Liesl Schwabe’s essay “Breathing with Both Lungs” was awarded the Donald Murray Prize for 2020. Schwabe is director of the writing program at Yeshiva College and a lecturer in English.

In her description of “Breathing with Both Lungs,” the judge for the finalists wrote, “The account of teaching here, of being in community with students, is visceral, and the author considers the importance of students’ writing and revising experiences as part of enabling them to encounter a ‘flexible’ world.”

Due the pandemic, Schwabe was unable to travel to receive the award and with subsequent labor and supply chain issues, the publication was also delayed. But Writing on Edge, an interdisciplinary journal focused on writing and the teaching of writing, is now back on track.

YU News had a chance to speak with Schwabe about the prize and the art of writing

What makes the Donald Murray Prize important?

The Conference on College Composition and Communication is the world’s largest professional organization for researching and teaching composition. Since 2002, the Creative Nonfiction Standing Group of CCCC’s has awarded the Donald Murray Prize each year to honor the “best work of creative nonfiction on the subject of language, writing, teaching, or the teaching of writing.” Donald Murray was a Pulitzer-prize winning journalist, professor, and author. He wrote extensively about the teaching of writing, which is arguably the subject dearest to my heart.

And, as any educator knows, our most important work happens in the classroom. I wouldn’t have it any other way, but often that teaching goes unseen or unrecognized or even, unfortunately taken for granted. This award is important to me because it not only celebrates the writing I’ve done, it honors the teaching I do every day.


What prompted you to choose the topic of your essay?

The essay is about a lot of things, but it’s mostly about a speech that Israeli novelist David Grossman presented as the Arthur Miller Freedom to Write lecture at the 2007 PEN World Voices Festival and my experience of reading this speech with students.

Grossman draws an important correlation between the language we use and our experience of the world. Relying on prefabricated language, he says, like clichés and stereotypes, keeps that experience flat and hardened. Writing, however, disrupts that impulse and breathes new life into, well, anything. The process of writing is a process of discovery. No matter what you’re writing about—no matter how familiar or how simple—in the process of writing, new insights and connections and details emerge. And to experience that is to know that the world is never static.

I love Grossman’s speech because it crystallizes why and how honest writing is a social act. I love reading it with students because they discover, too, the absolute utility of writing, which includes cultivating curiosity in their own lived experience. There’s so much disdain for the liberal arts in general these days and for the Humanities in particular, but when students read this speech, it underscores the realizations they’re already having about the value of writing – and I always learn something from them as a result.


What is the connection between writing and the creation of a “flexible’ world,” to use the words of judges?

Writing isn’t just self-expression or writing down what you already know, and Grossman’s main point is that every time we sit down to write, something moves, something opens up or reveals itself. Something shifts—in our perceptions, in our memories, and in our willingness to learn from ourselves and from one another. Most students catch a glimpse of this in their own revision work by the end of a semester, and that is when the real learning begins.

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