Writing Secrets from John Updike, Ernest Hemingway, George Orwell,William Strunk, E.B. White and Philip Roth
John Updike's Secrets of Success Revealed After His Death
Until he died at 76 in 2009 John Updike led a very private life except for what he revealed about himself in his fifty-odd years of prolific writing--novels, poetry, essays, criticism. After his death, a meticulous archive of his life's work was left to Harvard's Houghton Library. The archive reveals much about Updike's life and his approach to writing. Included in the collection is his voluminous correspondence with his family, friends and editors. Updike's plan to be a writer began when he was in high school and continued as he worked on his first novel as a student at Harvard where rejections and criticism of his work by others didn't dampen his determination to write.
A small town public high school graduate competing with New England preppies, Updike was fearful of losing his scholarship and wrote home that he was "somewhat of a grind." He finished ninth in his class and graduated summa cum laude. The archive revealed that he continued to be a "grind" until his death in 2009. His work combined artistic intelligence and human understanding with meticulous research which provided authenticity to his work. For example, the archive contains pages from medical texts describing heart disease and surgery on which his clinically precise description of Rabbit Angstrom's angioplasty was based. He did similar research on car dealers for his passages about the family Toyota dealership in Rabbit Run and on basketball moves which enabled him to write convincingly about Rabbit's high school exploits on the basketball court.
The archive reveals disputes over Updike's publisher, Alfred Knopf's, urgings that he remove the explicit sex scenes from his first successful novel, "Rabbit Run." Updike correspondence showed how unhappy he was to be forced to tone down the sex scenes when Knopf refused to publish the book out of fear of legal censorship challenges. Not long after, obscenity standards were relaxed and the expurgated passages restored. Updike carefully pasted the restored portions into an early edition of the book which is now part of the Houghton Library collection.
Updike believed that a successful writer should pay close attention to his own time and place and not become infatuated with European modernist writers like Proust and Joyce, writing to his parents when he was only 19--
"This age needs rather men like Shakespeare or Milton, or Pope; men who are filled with the strength of their cultures and do not transcend the limits of their age, but, working within the times, bring what is peculiar to the moment to glory. We need great artists who are willing to accept restrictions, and who love their environments with such vitality that they can produce an epic out of the Protestant ethic...Whatever the failings of my work, let it stand as a manifesto of my love for the time in which I was born."
Updike followed this early observation in his most successful novels which dealt with the life and times of Rabbit Angstrom whose life peaked as a star high school basketball player and was mostly downhill thereafter.
Materials in the archive belie Updike's reputation as a naturally fluent writer whose success came early and easily. They show that his work was scorned by Archibald MacLeish and other Harvard professors and the early rejections he received from The Atlantic and Harper's as well as his early successes at The Harvard Lampoon and The New Yorker. Updike meticulously retained and documented his many drafts and revisions which preceded the publication of his wititng and which produced the finished work which was so popular and critically acclaimed.
Updike's advice to aspiring writers may be summed up as follows: don't be discouraged by early rejections; write honestly about your time and place; include carefully detailed and researched descriptions; revise, rewrite and revise again until you have perfectly achieved your objective.
[I am indebted to the article linked below by Sam Tannenhaus in the NY Times, June 20, 2010. The article is interesting and worth reading in its entirety.]
Some Hemingway Secrets
The second volume of Hemingway's letters contains some thoughts in which he predicted his success. In a letter to his publisher, Horace Liveright he said he thought his work "had a good chance for success...because it would be praised by highbrows and can be read by lowbrows. There is no writing in it that anybody with a high school education cannot read," His vocabulary remained simple, and though his sentences were often long they were usually compound rather than complex. One declarative clause followed another and another, strung together by the word that was both the Bible's favorite and his own. And it was a style as clear as water, but down near the bottom of the pool there was something unnamed at work, elusive and darting and deepening his every page..." [Michael Gorra in the NYTimes Book Review, Nov. 24, 2013.]
