“Ass in the chair is the only rule of art.” Donald Murray

Ernest Hemingway and Donald Murray

What I continue to learn! Why I am inspired by these giants of writing.
I have experienced 6 weeks of Monday night classes at Donald Murray’s home in Durham. I sat in as a want to be writer with writers of varied experience in his living room. I worked on a Friday night deadline for 6 weeks and held to it. The secret Don said was to write. He did not believe in writers block. He said to start with a word and go from there.

I have experienced 7 weeks of a class: Ernest Heming way: The Paris Years. It has been an ever changing and interesting experience. I only knew of Hemingway from his book The Old Man and the Sea and the short stories The Hills of Kilimanjaro and The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber. I was amazed and inspired by all three works.

So I have gone from The Paris Years to the Portsmouth Ideas and enjoyed the ride. As Sir Robert said on the first night of class, that it is ‘’Like a river ever flowing, ever changing.” I have discovered that the more I read of EH and DM the faster the river flows, quickening the pace of change. There is so much to learn so much to mine for the craft of writing.
Mr. Wheeler also quoted Donald Murray, “I have to fight the tendency to think I know the subject I teach.” Ernest and Donald were now forever intertwined in supplying inspiration after that first night of class. I left that night enthused and looking forward to my readings and the next class.
I read of generations passing and searching for meaning in “The Sun Also Rises” and immediately realized a connection between EH and DM. They were both great observers of what is happening all around them. Murray had said in class that to be a writer one must see what others do not and craft a way to let them see what they missed.
I learned that there have been countless biographies on EH since his untimely 1961 death and that as a Journalist, Travel Writer, Short Story Writer and Writer of novels that he had squirreled away lots of writing. He did this despite being a womanizer, a drinker, a sportsman and a husband and father.

As a Journalist Hemingway covered stories for the Kansas City Star and then as an expatriate freelance writer covering post war Europe. I found that he learned valuable lessons there about writing in a concise manner. From the 1954 book, The Apprenticeship of Ernest Hemingway the Early Years by Charles A. Fenton much was gleaned. Ernest Hemingway was a working newspaperman both intermittently and for long intervals during the years Oct. 1916 and Dec. 1923. Other influences were War, Travel, and Sport. His work habits were extensive, sustained and purposeful. He wrote expatriate fiction in 1922-3. In a very real sense his apprenticeship never ended. Hemingway had durability, he was demanding, always growing and had rigid discipline when it came to writing. He said to a friend in 1949, “I’m apprenticed out at it until I die. Dopes can say you mastered it. But I don’t know nobody ever mastered it, nor could not have done better.” [At it]
Hemingway only worked at the Kansas City Star for 7 months but the rules from the papers style sheet book had 110 rules which stayed with him for live. Language and words could never from this point be lightly regarded (pg. 32). In 1940 Hemingway said, “I’ve never forgotten them, no man with any talent, who feels and writes truly about the thing he is trying to say, can fail to write well if he abides by them (pg. 34). Some rules were simple; like never use old slang, avoid use of adjectives, and use short sentences. The only way to improve your writing is to write. The English language yields to simplicity through brevity (pg. 43). Charles Fenton an English Instructor at Yale said, “It wasn’t the literary hothouse of Paris in the 20’s that shaped Hemingway so much as fledgling High school journalism in Oak Park, Ill. and the newsrooms of Kansas City and Toronto.”
Journalism was writing for the moment; as such it was doomed to the death of topicality but the fiction writer by adding invention to experience gave his work the possibility of enduring life. Hemingway granted that it was okay to begin in journalism because it lumbers you up and gives you a command of the language, it was good practice. [Read Paragraphs pg. 232 and 225]

Notes:
Hemingway peaked early, burned out early, copped out and exited early missing a head, yet left a body of work. He lived his time fully but not a full life because you must finish the journey and he up and quit. He left a mess for others to decipher. He was another casualty of another lost and searching generation.
“Old’ man take a look at my life, I’m a lot like you. I need someone to love me the whole day thru. Ah! One look at my eyes and you can tell that’s true” (Neil Young). I am not Hemingway but I do write. I am only alive because I put up a fight to survive. I mine for the words and a heart of gold. Pray I do not lose the spontaneity. Did EH become so tough because his name was Ernest or because he was? EH and DM were both bears of a man. Their paths may have crossed. DM knew of EH’s work and work habits and quoted them in his writing notes. DM went out with his writing boots on dying a day after submitting his last column for the Boston Globe. EH left us too early after burning out. Both lived full and humanly complete lives of observing and learning and writing it all out. Each part of the story gleaned from focused observation and from attempts at learning lessons. The jumbled beginnings of a journey jotted down from viewing another lost generation. From Donald Murray, “Ass in the Chair is the only rule of Art.”

