The Art of Submission: A Confession
Written by
Emily Lackey
June 2015
Written by
Emily Lackey
June 2015

Forgive me, She Writers, for I have sinned.

It has been three months since my last submission. And, believe me, the hypocrisy of this—the fact that I haven't submitted my work in months and yet continue to give submission advice through this platform—is not lost on me. Every week I've scrambled, hours before my deadline, to think of something—anything—to share with you all about the process. Something I've learned, something I'm thinking about, something I'd like to be doing better. 

What are my reasons? Plenty. Because I haven't finished a new story in months. Because my old stories feel old and woven tightly with the doubt that comes from continuously being rejected. Because this is hard. Because I often question the legitimacy of my changes in this world without connections or ten thousand Twitter followers. Because I recently discovered that a writer I knew distantly and who won a Pushcart was in a relationship with one of the judges and it has made me stop. It has made me wonder, "What is this world I am submitting to?" Because all of this makes me realize the longstanding and patriarchal traditions of this publishing world, and because I am sick of submitting myself to it. Because I am scared that I am not good enough. Because I am scared that, even if I were, being good enough would not be enough. 

I read recently an essay by a UNH professor who had quit writing. This same man came to one of my classes during my last semester of grad school to talk about a story he had published in Glimmer Train, and that we all read. I remember that he talked about quitting writing even then, and I remember thinking as he talked about stopping after decades of trying and succeeding in so many ways, "Liar." No one can ever quit this work. Not really. But the essay was about just that—how he hadn't. But how he had. He had stopped trying to be a writer, that was the important distinction. He had stopped submitting, stopped querying, stopped wasting entire days agonizing over his failures and the fact that he had not yet published a book. And a few months later he started doing work. The real work, which was now detached from who would read it and would journal would accept it and how quickly he could edit it and get it out. 

I read his essay and thought, "I want to do that. I want to quit."

But that was immediately undercut by the thing inside me that is hungry, that says it's too early in my career, that I just started, that I should be churning out stories as if it were my job because, dammit, it is. 

A friend of mine who is a poet and also an amazing mentor said something to me that I think about just as much as I think about quitting. We were standing between our two cars after a night of drinking wine and discussing the luck of being alive and drawing from Jane Smiley novels for proof, and somehow the conversation between us turned to our work and how we weren't producing anything new, and she said, "I've been thinking a lot about fields and how they have to lie fallow."

Maybe it was the Jane Smiley or the wine or the fact that everything this woman says seems stunning to me, but I pictured that field stretching out all the way to the horizon. I pictured that soil, dry and overworked, starting to breathe, starting to revive. 

Maybe that's all this is. 

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  • B. Lynn Goodwin

    Thanks for sharing your honest struggle.

  • Judy c Kohnen

    Sounds like letting go, giving yourself permission to not write so you can turn off the nagging voices and be creative without any other duties.

  • Rossandra White

    Aah, yes, indeed. But we do forget those times it isn't working, don't we? That's when those sentiments expressed here by you and Emily and others are a great help.

  • Lloyd Lofthouse

    Thank you, Rossandra.

    I started writing my first book length manuscript in 1968, and I've written more than dozen since---not all are published and some will never be published.

    But during those decades, there were times when I had to stop sometimes for months at a time. I always came back to that page eventually. We humans are emotional creatures and sometimes life throws curve balls our way and that causes extreme emotions that have to be dealt with before we can return to the page.

    I think it is normal to feel this way---the doubt, the frustration, that negative voice that tells us we can't make it, that we have no talent.  It is also normal to recover and get on with life, and for us writers part of our lives is the writing.

    Consider that the emotional roller coaster that is a normal part of being human also offers us more to write about later after we recover. I've lived long enough now to realize that things almost always get better one way or another.

  • Rossandra White

    Well put, Lloyd Lofthouse.

  • Lloyd Lofthouse

    Sometimes we have to take a break, catch our breath. But if we love writing, are addicted to it, we will return to those blank pages and start to fill them with words. Sometimes its the only way to return to sanity.


  • Linda Kass

    This message resonates for every writer because every writer has doubt, and, for most of us, submission of work--whether to literary journals or to gain an agent's attention--is an arduous uphill climb. Thank you, Emily!

  • Rossandra White

    This profoundly resonated with me. Thanks!

  • Philippa Anne Rees

    Teresa is comforted in the arms of her beloved( writing) as are we all. Dependable, solid, open hearted, adventurous, limitless. On that we can all agree.

