Michael Downing of Cambridge, MA died from cancer on February 9, 2021. He was 62. Michael was a passionate author, teacher, friend, and mentor. He grew up in Pittsfield, MA, the youngest child in a large family. He graduated from Harvard College, where he studied English, and was a Harvard-Shrewsbury fellow in Shropshire, England.
Michael was the author of nine books, including the national bestseller Perfect Agreement, named one of the 10 Best Books of the Year by Amazon.com and Newsday, and Breakfast with Scot, a comedy about two gay men who inadvertently become parents. Breakfast with Scot was adapted as a feature film with the cooperation of the National Hockey League and the Toronto Maple Leafs—the first gay-themed movie to be endorsed by a major-league sports authority.
Michael's encyclopedic reading and wide-ranging interests were reflected in his other novels, which featured Giotto's frescoes in the Scrovegni Chapel and New England's Shaker communities, and in non-fiction works examining Zen Buddhism and the history of daylight saving time. He also wrote a memoir tracing the aftershocks of his father's death when Michael was three to his own experience as an adult at the frontiers of modern medicine.
In addition to his books, Michael wrote two plays, premiered by the Triangle Theater of Boston and San Francisco's New Conservatory Theatre. He worked as a contributing editor for the Italian art monthly FMR, the science journal Oceanus, and Harvard Magazine. In his latest novel, Still in Love, he returned to the main character of Perfect Agreement, a professor of writing at a Boston area university.
For 30 years, Michael taught writing to college students, first as an assistant professor at Wheelock College and for 20 years as an instructor of creative writing at Tufts University. Michael also was an instructor for many years at Teachers as Scholars (TAS), a professional development collaboration between college faculty and public and private school teachers. Devoted to his students, Michael told an interviewer in 2019, “I think of the classroom as an incredibly important cultural space and personal space, and one that's increasingly undervalued and under threat.” He added: “The creative writing classroom is a place to develop the habit of wanting our original work to change. That to me is the project of a life—to change, and to be changed by the people you encounter.”
Michael changed the lives of many students, colleagues and friends, who over years sought out his wisdom, company and cooking, which he shared in generous, equal portions of brilliance and humility. A lifelong resident of Massachusetts, he divided his time between Cambridge and Ipswich. He leaves his partner of 39 years, Peter Bryant; brothers, Jack Downing and his wife Mary of Pittsfield, MA and Joseph Downing of Westborough, MA; and many extended family members and friends who loved him deeply. Michael was predeceased by his parents, John F. and Gertrude (Martin) Downing; and his siblings, Mary Ann Matthews, Margaret Downing, and Gerard Downing.
John Hanson writes:
Although Mike and I were both Berkshire County boys (he from Pittsfield, me from Williamstown) we did not know each other until we met in seminars and sections at Winthrop House -- we were the only two 'Throp Honors English majors our year. We supported each other through the ups and downs of thesis-writing -- his was a study of William Cullen Bryant's Thanatopsis -- a poem I am fairly sure no one has read since, let alone used as a thesis topic. I can still remember vividly sitting down with Mike in the Winthrop Dining Hall for lunch every day of the spring of our Senior year so our Resident English Tutor, Joyce Flynn, could prep us for Orals and Generals. "OK," she would say, "Wordsworth!" And off Mike would go, speaking effortlessly and always to the point, with me just trying to keep up. Everything felt wonderful during those lunches, and we talked occasionally over the years about trying to recreate them. It saddens me now that we never will.