College writing instructors use Hemingway short stories as examples of excellent writing. One that I recall is "A Clean Well-Lighted Place."
"The Elements of Style" by William Strunk, Jr. and E.B. White
The Elements of Style by Strunk and White may be the best ever little book on writing. Here's a sample:
"On the impossibility of separating style from sense:
"Young writers often suppose that style is a garnish for the meat of prose, a sauce by which a dull dish is made palatable. Style has no such separate entity. It is non-detachable, unfilterable...The approach to style is by way of plainness, simplicity, orderliness, sincerity."
And "Use definite, concrete language...For example "it rained every day for a week" is better than "A period of unfavorable weather set in." Or, "He grinned as he pocketed the coin" is preferable to "He showed satisfaction as he took possession of his well-earned reward."
"If those who have studied the art of writing are in accord on any one point, it is on this: the surest way to arouse and hold the attention of the reader is by being specific, definite, and concrete.The greatest writers--Homer Dante Shakespeare--are effective largely because they deal in particulars and report the details that matter. Their words call up pictures..."
"A Clean, Well-Lighted Place, Ernest Hemingway
11-24-13NYTimes Book Review "Before the Sun Rose" Hemingway Letters, Vol. 2
- ‘Letters of Ernest Hemingway - Volume 2 - 1923-1925’ - NYTimes.com
"...his work, he thought, would “be praised by highbrows and can be read by lowbrows. There is no writing in it that anybody with a high school education cannot read....”
Kansas City Star Style Sheet
- Kansas City Star Style Sheet
The Kansas City Star stylebook that Ernest Hemingway once credited with containing "the best rules I ever learned for the business of writing.
6-20-10-NYtimes "Write, Rewrite, Tweak"
- John Updike's Archive--A Great Writer At Work
While he was fending off the public, Updike was also leaving a trail of clues to his works and days: an enormous archive fashioned as meticulously as one of his lathe-turned sentences. "The archive was vitally important to him," Mrs. Updike said.
11-13-11NYTimes Book Review "How Updike Judged"
- Higher Gossip - Essays and Criticism - By John Updike.Edited by Christopher Carduff - Book Review -
This posthumous collection shows John Updike responding to his contemporaries’ work.
- John Updike - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
John Hoyer Updike (1932-2009) was an American novelist, poet, short story writer, art critic, and literary critic. Updike's most famous work is his Rabbit series which chronicled the life of Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom over the course of several decades.
4-28-13 William Zinsser Blind Writing Coach
- William Zinsser, Author of ‘On Writing Well,’ at His Work - NYTimes.com
William Zinsser, the 90-year-old author of “On Writing Well,” can no longer see. So now he coaches writers by listening to their prose.
"The Elements of Style" by William Strunk, Jr. and E.B. White
- The Elements of Style - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
"...a prescriptive American English writing style guide comprising eight "elementary rules of usage", ten "elementary principles of composition", "a few matters of form", a list of forty-nine "words and expressions commonly misused..."
E.B. White Wikibio
- E. B. White - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
E. B. White (1899 – 1985) American writer. A contributor to The New Yorker and a co-author of the English language style guide, The Elements of Style, which is commonly known as "Strunk & White". Wrote children's books, including Charlotte's Web.
Hemingway at the Kansas City Star
George Orwell's "Shooting an Elephant"
- Shooting An Elephant by George Orwell
Orwell essay "Shooting an Elephant"
George Orwell Wikibio
- George Orwell - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
"Eric A. Blair (1903–50), known by pen name George Orwell, an English novelist, essayist, journalist and critic. His work is marked by lucid prose, awareness of social injustice, opposition to totalitarianism, and commitment to democratic socialism."
3-15-13NYTimesBookReview "My Life as a Writer" Interview with Philip Roth
- Log In - The New York Times
"The drama issues from the assailability of vital, tenacious men with their share of peculiarities who are neither mired in weakness nor made of stone and who, almost inevitably, are bowed by blurred moral vision, real and imaginary culpability..."