Lee Upton’s “Small Steps Workbook for Writers:  Writing Requires Discipline!”

Lee Upton Tao Lee-Upton-Bottle cover

Lee Upton’s sixth collection of poetry, BOTTLE THE BOTTLES THE BOTTLES THE BOTTLES, recipient of the Open Book Award,  has just been published by the Cleveland State University Poetry Center. Her collection of short stories, The Tao of Humiliation, was selected as one of the best books of 2014 by Kirkus Reviews and received starred reviews from both Kirkus and Library Journal. She is the author of fourteen books, including the novella The Guide to the Flying Island; the essay collection Swallowing the Sea: On Writing & Ambition Boredom Purity & Secrecy; and four books of literary criticism. Her awards include the Pushcart Prize, the BOA Short Fiction Award, the Miami University Press Award for the Novella, the National Poetry Series Award, and awards from the Poetry Society of America.

In this essay, Upton applies her droll wit to the plethora of books providing advice (of dubious value) to writers. We hope this piece will add a little amusement to the first Monday in May. 


You can increase your productivity as a writer by making lifestyle changes!  To increase your capacity for discipline, first, record your resolutions for an improved quality of life in the space below. Three weeks later, record your progress!

  1. Buy stand-up desk for improved health!

Have begun to resemble yoga instructor with hangover, very flexible except shaped like doughnut but hole is head.  Will use bar stool to raise height for sitting at stand-up desk. Plus: can spin!

  1. Respect self in writing group! Do not be so puppyish.  Don’t say “Hi! Hi! Hi!” like never see again. Like going on cruise to Mars. Show self-respect. No faking it. 

Feel alone. Relationships better without self-respect. Others like to see self faking it. Recalculate.

  1. Make effort to spell correctly at all times, even while texting! Or “spelf colorectally whilt exiting?”

Fingers do not allow. Would need cell phone size of billboard. Would need Galaxy size of galaxy. Ha ha.

  1. Make bed! Start writing day right way!

Bed does not reciprocate.  Sad expanse of bed.  Endure sensations of emptiness, futility.

  1. No more panda videos! Panda videos interrupt writing progress! Will never own panda or have relationship with panda. Only serves as symbol of unattainable. Plus difficulty mating in captivity. 

Receive spam video of panda rolling downhill.  Cannot resist. So cute, like snow baby or Helena Bonham Carter.

  1. Try for at least six hours of sleep at night!

Sleep in on Saturday: fourteen hours. Sleeperday. Prefer sleep hoarding. Thus no problem.

  1. Improve flexibility in prose and body. Try hot yoga!

Feel like swamp rat.  Then, after five minutes:  basted farm animal.  No.

  1. Extend linguistic registers. Learn German!

Vas dost I tinkin?

Only meant to impress colleague with Hummel collection. And Knut—genius programmer. He speaks Korean not German! Dumm move!

  1. Eat more kale—like celebrity authors!

Friend of acquaintance says exacerbated kidney stones! Plus bunches always too big. Like taking home SHRUB. Then shrinks in pan. Disappointing. Like love.

  1. Show tolerance!

Am accused by neo cultist in new bookshop: “Your tolerance is arrogance in disguise.”  Now cannot buy from bookshop or ever hope to display own future book in window. Plus will miss out on new book in store window, Do Less, Be More—but have first part of title down pat! Ha!

  1. Show compassion!

Complained about dismal state of kitten hammocks in Bow Meow Emporium.  Bought kittens in protest. Now must find excellent home for kittens.

Kittens feral. Sequestered behind refrigerator. Possibly rabid.

  1. Cultivate candor in writing and in daily life. Be honest! 

Alerted potential kitten owner that kittens possibly rabid. Kittens emerge from behind refrigerator. As if only waiting for another human. Parading selective disdain. Unlikely to be rabid but new owner threatens lawsuit if rabid.

Watched new panda video to quiet nerves. Angry panda, snarling panda. Plus consumes vast acreage of bamboo. Panda videos: conspiracy to disguise panda gluttony?

  1. Fiction thrives on specifics. Pay attention to details!

Have forgotten one kitten behind refrigerator! Name kitten Silas Marner—because neglected and classic. Plus face similar to George Eliot’s!  Plus black- rimmed eyes, much like nonviolent panda? Without hard-hearted companions, kitten trusts human food purveyor, i. e., me. Love! But vomits in ribbon shape.

  1. Take vitamins daily. Plus pill made out of jellyfish—to enhance memory. Imagination + Memory = Alice Munro!

Continually forget to take jellyfish pill! Bouts of guilt about jellyfish population. Who will remember jellyfish when extinct, harvested for our brains? Will brain turn into jelly fish?  Jellyfish: brainless. Bad omen.

  1. Control guilt and need for retribution!

Avoided Goodreads for 3 weeks! Brava! Asked self significant questions: What has guilt done for me? Made murder less attractive? Kept me from hijacking cars?

Resisted stalking former high school teacher, happily married, who gave D in civics. Must combat violent fantasies despite harm done to self-esteem for YEARS? Cannot vote without feeling unworthy. Guilt: useful brake on natural tendency toward revenge? Or brake lining is weak. Brake line cut? Going into SKID?

  1. Ration beer and coffee!

No, balance them! Beer, coffee, beer, coffee, beer, coffee, beer. Result: Relaxed alertness!

Spent happy morning with Silas Marner. Avoided writing and panda videos. Have taken jelly fish capsule, refused to make bed. Shown compassion and tolerance by not reporting landlord’s fake charity to FBI. Shown honesty by not blackmailing. Lie on couch with Silas Marner on chest and staring into one of my eyes—practicing weird kitten mind control. Must hoard sleep in preparation for work week of two-hour sleep nights. Kale wilting in refrigerator. Feel superior. Like another species. Like I am kitten with kitten, curled in ball of warmth, guiltless. Dream of jellyfish. Wake in sweat. Will forget dream soon. Can’t remember title of that book either: Do More, Be Less?


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