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English department

Swallowing the Sea by Lee Upton

For readers searching for a unique perspective on writing, Lee Upton’s memoir, Swallowing the Sea, offers an assortment of advice on writing. Contrary to many memoirs which follow a narrative or chronological schema, this book explores five writing-related themes (ambition, boredom, purity, writing across genres, and secrecy) along with extensive literary references, anecdotes, life experiences, and personal experiences.

As a professor of English at Lafayette College, Lee Upton has a repertoire of advice and perspectives on writing. Upton excels at providing interesting insights and advice.

The first two themes that Upton tackles are the sweeping topics of ambition and failure. Upton explores these topics first because they are fundamental components to a writer’s experience. She denotes that there are varying types of ambition; some writing ambition is “tainted with arrogance” or motivated by “malignant egotism.” But a lack of ambition, claims Upton, can be a sign of “timidity” or a lack of courage and discipline.

Upton also addresses the ambition of characters in the stories that authors write. Upton posits that “to write imaginatively is to be a student of ambition, our own and that of our characters.” But to do this, it takes a lot of time and concentration. To write imaginatively requires “hours, hoarded time, long sinking moments,” and a concentration that “isn’t only a matter of quality but of quantity.” Furthermore, Upton asserts that failures in reading and writing are generally because of a “lack of concentrated focus.”

One impediment to reading Swallowing the Sea was its lack of chronology and narration. A memoir should be a somewhat chronological account or record of past events, rather than a fragmented editorial with bits of personal history and life experiences thrown in. This is where Swallowing the Sea diverges from traditional memoirs. Upton’s ‘memoir’ is more of a collection of advice columns, rather than a chronological narrative of her life. This lack of chronology throughout the memoir can cause the reader to lose a sense of continuity; however, this writing method gives Upton fluidity in switching topics and themes. Since the section headers are broad subjects (ambition, failure, boredom, purity, secrecy), Upton writes about the sweeping issues from different perspectives and angles, mixed with her various suggestions and literary references.

Despite the lack of memoir narration, Upton does include fragmented segments about her life, intertwined with other anecdotes and stories. She was a “myopic child,” and was “so lonely for a year that nothing would help, not even helping others, not even meeting new people.” She started a newspaper for home-only distribution called The Grand Prix, and by sixth grade Upton would read Macbeth out loud in her basement.

Some of her most poignant advice about writing comes from her experiences as a writer. Upton is the author of the fiction book The Guide to the Flying Island. In the section titled “Boredom,” Upton suggests that writers ask the question: “What bores your character?” This question is pertinent for writers, says Upton, because tragedy and comedy often develop from the desire to avoid boredom. “It’s the quality of desire, combined with the inherent complexity of the person doing the desiring, that can make a character rise above boredom.”

Upton extensively uses references and quotes from other authors and literary works, including Rachel Ingalls’s Mrs. Caliban, Leo Tolstoy, J.K. Rowling and the Harry Potter, Pinocchio, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, and The Wizard of Oz. She also references her own book, Undid in the Land of Undone. Upton employs these quotes in order to convey her own feelings and perceptions on writing; however, at times it seems as if she overuses quotations, which has a tendency to take away from her own voice. While she ostensibly uses these excerpts and quotations from her favorite authors and books to convey her views, sometimes her quoting seems overused, and she could have expressed her thoughts better in her own voice. However, these references are useful in providing a variety of perspectives on diverse aspects of writing.

Swallowing the Sea is a memoir for any aspiring writer looking for varied perspectives and advice on writing. Upton covers the subject of writing broadly, covering different genres such as fiction and poetry; she also addresses pertinent topics including ambition, failure, boredom, purity, and secrecy. With such a plethora of advice and inspiring literary quotes from Upton’s favorite authors, Swallowing the Sea is a book for writers to dwell on and ponder. It should be read as an author’s musings and ruminations, rather than a traditional memoir.