All Writing Is Autobiography


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All Writing Is Autobiography Author(s): Donald M. Murray Source: College Composition and Communication, Vol. 42, No. 1 (Feb., 1991), pp. 66-74 Published by: National Council of Teachers of English Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/357540 . Accessed: 15/09/2014 13:56 Your use of the JSTOR archive indicates your acceptance of the Terms & Conditions of Use, available at . http://www.jstor.org/page/info/about/policies/terms.jsp . JSTOR is a not-for-profit service that helps scholars, researchers, and students discover, use, and build upon a wide range of content in a trusted digital archive. We use information technology and tools to increase productivity and facilitate new forms of scholarship. For more information about JSTOR, please contact [email protected] .
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All Writing Is Autobiography

Donald M. Murray

I publish in many forms-poetry, fiction, academic article, essay, newspaper column, newsletter, textbook, juvenile nonfiction and I have even been a ghost writer for corporate and government leaders-yet when I am at my writing desk I am the same person. As I look back, I suspect that no matter how I tuned the lyre, I played the same tune. All my writing-and yours-is autobiographical.
To explore this possibility, I want to share a poem that appeared in the March 1990 issue of Poetry.
At 64, Talking Without Words
The present comes clear when rubbed with memory. I relive a childhood of texture: oatmeal, the afternoon rug, spears of lawn, winter finger tracing frost on window glass, August nose squenched against window screen. My history of smell: bicycle oil, leather catcher's mitt, the sweet sickening perfume of soldiers long dead, ink fresh on the first edition. Now I am most alone with others, companioned by silence and the long road at my back, mirrored by daughters. I mount the evening stairs with mother's heavy, wearied step, sigh my father's long complaint. My beard grows to the sepia photograph of a grandfather I never knew. I forget

Donald M. Murray, professor emeritus of English at the University of New Hampshire, is the author of A Writer TeachesWriting (1968 and 1985), Write to Learn (1984), Read to Write (1986), and numerous essays, some of which have been collected in Learningby Teaching(1982) and Expectingthe Unexpected(1989). "At 64, Talking Without Words," Copyright 1990 Modern Poetry Association, is reprinted by permission of the Editor of Poetry.
Two kinds of articles make up "Staffroom Interchange": compact descriptions of specific instructional or administrative practices and fuller essays of application, speculation, and introspection. "Staffroom Interchange" essays (normally under 3,500 words) should be written in a direct, personal style and may use either in-text documentation or a compact works-cited list. Since submissions are sent to Consulting Readers for review, authors should follow the guidelines for anonymous submission outlined on the back of the title page.

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if I turnedat the bridge,but arrive whereI intended.My wife andI talk withoutthe botherof words.We knowLee is 32 today.Shedid not staytwenty but standsat eachroom'sdoorway.I place my handon the telephone.It rings.
What is autobiographical in this poem? I was 64 when I wrote it. The childhood memories were real once I remembered them by writing. I realized I was mirrored by daughters when the line arrived on the page. My other daughter would have been 32 on the day the poem was written. Haven't you all had the experience of reaching for the phone and hearing it ring?
There may even be the question of autobiographical language. We talk about our own language, allowing our students their own language. In going over this draft my spellcheck hiccupped at "squenched" and "companioned." As an academic I gulped; as a writer I said, "Well they are now."
Then Brock Dethier, one of the most perceptive of the test readers with whom I share drafts, pointed out the obvious-where all the most significant information is often hidden. He answered my question, "What is autobiographical in this poem?" by saying, "Your thinking style, your voice." Of course.
We are autobiographical in the way we write; my autobiography exists in the examples of writing I use in this piece and in the text I weave around them. I have my own peculiar way of looking at the world and my own way of using language to communicate what I see. My voice is the product of Scottish genes and a Yankee environment, of Baptist sermons and the newspaper city room, of all the language I have heard and spoken.
In writing this paper I have begun to understand, better than I ever have before, that all writing, in many different ways, is autobiographical, and that our autobiography grows from a few deep taproots that are set down into our past in childhood.
Willa Cather declared, "Most of the basic material a writer works with is
acquired before the age of fifteen." Graham Greene gave the writer five more years, no more: "For writers it is always said that the first 20 years of life contain the whole of experience-the rest is observation."
Those of us who write have only a few topics. My poems, the novel I'm writing, and some of my newspaper columns keep returning to my family and my childhood, where I seek understanding and hope for a compassion that has not yet arrived. John Hawkes has said, "Fiction is an act of revenge." I hope not, but I can not yet deny the importance of that element in my writing. Revenge against family, revenge against the Army and war, revenge against school.
Another topic I return to is death and illness, religion and war, a great tangle of themes. During my childhood I began the day by going to see if my
grandmother had made it through the night; I ended my day with, "Now I

