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Swallowing the Sea: On Writing & Ambition, Boredom, Purity & Secrecy (edition 2012)

by Lee Upton

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Member:llusby23
Title:Swallowing the Sea: On Writing & Ambition, Boredom, Purity & Secrecy
Authors:Lee Upton
Info:Tupelo Press (2012), Hardcover, 220 pages
Collections:Your library
Rating:*****
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Swallowing the Sea: On Writing & Ambition, Boredom, Purity & Secrecy by Lee Upton

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This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
Lee Upton’s Swallowing the Sea: On Writing & Ambition Boredom Purity & Secrecy attempts to be many things. It’s partly a memoir of the writer’s experience with language and writing. It tries to address the nouns that make up the subtitle, but primarily it’s a collection of quotes that are thrown onto the page. The publisher information accompanying the book provides a blurb by David Lehman, who describes Upton’s book as a “chrestomathy,” a selection of literary quotations. That description is an accurate one.

It’s apparent that the writer is trying to define certain subjects about writing. “It’s Such a Filthy Word,” for example, attempts to define purity as it relates to poetry. The opening sentence of each paragraph shows this attempt to pin down the term. It isn’t until the seventeenth paragraph, after having provided quotes by Sylvia Plath, Homer, Thomas Hardy, Pablo Neruda, Wallace Stevens, William Blake, Charles Lamb, and James Fenton, that Upton informs her audience that “purity is both a necessary impulse and a dangerous aspiration.” It isn’t until the final paragraph, twenty-five paragraphs later, after quotes from ten more writers and an artist, that Upton reaches the conclusion that purity can neither be obtained in “art [n]or in life.”

I think the book is intended for students in advanced creative writing classes. This book serves to introduce writers that these students may not have been aware of and allows them to delve more deeply into their own conception of such terms as ambition, boredom, purity, and secrecy because these ideas are ones that they will have to address as they grow as writers.

As a reader, I would have preferred a memoir and would have found a detailed examination of the writer’s own struggle with ambition or boredom, for example, more enlightening than to be caught up in a cascade of quotes.

As a writing teacher, I find an abundance of quotes to be neither convincing nor endearing. Instead, these quotes, after a while, clutter up the text and make it difficult to decipher what exactly the writer is trying to say. If it takes an abundance of quotes for the writer to make a point, I would suggest that the writer pare down the prose and re-examine what it is that he or she wants to say.

It is particularly aggravating when one quote follows another without the writer having explained the reason for borrowing these words from someone else.

