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  • John Updike Talks About Writing, His Life, and His Works: A Writing WorkshopVol. 57, No. 3, Spring/Summer 1995

Let me begin by talking a little bit about the whole idea of a workshop and how much indeed can be learned about writing. I'm not sure a great deal can be learned in terms of expertise or how to do it, although my own history does involve some taking courses. My mother was a would-be writer, who took a course in the 1940s by mail, a correspondence course from an outfit in Texas called Thomas H. Uzzell. I bet it's a name that none of you have dealt with much, but Uzzell made a business out of advising would-be writers how to become real writers and did it somehow out of Texas. You paid a certain amount of money, a very modest amount of money by today's standards, but a significant amount in those days for my family. You sent stories and did exercises, and he or his assistants wrote comments. I kind of took the course with her, over her shoulder, when I was in my teens.

The thing I remember about Uzzell is that he would analyze various classics in terms of arrows, arrows of force, arrows of directions; and his overall thesis, as I recall it, I will share with you: All stories, all fictions, are about a conflict, and every sentence from first to last should be about the conflict. This struck me as being a little schematic and mechanical, but perhaps in those days the art of fiction was thought to be a little more mechanical than it is now. There were lots of so-called slick magazines that printed fiction. Writers such as Scott Fitzgerald and William Faulkner and many of lesser ilk made a nice living by writing for the Saturday Evening Post and Collier's and Liberty and a host of other magazines that have vanished. When I see young writers, my heart sinks a little when I think of how small their actual market is for selling short stories.

Then, at college, I took a few courses in writing. This was at Harvard in the early 1950s, when the whole idea of offering creative writing courses was quite novel and somewhat scandalous. Certainly, it was never applauded by the old guard of the English faculty, who thought our task was, as in the English universities, to read the classics. I believe that in the late 1950s Oxford taught nobody later than Tennyson; even that was thought a little daring. Our task as English majors was not to write for credit but to read what had been written.

I had three or four writing instructors, and each one left me with a little something. I think the best was a man called Theodore Morison, who [End Page 262] read to us from Hemingway's story called "The Light of the World," I think, in which the point of view jumps around quite a lot. Morison said that the point of view in general should not change, at least in the length of the short story; it should be from the same set of eyes, the same sensibility. The same character should experience the whole story—a novel can, and indeed should, have a certain shifting of points of view, but a short story should not. Concerning this Hemingway story that jumps around quite a lot, Morison said memorably, "If you want to do anything, do it thoroughly; do it up brown. When you break the rule, really break it." In general, I think that's good artistic advice. Any artistic effect you are going for, go for it. Don't be timid or halfway in your gestures or in your attempts to break the new ground or to reuse old ground. I don't want to denigrate the importance that these professors had. These hours of reading our stuff aloud to the other students were important. They were very encouraging and probably are what made me a writer, because I entered Harvard pretty ignorant, and I emerged from it four years later fairly well equipped...


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