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lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep. If I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take."
I learned to sing "Onward Christian Soldiers Marching as to War," and still remember my first dead German soldier and my shock as I read that his belt buckle proclaimed God was on his side. My pages reveal my obsession with war, with the death of our daughter, with that territory I explored in the hours between the bypass operation that did not work and the one that did.
Recently, Boynton/Cook/Heinemann published Shoptalk, a book I began in Junior High School that documents my almost lifelong fascination with how writing is made. I assume that many people in this audience are aware of my obsession with writing and my concern with teaching that began with my early discomfort in school that led to my dropping out and flunking out. My academic writing is clearly autobiographical.
Let's look now at a Freshman English sort of personal essay, what I like to call a reflective narrative. I consider such pieces of writing essays, but I suppose others think of them in a less inflated way as newspaper columns. I write a column, Over Sixty, for the Boston Globe, and the following one was published October 10th of 1989. It was based on an experience I had the previous
August.
Over sixty brings new freedoms, a deeper appreciation of life and the time to celebrate it, but it also brings, with increasing frequency, such terrible responsibilities as sitting with the dying.
Recently it was my turn to sit with my brother-in-law as he slowly left us, the victim of a consuming cancer.
When I was a little boy, I wanted-hungered-to be a grown-up. Well, now I am a grown-up. And when someone had to sit with the dying on a recent Saturday, I could not look over my shoulder. I was the one. My oldest daughter will take her turn. She is a grown-up as well, but those of us over sixty have our quota of grown-upness increase. Time and again we have to confront crisis: accident, sickness, death. There is no one else to turn to. It is our lonely duty.
Obligation has tested and tempered us. No one always measures up all the time. We each do what we can do, what we must do. We learn not to judge if we are wise, for our judgments boomerang. They return. At top speed and on target.
Most of us, sadly and necessarily, have learned to pace ourselves. We have seen friends and relatives destroyed by obligation, who have lost themselves in serving others. There is no end to duty for those who accept it.
And we have seen others who diminish by shirking responsibility. When we call them for help the door is shut. We hear silence.
We grow through the responsible acceptance of duty, obligation balanced by self-protection. We teeter along a high wire trying to avoid guilt or sanctimoniousness as we choose between duty and avoidance.
And so my mind wanders as Harry sleeps, blessedly without pain for the moment, moving steadily toward a destination he seems no longer to fear.
He would understand that as we mourn for him, we mourn for our-

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selves. Of course. We are learning from his dying how to live. We inevitably think of what he did that we can emulate and what we should try to avoid.
And we learn, from his courage and his example, not to fear death. I remember how horrified I was years ago when a mother of a friend of mine, in her late eighties, feeling poorly in the middle of the night, would get up, change into her best nightgown, the one saved for dying, and go back to sleep.
Now I understand. During my last heart attack I had a volcanic desire to live but no fear of dying. It was not at all like my earlier trips to the edge.
Harry continues my education. He did not want trouble while he lived and now he is dying the same way, causing no trouble, trying to smile when he wakes, trying to entertain me.
He needs the comfort of sleep and I leave the room, turning outside his door to see how quickly his eyes close. He wants nothing from us now. Not food, not drink, not, we think, much companionship. He accepts that his road is lonely and he does not even show much impatience at its length.
It is not a happy time, alone in the house with a dying man, but it is not a dreadful time either. I pat the cat who roams the house but will not go to the room where Harry lies; I read, write in my daybook, watch Harry, and take time to celebrate my living.
This house, strange to me, in an unfamiliar city, is filled with silence. No music, no TV, just the quiet in which I can hear his call. But he does not call. I cannot hear his light breathing. Every few minutes I go to the door to see if the covers still rise and fall.
He would understand as I turn from him to watch the tree branch brush the roof of the house next door, as I spend long moments appreciating the dance of shadows from the leaves on the roof, then the patterns of sunlight reflected up on the ceiling of the room where I sit, as I celebrate my remaining life.
Again I stand at the edge of the door watching, waiting, and take instruction from his dying. We should live the hours we have in our own way, appreciating their passing. And we should each die in our own way. I will remember his way, his acceptance, his not giving trouble, his lonely, quiet passing.

