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John Updike on the Pleasures of Writing

"Writers take words seriously—perhaps the last professional class that does"

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John Updike on the Pleasures of Writing

John Updike (1932-2009)

photo by Martha Updike

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 appeared after his death in January 2009, a few novels were 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.

Less attention was 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 author’s 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 century.

  • 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 in "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)

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