Lee Upton is the author of thirteen books including, most recently, The Tao of Humiliation: Stories (Spring 2014) and Swallowing the Sea: On Writing & Ambition, Boredom, Purity & Secrecy. She is the writer-in-residence and a professor of English at Lafayette College. An excerpt from her essay “A Reverse Alphabet for Finishing” can be found here. The full essay appears in the Jan/Feb 2015 issue of the Kenyon Review.
Could you tell us a little about “A Reverse Alphabet for Finishing”? What was your original impetus for writing it?
I began “A Reverse Alphabet for Finishing” while struggling to complete a novel manuscript I had titled “Everything You Every Wanted.” The title, I hoped, would be useful if the manuscript became a book. I thought that if you picked up the book as a gift at the beginning of an affair you could tell the one you loved: “I’m giving you Everything You Ever Wanted.” At the end of the affair you could tell the same person, “How can you do this to me? I gave you Everything You Ever Wanted.” I guess I was already thinking about beginnings and endings as I worked on that manuscript, and to comfort myself as I was having difficulties I took notes about the problems inherent in completing anything approximating literature. After a while, I began to think about another project: an entire book of nonfiction about the art of finishing. Then I realized that there was no way I could finish a book about finishing. I decided then to use my notes to write something far shorter, and that’s how “A Reverse Alphabet for Finishing” got its start: repeat visits from the muse of frustration.
How did you settle on this sort of reverse abedecedary for the form?
Largely by accident. The dictionary I used, Webster’s New School & Office Dictionary (1962) had two owners before me, and I hadn’t opened it in years. I was moving books around on shelves and pulled the dictionary out and casually examined it. That’s when I saw the dictionary’s potential as both a structuring and a generative device. I liked, too, the way the definitions in “A Reverse Alphabet for Finishing” create white spaces—visual and cognitive gaps—between terms and commentary, as if to suggest any ending is about bridging a gap but not necessarily closing a gap. I suppose reversing the alphabet also seemed like a wish fulfillment—to let the last be first.
Did you write this piece from beginning to end, or did you jump around from entry to entry as you were writing it? How—if we can ask you this, in the spirit of the essay—did you know when it was finished?
The beginning and middle were not created consecutively. The ending entries were written largely in the order in which they appear. I have had enough strong experiences with endings that I called upon some of my more happy memories as I finished the piece. When I introduced the dream about my father I feared that the dream was too intimate to describe. Besides, often dreams fail as narrative devices, but the dream was so helpful to me, so calming and kindhearted, that I hoped it might be helpful to others.
Which non-writing-related aspect of your life most influences your writing?
An embodied sense of the natural world is very much a part of my writing—including sense impressions of the fields and the meadows where I wandered as a child. Incidences of cruelty and violence inform my work also, sometimes in subterranean form, never quite in documentary form.
What is either the best or the worst piece of writing advice you’ve received or given?
The worst advice I’ve heard came shaped as speculations and future projections.
I remember being told that writing amounted to being “driven” and that I should write less and enjoy myself more. The person giving me that advice didn’t understand that I was already enjoying myself by writing, that writing gives me a form of exhilaration that, ironically, defies expression.
Here are some other unhelpful words I’ve heard: “That’s beneath you.” (Well—good.) “If you want to be taken seriously you shouldn’t try to be funny so often.” (Oh no—I wasn’t trying to be funny—I feel embarrassed—but being serious can be especially funny.) And the following is something I was told when I was a very young writer: “I think that you will have a future where you’ll only see your work published on the backs of cereal boxes. In your own handwriting.” (This sentiment, paraphrased, appeared in the form of a poem dedicated to me.) As you can see, I’ve never forgotten that last speculation despite how long ago I heard it, but at the time I felt largely a sense of wonderment. Cereal boxes: what would it be like to write on cereal boxes?
I’m always looking for good advice about writing, and I like to read prose about other writers and their habits, with the hope of gaining a bit more strength. So here are some ideas that have been useful to me: We can write like we speak—it’s just a more enhanced version. Writing should convey urgency, even if we can’t quite figure out why we’re experiencing so much urgency. While there are those who may feel contempt for what we write, there may be others who need what we’ve written. It’s best to respect the possibilities that the work offers and to be patient. (One of my books I continue to care for most, a novella called The Guide to the Flying Island, was accepted by its publisher a week after I convinced myself that I ought to abandon it.) More advice: we shouldn’t force-feed our work with our intentions or put our work in a stranglehold to make it conform to ideologies. Instead, we should give the work our kind attention, respecting the potential of writing to open up new and unexpected pathways of many sorts. Always I try to remember: have faith and be grateful and devoted. Writing is about love and endurance. Then again, just about everything is about love and endurance.