March 18th – John Updike

Try to develop steady work habits, maybe a more modest quota, but keep to it. Don’t be thin-skinned or easily discouraged because it’s an odds long proposition; all of the arts are… Many are called, few are chosen, but it might be you.

John Updike – Writer’s Digest interview

Author John Updike was born in Reading, Pennsylvania, on March 18, 1932, and grew up in the small town of Shillington. After graduating high school as the class president and valedictorian, he attended Harvard University. In 1953 Updike married Mary Entwistle Pennington, an art student at Radcliffe College. After receiving his undergraduate degree in English, he spent a year studying at the Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art at Oxford. His wife accompanied him and attended art school as well. Their first child, Elizabeth, was born in 1955. Updike returned to the States and worked as a staff writer at The New Yorker. He stayed on staff for just two years before moving his family to Ipswich, Massachusetts, to carve out a career as a freelance writer. He and Elizabeth had three more children, David (1957), Michael (1959), and Miranda (1960). 

In 1958 Updike published his first book of poetry called The Carpentered Hen and Other Tame Creatures – he was 26 years old. In 1959 his first novel, The Poorhouse Fair, was released, and Updike was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship for the mostly forgotten work. But the Fellowship allowed him to write Rabbit, Run (1960), the first of his famous Rabbit novels, and The Centaur (1963), which won the National Book Award. His Rabbit series proved to be the most notable of his works. Four other ‘Rabbit’ books followed the publication of Rabbit, Run: Rabbit Redux (1971), Rabbit is Rich which was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in Fiction in 1982, and Rabbit at Rest (1990), which was also awarded the Pulitzer – the four novels forming a tetralogy. A related novella, Rabbit Remembered, was published in 2001.

Most of Updike’s books revolved around the lives of middle-class Protestant white people and how they dealt with upheavals and everyday turmoils. Throughout his career, he published over 50 books, including novels, poetry collections, short story collections, nonfiction, and children’s books. Updike credited writing poetry with teaching him how to pay attention to every word, and writing book reviews lent depth and understanding to his fiction. Hundreds of his stories, poems, and book reviews have appeared in The New Yorker since the 1950s. Updike was also an art critic and wrote books on art and museums: Just Looking (1989), Still Looking (2005), and Always Looking (2012). 

Updike died on January 27, 2009, at the age of 76, from lung cancer.  

Lesson from John Updike

Updike took a chance leaving The New Yorker to work as a freelance writer. But the depth and breadth of the work he did in his 60 year career shows he didn’t limit himself to form or content, writing fiction and nonfiction, essays and poetry. His massive output proves he disciplined himself to do the work and put it out there as a professional writer.

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