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

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Toni Mor­ri­son, Nora Ephron, and Dozens More Offer Advice in Free Cre­ative Writ­ing “Mas­ter Class”

Writ­ing Tips by Hen­ry Miller, Elmore Leonard, Mar­garet Atwood, Neil Gaiman & George Orwell

Ernest Hem­ing­way Cre­ates a Read­ing List for a Young Writer, 1934

Ray Brad­bury Gives 12 Pieces of Writ­ing Advice to Young Authors (2001)

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