The Thing About John Updike

The thing about John Updike is, I found yet another inspiring post on Brain Pickings recently, about John Updike and some ideas of his about writing and death, and how various things we do (addictions, writing) are merely ways of avoiding accepting the reality of nothingness, of our imminent demise and the likelihood our death will be our extermination.

Happy stuff.

It was inspiring because I really like to think of a guy who’s dedicated himself to writing and contemplation,

and contemplation is a key qualifier to writing here, because lots of people write, but there is a way of writing purposefully and meaningfully that I think adds an extra dimension of importance to writing,

and that is to use writing as a tool for contemplation.

In particular he seemed interested in contemplating the human spirit, our consciousness, and he said writing was his last vice as though it is just another distraction from spirit (a divergence from spirit to the intellect, perhaps), which is something I can certainly relate to, having certainly sought oblivion in books – the great narcotic of the 21st century intellectual.

For a wile … hmm, typo … for a wiley way around dealing with and confronting reality?

For a while I found solace in my capacity to find solace in books.

I thought, I’ve always escaped into books and this is where my passion for literature has come from, and I am thankful for this because it is the nearest thing to a constant/consistent source of meaning for me,

and that’s true – it has got me to where I am today and I am eternally grateful and I would have a hard time giving it up,

but something I’ve realised recently is that reading literature is just another way of avoiding dealing with my own story.

I realised recently, too, through writing a draft poem about it, that language is inherently limited in its capacity for understanding the human experience.

At the time I think I wrote about expressing the human experience (not understanding), but these are two sides of the same coin: if you develop some understanding of the human experience (through life/experience, not through reading), it’s difficult to express that to someone through writing, and it’s difficult for someone else to understand that through reading.

I guess on some level this helps me sort of downgrade writing in its importance in my life, to not relegate it to the sidelines as such, but I guess to understand it is not the source through which I will gain insight and understanding and, ultimately, happiness/peace/equanimity/joy.

(I struggle sometimes with worrying I am giving up my aspirations, aspirations that seem to form a central core of my character for having been there for as long as I can remember. And I worry that I’m giving up a good career that I worked hard to establish, but I also know there’s nothing else I can do except pursue wellbeing for now and see where that takes me …)

It’s odd that I should be coming to this at this juncture I suppose, because this whole year has been one where I’ve slowly begun to reacquaint myself with my writer-self, to identify as primarily a writer again.

And I’ll always identify as a writer and will always derive value and meaning from the pursuit, because writing is an indispensable way of re-articulating our experiences back to ourselves in the hope of seeing them from a different perspective and thereby gaining insight.

But the practice of writing is becoming removed from other aspirations I had, such as to be known for my writing or to become recognised as an influential publishing figure.

Maybe I’ve had to really immerse myself in the industry and then come out into the sort of contemplative practice I’ve been establishing lately to get a sense of this feeling about my trajectory.

Related to this but not instigated by reading about Updike is this idea that I put writing aside for my publishing career for what feels like so long, and how I came to see things about the industry I knew needed changing and how I got fixated on doing that instead of pursuing my own practice, because I deemed that it was more important, more beneficial for more people, to work on industry/society-wide improvements in the literature-publishing mechanisms,

and I still believe this,

but I guess I started to burn out and lose my passion for reading and writing, I think because I wasn’t practising the writing part,

and I started to realise there’s not a lot of point in advocating literature if you’re not enjoying the benefits of an intimate relationship with literature yourself, so I’m taking some time out to reacquaint slowly, and it’s wonderful. (The Books Notes category here is all about that.)

Something else extremely beneficial that came out of my publishing career, this period of my life that feels somewhat like a divergence now, was the movement toward a feeling I need to social-justice work:

I guess through the literature I published in my career I developed an understanding that the world is not in the best shape, and when I realised I was in a fortunate, affluent, privileged position, instead of figuring out how I could legitimately help I set about constructing an elaborate justification for why publishing literature is a noble pursuit that improves the world, an occupation that would help enough,

which it is,

and I’m glad I learnt that,

but I got sick of the politics and the egos (mostly mine, corrupted as I was by the prospect of being an ‘E-grade celebrity’ and public intellectual, as a colleague once described it), and I have since encountered ideas about other ways to change the world from within, by changing ourselves,

and also I got tired of having an occupation and more and more interested in, instead, occupying myself with the nature of wellbeing, familiarising myself with the experience of humanity and our unique breed of consciousness, the same stuff I figured Updike was writing about.

To my professional self this still sounds like a cop-out, and I still get pangs about how I could do something more beneficial with my work and time than just freelancing and meditating and riding my bike around in the breeze, which all sounds very idyllic (which a friend recently pronounced as idealic recently, which I found adorable),

but deep personal change is hard, and I hope the lightness I achieve through my practice will effect people I meet in life by brightening up their experience a bit,

and I hope that my spiritual self will appreciate the change in direction, this new path.

That’s a good start, I reckon, because a lot of the ‘inspiration’ I had to do world-changing work was ego-inspired, and a big part of the lifestyle changes I’ve been working on are about creating the space in my life/being where I can see my ego for what it is, rather than being clouded by its presence, and I want to continue on that program for a while yet, and maybe a long while yet, through monasteries in Thailand and maybe beyond, because I strongly feel/know/sense that I won’t be able to do worthwhile work until I’ve got enough space from my ego, and meanwhile I want to indulge in work on writing because I know it helps me work things through, and because maybe I can influence the world that way too, the way John Updike has just influenced me and I haven’t even read his work.

Between drafting this post and actually posting it, I faffed around a lot, and in there I had a book binge and bought a collection of Updike’s called Problems, and his classic Rabbit, Run.

The stories were mildly inspiring, but they’re super American, the sort of stories where you have to be a middle-age American to really enjoy them. I’m still keen to get to know more about Updike through Rabbit, which I’m sure will speak to me as the story of a 26-year-old E-grade celebrity who leaves everything behind …


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