Adam Begley opens his biography of John Updike with one of my favorite anecdotes of the venerable and prolific author. In this story, a Time magazine reporter visits Updike’s home town seeking to write a profile of the place. He happens to bump into Updike’s mother, who says he ought to stop by later in the week because her famous son will be at her house hanging storm windows. The reporter shows up at her farm, and Updike is there as promised, if slightly irritated at his mother for springing an interview on him. Writer and reporter go for a drive, and Updike shows the reporter his childhood haunts. The reporter goes home, writes his story for Time. The story is published, and the reporter thinks that’s the end of that.
Imagine his surprise when, a few weeks later, he opens up a copy of the New Yorker and reads a version of his very story parroted back to him, except from John Updike’s perspective. In this New Yorker story, Updike poses as an actor player giving a reporter a tour of his home town.
[The actor] slips from wary impatience and annoyance into a bittersweet reverie that triggers a powerful romantic longing for a place and a time and a self forever gone. At the very end of the story, the spell broken (in part because the interviewer is plainly bored, blind to the “glory” of vivid private memories) […]
Updike took the incident, reshaped it slightly to accentuate the dramatic arc, and gave it the twist of the actor’s final petulant outburst. Retaining intact the details that suited his purpose, he adjusted others strategically—and so turned a day’s drive into a perfectly adequate New Yorker story, a slick comic vignette with a moment or two of poignant depth. That was his job, Updike might have said with a shrug, a profitable trick of alchemy.
Or digestion. In a story he wrote in 1960 about his maternal grandmother (a story closely based on the facts of Katherine Hoyer’s life), he described with a startling simile the writer’s creative process: “We walk through volumes of the unexpressed and like snails leave behind a faint thread excreted out of ourselves.”
That Updike wrote about his own life was undoubtedly a huge part of why he was so prolific—imagine the time you’d save by using your own experience as research.
But the reason I wanted to read about Updike is because I wondered what were the costs of writing about one’s own life? How much can you disclose without ruining your relationships? Who is in your inner circle—your family or an anonymous audience?
It’s a question I’ve often wondered as I watch stand-up comedians roast their spouses, their parents, and their spouses for a few laughs. Later you hear about these same comedians getting divorced, and somehow it’s not that surprising.
The conflict between public and private comes up instantly in Updike’s career, after publishing the short story “Snowing in Greenwich Village” in The New Yorker.
Rebecca was very obviously modeled on a friend of the Updikes, and though she accepted the story with polite good grace, saying only how “spooky” it was to be reading a New Yorker and find oneself in it, her on-again, off-again boyfriend berated Updike for his callous and thoughtless behavior. The boyfriend’s harangue was ferocious enough to sink both Mary and John into a weekend-long funk.
Feeling guilty and ashamed, Updike reconsidered two pet theories. The first was “that a writer of short stories has no duty other than writing good short stories”; the second, that “nothing in fiction rings quite as true as truth, slightly arranged.” He knew that the second theory was still valid, but now realized how harmful it could be. His remorse, though genuine, lasted no time at all; “the truth, slightly arranged” remained the foundation of his fiction.
“Snowing in Greenwich Village” is the first of the many Maple stories, which were lightly modeled on his marriage with his first wife. I knew that Updike’s first marriage had ended, but I didn’t know why. Was it the writing that did it, I wondered?
No. It turned out that his first marriage ended, not because of the writing, but because of the strain of the infidelities. Lots of other marriages end because of infidelity…but it happens more quietly because they aren’t writers.
As I read about Updike’s life, it was encouraging to discover that he took the consequences of his work on other people very seriously.
My fear was that he used his writing as an excuse for all sorts of bad behavior, the way some writers claim they drink because they write. Or like when comedians make cruel jokes about their wives on stage.
I was happy to discover that it doesn’t seem to be the case. To the contrary, the wish-fulfillment in his stories gave him a relatively harmless outlet for his fantasies.
Updike was this prolific golden boy. Top of his class, popular, prolific, and a champion of the middle class. Giving “mundanity it’s beautiful due.” I wonder if he did such a good job cateloguing the suburban life that no one else can ever cover that territory again.
Then his books, “Couples” and “Mary Me.”
The good things about puting your writing first is that you end up writing more. It is your top priority. The down side is that it alienates the real people in your life. Updike could not have been as prolific as he was if his writing didn’t take a higher priority than many other things in his life.
Writing from real life experience also helped make him prolific. He was able to access that wealth of experience. It’s like having a lifetime’s worth of research already done. All those physical memories, Ray Bradbury called it “feeding the muse.”
How was he able to write about his life without ruining his relationships?
For the spiciest stuff, he put it on a shelf to let the events in real life cool.
He used composit characters, so that no one (other than his immediate family—who had presumably already bought into his vision)
Something I learned from journalism is that people are often flattered…they want to see themselves in your writing, especially if the self you show is charming. People try to be a little more charming around you when they know you’re a journalist with your notebook out. It’s a chance at having their cleverest lines displayed.
Another way to write about people’s lives is by using it as a chance to be empathetic. Use it as an opportunity to practice empathy. Try writing from their point of view, with them as the hero.
In the final chapters, there is this surprising fact of a prolific writer that I hadn’t really considered: the downside of always being compared against your younger, more clever self.