Why take John Updike’s advice?
Until his death on 27 January 2009, John Hoyer Updike (born 18 March 1932) was for many years one of America’s most eminent literary men, a novelist, a short story writer, critic, poet, essayist, and much more besides.
The New York Times called him “A towering figure in our literary landscape”.
British novelist Ian McEwan wrote that Updike’s “literary schemes and pretty conceits touched at points on the Shakespearean”, and that Updike’s death marked “the end of the golden age of the American novel in the 20th century’s second half.”
American novelist Philip Roth wrote: “John Updike is our time’s greatest man of letters, as brilliant a literary critic and essayist as he was a novelist and short story writer. He is and always will be no less a national treasure than his 19th-century precursor, Nathaniel Hawthorne.”
Updike’s most famous work is his Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom series. Both Rabbit Is Rich (1981) and Rabbit At Rest (1990) received the Pulitzer Prize. Updike is one of only three authors (the others were Booth Tarkington and William Faulkner) to win the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction more than once. Rabbit Is Rich also won the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award, thus scooping all three major American literary prizes.
Updike was well recognized for his careful craftsmanship, his unique prose style, and his prolificness: he published more than twenty novels and more than a dozen short story collections, as well as poetry, art criticism, literary criticism and children’s books. Hundreds of his stories, reviews, and poems appeared in The New Yorker, starting in 1954. He also wrote regularly for The New York Review of Books.
So what is John Updike’s advice?
Here, gathered from a variety of interviews and articles, are a few lessons from one of the finest writers of the past 50 years.
The Tool of Language
: I remember one English teacher in the eighth grade, Florence Schrack, whose husband also taught at the high school. I thought what she said made sense, and she parsed sentences on the blackboard and gave me, I’d like to think, some sense of English grammar and that there is a grammar, that those commas serve a purpose and that a sentence has a logic, that you can break it down. I’ve tried not to forget those lessons, and to treat the English language with respect as a kind of intricate tool.
(Academy of Achievement, June 12, 2004)
Tackling the Empty Page : It’s always a push to get up the stairs, to sit down and go to work. You’d rather do almost anything, read the paper again, write some letters, play with your old dust jackets, any number of things you’d rather do than tackle that empty page, because what you do on the page is you, your ticket to all the good luck you’ve enjoyed. (Quoted by Paul Gray and Peter Stoler, “Perennial Promises Kept,” Time magazine, October 18, 1982)
Setting Quotas: It’s good to have a certain doggedness to your technique. In college I was struck by the fact that Bernard Shaw, who became a playwright only after writing five novels, would sit in the British Museum, the reading room, and his quota was something like maybe five pages a day, but when he got to the last word on the last page–whether it was the middle of a sentence–he would stop. So this notion that when you have a quota, whether it’s two pages or–three is how I think of it, three pages–that it’s a fairly modest quota, but nevertheless if you do it, really do it, the stuff will accumulate. (Academy of Achievement, June 12, 2004)
A Writer’s Material: You are full of your material–your family, your friends, your region of the country, your generation–when it is fresh and seems urgently worth communicating to readers. No amount of learned skills can substitute for the feeling of having a lot to say, of bringing news. Memories, impressions, and emotions from your first 20 years on earth are most writers’ main material; little that comes afterward is quite so rich and resonant. By the age of 40, you have probably mined the purest veins of this precious lode; after that, continued creativity is a matter of sifting the leavings. (“The Writer in Winter,” AARP, November/December 2008)
Pleasures of Writing : I don’t know what I’d do with my mornings if I didn’t write in them. There are pleasures to writing–you kind of get out a lot of your bad secretions. You can purge yourself of them through writing. And there’s still some market for what I have to say. (Telephone interview with John Mark Eberhart, The Buffalo News, January 14, 2009)
The Writer’s News About Being Alive: ”There’s a kind of confessional impulse that not every literate, intelligent person has. A crazy belief that you have some exciting news about being alive, and I guess that more than talent is what separates those who do it from those who think they’d like to do it. That your witness to the universe can’t be duplicated, that only you can provide it, and that it’s worth providing.” (quoted by Mark Feeny in “John Updike, Literature’s Wide-Ranging Master, Is Dead at 76,” The Boston Globe, January 28, 2009)
Verbal Elegance : You know the saying that you should write invisibly, that writing should be invisible. I think people know they’re reading a book, and that this object in front of them is a page of words. What I really like in a book is the sense that the writing is itself entertaining, or interesting, or it makes you want to read a sentence twice. (Academy of Achievement, June 12, 2004)
Writers take words seriously – perhaps the last
professional class that does–and they struggle to steer their own through the crosswinds of meddling editors and careless typesetters and obtuse and malevolent reviewers into the lap of the ideal reader. (Introduction to Writers at Work, Seventh Series, 1986)
Advice to Young Writers: To the young writers, I would merely say, “Try to develop actual work habits, and even though you have a busy life, try to reserve an hour say–or more–a day to write.” Some very good things have been written on an hour a day. . . . So, take it seriously, you know, just set a quota. Try to think of communicating with some ideal reader somewhere. Try to think of getting into print. Don’t be content just to call yourself a writer and then bitch about the crass publishing world that won’t run your stuff. We’re still a capitalist country, and writing to some degree is a capitalist enterprise, when it’s not a total sin to try to make a living and court an audience. “Read what excites you,” would be advice, and even if you don’t imitate it you will learn from it. . . . I would like to think that in a country this large–and a language even larger–that there ought to be a living in it for somebody who cares, and wants to entertain and instruct a reader. (Academy of Achievement, June 12, 2004)
Watch these videos for more of John Updike’s indispensable advice for writers:
A Life in Letters:
John Updike reading – Part 1 of 6:
The purpose of writing:
Advice to young writers:
On Bookworm, part 1:
On Bookworm, part 2:
A conversation on writing:
Interviewed by Audio Book:
Book TV After Words:
Growing up in Shillington:
With Jeffrey Brown:
Hungry for more?
Here is a great piece of interactive media, courtesy of the New York Times – John Updike’s revisions to some of Rabbit at Rest.
Finally, a couple of excellent articles on John Updike: