John Updike’s Advice to Young Writers: ‘Reserve an Hour a Day’

John Updike once said of his task as a writer, “My only duty was to describe reality as it had come to me — to give the mundane its beautiful due.” In book after book, he did just that.

With a sharp eye and a searching intellect, Updike reconstituted the details of everyday life into fluid, lyrical prose. “He turned a sentence better than anyone else,” said Ian McEwan in reaction to Updike’s untimely death in 2009. Philip Roth added: “John Updike is our time’s greatest man of letters, as brilliant a literary critic and essayist as he was a novelist and short story writer. He is and always will be no less a national treasure than his 19th-century precursor, Nathaniel Hawthorne. His death constitutes a loss to our literature that is immeasurable.”

In June of 2004, Updike sat for an interview with the Academy of Achievement, a Washington-based non-profit group dedicated to inspiring young people to succeed. In a wide-ranging conversation, Updike is asked whether he has any advice for writers just starting out. “You hesitate to give advice to young writers,” Updike says, “because there’s a limit to what you can say. It’s not exactly like being a musician, or even an artist, where there’s a set number of skills that have to be mastered.” Nevertheless, he goes on to make several suggestions:

To the young writers, I would merely say, “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. Henry Green, one of my pets, was an industrialist actually. He was running a company, and he would come home and write for just an hour in an armchair, and wonderful books were created in this way. 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. We’re still a capitalist country, and writing to some degree is a capitalist enterprise, when it’s not a total sin to try to make a living and court an audience. “Read what excites you,” would be advice, and even if you don’t imitate it you will learn from it. All those mystery novels I read I think did give me some lesson about keeping a plot taut, trying to move forward or make the reader feel that kind of tension is being achieved, a string is being pulled tight. Other than that, don’t try to get rich on the other hand. If you want to get rich, you should go into investment banking or being a certain kind of a lawyer. But, on the other hand, 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.

To read the full interview with John Updike, which includes more video highlights, visit the Academy of Achievement Web site.

via Dangerous Minds

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