John Updike on Writing

American writer John Updike (1932-2009) is best remembered for his novels, though his prolific body of work includes poetry, short stories, essays, children's books, as well as art and literary criticism.  Below he recounts his experience of the writing life in a 1994 interview with Neil Baldwin.

My mother wanted to be a writer, and from earliest childhood on I saw her at the typewriter; and though my main passion as a child was drawing, I suppose the idea of being a writer was planted in my head...

Of course, everything you read of any merit at all in some way contributes to your knowledge of how to write, but my first literary passion was James Thurber.  He showed me an American voice and a willingness to be funny.  I think I first became aware of his work when I was around eleven, and I actually would save up pennies to go and buy the new Thurber; he was my idol until about the age of eighteen or nineteen.  I wrote him a fan letter when I was twelve and he sent me a drawing, which I've carried with me, framed, everywhere I've gone since.  In college there was Shakespeare and Dostoevsky, to name two, and the short stories of J.D. Salinger really openend my eyes as to how you can weave fiction out of a set of events that seem almost unconnected, or very lightly connected.

Directly out of college, in my attempt to continue my education, I began to read Proust in an English translation by Scott Moncrieff, and the length of those sentences, and teh qualities of the perceptions he was searching for, the expansive, delicious lunges into philosophy, all seemed very magical to me.  At about the same period I also began to read an English novelist called Henry Green, who is semi-forgotten but for me is really a master of the voice of fiction.  Rabbit is Rich is a long way from those years, but the pick-and-roll of it, the quickness of it, was written with Green's touch in mind.  And, of course, behind all those interior monologues stands Ulysses; the interior monologues of both Molly and Leopold Bloom were for me a very liberating, very exciting new way to touch the texture of human experience.  But Joyce is in the air you breathe, whereas Proust and Green and Salinger stick in the mind as really having moved me a step up, as it were, toward knowing how to handle my own material.

...There's imagination and there's reality, and they're not the same.  They're not even in the same ballpark, in a funny way.  Although you borrow constantly from real life, in the end what the reader wants, and what you should try to provide, is experience stripped of confusion.  Life comes to us full of clutter; every moment is, in a sense, overloaded, and in fiction you try, without totally abandoning that sense of overload, to hew out entities which have shape and flow.


Excerpt from The Writing Lifea collection of essays and interviews from National Book Award winning authors.