Thursday, May 01, 2008

Updike on Creative Courage

My model when I first began writing fiction was John Updike. I studied those Rabbit novels down to details of tenses and pronouns. More important, I found and find his work unsparingly honest and amazingly observant. His kind of writing requires an unflinching hand.

So I finally this week got around to reading his memoir in essays, Self-Consciousness, which has sat like hoarded chocolate on my to-read shelf for quite some time. Here he turns his famous scrutiny on himself, and does so in a manner that is neither self-aggrandizing nor self-deprecating. He manages balance while navigating the story of himself and his family and marriages, his world-view and his dental work.

Kirkus Reviews said the work is "A neat masterpiece of literary undressing." That reviewer said it well. And what a feat such a book is.

In it Updike deals directly with the subject of telling the tough truth and how he gears up to do it, in fiction and nonfiction. In short: he relies on a higher power.

"What small faith I have has given me what artistic courage I have. My theory was that God already knows everything and cannot be shocked. And only truth is useful and can be built upon. From a higher, inhuman point of view, only truth, however harsh, is holy."

I agree with all of that. And yet, I still how my fellow lower humans may respond. Maybe he does too...and then writes it down anyway.

What philosophy (or self-help gimmick) helps you muster courage for your work?

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billie said...

Peggy, I think mostly what I do is work hard to find the truth of the characters' stories, which is itself a feat. It doesn't just roll right out in first draft writing. The truth reveals itself in layers.

Having the persistence and patience to wait for those layers is one thing.

Once they appear though, the second part comes into play, and that's writing the truth that has been revealed. I think of it as telling the true story for the characters I'm writing about. Whether it shocks someone is less important than doing those characters justice.

It is, of course, hard to do this and when I get too focused on publication it plays havoc with my "truth-telling standards."

I have been sitting on the fence with this second edit for awhile now, sorting out the "truth" of one element of the story and whether it's indeed the truth for the characters or my own sneaky attempt to make the book more marketable.

I think in this case it's truth, but how subtle (or not) to play it is the question.

I'm getting ready to unsub from PM in mid-May, right before they bill for the next month. This is my bold move for May. Unleash the writing from the market's influence. We'll see if that compels me forward toward finishing, getting a few reads, and querying. I sure hope it does.

Peggy Payne said...

Excellent description of the process (which means it matches what I do.)

I also found that cutting loose from (most) market requirements, or my perception of them, got me a deal for my novel Sister India.

It had had a lot of rejections. I decided to do one last revision aimed at making it the way I wanted it to be when I'm gone. The only market consideration: to be sure that the central quest of the main character be clear throughout the book.

When I'd finished that, it took me five months to find a new agent(my old one had dumped me) and she sold the book in 2.5 weeks.

I hope you also get a sale soon out of this strategy.

I hope it works that way for