To Be An Artist, Do You Need To Live A Quiet Life?


“…As far as productivity goes in writing, I just find a quiet life is much the best kind to write out of. It is true that you need to kind of know what makes the world go around so entire quietness isn’t to be desired either but by and large regular habits and making a firm alliance with a few people seems to me to be a nice way for this particular set of genes and muscles to go through our vale of tears.” – John Updike

I’ve been thinking about this Updike quote a lot lately. It comes from a 1981 interview on The Dick Cavett Show with both John Updike and another wonderful American short story writer John Cheever. Updike’s words are a response to Cavett saying that in comparison to Cheever, who struggled with alcoholism and his sexuality, Updike had lead a “placid life.” In the clip, Updike is, rather than insulted, tickled by being called “placid.” He talks about the influence of his father on his personality and then he says the above quote about writing and productivity.

The other person this quote makes me think of is Hunter S. Thompson. I know. Unlikely, right? But Updike’s words are almost a companion quote to Thompson’s famous and cheeky, “I hate to advocate drugs, alcohol, violence, or insanity to anyone, but they’ve always worked for me.” They’re both magnificent writers and they couldn’t be more different role models to a young artist. So even as I love and was struck by what Updike is saying here, I’ve spent the past couple days since I watched the Cheever/Updike clip wondering if I agree with him — and what that now says about me as a writer.

In high school, when I discovered Hunter S. Thompson’s work, it was easy to be charmed by his outlandish and adventurous personality and writing. When I was 18, I would have probably told you that it was impossible to even be a writer without going through some CRAZY shit and coming out the other side, without partying or experiencing life’s wacked out niches, without being an outspoken outsider with their life held together by dental floss and chewing gum. In my tie-dyed T-shirt and flared, ripped bell bottoms, all of which I wore unironically for most of my life, I would have cited Hemingway not eating for days and gazing at paintings for inspiration or Jack Kerouac drinking himself to death. As recently as six months ago, I might have told you that all artists “need to be crazy” and/or alcoholics and drug addicts. I would have lobbed praise on Vincent Van Gogh, whose light blue self-portrait still hangs above my bed and whose paintings made me cry when I saw them in Paris this summer.

But Van Gogh was misunderstood and miserable. Van Gogh was impossible to be around and to deal with. Van Gogh burned bridges like he was kerosene and a hay barrel. He was brilliant and he was drowned by the simple act of living.

Back to the Updike quote. Updike was prolific and a master of words. He’s careful in this bunch of sentences to say that this “quiet life,” this “placidity” worked for him specifically, and may not work for everyone. “Regular habits” reminds me of when writing professors or books from the “How To” section of Barnes and Noble tell prospective young writers to think of writing like any other day job: to wake up, make a pot of coffee or some oatmeal, get some exercise, brush your teeth and then, sit down in your office and write for the duration of the work day. Don’t worry about it being “good” — writing is in re-writing and in editing. But make sure to stretch the writing muscle every day. Then, get a good night’s sleep and do it all again tomorrow. And that is certainly one way to be productive. One has to be healthy and rested to continue to work. But there’s some loss of romanticism here.

It’s much more exciting to think of a flying-high Thompson running in from the desert to scramble words on his typewriter, to think of him careening through the Super Bowl or the Democratic National Convention with a flask in hand, to think of his hands zooming across the keys as he finishes another hasty piece because it was due hours ago and he’s been driving a stolen car around Las Vegas. How can any artist not envy that? It’s why we’re artists after all.

Maybe I am simply getting older. (Ha!) Maybe Updike’s quiet life has only started appealing to me because I feel tired or worn out recently. Maybe that’s what happens. You’re a Thompson until you’re an Updike, in a sense.

“Regular habits and a few firm alliances.” I liked that phrasing when I heard it. It seems simple and sweet. It seems doable.

Can it be done by an artist without becoming boring? My automatic assumption is that “the quiet life” would be stifling for a writer, or painter, or sculptor, etc. Thinking about it now though, what’s so bad about the quiet life? What are we so afraid of? Is it actually necessary to be “placid” to produce good, solid work? Perhaps the difference is that Thompson mostly included himself in his writing, and so his self needed to be interesting. Perhaps Updike’s quietness allowed him to dream up the fictions that were so permeated by his intellectualism and yes, his “placidity.” You can lead a quiet life and still be successful, and still reach people, and still be an artist.

In response to Updike’s comment in 1981, Cheever quips, “Well, I’m older,” meaning he has had more time to be raucous and melancholy and complicated and hungover. Updike is jokingly relieved there’s still time for him to become loud like Cheever, like Thompson, like Van Gogh. It’s clear on his face that he has no intention to do so. (And ultimately, he didn’t.)

Quiet vs. Loud. Updike vs. Thompson. The writer’s life vs. living and writing. It’s a small aside in the original quote but I’m comforted more by when Updike says, “Entire quietness isn’t to be desired either.” I think of it like the knob on a car stereo; artists can turn the volume up and down as we need.

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