• Emily Lackey
  • The Art of Submission: Accepting the Writer You Are
This blog was featured on 07/27/2016
The Art of Submission: Accepting the Writer You Are
Written by
Emily Lackey
October 2015
Written by
Emily Lackey
October 2015

I think that each of us probably has an idea in her head of what a real writer looks like. For me, she looks like some combination of Dorothy Parker and Sylvia Plath—dedicated, devoted to language, sharp as a tack, and always surrounded by an air of tragedy. She wakes up when the sky is still black and writes, the words spreading across the page like the sun across the sky.

I also think that each of us probably has an idea of what a real writer looks like and, for any number of reasons, believes that we are not that. 

I signed up for a writing workshop yesterday. Mainly because I know it will keep me accountable and keep me working. Is it weird that I feel a tinge of shame about this? About paying hard-earned money to have someone hold me accountable to something I claim to love?

There are other things that I love that don't take external motivators to keep me dedicated—my dog, my boyfriend, every single iteration of The Real Housewives. Why can't I—like the real writer I imagine—get my shit together once and for all and write this collection on my own? What does it mean that I need a financial obligation to get this work done? Does it mean I don't really want this? Does it mean that I don't have it in me? Does it mean that—worst of all—I am not a real writer, that I have never been one, that I never will be?

I've been listening to Happier with Gretchen Rubin lately. And by "listening to" I mean "desperately binging on, downloading 32 episodes in one sitting—and going over my monthly data allowance in the process—so that I could catch up on past episodes while I go for walks or take a shower or cook dinner. It's a podcast, the main gist of which is this: in order to develop the habits that will make you happier, you have to first know yourself. You have to know your stumbling blocks, the vulnerable parts of your day, the times when you are most likely to order a pizza and call it quits before getting to everything you had planned to make you happy. The most important thing you can do to develop a new habit is to know what type of habit building tendencies you have. 

According to Rubin there are four types of tendencies: upholders (people who are driven equally by internal and external motivators), questioners (people who need to find practical reasons for doing something), rebels (people who resist both internal and external motivators), and obligers (people who are driven by external motivators like deadlines, or other people, or workshops that they paid $350 to join). 

I know that I am an obliger. I can see that clearly now. I respond well to group challenges, to writing exchanges, to working out when I have friends who are expecting me to show up. But even though I have a name for my tendencies, even though I have had my ways validated and affirmed, I still feel like I should be an upholder. Because that real writer is surely an upholder. That is where the shame is coming from: the fact that I am not self-motivated, that I am not self-driven, that I am not that real writer as I've always pictured her. 

I think it's clear from this column that I believe strongly in demystifying the writing process. I also believe strongly in demystifying what it's like to be a working writer. I believe that the idea of writing being this divine gift that is given to some is not only a lie, it's a myth that serves to only hurt other writers. Because believing in this myth can paralyze talented artists from doing the work it takes to be a real writer, and believing in this myth can also give people the false assumption that this shit is easy. 

This shit is not easy. 

I wish we were more honest about what our writing lives look like. I wish we showed each other our rough drafts. I wish we showed each other the days we say we are going to write for eight hours and then don't. I wish we showed each other the days we write for 30 minutes, call it a victory, and reward ourselves with cake. I wish we showed each other how much our lives don't look like the ideas in our heads of what real writers looks like. I wish we showed each other more how much we struggle so that we could really see what real writers look like. 

So I'll go first. 

My name is Emily Lackey, and sometimes I go an entire month without writing. Sometimes I resort to paying people to keep me accountable. Sometimes I would rather be watching reality television than working on my short story collection. But I am a real writer. I am, I am, I am. 

Let's be friends

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  • Sherrey Meyer

    Thanks for this thoughtful post filled with so many emotions dealt with by almost every writer. Oddly enough, I just completed a blog post more or less defying the sentiments of those who believe social media and platform building are the most important part of writing. I say I get to make a choice, and I have made decision I'm standing by. And part of my post had its genesis in the things we don't share with each other. Thank you, thank you, thank you for affirming my feelings.

  • Paula Wagner

    Great post! I bet that the vast majority of writers are Obligers so we're in good company. No need for guilt. But for me it also depends on what kind of writing I'm doing. For instance, if it's business writing, I'm definitely motivated by $$ and deadlines. Why not? It pays the bills, satisfies my clients and gives me a sense of accomplishment. But when it comes to the "priceless" art of creative writing or memoir, I need an external incentive like classes, support groups, etc. to keep me motivated. The only kind of writing I do completely freely is poetry. The Rebel Muse comes and goes of her own free will, beholden to no one. Maybe it has to do with what parts of the brain are engaged.

  • Lisa Palmer

    I am so glad you wrote that. I ask myself that everyday. I want to write way more than I actually do and I just don't know if I'm meant to be one. Thank you for writing that. 

  • Jill Jepson

    Great post! I am definitely an upholder. I am also easily distracted, often unfocused, sometimes sad, sometimes very, very sad, a little driven, and a little prone to black-and-white thinking: "I'm a total loser! Wait! No! I'm the most amazing person ever!" Thanks for allowing us all to share ourselves honestly, warts and writer's block and all. 

