Walter Robert McDonald was born in Lubbock, Texas, to Vera Graves McDonald and C. A. McDonald, a veteran of World War I who had worked as a cowboy in his youth and later as a commercial painter. After earning his B.A. from Texas Tech University in 1956, McDonald was accepted into U.S. Air Force pilot training. Since his class would not begin for another year, he stayed at Texas Tech and completed his M.A. in English. In 1959, he married Carol Ham.
After pilot training, McDonald taught English at the Air Force Academy. Later he attended the Writers’ Workshop at the University of Iowa, where he studied fiction writing with R.V. Cassill and Vance Bourjaily. At this time he had no interest in poetry and did not take a single poetry-writing class. After completing his Ph.D. in 1966, he returned to his teaching assignment at the Air Force Academy.
In 1969, McDonald, who had become the father of three children, was sent to Vietnam, where he served as a ground officer at Tan Son Nhut and Cam Ron from late 1969 to early 1970. After a medical discharge from the Air Force, McDonald returned to Texas Tech in 1971, where he started the creative writing program and remained as its director until 2000. He served as poetry editor for the Texas Tech University Press (1975-1995) and as Paul Whitfield Horn Professor of English and poet-in-residence until his retirement in 2002.
Although McDonald customarily writes in the first person, he is not the speaker in his poems. As he told interviewer Darryl Tippens,Always I’m writing poems, not autobiography. In the sense that poems expose some of my interests, obsessions, the regions of the mind I keep prowling, sure. But almost only in that sense. . . . I’m not there, frank and undisguised, in a poem or a short story. Experience is valuable for what it is; then the writing takes over.
In other words, he is not the soldier or the pilot, the cowboy or the hardscrabble rancher, who speaks from the pages. However, he does share a part of those characters’ history and culture, and the common experience makes the poems rich and real.