The book shows the writer’s knowledge of literature and writing. I would have preferred more of a narrative as the writer explores such subjects as ambition, boredom, purity, and secrecy as they relate to her life as a writer. ( )
  firstcitybook | Jan 2, 2014 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
I found Swallowing the Sea a bit of a hard go. As other reviewers have suggested, it's a difficult book to categorize: what it's certainly not is a guide for beginning writers. Perhaps the closest equivalent would be the early modern commonplace book, a hodgepodge of observations, significant quotes, critiques, and personal thoughts. Upton muses on the emotions and difficulties that writers encounter; on relevant passages from a myriad of works (the six page bibliography--in tiny print--covers writers from the Pearl Poet to Jane Austen to Zadie Smith); on her own discovery of the magic of literature; and much, much more. As the subtitle suggests, she breaks the book into subsections on ambition, boredom, purity, and secrecy, aspects the writer alternately pursues and rejects. While there is much of interest here, the writing is dense and the book, overall, rather esoteric. It might have been a better read for me if I had the time and patience to labor over it, but, unfortunately, I did not. ( )
2 vote Cariola | Jun 24, 2013 |
If you’re looking for a book on ‘craft’, Lee Upton’s Swallowing the Sea: On Writing won’t be what you’re looking for, but if you are curious about the hidden pleasures and torments of the writing life, you will find it refreshing. While to all appearances the titles of the essays: Ambition, Failure, Boredom, Purity, Bigamy and Secrecy, seem straightforward, the essays are wily, funny and provocative. Upton examines ambition from many angles, from the most crude to the subtle, making the point (among others) that without ambition not only would the books not get written, but the characters in the books wouldn’t have much to offer either. In “Failure” Upton examines the close relationship between ambition and failure, and the inevitability, in the long run, of failure. What’s more important is to grasp that it is not failing, but the quality of the failure that matters, a hard concept to accept in real life, but one that writers often choose as a subject of study. A new concept for me: Fail better. I like it. And then there is “Boredom” not only that inherent in being a writer (it’s true) but the ennui (fancy for boredom) that is often the catapult into catastrophe- think Emma Bovary think Anna K -- (citing, along the way how masterfully Jane Austen can make a boring character interesting and still so recognizable after all this time.) I was much taken, in this essay, by the apparently limitless number of books people appear to have written about boredom - here are the titles she mentions, the tip of the iceberg, no doubt: On Waiting Harold Schweitzer,Boredom: A Literary History of a State of Mind Patricia Meyer Spacks,Experience Without Qualities: Boredom and Modernity Elizabeth S. Goodstein, Boredom: A Lively History Peter Toohey, A Philosopy of Boredom Lars Svendsen. That is just one tidbit, for it would be spoiling to mention any more of the delightful points Upton makes here, in this my favorite of all the essays. “Purity” and “Bigamy” did not resonate particularly with me, seeming to be almost silly, self-conscious, hair-splitting nonsense, although I have no doubt those issues may matter to others for reasons I can’t fathom, particularly poets. Novelists are, in the eyes of poets, lazy and a bit sloppy, you know; I don’t ever think about being pure, and although I don’t ‘cross-genre’ that much I can’t imagine why anyone would care if I did. I play several musical instruments, some better than others, and the fact is, they all make me a better musician, combined. The last essay on “Secrecy” may be the best of all, it sneaks up on you and ends with in a shocking revelation that gives one of the best reasons art and story-telling are essential for human well-being. Tangentially it also contains the best explanation for the existence of vampire fiction that I’ve encountered. A last takeaway is that writers, in every generation, uncover ‘new’ secrets, new things we are ‘ready’ to hear and learn about ourselves, formerly buried. This is also one of those sly books that mentions so many other books that you find yourself grabbing a pen. You won’t learn how to write anything here, but your booklist will get longer and you will learn about what makes writers go and why you read. ***** ( )
2 vote sibyx | Jan 8, 2013 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
Lee Upton's essays explore the sequence of emotions that torment every writer. It is more a book of writers' therapy by way of intelligent reflection than a book of advice for writers, which I found rather refreshing. Don't most of us prefer commiseration over being preached at? Upton's tone throughout is humorous and sympathetic and commonsensical. Swallowing the Sea is also full of fun literary references, so you always feel you are in good company. ( )
  llusby23 | Dec 17, 2012 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
Lee Upton’s Swallowing the Sea engulfs the reader in an ocean bursting with inspiration and literary delights. For the writer, this book stimulates, tweaks and spurs an overwhelming urge to write. It immerses the reader in a sea of literary allusion and gives insight into the process of writing.
Upton divides Swallowing the Sea into six chapters that examine aspects of a writer’s emotions that are rarely discussed in standard volumes on writing. The first chapter, ambition, confronts what drives a writer to sit down and put pen to paper or fingers to a keyboard. Whether recognized or not, ambition lurks behind every novel, essay, or poem that eventually sees the light of day or languishes in the desk drawer.
The other chapters, Failure, Boredom, Purity, Bigamy for Beginners, and Secrecy address dilemmas that writers frequently confront. The chapters suggest not only solutions, but provide different prisms through which to view the light. The prose is exquisite, the pace relentless and when the reader has finished, he will feel that he has indeed swallowed the sea. Nevertheless, both writer and reader will be inspired to write more and read more as a result of this fantastic small book.
A treasure! ( )
  cvjacobs | Oct 11, 2012 |
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Epigraph
Dedication
—in memory of Lana Upton Kaltz
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The first story of panic: In Tomas Tranströmer's prose poem "The Name," a man pulls his car off the road, crawls into the backseat, and falls alseep.
Quotations
Ambition seems to prove that, if nothing else, we are in service to a conception of enhanced possibilities. To be ambitious may even mean that we are extraordinarily alive, summoning energy, will, and resonant presence, even while so much that we experience conspires to to make all but very few people believe their lives are smaller than they actually are or need to be.
All happy writers aren't alike. But more unhappiness comes from inflated expectations of approval and understanding thatn from inflated visions.
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Tupelo Press

Two editions of this book were published by Tupelo Press.

Editions: 1936797135, 1936797143

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