This is simple narrative with the facts all true, but it is really not that simple; few things are in writing or in life. The details are selective. A great deal of family history is left out. A great many details about the day, the illness, where it was taking place and why were left out. In fact, I wrote it in part for therapy, and it began as a note to myself several weeks after the experience to help me cut through a jungle of thoughts and emotions, to try to recover for myself what was happening that day. Later I saw that it might speak to others, give comfort or form to their own autobiographies. I did not write the whole truth of that day, although the facts in the piece are accurate; I wrote a limited truth seeking a limited understanding, what Robert Frost called "a momentary stay of confusion."
Yes, I confess it, I wrote, and write, for therapy. Writing autobiography is

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my way of making meaning of the life I have led and am leading and may lead.
Let's look at another autobiographical poem, one of my favorites, which, I suppose, means that it was one I especially needed to write for no autobiographical reason I can identify. It has not yet been published, although a great many of the best poetry editors in the country have failed in their obligation to Western culture by rejecting it.

Black Ice
On the firstSaturdayof winter,the boy skatedaloneon Sailor'sHome Pond,circling fromwhite ice to black,furthereachtime he rodethe thin ice, rising, dipping, bending the skin of the wateruntil the crackraced fromshoreto trickhim but he heard,bent his weight to the turn, madeit backin time. Thatwinterhe sawthe fish frozenin ice, its greatunblinkingeye examininghim eachtime he circledby. He dreamtthateye all summer,wonderedif Alex hadseen the fisheye beforehe rodethe blackice, did not hearthe cracksneakout fromshore, imaginedhe learnedto skateon water. At night, afterloving you, I fall back to see thatfish eye staringdown, watch Alex in shoeskatesandknickersfrombelow as he skatesoverhead,circlingfaster,faster, scissorlegs carryinghim fromwhite ice to black.His skatessing theircutting song, etchinglarger,largercirclesin my icy sky.

It is true that the boy, myself, skated on thin ice and that he skated at Sailor's Home Pond in Quincy, Massachusetts, although the thin ice may not have been on that pond. He did not, however, see a fish in the ice until he wrote the poem, although he was obsessed with the eyes of the fish, haddock and cod, that followed him when he went to Titus's fish store in Wollaston.
Readers believe that Alex is my brother, although I was an only child. There was no Alex; no one I knew had drowned by falling through the ice until I received the poem; I did not, after loving, stare up to see him skating above me until after I wrote the poem. I do now. The poem that was for a few seconds imaginary has become autobiographical by being written.
Ledo Ivo, the Latin American writer, said, "I increasingly feel that my writing creates me. I am the invention of my own words" (Liveson the Line, Ed. Doris Meyer, U of California P). Don DeLillo explains, "Working at sen-
tences and rhythms is probably the most satisfying thing I do as a writer. I
think after a while a writer can begin to know himself through his language.
He sees someone or something reflected back at him from these constructions.

