1. Education
Richard Nordquist

Writers on Writing: John Updike

By January 28, 2009

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Throughout his long writing career, John Updike attracted a number of journalistic cliches: "bushy eyebrows" and "hawkish nose" to caricature his appearance; "baroque," "exquisite," and "prolifically poetic" to describe his prose style. In the obituaries that have appeared since his death yesterday morning, a few novels have been duly mentioned (usually The Witches of Eastwick, the best-selling Couples, and the quartet of Rabbit Angstrom novels) along with twelve short-story collections and several awards--including a pair of Pulitzers, a PEN/Faulkner Award, and two National Book Awards (though not the Nobel Prize, which was copped in 1999 by his fictional alter ego, Henry Bech).

Less attention has been paid to Updike's large output of nonfiction. Both the Boston Globe and Boston Herald singled out the early essay "Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu," a dazzling report on the last ball game played by Ted Williams, and a few notices quoted a line or two from the 1989 memoir, Self-Consciousness. Only The New York Times, it seems, could find space to acknowledge the value of the six massive (Martin Amis called them "cuboid") collections of articles, reviews, and essays that Updike published over the past half century: Assorted Prose (1965), Picked-Up Pieces (1975), Hugging the Shore (1983), Odd Jobs (1991), More Matter (1999), and Due Considerations (2007). "The impression they left most indelibly," said Christopher Lehmann-Haupt in The Times, "was their authorís vast range in time, space and discipline as a reader, and his deep capacity to understand, appreciate, discriminate, explain and guide."

Unlike his own father (a high school math teacher in Pennsylvania) and the mass of "creative writers" in America, Updike never taught professionally. But his collections of nonfiction provide a full course of study in language and literature for any young writer willing to read wide and deep. Updike may have been the quintessential "lyrical writer of the ordinary," but extraordinary lessons can still be found both in and beneath the glittering surface of his prose.

Here, gathered from a variety of interviews and articles, are a few more 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 writersí 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 donít know what Iíd do with my mornings if I didnít 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 thereís 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)


  • On Words
    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)


  • 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)


  • On the Death of the Book
    In imagining a huge, virtually infinite wordstream accessed by search engines and populated by teeming, promiscuous word snippets stripped of credited authorship, are we not depriving the written word of its old-fashioned function of, through such inventions as the written alphabet and the printing press, communication from one person to another--of, in short, accountability and intimacy? Yes, there is a ton of information on the Web, but much of it is egregiously inaccurate, unedited, unattributed and juvenile. The electronic marvels that abound around us serve, surprisingly, to inflame what is most informally and noncritically human about us.
    ("The End of Authorship," adapted from Updike's address to booksellers at the BookExpo America convention in Washington, D.C., in May 2006)


  • 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)

More Writers on Writing:

Image: John Updike, 1932-2009 (photo by Martha Updike)

Comments

January 29, 2009 at 10:28 pm
(1) GBEMI TIJANI MST says:

ADIEU JOHN UPDIKE -A MOST DOGGED WRITER OF THE PROSE AS WELL AS POEMS.A FINE PREACHER OF THE WORD THROUGH THE WRITTEN WORD.A CARING NURSE,FOR THE WORD ALREADY IN THE BROCAS AREAS AND A VENERABLE MIDWIFE FOR THE WORD MISCELLANY AS PROSE OR POEM ABOUT TO BE DELIVERED IN THE MANGER ATTIC.A FOOD PHYSICIAN OF THE WORKS -FICTIONS OR NONFICTIONS ALREADY BORN VIVIPAROUSLY FOR MORE THAN HALF A CENTURY.
ADIEU.JOHN UPDIKE.YOUR DISSECTION OF THE WRITTEN WORD ANATOMY AND AND LITERARY ANNOTATIONS OF THE PHYSIOLOGY OF POETRY AND PROSE WHICH YOU ELOQUENTLY TREATED IN THE US TOPIC MAGAZINE PRIOR TO INTERNET UPLOADING OF LITERATI HERE OR THERE –IS MOST UNFORGETTABLE IN MY MEMORIES AS A YOUNG ADMIRER OF J.UPDIKE IN THE ’70S.
HIS OVERVIEW OF THE WORD AS A DELICATE TOOL FOR THE CRAFT OF WRITING COMPARED METAPHORICALLY WITH WHAT-or again -how the Yoruba Africans view very fecund and fertile tbreao bring forth a chicken but it’s also h ighly vulnerable to damage due to careless handling ot uncouth gazing at its natural gorgeousness.
ADIEU.JOHN UPDIKE -YOUR PASSAGE SHOULD BE LINED WITH SONNETS AND MISCELLANEOUS WORKS THAT ARE SPIRITUALLY LIFTING.ADIEU JOHN UPDIKE.YOU ARE BLESSED WITH WORDS’SMITHING SKILLS.YOUR DEMISE OUGHT TO BE PRESERVED IN THE MUSEUM OF LITERARY RED WOODS AND IN THE DIASPORA OF WRITERS GLOBALLY.THIS SHOULD CONSOLE AND DELIGHT THE NEW US PRESIDENT,BARACK OBAMA.
gbemi tijani mst

