Master Writer Shares His Craft Despite Himself
John Updike believes in reading, not storytelling, but his soft spot brings him out to raise money for library chairs
In a shabby middle-school auditorium, John Updike, America's preeminent man of letters, is reading aloud so that local library patrons can have chairs.
Blade-slim and wearing a blue jacket, Updike has a face of jutting angles that sometimes beams a gleeful smile. Mr. Updike announces deadpan that he doesn't do readings often: "I believe that writers should be read and not seen."
But he has a soft spot for libraries. He spent a lot of time in the one in Reading, Penn., where he spent his childhood. "You can measure the health of a community by the health of its library," he says.
And while the library here in a northern suburb of Boston has just undergone a major renovation, it seems that the money ran out right after the tables were purchased. Updike is one of several local writer-celebrities wooed to help raise money for the chairs.
Out of his 40 years of poetry and fiction, Updike chose passages with a New England flavor, after his wife told him to steer clear of the steamier stuff. (This is, after all, the author who scandalized the nation in the late 1960s with his novel, "Couples," which delved into suburban adultery.)
Starting with poetry, he reads about seagulls, his daughter's graduation, dour clammers in hip boots, New England history, its obdurate climate, houses, marshes, rock outcroppings, summer people, and church records in "spidery brown ink."
Updike plops nuggets of personal details among the poems. He attributes his early start in writing to his mother, a would-be writer. He went to Harvard College, worked for the New Yorker magazine for a few years, has been married twice, and is a father. He doesn't say, but he has written 17 novels, 11 books of short stories, six books of poetry, five children's books, four collections of essays, a book of art criticism, and a memoir.
He spent time on the beaches of Ipswich, Mass., especially at dusk. One time, looking at a seagull, he felt a poem coming on but didn't have anything to write with. So he found a bit of charcoal from a bonfire and a piece of driftwood, and wrote the first stanza on that. "Then I had to carry it home."
He says writing fiction set in a certain location takes assimilation and acculturation. "You can write a poem about a place almost the night when you get there," he says. "But ... it was many years before I actually wrote much about New England in the form of fiction. I moved here in 1957, and "Couples" first jumped into the icy blue water of New England narrative in 1966." He launches into the novel's opening scene.
Woven into the reading were his thoughts on writing. "Begin with a thing, not a thought. Or as William Carlos Williams said, 'No thought but in things.'"
At the end, Updike took questions from the audience, a mixture of elderly Beverly residents wearing pearls, starry-eyed students, and local fishermen.
On teaching writing:
"I did teach at Harvard in 1962. It was an experiment that confirmed my professional opinion that it was not for me. I felt that it uses the same part of your brain that writing does. Thinking about someone else's stuff, you're not too apt to go into your own with the requisite innocence and naivete. My father was a teacher, and it took a lot out of him. I was afraid it would take a lot out of me."
On what to read to be a good writer.
"Read the classics until you are excited by them, then your first efforts are apt to be an emulation of what excited you. The basic teaching tool writers must use are other people's books; the classics.
"[I read] Proust; Kiekegaard spoke to me urgently. You have to pay attention to Shakespeare - what he's done no one else has.... Welty, Roth, Tyler, Cheever."
"This is an easy question: How do you see yourself in terms of 18th- and 19th-century writers, and how do you want to be seen?"
"That's not an easy question!
"You have to ask yourself, 'What can I do that these gentlemen - or ladies - have not done.' As far as ranking yourself with Austin or Dickens, try your best, recognizing that you cannot quite write as they did, no matter how excellent and impeccable and masterly their work still is. The social context is gone, and for better or worse, you must write out of today's truth. In some sense, literature is assured of renewing itself because no two generations are quite exactly alike in history."
Do you use notes or a journal?
"Not much. My theory is that it should be so simple that you can carry it in your head.
"Quite often I begin with a fairly dim notion of the character and then have faith that when I think the character wants to appear that he or she will appear."
Have you ever written yourself into a corner so tight that you had to throw out work?
"I had to abandon a couple of longish books. One was about high school. I knew about high schools from two angles: I went to one, and my father taught in one. I loved the smell of wax and chalk. To me it was home in a funny way. Yet I couldn't.... The book just gathered pages, but didn't gather momentum or meaning. I was reading it to my wife, and I said, 'This is pretty bad, isn't it?' And she couldn't deny it.
"I'm in a kind of corner now, and don't know how I'll get out. In general, you avoid these corners if you wait to begin until you have a picture of the whole arc of the book. Most books have a simple underlying plot. In "Couples," it's the coronation of a new couple. By the end of the book, they have become a new couple. Within this basic movement there are many dances. Don't begin until you have some sense of the ending."
Is your approach to writing formal or more spontaneous?
"Early on I set a modest quota. I thought if I worked three hours a day and completed three pages a day at least, that should move matters along, and so it's been."
A gull, up close,
looks surprisingly stuffed.
His fluffy chest seems filled
with an inexpensive taxidermist's material
rather lumpily inserted. The legs,
unbent, are childish crayon strokes -
too simple to be workable.
And even the feather-markings,
whose intricate symmetry is the usual glory of birds,
are in the gull slovenly,
as if God makes too many
to make them very well.
Are they intelligent?
We imagine so, because they are ugly.
The sardonic one-eyed profile, slightly cross,
the narrow, ectomorphic head, badly combed,
the wide and nervous and well-muscled rump
all suggest deskwork: shipping rates by day, Schopenhauer
by night, and endless coffee...
Commencement, Pingree School
Among these North Shore tennis tans I sit,
In seersucker dressed, in small things fit;
Within a lovely tent of white I wait
To see my lovely daughter graduate.
Slim boughs of blossom tap the tent and stamp
Their shadows like a bower on the cloth.
The brides in two glide down the grassy ramp
To graduation's candle, moth and moth.
The Master makes his harrumphs. Music. Prayer.
Demure and close in rows, the seniors sway.
Class loyalty solidifies the air.
At every name, a body wends her way.
Through greenhouse shade and rustle to receive
A paper of divorce and endless leave.
As each accepts her scroll of rhetoric,
Up pops a Daddy with a Nikon.
(From Collected Poems 1953-1993. Alfred A. Knopf, New York. 1993)