John Updike: Five pages a day every day of your life

John Updike: A giant of American literature. Photograph: Juniper Books

Beware of criticism. It may just be jealousy talking.

John Updike, he of the bushy eyebrows and hawkish nose, had a distinct style of prose that was described as baroque, exquisite, and prolifically poetic. He did win a couple of Pulitzer Prizes, a pair of National Book Awards, and the Pen/Faulkner Award. And such novels as Couples and Witches of Eastwick, not to mention his quartet of Rabbit Angstrom novels, have a definite place on the top shelf of American literature.

His name is widely known.

His work is widely praised.

Yet, John Updike, the man, was very private. Not a recluse, perhaps, but, it’s said, he cultivated his embowered solitude and would rather sit amidst isolation in his home on the Massachusetts shore and write.

No one wrote more.

He left an unending trail of fiction, poetry, essays, and criticism, most of which appeared rather regularly in The New Yorker. In addition, he published almost one book a year for more than a half century.

John Updike did not have time to socialize.

He may have gone to parties.

He did not like going to parties.

He preferred hanging around with the characters he created. He and his characters understood each other. And, as The New York Times pointed out, Updike “was known and envied for writing rapidly and easily and revising very little.” But he did demonstrate a painstaking care for establishing the tone and atmosphere of his novels.

John Updike did not get off to a great start. As a young student, he enrolled in Harvard to primarily study with a novelist on the college faculty, a writer he greatly admired, Albert Guerard. With a certain amount of hesitation, Updike gave Guerard segments of a book he had written.

The professor read the book and told Updike, “You may be a fine writer, Updike, but at present I do not think it would be a good idea to have two people with such different notions of prose as you and in in the same course.”

It was not just a matter of clashing sensibilities, Updike wrote his parents. Guerard called his prose “uneven and controlled.”

Updike was asked to leave the class.

He was not asked to come back.

But John Updike steeled himself to criticism and kept writing, and I’m glad that he did. I don’t know about you, but, from my point of view, John Updike was a brilliant writer, and I’ve read a lot of his so-called uneven and controlled prose. Frankly, I have no idea who Albert Guerard was or what he wrote.

Beware of criticism.

It may just be jealousy talking.

John Updike had this idea about writing: “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 page – whether it was the middle of a sentence – he would stop. So this notion that when you have a quota, whether it is two pages or three, if you do it, really do it, the stuff will accumulate.”

For Updike, it was five pages a day, rain or shine, regardless of the circumstances or where he happened to be. He religiously and without fail wrote his five pages a day. Updike once told an interviewer: “I don’t know what I would 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.”

He loved words and said, “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.”

It bothered Updike that so many in the literary world believed that an author should write invisibly, that the writing itself should be invisible. He said, “I think people know they are reading a book, and that this object in front of them is a page of words. What I really like in a book is the sense that the writing is itself entertaining, or it makes you want to read a sentence twice.”

He had not been given encouragement as a young writer at Harvard. But he had this advice to young writers who would follow after him: “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 in an hour a day. So, take it seriously, you know, just a 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. We’re still a capitalist country, and writing to some degree is a capitalist enterprise, where it’s not a sin to try to make a living and court an audience. Read what excites you would be my advice, and even if you don’t imitate it, you will learn from it. I would like to think that in a country this large – and a language even larger – that there ought to be a living in it for somebody who cares and wants to entertain and instruct a reader.”

He did, however, understand the battle that writers faced each day. He said, “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..”

As Updike always told writers: “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 twenty years on earth are most writers’ main material; little that comes afterward is quite so rich and resonant.”

Yet, as a writer grows older, the more rich and resonant those memories become.

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