This Dazzling Quicksand

January 27, 2009

Each morning my characters greet me with misty faces willing, though chilled, to muster for another day’s progress through the dazzling quicksand, the marsh of blank paper.
                   — John Updike, 1932-2009
American fiction writer, poet, artist, and critic

John Updike died today. I learned of it from a quick peek at my Twitter stream. I was applying the 30-10 Cubed method to my work today, working without interruption for thirty minutes and then taking a break for ten (repeat twice for 90 minutes of work in two hours). The news jolted me in that way that the death of anyone famous, even an older person at the end of a long and illustrious career, can jolt you, snap you into a new awareness that, as E.E. Cummings put it, “life’s not a paragraph, and death . . . is no parenthesis.”

John Updike was born in Pennsylvania, in Shillington, quite near Wernersville, the locus of my stalled historical novel. For years I taught his poem, “Ex-Basketball Player,” and one day I realized that the convenience store on Route 724 in Shillington where I often stopped for gas on my research trips was probably, years ago, the model for that poem’s Berth’s Garage.

I knew Updike’s work first when I was in college. The moody, intense alcoholic poet who gave me the silken tent as an image of myself used Rabbit, Run as a model in his creative writing class. I was twenty years old and coming out of a sheltered and restrictive background in which I had been warned against reading The Catcher in the Rye because of the narrator’s vulgar language and his general unwholesomeness. Of course I read it, as did all my friends, boys as well as girls. The “vulgar language” is limited to Holden Caulfield’s verbal tic of using “goddam” as an all-purpose adjective, but he has a purity of heart that he can’t entirely hide with cynicism. In his intelligence and vulnerability he represents the kind of student I would always be especially drawn to, the kind of man I would always seek as a friend.

Rabbit, Run was the most advanced, adult, and disturbing work of fiction I had ever read. Its frankness was beyond anything I could even have imagined then, giving me my first literary experience of oral sex and my first understanding of what the catechism meant when it mentioned “certain acts and embraces that are never allowed to anyone, not even married people.” Critic David Boroff called Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom “an older, less articulate Holden Caulfield,” but I want to believe that Holden would have made good on the promise I saw in him and become a man of courage and a man of peace. Rabbit seemed to me selfish and self-absorbed, a man who used others, particularly women, and never rose above his ordinariness. I stayed with him through the four sequels (nearly two thousand pages of present tense — an heroic commitment on my part!), but I never came to like him very much.

I liked Updike though. He was a generous and gracious man whom I met several times. If Gregory Peck was my fantasy father, John Updike was my fantasy godfather, my model for the writing of the family saga. I once told him I wanted to examine life in the medium-size middle class suburban enclaves such as I inhabit the way he examined it in the more upscale big-city suburbs. This was at a reception after a master class where he spent a lot of time talking to us ordinary folk. I had a 17-year-old student with me and he talked with both of us at length about our work and our hopes as writers.

I spent my morning in the dazzling quicksand of the effort to produce new material for my novel. My characters, neglected since October, the last time I engaged with them, showed up with their misty faces. I started fleshing out a scene that has been in draft since April of 2007, got my characters to a confrontational moment, and then left them standing together ready to do battle. Then I followed Ernest Hemingway’s advice to always stop when you are going good and know what will happen next.

I made the fall into fiction today, that scary letting go of myself and the embracing of my characters to not just write about them, but become them. I wrote 500 new words today, one-third of the 1500 I need each week to bring my novel to 15,000 words by the time I leave for Georgia. My characters, with their willingness to keep showing up, will be there for me tomorrow. And so will the care and concern of so many people who believe I can do this.

Thank you for so much, so often.

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