Works Referenced:
(Weber) (Fenton) (Phillips) (Murray)
Fenton, Charles A. The Apprenticeship of Ernest Hemingway-the Early Years. NY: Viking Press, 1954.
Murray, Donald M. Welcolm to the Writer’s Craft. Writing Guide. Durham, NH: Donald M Murray, 2006.
Phillips, Larry W. Ernest Hemingway on Writing. NY: Scribner, 1984, 2004.
Weber, Ronald. Hemingway’s Art of Non-Fiction. NY: St. Martin’s Press, 1990.

Memorial to Donald Murray with Poems: His Time Was Write and Hard Wood Writing

Never a Day Without a Line
When a mentor passes on–A Memorial to Donald Murray

I heard it on the 11 o’clock New Years Day news. Donald Murray died of a heart attack at the age of 82. He had submitted his column ‘Now and Then’ to the Boston Globe the day before he died. He never stopped working, learning or sharing the knowledge he had gained.

My connection to Donald started from a Now and Then column that he had written in late winter which mentioned a spring writing class and one of his favorite bookstores on Water Street in Exeter NH. A heartfelt feeling took me there and I bought the book he suggested and left my information. Fortune smiled and on a Monday nights for six weeks I found myself at Don’s house in Durham with a circle of writers and novices of the craft. Don in his chair teaching by drawing us in and sharing his life and the work he loves. A large man in both stature and heart held court as we listened and learned in a circle where he made us feel equal. No pretense, just the spirit of a man open and true. His words ring true in my head: ‘Find your voice and tune it to the situation’
‘Writing is personal-be as true as possible’
‘The voice must sound like you, if not something is wrong-you may not be close enough to the material’
‘I still sometimes look at the world as a soldier’
‘Write with velocity and lower your standards’
‘Good writers see deep important things about the human condition. They articulate the human condition for those who can not’
‘Surprise is wonderful, I want to surprise myself some more before the road ends’

I met with him three times after the class ended. Twice for breakfast at ‘Young’s’ in Durham where everyone knows his name. The morning after class ended I picked him up at 5:45 AM. He told me he had stayed up all night as enthusiasm about the class, father’s day trip weekend prior, writing, and using his new art supplies would not let him sleep. He insisted on paying for breakfast and said that my turn was next. As I dropped him off at his house and told him to get some rest he answered, ‘after I write a little’. 82 years old, up all night and his motto, ‘nulla dies sine linea’ and work ethic still ruled.
For me he is gone too soon, too fast but he will always be with me. It’s his turn again to buy breakfast and he promised to come for dinner and meet my ‘Maria May.’
He believed in his family, his students, his friends and his colleagues. He gave us a confidence devoid of judgments that we could find our voice and tune it to the situation.
I offer a poem written with Donald in mind and submitted during what would be his last class. He had taken up drawing and painting recently for the sheer joy and surprise of it. The last line was added today.

Hard Wood Writing

Feeling lucid under pressure
Moments of sheer horror and panic do pass
Drawn on ousted emotions to draw-paint words to paper
Form scenes opened felt by me
Acts of art for others to observe-see
A word play called ‘New Hope Spring’
On a clean cool clear and cloudy canvass of Papyrus
Framed pages with words
Book cover borders
Times Temperaments Torments Trusts
Loss and Rebirth
Felt and Palpable on written page
Hopes spring grows and flows
Words in mahogany and oak
A writer’s true rings of hard growth memory
True to a vision of what has come to pass
Hard Wood Writing on soft textured page of one person’s past
Written Word Etched for Eternity by Scribed Survivor
Mahogany Voice Rises from Oaken Experience
From scribbler to Scribe the Survivor Crafts
The soft subtle textured pages of a life’s
Lessons Learned and Shared
Now and Then

His time was write

Found a mentor, ol’ sage, life almost spent

He opened his home, gave a last class

Unconditionally he let us in and shared a successful career

“Write Short, Write Quick,” the mentor said.

The world has changed–attention spans are short sighted

Draw them in, hold them, set them free, with words from the heart

An old man’s spirit shared

His time was write

Now and Then taught me ours is then and now

The road goes on and I will be one of Donald’s Acolytes–Apostles

Nulla dies sine linea–never a day without a line

Share a life til the road ends

To be taken up by a spirit who’s time is write

Copyright by Ken Pothier