Words of Wisdom : John Updike on Writing

John Updike was an indubitably one of the greatest men to master the English language with such a sheer command. He set himself apart largely thanks to his inimitable prose and graceful style. In fact, the man’s style was so swift many critics often considered it a fault of his (claiming the extent to which he polished his writing must have taken away from the intellectual complexity of his themes. Hogwash, I say…)

His success was no accident however. When it came to writing, Updike was disciplined and thorough and meticulous: he made himself write every day to ultimately produce (at least) three pages of creation that were up to his standards (another great lesson can be taken here: write for yourself and your own satisfaction above anything).

In an a 2004 article for the Academy of Achievement, Updike advised young writers (… that’s me!) to ” ‘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”.

Wise words indeed Mr. Updike.

Not only was he content with producing prose he was satisfied with, Updike also demonstrated a desire to make other writers better. As an amateur one myself, I simply have to say: thanks. Here are some of the other lessons Updike shared in his lifetime.

On 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, 2004)

On 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. (Time magazine, 1982)

On 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, 2004)

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. (Writers at Work, 1986)

Taken from Richard Nordquist’s compilation on About.com’s page on       writing and composition. All credit goes to said author. For the full list, visit http://grammar.about.com/b/2009/01/28/writers-on-writing-john-updike.htm


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Filed under People who inspire me, Tips, tricks, do's and dont's

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