Rabbit at Rest: A Tribute to John Updike (excerpt)

John Updike wrote on the subject of aging, including his own, with such sensitivity that his death Tuesday felt anticipated, if not expected so soon. But after the flurry of tributes and memorials quiets down, his writing voice will be missing. And above all, he could write. He brought language up on par with the heightened sensory level of experience. He was intelligent and deft and empathetic. He overturned that old saw that words are always a near miss, an approximation. His writing peeled back the desensitizing top layer of daily living to reveal everything that was wondrous and fascinating about it.

In the early 90s, when I was in my late teens and had it all worked out that I was going to be a writer, I sent him a pained, impassioned, self-conscious, and somewhat hyperbolic letter to say so. He was an influence on me—the only influence, really, although I sensed I shouldn’t disclose this. I’d started pinching his novels off my father’s bookshelves at 13, since Judy Blume’s dirtier adult books, like Wifey, weren’t available at my house. His writing turned my head around.

I received a response to my letter, improbably typed out on a pre-stamped postcard—encouraging, kind, and with enough flair so that I knew exactly who it was from. I read it, ecstatic, showed it around to the entire family and was congratulated. Then the clouds came rolling in, as they always do, as I noticed the inequity in our correspondence—my letter had been much longer than his. Everything, and probably the biggest thing, the ferocity of my desire to write, to be that good, to be as good as he was, made me ashamed, and so I tucked the postcard in a shoe in the back of my closet. Occasionally I’d sneak it out to re-read it.

That uprush of confused desire, loss, and inadequacy is what I’m experiencing again as I write this. There’s some shame in feeling this much for someone you’ve never met, who never knew you back. But reading is an incredibly intimate act, even putting aside the fantasy-mongering of fiction and the hunger we all have for identification, transference, the safe game of escapism it provides. Novels, written in solitude, consumed in solitude, are a one-to-one exchange. The author and reader hold onto each other in some vague time-suspended way for the duration of a book. And even writers, who tend to be cynical and self-protecting, wary of emotionalism, hype, empty love, and celebrity devotion, have their own secret loves that get all knotted up with the love of writing—they have visions of who they want to be. They have hero-worship—all the more fervent, probably, for being largely hidden and unexpressed.

We’re starting to understand the importance of the collective, nationally, and I do believe that the impact we have as individuals, doing our thing—whatever that thing is—is enormous, indescribably vast. It’s just that in most cases it isn’t immediately clear what “mine” is, how the “what I did” or said, mattered. But we all contribute words to our culture in varying degrees, where they travel with multiple disguises and intents, having a range of impacts and transforming the way we communicate with each other. Wittgenstein has it that language itself is like an ancient city, with twisting streets and dead ends, and newer renovations to old structures. Everything has been built on top of something else. So, too, for literature. And I will always be intensely, inexpressibly grateful to John Updike for his contribution, and for showing me how to write.

This essay was originally published in FlatmanCrooked literary journal in January 2009.