January 29, 2009 at 11:04 pm
(2) GBEMI TIJANI MST says:

Comments
January 29, 2009 at 10:28 pm
(1) GBEMI TIJANI MST

says:
ADIEU JOHN UPDIKE -A MOST DOGGED WRITER OF THE PROSE AS WELL AS POEMS.A FINE PREACHER OF THE WORD THROUGH THE WRITTEN WORD.A CARING NURSE,FOR THE WORD ALREADY IN THE BROCAS AREAS AND A VENERABLE MIDWIFE FOR THE WORD MISCELLANY AS PROSE OR POEM ABOUT TO BE DELIVERED IN THE MANGER ATTIC.A GOOD PHYSICIAN OF THE WORKS -FICTIONS OR NONFICTIONS ALREADY BORN VIVIPAROUSLY FOR MORE THAN HALF A CENTURY.
ADIEU.JOHN UPDIKE.YOUR DISSECTION OF THE WRITTEN WORD ANATOMY AND AND LITERARY ANNOTATIONS OF THE PHYSIOLOGY OF POETRY AND PROSE WHICH YOU ELOQUENTLY TREATED IN THE US TOPIC MAGAZINE PRIOR TO INTERNET UPLOADING OF LITERATI HERE OR THERE ĖIS MOST UNFORGETTABLE IN MY MEMORIES AS A YOUNG ADMIRER OF J.UPDIKE IN THE Ď70S.
HIS OVERVIEW OF THE WORD AS A DELICATE TOOL FOR THE CRAFT OF WRITING COMPARED METAPHORICALLY WITH WHAT-or again -how the Yoruba Africans view the word as a very fecund and fertile egg that can bring forth a chicken but itís also highly vulnerable to damage due to careless handling ot uncouth gazing at its natural gorgeousness.
ADIEU.JOHN UPDIKE -YOUR PASSAGE SHOULD BE LINED WITH SONNETS AND MISCELLANEOUS WORKS THAT ARE SPIRITUALLY LIFTING.ADIEU JOHN UPDIKE.YOU ARE BLESSED WITH WORDSíSMITHING SKILLS.YOUR DEMISE OUGHT TO BE PRESERVED IN THE MUSEUM OF LITERARY RED WOODS AND IN THE DIASPORA OF WRITERS GLOBALLY.THIS SHOULD CONSOLE AND DELIGHT THE NEW US PRESIDENT,BARACK OBAMA.
gbemi tijani mst
HOLIDAY AND CASH(IBADAN PRO-ACTIVE GROUP)

January 30, 2009 at 3:17 am
(3) coffee says:

John Updike possessed a truly beautiful mind; he didn’t just write well, he wrote wisely

February 2, 2009 at 11:03 am
(4) pisatel6 says:

I heard this anecdote about Updike many years ago, and the woman who related it was recalling what had happened still quite a few years back in her past. I share it as an example of the man’s waggish wit that so consistently brightend his prose and poetry.

This happened on a relatively deserted beach on Martha’s Vineyard or some other island of the eastern seaboard. The woman–still slender, dark-haired and attractive when she related this to me long after the event–was lying on her back on a towel, getting some sun.

She said that she was gradually wakened from her half slumber by the sound of a scaping noise which was growing gradually louder and nearer to her. When the sound ceased, she removed her arm that had been shielding her eyes and looked up. A young man was crouched a few feet away, a long stick in his hand, smiling at her.

Sitting up, she was able to see that what she had heard was the man using the stick to make narrowing concentric circles in the sand. He had fashioned a target, and she was the bull’s eye.

She recognized him as John Updike. His original method of starting up a conversation with an attractive unknown female was successful. I never heard what happened thereafter. It matters not. I recall the anecdote whenever I hear, read, or think about the late author some 40 years after first hearing it recounted.

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