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Friday, March 18, 2016

The human value of creative writing

“I seem most instinctively to believe in the human value of creative writing, whether in the form of verse or fiction, as a mode of truth-telling, self-expression and homage to the twin miracles of creation and consciousness.” John Updike

Updike, who was born on this date in 1932 (and died in 2009), was a novelist, poet, short story writer, art critic, and literary critic.  Although self-deprecating about his “critic” role, most of what he wrote was a model of what good critical writing is all about.    But, of course, it was his work with the novel that won most acclaim.  He was a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner for books in his “Rabbit” series – Rabbit Run, Rabbit Redux; Rabbit Is Rich; Rabbit at Rest; and the novella Rabbit Remembered – which chronicles the lifetime of the middle-class everyman Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom.  Rabbit Is Rich won all three major American literary prizes – the Pulitzer, the National Book Award, and the National Book Critics Circle Award.

Updike published more than 20 novels, a dozen short story collections, poetry, art criticism, literary criticism and children's books. Hundreds of his stories, reviews and poems appeared in The New Yorker and The New York Review of Books.

Ironically, writing was not his first love.  “My first ambition was to be an animator for Walt Disney. Then I wanted to be a magazine cartoonist,” he said.   And, he nearly succeeded, starting doing cartoons for the Harvard Lampoon and going on to graduate study in art.  But when he started doing illustrations for The New Yorker in 1954 they also wanted some narrative, and he quickly found he had a knack for writing.  He began doing poetry and short stories that would appear regularly in the magazine for the next 40 years.

Updike was a master of narrative. “A narrative is like a room on whose walls a number of false doors have been painted; while within the narrative, we have many apparent choices of exit, but when the author leads us to one particular door, we know it is the right one because it opens.”   And, his advice to new writers:  Draw heavily upon your  “growing up” years.  “Memories, impressions and emotions from the first 20 years on earth are most writers' main material,” he advised.  “Little that comes afterward is quite so rich and resonant.”

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