04 January 2007

Tillie Olsen and Donald M. Murray

Earlier this week, I wanted to say something about the death of Tillie Olsen, but I couldn't think of much of anything to say other than, "If you haven't read her work, do."

And now I have discovered that Donald Murray has also died. There is, as far as I know, no link between Olsen and Murray, but I discovered them both at roughly the same time, and both had a profound influence on me when I was quite young.

The first writing workshop I ever attended was one for kids who were identified as "gifted and talented" in some area. I attended the workshop for two or three weeks at a college in Pennsylvania the summer between seventh and eighth grades, the first time I had been away from home for more than a couple nights. One of the textbooks we used was Murray's Write to Learn, a book I highlighted so much that entire pages seemed to have been painted bright yellow. It was the first time I'd ever encountered truly helpful writing advice. It seemed, to my seventh-grade self, to contain all The Secrets.

It was at the same workshop that I first read "I Stand Here Ironing" by Tillie Olsen. I thought it was boring. I couldn't make heads or tails of it. But there was something about the voice, something about the way the sentences fit together, that stuck in my memory. I went back to the story again and again, and eventually I got a copy of Tell Me a Riddle and read the rest of Olsen's stories. And then read them again. I wanted to figure out how she did it, how she created such rich and powerful voices. I still want to figure it out. Later, I read Silences -- read it so much, in fact, that my copy of it is now held together by a rubber band.

I haven't read anything by either Olsen or Murray in quite a while. I last paid close attention to both of them in my first few years of teaching, when "I Stand Here Ironing" was a story I taught every year (until I realized that I couldn't figure out a way to convey its power to my students, who inevitably thought it was what I had thought it was when I first read it: boring) and when I used Murray's The Craft of Revision for a few classes (until the publisher decided to replace the affordable original edition with a ridiculously overpriced textbook edition).

I never got to meet Tillie Olsen, but I met Donald Murray once. It was in an office at the University of New Hampshire. I was visiting a friend who knew Murray well, and as she and I were talking, he came into the office to drop something off for her. She introduced us, and I could barely speak. I had met far more famous people by that point, but it wasn't his fame that intimidated me -- it was that I had too much to thank him for. I still have the more-highlighted-than-not copy of Write to Learn that I virtually memorized that magical summer when it seemed like the Secrets of Writing had been dropped into my hands, and it remains one of my most cherished books.

Olsen and Murray both lived long lives, lives filled with experience and joy and great sadness. It's strange to begin a new year by thinking that neither one of them is out there anymore, but the gifts of insight and inspiration they gave to me and generations of other readers remain.