An Excerpt from “A Reverse Alphabet for Finishing”

Lee Upton

n. fantastical enthusiasm in advocating a cause, or carrying out an enterprise.” (Webster’s)*

One of my earliest memories. I must have been three or, at most, four years old. There’s a boy in our driveway. The boy is visiting with his father who stands on the gravel talking with my father. The boy must be about my age. I circle him, achingly. I want to give him something, as if giving him something will close the gap between us. I have nothing to give him except, in my pocket, a bobby pin. It’s not enough to give him a bobby pin. I circle and circle the boy until he and his father leave and I am still circling with a shy, aching approximation of love: the way I feel as I attempt to finish writing this novel.


n. the blue titmouse; a cry of distress, as of one in pain: v.i. to gape, as a bird.”

The finality of the word finish: the gloss, the final polish that seals the work against intrusion. The term is vexed. I’m finished can mean completion and satisfaction. Or “I give up.” Or “It’s over for me.” Or “There’s no more hope.” I’m finished—said with triumph. I’m finished—said with despair.
Are you finished? Sarcasm by someone who has lost the argument. Have you insulted me enough for one lifetime?
Are you finished? You’re taking too long.
Are you finished? (Translation: Can I borrow that?)
Are you finished? In disbelief. That was quick, glib, superficial, hasty. Or a relief.
Finishing may mean finishing off a character. Or marriage.

A book, after many revisions, may seem “finished.” Then comes the editing process or what can be, in a gloss on Grace Paley, Enormous Changes at the Last Minute.


n. the tendency of plants to change their position so as to escape drought and keep from withering.”

One of the most ubiquitous words in discussions about the ending of a literary work: inevitability. The satisfaction of finding that actions do create effects, even if the chain of causality is tangled. Edith Wharton’s pronouncements on the issue in her book The Writing of Fiction are exemplary and daunting: “No conclusion can be right which is not latent in the first page. About no part of a novel should there be a clearer sense of inevitability than about its end; any hesitation, any failure to gather up all the threads, shows that the author has not let his subject mature in his mind. A novelist who does not know when his story is finished, but goes on stringing episode to episode after it is over, not only weakens the effect of the conclusion but robs of significance all that has gone before.” An ending never goes in one direction only for Wharton. It changes its own past.

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Read the rest of this essay by downloading the free Amazon digest version of The Kenyon Review here.

*All definitions are from Webster’s New School & Office Dictionary.

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