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Master Writer Shares His Craft Despite Himself

John Updike believes in reading, not storytelling, but his soft spot brings him out to raise money for library chairs

By Catherine FosterStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / July 15, 1996


In a shabby middle-school auditorium, John Updike, America's preeminent man of letters, is reading aloud so that local library patrons can have chairs.

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Blade-slim and wearing a blue jacket, Updike has a face of jutting angles that sometimes beams a gleeful smile. Mr. Updike announces deadpan that he doesn't do readings often: "I believe that writers should be read and not seen."

But he has a soft spot for libraries. He spent a lot of time in the one in Reading, Penn., where he spent his childhood. "You can measure the health of a community by the health of its library," he says.

And while the library here in a northern suburb of Boston has just undergone a major renovation, it seems that the money ran out right after the tables were purchased. Updike is one of several local writer-celebrities wooed to help raise money for the chairs.

Out of his 40 years of poetry and fiction, Updike chose passages with a New England flavor, after his wife told him to steer clear of the steamier stuff. (This is, after all, the author who scandalized the nation in the late 1960s with his novel, "Couples," which delved into suburban adultery.)

Starting with poetry, he reads about seagulls, his daughter's graduation, dour clammers in hip boots, New England history, its obdurate climate, houses, marshes, rock outcroppings, summer people, and church records in "spidery brown ink."

Updike plops nuggets of personal details among the poems. He attributes his early start in writing to his mother, a would-be writer. He went to Harvard College, worked for the New Yorker magazine for a few years, has been married twice, and is a father. He doesn't say, but he has written 17 novels, 11 books of short stories, six books of poetry, five children's books, four collections of essays, a book of art criticism, and a memoir.

He spent time on the beaches of Ipswich, Mass., especially at dusk. One time, looking at a seagull, he felt a poem coming on but didn't have anything to write with. So he found a bit of charcoal from a bonfire and a piece of driftwood, and wrote the first stanza on that. "Then I had to carry it home."

He says writing fiction set in a certain location takes assimilation and acculturation. "You can write a poem about a place almost the night when you get there," he says. "But ... it was many years before I actually wrote much about New England in the form of fiction. I moved here in 1957, and "Couples" first jumped into the icy blue water of New England narrative in 1966." He launches into the novel's opening scene.

Woven into the reading were his thoughts on writing. "Begin with a thing, not a thought. Or as William Carlos Williams said, 'No thought but in things.'"

At the end, Updike took questions from the audience, a mixture of elderly Beverly residents wearing pearls, starry-eyed students, and local fishermen.

On teaching writing:

"I did teach at Harvard in 1962. It was an experiment that confirmed my professional opinion that it was not for me. I felt that it uses the same part of your brain that writing does. Thinking about someone else's stuff, you're not too apt to go into your own with the requisite innocence and naivete. My father was a teacher, and it took a lot out of him. I was afraid it would take a lot out of me."

On what to read to be a good writer.

"Read the classics until you are excited by them, then your first efforts are apt to be an emulation of what excited you. The basic teaching tool writers must use are other people's books; the classics.

"[I read] Proust; Kiekegaard spoke to me urgently. You have to pay attention to Shakespeare - what he's done no one else has.... Welty, Roth, Tyler, Cheever."