Updike on writing

John Updike, Wilfred Owen and George Plimpton were all born on March 18, reminds the Writer’s Almanac. My favourite writer, the most celebrated First World War poet, and Plimpton, the founding editor of the Paris Review, which he helmed from 1953 till his death in 2003. I remember reading excerpts from Paper Lion, his book about his pre-season training with the Detroit Lions, an American football team, in the 60s.

But most of all I miss Updike.

I loved The Widows of Eastwick, published in 2008, a few months before his death in January 2009. He was 76 then, but he wrote about the widows — whom he had earlier described in their younger days in The Witches of Eastwick — so knowingly it hardly seemed the writing of a dried-up old man.

He once said:

I always wanted to draw or write for a living. Teaching, the customary alternative, seemed truly depleting and corrupting. I have been able to support myself by and large with the more respectable forms—poetry, short stories, novels—but what journalism I have done has been useful. I would write ads for deodorants or labels for catsup bottles if I had to. The miracle of turning inklings into thoughts and thoughts into words and words into metal and print and ink never palls for me; the technical aspects of bookmaking, from type font to binding glue, interest me. The distinction between a thing well done and a thing done ill obtains everywhere —in all circles of Paradise and Inferno.

How memorably he put it: “The miracle of turning inklings into thoughts and thoughts into words and words into metal and print and ink…” Any writer or booklover can identify with that.

It’s from an interview he gave to the Paris Review in 1968 when he was only in his 30s. By then he had already made his mark with books like Rabbit, Run, published in 1960, and Couples, which came out in ’68. There’s quite a bit about Couples in the interview.

I have not read all his books, but those I have, I can read again and again. He writes so intimately about love and relationships. He is the most sensuous writer I have read. The only other writer I have read who seems as sensuous as him is Lawrence Durrell. But,again, I have not read all his books.

I love Updike for the way he writes about love and romance, his gorgeous prose and his sense of place. His Rabbit novels are like a social history of America since the Second World War till the end of the 20th century.

In the Paris Review interview, he says:

In each of my novels, a precise year is given and a president reigns; The Centaur is distinctly a Truman book, and Rabbit, Run an Eisenhower one. Couples could have taken place only under Kennedy; the social currents it traces are as specific to those years as flowers in a meadow are to their moment of summer.

Harry “Rabbit” is a young man, a former high school basketball star, in Rabbit, Run and dies a retiree in Rabbit at Rest. Along the way he is caught up in the social transformation of America. His turbulent marital life reflects the sexual permissiveness that came with the Sixties though he and Janice make up and remain married till his death.

The Paris Review touches on sex. The interviewer notes that Janice in the early novel, Rabbit, Run, is inhibited unlike the characters in Couples, published later in the Swinging Sixties.


I was impressed by the contrast between the presentation of oral-genital contacts in Couples and its single appearance in Rabbit, Run. Rabbit’s insistence that Ruth perform the act is the cause of their breakup.


No. Janice’s having the baby is.


If you say so; but I’d still like to know why an act that is treated so neutrally in the later book is so significant in the earlier one.


Well, Couples, in part, is about the change in sexual deportment that has occurred since the publication of Rabbit, Run, which came out late in ’59; shortly thereafter, we had Lady Chatterley and the first Henry Miller books, and now you can’t walk into a grocery store without seeing pornography on the rack… In Rabbit, Run what is demanded, in Couples is freely given.

Updike describes his writing habit:

I write every weekday morning. I try to vary what I am doing, and my verse, or poetry, is a help here. Embarked on a long project, I try to stay with it even on dull days. For every novel, however, that I have published, there has been one unfinished or scrapped.

He tries to distance himself as a writer from himself as a person.

“I disavow any essential connection between my life and whatever I write,” he says.

He talks about how writers are influenced by their early life:

I really don’t think I’m alone among writers in caring about what they experienced in the first eighteen years of their life… Look at Twain. Look at Joyce. Nothing that happens to us after twenty is as free from self-consciousness because by then we have the vocation to write. Writers’ lives break into two halves. At the point where you get your writerly vocation you diminish your receptivity to experience. Being able to write becomes a kind of shield, a way of hiding, a way of too instantly transforming pain into honey— whereas when you’re young, you’re so impotent you cannot help but strive and observe and feel.

I just came across a poem where Updike describes how children change as they grow up.

Saying Goodbye to Very Young Children

By John Updike

They will not be the same next time. The sayings
so cute, just slightly off, will be corrected.
Their eyes will be more sceptical, plugged in
the more securely to the worldly buzz
of television, alphabet, and street talk,
culture polluting their gazes’ dawn blue.
It makes you see at last the value of
those boring aunts and neighbours (their smells
of summer sweat and cigarettes, their faces
like shapes of sky between shade-giving leaves)
who knew you from the start, when you were zero,
cooing their nothings before you could be bored
or knew a name, not even you own, or how
this world brave with hellos turns all goodbye.

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