Archive for January, 2009

On John Updike

January 29, 2009

Novelists like nonfiction writers, are observers, and John Updike was among the most observant. You become a good writer by writing with details, and you get details by observing them, not just when you’re sitting at a desk writing, but in everyday live. Ask questions, look out the window. From where I sit I can see the occasional yellow rumped warbler flying to a distant oak. These are birds of winter. I could use the bird in a story, but not if I didn’t see it. You write with your senses, above all with your eyes, but also your ears and nose and skin. You write not just with your mind, but with your body. Novelists and nonfiction writers are always noticing things, taking notes, practicing, the way musicians practice scales. 

Here is an excerpt from yesterday’s obituary of John Updike in the New York Times:

“He wrote about America with boundless curiosity and wit in prose so careful and attentive that it burnished the ordinary with a painterly gleam.

Here he is in “A Sense of Shelter,” an early short story:

“Snow fell against the high school all day, wet big-flake snow that did not accumulate well. Sharpening two pencils, William looked down on a parking lot that was a blackboard in reverse; car tires had cut smooth arcs of black into the white, and wherever a school bus had backed around, it had left an autocratic signature of two V’s.”

The detail of his writing was so rich that it inspired two schools of thought on Mr. Updike’s fiction: those who responded to his descriptive prose as to a kind of poetry, a sensuous engagement with the world, and those who argued that it was more style than content.”

Read the whole obituary.

Note how the obituary obeys the basic form I have been explaining. An opening lays out the theme that Updike was a major writer and expounds on that theme at length. The section ends with a powerful quote from Philip Roth that compares Updike to Hawthorne.

Then the story goes into chronology, and traces Updike’s evolution as a writer. Then it wraps up with further background on how prolific he was, what kinds of books he wrote, the failure to win the Nobel, and ends (is this a surprise yet?) with a moving quotation from Updike about why he wrote.

In her appreciation of Updike, book critic Michiko Kakutani ends with a quotation from Updike that is also very moving. 

In one of these collections, Mr. Updike summed up his love of his vocation: “From earliest childhood I was charmed by the materials of my craft, by pencils and paper and, later, by the typewriter and the entire apparatus of printing. To condense from one’s memories and fantasies and small discoveries dark marks on paper which become handsomely reproducible many times over still seems to me, after nearly 30 years concerned with the making of books, a magical act, and a delightful technical process. To distribute oneself thus, as a kind of confetti shower falling upon the heads and shoulders of mankind out of bookstores and the pages of magazines is surely a great privilege and a defiance of the usual earthbound laws whereby human beings make themselves knownto one another.”

One of the things I’m stressing in the reporting phase is  to be on the alert for good quotes. These are the building blocks of the story. They can also serve as the ending of chapters or sections in the story. You can type up a quotation like this at the bottom of the screen and then write towards it.



January 23, 2009

Dear Writers in Journalism as Literary Form,

I’m creating this blog so that we can bypass some of the tedium of e-mails, and make the class handouts available continuously.

Please bookmark it. I’m new to this, so the going may be a little ragged at first.

Meanwhile, keep working on your story topics. 


The Editor