Remembering Michael Downing

A lecturer in the Department of English and prolific writer, he taught creative writing at Tufts for 20 years
Michael Downing. A lecturer in the Department of English and prolific writer, he taught creative writing at Tufts for 20 years
“The creative writing classroom is a place to develop the habit of wanting our original work to change,” said Michael Downing, here in 2006. “That to me is the project of a life—to change, and to be changed by the people you encounter.” Photo: Melody Ko
February 22, 2021

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Michael Downing, a former longtime lecturer in the Department of English, passed away on Feb. 9 from cancer. He was 62. 

Downing joined Tufts in fall 1998, and taught creative writing courses until his retirement in 2018. Before coming to Tufts, he taught writing at Wheelock College as an assistant professor.

He was a prolific and award-winning writer, the author of nine books, two plays, and many essays and articles on a wide range of topics. His 1997 book Perfect Agreement was a national bestseller and was named one of the 10 Best Books of the Year by Amazon.com and Newsday. Breakfast with Scot, a comedy about two gay men who become parents, was named an American Library Association honor book and was adapted into a feature film that premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival.

His 2005 nonfiction book Spring Forward: The Annual Madness of Daylight Saving Time delves into the politics and history behind the practice of annual time change practice, and received acclaim from critics. He was considered an expert on the topic and was frequently featured on network and cable TV news programs, NPR, and radio stations around the world to discuss it. He also recorded an Ever Wonder video for Tufts on the issue.

“In addition to his phenomenal writing career, Michael was dedicated to his students and loved teaching writing,” wrote Arts and Sciences Dean James Glaser to the Tufts community. “Michael’s colleagues in the English department remember him as a very effective teacher and a highly valued colleague.” 

His last novel, Still in Love, focused in part on the transformative power of the creative writing classroom. “I think of the classroom as an incredibly important cultural space and personal space, and one that’s increasingly undervalued and under threat,” Downing told Tufts Now in 2019. A classroom, he said, “is a chance to understand that we can choose to be in a community, and to understand the individual experiences within it. It often requires an effort, but the rewards are real.”

Downing’s books show his range as a writer, from the 2015 novel The Chapel, about a widow’s travels in Italy, to Shoes Outside the Door, a nonfiction account of the travails of an American Zen Buddhist monastery community, and Life with Sudden Death: A Tale of Moral Hazard and Medical Misadventure, a memoir.

Teaching creative writing was special to Downing. “One of the things I love about the creative writing classroom is how unpredictable it is, and the possibility of one’s life path being altered or deepened by an experience inside it,” he said in 2019.

“We tend to be defensive of our work. We want it to be received well, to be instantly commended for what we’ve done. But the creative writing classroom is a place to develop the habit of wanting our original work to change,” he added. “That to me is the project of a life—to change, and to be changed by the people you encounter.”