John Updike’s Writing Wisdom (part II): Write Daily, Read What Excites You

by Erin Dalpini


Want to be happy? Do something every day, so says Gretchen Rubin, author of The Happiness Project, a bestselling book and popular blog.

It sounds pretty mundane, but according to Rubin, it works, and it can apply to any sort of habit—making the bed, working out, doing the dishes—do it every day and you might find “pleasure in the routine.” Getting into a daily habit, I think, is is a great way to keep from procrastinating doing something you know is good for you, but is hard to start doing–like flossing. Or in my case, writing. And writing query letters.

You see, I have a day job, which is actually writing-based, but outside of that job I find it sometimes incredibly difficult to motivate myself to get to work on a new project or, heaven forbid, just do some good old-fashioned free-writing or journaling.

In fact, inspired by Rubin, one of my New Year’s resolutions was to write daily.

Um . . . it’s March right? Still working on that.

And, as you can probably guess, my resolution joined the many abandoned resolutions in that end up in the “Best Intentions/Abandoned Resolutions Dogpile” long before February 1.

But interestingly enough, while working on my last post on John Updike, I found a great blog on grammar and language written by Richard Nordquist of; back in 2008 he shared a post chock-full of notable writing advice from Updike, may he rest in peace.

I didn’t find what I was looking for.

But what I did find was a quotation that seemed as though it was written for me, a young writer.

“To the young writers, I would merely say,  ‘Try to develop actual work habits, and even though you have a busy life, try to reserve an hour say–or more–a day to write. Some very good things have been written on an hour a day. . . .

So, take it seriously, you know, just set a quota.

Try to think of communicating with some ideal reader somewhere.

Try to think of getting into print.

Don’t be content just to call yourself a writer and then bitch about the crass publishing world that won’t run your stuff. We’re still a capitalist country, and writing to some degree is a capitalist enterprise, when it’s not a total sin to try to make a living and court an audience.

‘Read what excites you,’ would be advice, and even if you don’t imitate it you will learn from it. All those mystery novels I read I think did give me some lesson about keeping a plot taut, trying to move forward or make the reader feel that kind of a tension is being achieved, a string is being pulled tight.” (Academy of Achievement, June 12, 2004)

I can see why Updike was so productive. A lot of it came from his engrained sense of self-discipline. With a mammoth body of work to his name spanning from fiction to poetry to literary criticism–the guy was a machine!

But it wasn’t just diligence that kept him going every day; the key was his passion for writing.

In a 28 January 2009 New York Times piece on Updike, writer Christopher Lehmann-Haupt dug up a 1967 interview of the literary great with The Paris Review. In this conversation, Updike’s zest for writing is simply luminous, “I would write ads for deodorants or labels for catsup bottles, if I had to,” he said. “The miracle of turning inklings into thoughts and thoughts into words and words into metal and print and ink never palls for me.”

So, I’m going to be better about channeling that passion.

Every day.

Full and part-time freelancers, I have a question for you: do you write daily? Or do you find it necessary to take a day off? What’s your writing philosophy?