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Over the years it's possible for a writer to shape himself as a human being through the language he uses. I think written language, fiction, goes that deep. He not only sees himself but begins to make himself or remake himself" (Anything Can Happen, Ed. Tom LeClair and Larry McCaffery, U of Illinois P,
1988).
We become what we write. That is one of the great magics of writing. I am best known as a nonfiction writer, but I write fiction and poetry to free myself of small truths in the hope of achieving large ones. Here are the first pages from a novel I am writing.
Notebook in his lap, pen uncapped, Ian Fraser sat in the dark green Adirondack chair studying the New Hampshire scene that had so often comforted him as he put in his last years in his Washington office. The green meadow sloping unevenly over granite ledge to the lake and the point of land with its sentinel pine that marked the edge of his possession, and across the lake the hills rising into mountains touched with the reds, oranges, yellows that would flame into autumn this week or next. He was settled in at last and ready to begin the book he had so long delayed, but he could not write until he scanned this quiet scene with his infantryman's eyes for it still was, as were all his landscapes, a field of fire.
He had to know where to dig in, where the enemy would attack, what was at his back. He supposed it was what had attracted him to this old farmhouse, he could hold this position, he had a good field of fire. First he scanned the lake. Left to right, far edge to near, not one boat or canoe, nothing breaking the surface, no wind trail or wake. Now right to left to see what might be missed. Nothing.
The point of land, his furthest outpost. Scraggly pines, hulking ledge, ideal cover. He studied it close up, knew the pattern of shadows, where the ledge caught the light, where crevice was always dark. This is ridiculous, he thought, an old man whose wars are all over, but he could not stop the search for the enemies that had been there at the edge of other fields so long ago, so recent in memory.
The woods left, on the other side from sentinel point. Sweep his eyes at the woods a half a field away, open ground any enemy would have to cross. He made himself still; anyone watching would not know his eyes were on patrol. He could have hidden a platoon in these woods, tree and bush, ledge and rock wall, but there was no shadow that moved, no unexpected sound, no leaves that danced without wind.
And yet, Ian felt a presence as if he, the watcher, were being watched. He scanned the woods on the left again, moving from lake edge up. Nothing.
Now the woods on the right, he had cut back from the house when he bought it, saying he needed sun for vegetables. He needed open field. More hardwoods here, more openness, the road unseen beyond. It was where someone would come in. His flood lights targeted these woods, but it was not night. He examined these familiar woods, suddenly looking high in the old oak where a pileated woodpecker started his machine gun attack. Ian studied squirrel and crow, the pattern of light and dark, followed the trial of the quiet lake breeze that rose through the woods and was gone.

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Now the field of fire itself, where a civilian would think no-one could hide. He smiled at the memory of a young paratrooper, himself, home on leave, telling Claire, who would become his first wife, to stand at the top of the field and spot him if she could as he crept up the slope, taking cover where there seemed no cover. She was patient with his soldieringthen. She knew her quarry and did not laugh as this lean young man crawled up the slope moving quickly from ledge to slight hollow to the cover of low bush blueberries that July in 1943.
He never knew if she saw him or not.

Do I have a green lawn that reaches down to a New Hampshire lake? No. Do I still see when I visit a new place, forty-six years after I have been in combat, a good field of fire? Yes. Did I have another wife than Minnie Mae? Yes. Was her name Claire? No. Did I play that silly game in the field when I was home on leave? Yes. Is the setting real? Let Herman Melville answer, "It is not down on any map: true places never are.
What is true, what is documentally autobiographical, in the novel will not be clear to me when I finish the last draft. I confess that at my age I am not sure about the source of most of my autobiography. I have written poems that describe what happened when I left the operating table, looked back and decided to return. My war stories are constructed of what I experienced, what I heard later, what the history books say, what I needed to believe to survive and recover-two radically different processes.
I dream every night and remember my dreams. Waking is often a release from a greater reality. I read and wear the lives of the characters I inhabit. I do not know where what I know comes from. Was it dreamt, read, overheard,
imagined, experienced in life or at the writing desk? I have spun a web more coherent than experience.
But of course I've been talking about fiction, a liar's profession, so let us turn to the realistic world of nonfiction. That novel from which I have quoted
is being written, more days than not, by a technique I call layering that I describe in the third edition of Write to Learn:

