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Back To Literature, Past
A Literary & Poetry Column
By Carolyn Howard-Johnson

Essential, Literate, Academic and Fun!

Open Letter to Academics

My Dear Daughter, Other Academics, and Ph.D. Candidates of the World:

May I introduce you to Don Murray.

Don Murray wrote essays for the New York Times, the Boston Globe and others. He wrote in a variety of genres. Don Murray was well-known for being literate. Don Murray was also the ultimate teacher of writing. Unfortunately he died in 2006. Fortunately, we have the miracle of books that preserve thoughts beyond lifetimes and the dedication of other writers and editors like Thomas Newkirk and Lisa C. Miller who will keep Murray's important ideas alive in a book called The Essential Don Murray.

When I ran across a copy of another book written by an academic, I was inspired to tell you—you, part of that rather large group who seem to be writing primarily to please teachers or to reach a goal—about Don and this new book from Boynton Cook. It is Veiled Sentiments. I found it as I was stowing The Essential Don Murray into my bookshelves. I remember my daughter recommending this specific book, back when she was an undergrad anthro student.

"It is just fantastic," she enthused. "It's written by an anthropologist."

I'm thinking yeah, academic, no fun, a struggle to read even by someone with an avocational interest in anthro

She spread her arms out as if embracing the world. "It's about the women Lila Abu-Lughod observes when she's allowed to infiltrate inaccessible Northern Arabic tribes. But most of all it's so, so . . . readable!"

It turned out we were both right. Veiled Sentiments: Honor and Poetry in a Bedouin Society is readable. By academic standards it's especially readable. I loved it. But with a lighter voice it might have reached a much broader audience and therefore helped even more people to an understanding of the veiled culture.

Too often students get into what I call the "academic mode." It's a little bit like the "business mode" that people get into when they write business letters. Or the "technical mode" that tech writers get into when they put together instructions for assembling bicycles—or worse, computers! Writing that way may serve them well enough within their communities but much of it is nearly unintelligible to those outside of it. And not very interesting (or entertaining?) inside of it.

A writer must know his or her audience, certainly, and try to accommodate it. But there is also an advantage to stretching a bit, holding out something of interest to a broader group.

Those who write in academic (or technical or business) disciplines often use jargon. Interminable jargon. They may be uninterested in paring to their essentials sentences with excess words. Those who write in these fields set examples for those who come after; and, because they are focused on subject and forget about voice, most (dare I say it!?) are tedious and stilted. When new writers, students and others come along, they follow the traditions set out for them. If what went before is impossibly dull, those coming after think they must be, too.

So, back to Don Murray. Here is an academic who taught his students to write from the heart. Taught them to write to serve their purpose, whatever that might be. And to write to involve the reader. His editors say Don Murray "reinvented the academic essay . . . that academic writing could have voice and even humor." Those same editors assembled this book full of Don's essays telling any writer who cares to learn more about how to make their writing more interesting, more accessible.

The book includes Murray's essays on writing, especially the process of writing. It also includes samples of his writing, notes and even sketches from his daybook that illustrate the processes he recommends.

This book has in it the information an academic needs to turn a dissertation into a book. A book that appeals to a broader audience. A book that is widely read. At the very least, it will help a student's dissertation become something that even mentors and department heads will enjoy reading. And, no. He won't encourage students to violate department guidelines or expectations to do that.

The mark of a great writing teacher is not to dictate, it's to help each writer stretch—really reach—for his or her own meaning, his or her own voice. The final determination is up to the writer.

Tips and Tidbits

(Each month in this box, Carolyn lists a Tidbit that will help authors write or promote better. She will also include a Tip to help readers find a treasure among long-neglected books or a sapphire among the newly-published.)

Writers' Tidbit:
Writers interested in promoting their work will find articles, resources, guest blogs and anything else that strikes me as being useful for writers at my blog, It was chosen by Writer's Digest for their 101 Best Websites for writers.

Readers' Tip:
Aussie poet Magdalena Ball and I recently published the first book in our series of poetry chapbooks that celebrate holidays and seasons. Find Cherished Pulse, a chapbook of unconventional love poetry at It's priced at little more than most spend to give their loved ones a quality greeting card.

2010 Past Columns


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