Updike In Winter

First of all, let’s just get this out of the way: yes the article I am writing about today comes from AARP Magazine. Why am I reading AARP Magazine? Am I secretly over 50? Or is it that I will read anything that’s in front of my face and has words on it? Probably the latter. It would at least explain why I have memorized the strange poetry of the list of ingredients in my shampoo.

Whatever the reason, I found myself reading an article in AARP Magazine by John Updike, The Writer in Winter. It is about the difference in the writing process as a writer ages. While I can’t exactly call myself an Updike fan, I found the article a pleasure to read. I thought Updike’s points (not only about changing technology — turns out he’s a PC) about the approach to and style of writing as a writer gets older were interesting. For example:

I can appreciate the advantages, for a writer, of youth and obscurity. You are not yet typecast. You can take a distant, cold view of the entire literary scene. 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 20 years on earth are most writers’ main material; little that comes afterward is quite so rich and resonant.

For one thing, just because I’m a pain that way, I think it’s funny for Updike to appreciate obscurity. But I do understand what he means, to an extent. Since it turns out that I’m not actually secretly over 50, and am still under 30 and get told all the time that I have no concept of how young I am which I’m sure is true, I also know from experience that it’s hard to compete with the excitement of being unfettered by things such as knowing what you’re doing. As someone who has written pretty much since I was literate, I know that my earliest attempts were the most joyful. I wouldn’t necessarily call those attempts good writing, though I can look at some of that stuff and see fledgling skill there, but while I’m not advocating for writing crap, I do think it’s a lovely thing to be able just to write. As I got older and worked on the craft of writing, to the point that I spent a long time being stifled by my own perfectionism, I lost that initial joy of feeling like I had something to say. There’s a balance in there somewhere… and I think I’m on a tangent. Let’s move on.

An aging writer wonders if he has lost the ability to visualize a completed work, in its complex spatial relations. He should have in hand a provocative beginning and an ending that will feel inevitable. Instead, he may arrive at his ending nonplussed, the arc of his intended tale lying behind him in fragments. The threads have failed to knit. The leap of faith with which every narrative begins has landed him not on a far safe shore but in the middle of the drink. The failure to make final sense is more noticeable in a writer like Agatha Christie, whose last mysteries don’t quite solve all their puzzles, than in a broad-purposed visionary like Iris Murdoch, for whom puzzlement is part of the human condition. But in even the most sprawling narrative, things must add up.

Reason #9,327,622 why I will probably never write a novel: if one must have a sense of the completed work when beginning, I am screwed. Oh well. My issues aside, I wonder — is this truly an issue unique to aging writers or is it just an occupational hazard?

Finally, Updike gets into the longevity of writing as a career that doesn’t exist in other fields such as sports. A baseball player isn’t going to be playing in the World Series when he’s 80, yet a writer can continue on as long as possible.

By and large, time moves with merciful slowness in the old-fashioned world of writing. The 88-year-old Doris Lessing won the Nobel Prize in Literature. Elmore Leonard and P.D. James continue, into their 80s, to produce bestselling thrillers. Although books circulate ever more swiftly through the bookstores and back to the publisher again, the rhythms of readers are leisurely. They spread recommendations by word of mouth and “get around” to titles and authors years after making a mental note of them. A movie has a few weeks to find its audience, and television shows flit by in an hour, but books physically endure, in public and private libraries, for generations. Buried reputations, like Melville’s, resurface in academia; avant-garde worthies such as Cormac McCarthy attain, late in life, bestseller lists and The Oprah Winfrey Show.

Updike closes with the following:

Among those diminishing neurons there lurks the irrational hope that the last book might be the best.

I remember in a former incarnation of LitKicks, in the section of the site where we accepted member-contributed articles, the submission guidelines said to close author biographies with the writer’s death or his later works, which in many cases is the same thing. I immediately thought of that when I read that line of Updike’s. And I want to ask — are the issues he raises in his article (there are more I didn’t quote here, so I guess you’ll have to read it) unique to the writer’s aging process or are they just parts of the act of writing itself? Discuss.

5 Responses

  1. I believe that it depends on
    I believe that it depends on the individual and not the age group. If you will lend some credibility to the Kerouac myth this is certainly not true however fragmented his later works were he had a vision of what his work was.

  2. It really does depend on the
    It really does depend on the individual.

    By the way, when I go back and read some of my earliest Litkicks articles, the flaws make me cringe.

  3. John Updike is part of an old
    John Updike is part of an old guard I will never understand. I have seen him speak, enjoyed books with his stamp of approval, and have many times begun his novels, only to put them down quickly. I always look over the back covers and can never find a reason to read one of his books. They just sound boring, but I keep hearing about his greatness as a writer. If the descriptions weren’t boring enough, AARP magazine?

    So having absolutely nothing to stand on, I think there is a chance that his last book will be his best, though there is a chance it won’t be much different from his first. My guess: love triangle in the Jersey suburbs?

    As for the age old question of whether a writer sends himself or a book into the world, I will never believe that the book is independent of its author. Even writing about Lord Xenu invading the earth, the writer brings something of himself to the table. My guess is, it would be tough for me to write as accurate a novel about affairs of the middle class in the suburbs of…. yyaaaawwwnnn.

  4. I will always stick up for
    I will always stick up for Updike, even though I’ve only read the Rabbit books so far(!) They seem to me to be enough for anyone’s reputation, never mind a writer of his apparently prolific output.

    I’m not sure whether your question is legitimate, jamelah – i trust Updike on how he titles an essay…i’m just into my twenties and writing is just how he described it in the first paragraph you quote. Perhaps alot more fear is involved, but thats just me. The act of writing surely changes as you age, just as your bladder or your marbles will, so why distinguish one from the other?

  5. I just read the Updike essay
    I just read the Updike essay in the AARP issue and was about to send a copy to a friend when I found this discussion.

    I’m 60 years old and like Jameiah I’ve been writing since I was literate. I’ve written comic books, poems, neighborhood newspapers, posters, movie reviews, academic literary essays, letters, science fiction–a lot of stuff. I can’t put my hand on 95% of it. Like all of us, I write and move on.

    What I’ve discovered is that there is always joy in writing as long as I’m writing what I want to write. As soon as I start writing something that feels like it’s being written because someone expects to me to write it, I lose interest.

    That’s one thing I wanted to say. The other thing is that as a writer I’ve always been changing in terms of how I wanted to write and what I wanted to write. I started out as a guy who thought that Kerouac was the real thing and that I had to write with his inspiration behind every one of my words. Kerouac, if he were alive and paying attention to what I was writing, would be shaking his head at where I am today.

    Writers write and writers change, and they always have to be open to the possibility that they will change.

    This is true not only of my writing but my reading as well.
    When I was 25 (coming out of the beat writers and moving towarad the postmodern ones), I read Updike and said, They should feed this stuff to the cows!”

    Reading it now, I think , you know, some of it’s not so bad.

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