One technique, I've been using, especially in writing the novel, is to layer my writing. Once I did quite a bit of oil painting and my pictures were built up, layer after layer of paint until the scene was revealed to me and a viewer. I've been writing each chapter of the novel the same way, starting each day at the beginning of the chapter, reading and writing until the timer bings and my daily stint is finished. Each day I lay down a new layer of text and when I read it the next day, the new layer reveals more possibility.
There is no one way the chapters develop. Each makes its own demands, struggles towards birth in its own way. Sometimes it starts with a sketch, other times the first writing feels complete [next day's reading usually shows it is not]; sometimes I race ahead through the chapter, other times each paragraph is honed before I go on to the next one. I try to allow the text to tell me what it needs.
I start reading and when I see-or, more likely, hear-something that needs doing, I do it. One day I'll read through all the written text and

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moveit forwardfromthe last day'swriting;anothertime I'll find myself workingon dialogue;the next day I maybegin to constructa new scene [the basicelementof fiction];one time I'll stumbleinto a new discovery, laterhave to set it up or weavereferencesto it throughthe text; I may build up backgrounddescription,developthe conflict, make the reader see a charactermore clearly;I may present more documentation, evidence,orexposition,or hide it in a character'dsialogueor action.

Well, that is academic writing, writing to instruct, textbook writing. It is clearly nonfiction, and to me it is clearly autobiography. And so, I might add, is the researchand scholarship that instructs our profession. We make up our own history, our own legends, our own knowledge by writing our autobiogra-
phy. This has enormous implications for our students, or should have. In Note-
booksof the Mind (U of New Mexico P, 1985), a seminal book for our disci-
pline, Vera John-Steiner documents the importance of obsession. "Creativity requires a continuityof concern,an intense awareness of one's active inner life combined with sensitivity to the external world." Again and again she documents the importance of allowing and even cultivating the obsessive interest of a student in a limited areaof study. I read that as the importance of encouraging and supporting the exploration of the autobiographical themes of individual students-and the importance of allowing ourselves to explore the questions that itch our lives.
I do not think we should move away from personal or reflective narrativein composition courses, but closer to it; I do not think we should limit reflective narrative to a single genre; I do not think we should make sure our students write on many different subjects, but that they write and rewrite in pursuit of those few subjects which obsess them.
But then, of course, I am writing autobiographically, telling other people to do what is important to me.
And so all I can do is just rest my case on my own personal experience. I want to read my most recent poem in which the facts are all true. I had not seen as clearly before I wrote the poem the pattern of those facts, the way Iand a generation of children in the United States and Germany and Britain and Japan and China and Spain and France and Italy and Russia and so many other countries-was prepared for war. This piece of writing is factually true but watch out as you hear it. Writing is subversive and something dangerous may happen as you hear my autobiography.
A woman hearing this poem may write, in her mind, a poem of how she was made into a docile helpmate by a society that had its own goals for her. A black may write another autobiography as mine is heard but translated by personal history. A person who has been mistreated in childhood, a person who is a Jew, a person whose courage was tested at the urging of jeering peers on a
railroad bridge in Missouri, will all hear other poems, write other poems in
their mind as they hear mine.

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Winthrop 1936, Seventh Grade
December and we comb our hair wet, pocket our stocking caps and run, uniformed in ice helmets,
to read frost etched windows:
castle, moat, battlements, knight, lady, dragon, feel our sword plunge in. At recess we fence with icicles, hide coal in snow balls, lie freezing inside snow fort, make ice balls to arc against the enemy: Hitler. I lived in a town of Jews, relatives hidden in silences, letters returned, doors shut, curtains drawn. Our soldier
lessons were not in books taught by old women. In East Boston, city of Mussolinis, we dance combat, attack and retreat, sneak, hide, escape, the companionship of blood. No school, and side
staggered by icy wind we run to the sea wall, wait for the giant seventh wave to draw back, curl mittens round iron railing, brace rubber boots, watch
the entire Atlantic rise until there is no sky. Keep mittens tight round iron rail, preparefor the return of ocean, that slow, even sucking back, the next rising wave.
I suspect that when you read my poem, you wrote your own autobiography. That is the terrible, wonderful power of reading: the texts we create in our own minds while we read-or just after we read-become part of the life we believe we lived. Another thesis: all reading is autobiographical.

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All Writing Is Autobiography