  • Priscilla (Prissy) Elrod

    Emily, your personality is adorable and that's a fact. You are most definately a real writer. Don't kid yourself!

    I really loved your post and laughed my way to the end.  Yes, indeed, we each have a label to blanket ourselves with as we binge watch some random, shameless show. Perhaps the word 'guilt' could be monogramed on top in a really pretty color. I, for one, might feel better about myself. I'm a 50/50 girl: upholder and obliger. Who knows, we probably signed up for the same writing work-shop. See you there!

  • Mardith Louisell

    Loved this post. Love being irreverent. Some of us (like me) are irreverent, some are reverent. Would like to see more irreverents post! Thanks.

  • Karen A Szklany Writing

    Emily, thank you for this thought-provoking post.

    I'm in the same boat as  you are as an obliger when it comes to writing.  I'm participating in NaNoWriMo because it's a challenge with a clear goal and deadline that I work toward.  It remains to be seen whether I'll manage to write out 50K words.  Last year I wrote a little over 500.  Many aspects of my life depend on my succeeding this year, so I must grow into an upholder, to an extent.

    I also  lead a writer's group to keep myself writing.  I usually think of the time spent as creating space for me to be a writer because of all the distractions that keep me away from writing in my home environment.  I have a desktop computer that I write at for my NaNoWriMo novel, but now I am downstairs on my husband's laptop to run through email so that I can separate the two types of activities, and keep my novel writing area dedicated to just that, at least for the month.

  • Dana Alexander Writing


    I haven't enjoyed a post this well-written in some time; funny, to the point, and honest. Awesome!! 

    I'm an upholder, like many writers.  But that presents its own challenges as a slave to the novel(s) that I'm working on at any time.  I have to force myself to step away, live life and know that it's okay if I don't write for a day. In fact, I actually find more inspiration if I do step away.  Thanks for the much needed post! :)

  • Emily Lackey

    Wow! I love hearing about what other tendencies there are out there and how those tendencies negatively and positively affect your writing life. I guess the grass isn't always greener, is it?

    And Kamy, yes, please share with Gretchen!

  • Rebecca Ferrell Porter

    I am an upholder. I put unnecessary stress on myself. Unnecessary because the outside world already has that market cornered. I live for the moments when the words flow freely, and slump into a low when fears seep in. With two books published in a trilogy, and one having won an award, I fear failure. Can I do it again? Will I have brought my readers along on this journey only to disappoint them?

    I had to walk away, write something different, but that didn't help. I refused to even look at my notes for 6 weeks. Then outside pressures forced me back. Looming deadlines overcame my fear. Like others, I find freedom in writing, and so I have returned to the place where I can truly be me. I am a writer. 

  • Julia Pemberton Hellums

    Ditto! Needed to hear someone else verbalize the demons in my head...Thanks Emily - A fellow obliger :)

  • T.T.Huston

    Lol I laugh because this sounds a lot like me. This was exactly what I needed to hear today. Thanks so much for your honesty and the giggles you provided that let me know I am a writer. I am, I am, I am :)

  • Sharon McDonell

    Thank you Emily.  I'm Sharon and I'm a questioner and my good friend is an obliger and her behavior makes so much more sense now.  I write because at some point I really expect my work will be good enough to publish. I write because I have to have a purpose in life and this is the one I'd always wanted to do and now have time in retirement (due to disability) and opportunity to create.Thank you and Gretchen Ruben as helping us figure out how we work and to help us work better.  

  • Ani H Manjikian

    My name is Ani, and I'm a questioner, I think. Well, actually I know even without listening to the podcast because most of the time I need to find practical reasons for doing things. I have my first book out and like most first books, it isn't doing all the well. At this point, I'm not marketing that much, if at all, and concentrating on my second one. 1) Because if I don't, I might give up on writing (because I don't see the "justification" in it. trust me it took me a long time to get the first one out for the same reason) and 2) I need it to deal with other things in my life that are going on (writing is an emotional cathartic for me.) I have a whole series of 20 books planned, if I can just get of this need for justification and practicality hurdle.

  • Kamy Wicoff Brainstorming

    Oh my gosh -- I was just working on a blog post called "Say It With Me: I AM a Writer." But you sort of wrote it already! Maybe I will piggy back. I have two books out and am struggling with what to write next, and definitely in the grips of the fear that I am not a writer for real. Thanks for your honesty. Also Gretchen Rubin is a friend, and I am going to send her this post!

  • Mary Ann Faughnan

    Terrific post, Emily! I'll go second:

    My name is Mary Ann Faughnan. I write constantly--for my day job, for my kids, for general correspondence--but I rarely give myself the time to write for myself. I am definitely an obliger, as it seems there is always something practical calling out to be done before I can justify time spent on my own creative work. I also spend way too much time reading about writing and using that as a substitute, rather than getting down to writing myself. But I am a real writer too--yes, I am!

  • Karen Fortunati

    Loved this!