."

"What d'ya do?"

"I wanted to kick the cat, but I don't have a cat, and I couldn't pick a fight with my wife.  She was out shopping.  So I had to sit there and wait."


"The words came.  Not what I expected.  But words.  You want to read them?"

I wait while he reads my uneven, early morning draft.  I can see him getting interested and suspect he's saying to himself that he could do as good, or perhaps a bit better.

"You just wait?"

"Yes, it isn't easy though."

"Will it work for me?"

"I don't know.  Sometimes it works for me and sometimes it doesn't."

* * * * *

The writing is going well.  Everything is connecting.  I need a word, and it is in my ear; I need a fact, and it flows out of my fingers; I need a more effective order, and my eye watches sentences as they rearrange themselves on the page.  I think this is what writing should be like, and then I stop.  I go for another mug of coffee, visit the bathroom, check the mail.

I wonder about this compulsion to interrupt writing which is going well.  I see my students do it in the writing workshop.  It's so much of a pattern there must be a reason for it.  Sometimes I think it is the workman's need to stand back to get the distance; other times I think it is simple Calvinist distrust--when everything's going well something must be wrong.

* * * * *

My students arrive in class at the bell, as if they were hurled there by some gleeful giant.  They are rushed, harried driven.  They remind me of me.  I barely made it myself.  How am I going to create a quiet space within which we can listen to writing trying to find its voice?

This is the writer's problem: take all the energy you have to fight your way to the writing desk:  reject wife, child, friend, colleague, neighbor, refuse to carry out the trash, take the car to the garage, transplant the blueberry bush; leave the mail unopened and the opened mail unanswered; let the telephone ring; do not answer the knock on the door or prepare for class; ignore the message on your desk; do not rehearse the speech that will impress at the afternoon meeting; do not remember, do not plan; use all your energy to get to your desk, and then try to sit there, calmly, serenely, listening for writing.

I hear a teacher asking a student who has just begun to write, "What is your purpose?"

I hope the teacher will not come to my door when I have just begun to write.  What, indeed, is my purpose?  To make it through the day?  To get tenure?  (I already have tenure.)  To become rich?  (I will not eat on this article.)  To impress my parents?  (That sounds more like it, but they are dead, and would not read what I wrote when they were alive because, true Scots, they knew they would be disappointed.)

I hear more of the teacher's questions.  "What is your purpose in this piece?  What do you intend to say in the piece you are writing?  Who is your audience?"  They may be good questions but it's the first week of the semester and the student has passed in his first tentative draft.

He'd better not ask me.  If I knew all those things--my purpose, my content, my reader--I wouldn't have to write this.  Well, that's not really true.  Perhaps I know my audience in a sort of general way, and perhaps I know what I'm going to say.  And that worries me, because I want to write to surprise myself.  It would be terrible if I knew my purpose, if I knew what I was doing, how it would all come out.  That's when I'll know I'm finished.

* * * * *

A student comes to conference and shows me her new notebook.  We marvel over it--a looseleaf notebook has a third arm with a clipboard which folds over the notebook.  We share our wonder at it, for we share the thrill of writing and know the importance of tools.  We are always trying out each other's pens or feeling the texture of a new kind of paper between our fingers.  We are writers and we know there is writing in the paper if we know how to let it out.

* * * * *

Often I write by not writing.  I assign a task to my subconscious, then take a nap or go for a walk, do errands, and let my mind work on the problem.  It doesn't do much good for me to think thinking.

I tell my students to write every day, for a short time, going away from it and coming back.  The going away is as important as coming back.  Read, stare out the window, jog, eat, go to bed.  Sometimes I feel I have to make a note.  It's too bad; for what can be forgotten usually should be forgotten.  Writing surfaces from my subconscious, but I push it away, the way I shove an over-friendly puppy from my knee.  Go away and work by yourself, writing, and come back when I'm at my desk.

* * * * *

I can recognize my students' papers without looking at their names.  I hope they hear their own voices as clearly as I do, for writing is mostly a matter of listening.  I sit at my desk listening to hear what my voice says within my head.  Sometimes it speaks so clearly I feel I am taking down dictation while I write. 

Voice gives writing the sense of an individual speaking to an individual.  The reader wants to hear a voice.  Voice carries the piece of writing forward; it glues the piece of writing together.  Voice gives writing intensity and rhythm and humor and anger and sincerity and sadness.  It is often the voice of a piece of writing that tells the writer what the writing means.

* * * * *

The experience I imagine, the one I have dreamt by writing, is often more real than the experience I have lived.  I hope my students feel the twice-lived life of the writer, know the double experience of this kind of living.

* * * * *

Dictating this I pace the floor.  I have just moved one chair and two rugs.  Writing gives me so much energy it is hard for me to sit still.  I move from one part of the room to the other, sit in this chair, leap up and move over to the couch.  I stretch while I type, swing around in the chair, get up to pace and return.  If I write by hand I work at the desk, then in the Morris chair on a lap desk, then over the rocker, then back to the desk, over to the couch.  I encourage my students to move around in the writing workshop, to pace, twitch, mutter to themselves, hurl paper into the wastebasket.  I can't write in libraries.  My ideal work place is a bustling lunchroom in a town where no one knows me.

* * * * *

I don't want to know the rules of language.  My problem is that my words discover rules all the time.  My sentences obey rules I don't even know.  One problem in writing is that my students and I can't seem to avoid the conventions of language and what we write is so very conventional.  Of course, I have students who don't know the rules, but nobody ever stands up to denounce goody-goody students who follow the rules right over the cliff, taking their writing with them.

* * * * *

Often I have to write badly to write well.  My students want to write too well, too early.  I have to get them to put something down on the page, no matter how bad it is, so they can see and hear what they have to work with.

There's something marvelous about finishing a draft, no matter how bad it is.  Now I can go to work.  Before the piece of writing was all idea and vision, hope and possibility, a mist.  Now it's ink on paper, and I can work it.

* * * * *

It's wonderful fun to invade a piece of student writing.  The better the writing is the more tempted I am to get inside it, to manipulate it, to make it mine.  And sometimes in conference I will tell a student, "This is a really good piece of writing.  Do you mind if I mess with it?"

She looks apprehensive but she is a student.  She nods okay.

Gleefully, I mess around for a few lines or a few paragraphs.  I sharpen, I cut, I develop; I add my words for hers, my rhythm, my meaning.

"That isn't right at all.  That doesn't sound like me," she says.  "That isn't the way it was.  Give me back my writing."

She grabs it from my desk and charges out of the office.

Good.  She has the feel of writing.


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