  • Teresa K. Thorne

    Good to hear that we are all in the same struggle. I love the image of the fallow field and am fighting off urges to do that one more marketing thing, so I can turn to my beloved (writing).

  • Pat Sabiston

    That's the spirit ... Sakki Selznick!

  • Okay. A painter friend had an assignment in graduate school. She had to get fifteen turn downs from galleries. The first seven wanted to show her work. She trooped back, delighted, to her prof, who said, nope, haven't done the assignment. You still need those fifteen turndowns. Rejection is part of your job.

    So--let's set the bar for writers at 150-175. Every two years maybe. Sounds like most of us are nowhere near doing their job. But I'm starting on it. 150 here I go. (Of course, acceptances don't count towards that goal. Right? Right.

  • Susie Meserve

    I'm struggling a lot with this, this summer. My first reaction when I read about the professor "quitting" was—good for him. This is a thankless world in many ways and it's awfully easy to get so wrapped up in whether we have enough Twitter followers instead of whether we're really creating powerful and important work. I'm struggling because I've recently finished a book, I'm submitting to agents who are not responding, and I'm starting a new project. I have many voices telling me to be hungry, to keep going, to push harder, to crank out that new book and relentlessly search for the next opportunity—and yet my innate feeling right now is that I actually need to pause and muddle and slow down, to celebrate the completion of one project and the ceremony of starting a new one. It's been awfully hard to tell the "go-getter" voices to just shut up for a while and let me find my way to the process of really writing again. And so I appreciate Wendy's comment: "To tune into my own thoughts in a deeper silence and from a deeper connection to the inner source of my inspiration. I feel sure that if I pay attention to this urge towards allowing what feels natural, my work will be my best yet." 

  • I've been a writer for over 44 years and I've quit many, many times...I always go back to it. If you're a writer, you've been born to write and you will no matter what. Rest for a while...until the urge to create returns - and it will.

  • Patricia Robertson

    You are talking about quitting two different things, quitting writing and quitting submissions. I don't know that I would ever quit writing, but submissions - that I would be all to happy to quit and have done so at times! I also have gone through fallow times of resting in between bursts of writing. It's all part of the process! You might say I quit for a day in order to pick it back up another day.

  • Philippa Anne Rees

    We can control what we decide to do (write or lie fallow) but not what reception anything we write will receive. Since writing is as much 'toward' (others) as it is 'from' (self) the gulf between the two always is there. The distortion that dishonesty ( sleeping with the enemy) offers is a very small boulder in that gulf.So, in the absence of the belief that anything new we write will fare any better than what we have written, we have to somehow manufacture a bridge of 'working title faith' or quit. The quitting is the hardest, although no non-writer would understand that! I would love to lay down the burden of compulsion, but I do question whether the 'fallow field'  could equally be the contaminated or poisoned one, that sprouts no inspiration because over-fertilised with artificial social media feed?

  • Pat Sabiston

    Oh WOW!  It was providential that this was posted today.  I wanted to quit a LOT of things today, not just my writing.  Life seems to be getting so very hard, the world is so cruel, and people can be downright mean.  I am so moved by the fact that you would swallow your vulnerability to "minister" to other writers.  This is just one of the important ways SHE WRITES helps women.  Thank you.

  • Tonya Rice

    Emily, until last night, I thought I was dry! I wanted to be, or so I thought, until I resumed writing a story I'd left alone for nearly a month. When I returned to their world, I cared more than I had the night I stopped typing it. I'd honestly grown weary of them, the other stories aching to come out, and the marketing efforts I'd been putting forth on other stories I've got out there. A few years ago, I'd quit too and realized that not only I couldn't, but in all truth, I couldn't. Thanks for reminding me and the rest of us that it's okay and we're not alone in this!

  • This is really a post about control, the control we have – writing or choosing not to, submitting or not – and the control we don't have: whether or not our work will be published, appreciated, read. I wrestle with this all the time. The world of submissions is huge, and the challenge in the face of inevitable rejection, is to let expectations go, and to keep working. It's okay and even necessary to step back, "quit," rest and renew yourself. If you are a writer, and you definitely are, you will feel the urge to write again. In the end, that's the only thing that truly counts. 

  • I know exactly what you mean! I, too, had stopped submitting, overwhelmed by advice, the necessity to build a platform and the marketing/promotional side of the work and for me, in the world of poetry, attend readings and open mics and keep my name out there. I also feel the need to let the ground lie fallow. To tune into my own thoughts in a deeper silence and from a deeper connection to the inner source of my inspiration. I feel sure that if I pay attention to this urge towards allowing what feels natural, my work will be my best yet.