The Art of Submission: On Wanting It Too Much
Written by
Emily Lackey
March 2015
Written by
Emily Lackey
March 2015

When I was younger I used to steal things from my friends.

It wasn’t something I did for the usual reasons. Like, I never stole things because it felt dangerous or because I was seeking attention. I never wanted to get caught. In fact, it was the opposite: every time I would get home with whatever I had stolen—a plastic bag full of baby doll clothes, a ring left on the edge of the sink—I would close the door to my room and feel like the most awful thing in the world. Half the time I never even looked at the things I had taken. I would stash them up high in my closet or squeeze them between my mattress and box spring.

So, no. It was never that it felt good to steal. Not even in some sick masochistic way. It was that I wanted what I had stolen so badly. So, so badly.

I should preface this a bit.

I had a not-so-great upbringing for a number of reasons, but one of the reasons was the fact that I was raised in a small New England college town where people were very smart and very rich. We, however, were not. While all my friends had drawers full of Lisa Frank stickers, closets full of craft supplies, and more American Girl Dolls than they knew what to do with, I had a ragtag collection of dolls whose hair I had long since cut off and whose faces I had ruined with makeup. When I went to my friends’ houses, I wanted everything they had--their wooden play kitchens, their dress up clothes, their canopy beds, their afternoon snacks, their stay-at-home moms.

I know now that what I wanted then was a life that was better than my own. I know that because it’s still something I struggle with. I still care too much about the way my house looks. I still can convince myself that if I just had those matching end tables my life would be better.

It’s the same with my writing life. I look around at my friends getting into Tin House and having lunch with editors and I can feel that thing that I felt when I was eight years old, staring at the stack of gold rings left on the back of my friend’s toilet. I want it so, so bad. I want their good news, their good publications, their good writing lives.

Amy Poehler wrote about this in her recent book, Yes Please, which, if you haven’t read it, you should. In a chapter entitled “Treat Your Career Like A Bad Boyfriend,” Poehler talks about how destructive wanting it can be. She eschews the vision boards and positive affirmations of our new age and reminds us that “you have to care about your work but not about the result. You have to care about how good you are and how good you feel, but not about how good people think you are.” She goes on to say that “you will rarely feel done or complete or even successful . . . It doesn’t matter how much you get, you are left wanting more. Success is filled with MSG.”

Ambivalence, Poehler says, is the only thing that can tame the wanting. So I am trying that. Genuinely. There are things in my life that need my attention now: finding a new place to live, finding a better job, finding new friends to fill all of the holes my old friends left in me like a sieve. These days I am ambivalent about publication. These days my head is full of furniture layouts for tiny apartment living and finding typos in my resumé.

I am still writing. I still care about my work. But I don’t care as much about how good other people think it is. I’m not even convinced that other people approving of it would be fulfilling in the long run. I think it would feel a lot like those stolen things did--like something I didn’t deserve, like something I didn’t earn, like something I would hide from myself anyway. A long stretch of shoveling retail shit, of settling in, and of returning to the work might be just the thing that fills me up, that smooths down the wild swings of wanting, wanting, wanting.

I’ll let you know if it does. 

Let's be friends

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  • Sally Ketham

    As I read this, your words evoked so much emotion. I find myself wanting to say, we need to remind ourselves more often that things don't bring meaning. I've had both ends of the extreme this way. I grew up one of eight kids, and spent most of my tweens lusting after guess jeans while my mom was proud of her Wal-mart sale items. I willed myself to have beautiful things when I grew up...and now I do. As an adult I felt like I had accomplished everything I set out to when all the sudden I was eating at the expensive restaurants I used to be a server at. I had the kind of wedding I used to believe would never happen to me. Truth be told, it threw me into a crisis because those achievements, while nice, didn't satisfy as you say. Now I'm not a believer that we need to live in poverty to appreciate life, it's more about an internal shift. I still live in a nice house and wear nice clothes, but I don't look to those things for my identity anymore. That's not where my worth is. I don't know if you've heard of "Louise Hay" but her book, "You can heal your life" was the starting point for a major transformation in my heart and life. It helped change the way I related to myself, and I learned how to give myself the love, acceptance, and approval I was always looking for in outward things. I feed myself love on an emotional level and it helps me enjoy material possessions and success with that degree of detachment you speak of. I don't believe it's possible to feel detached from things until we start nurturing our souls. Sending you love  on this journey of living and writing! :)

  • Carol Apple

    Great essay. I can relate to your childhood - being around others who seemed to have more and better. What intelligent sensitive child would not notice things like her friends having multiple American Girl dolls? Even if our culture didn't give us messages all day long about what is desirable and what will make us happier any kid can see that that a lovely bedroom full of new pretty new toys is nice and highly desirable. We like order and newness and good smells.

    You make me think about writing something about the marketing of toys in our culture, what it does to kids' minds, and how the desire for certain toys becomes contagious causing parents to stand in retail lines for hours on Thanksgiving day. I do try to focus on the joy of writing for its own sake. If I didn't find writing fun it's hard to imagine why I'd bother with it at all. If I focused on the living the the life of a bestselling author who just sold the movie rights to her latest book I would just make myself crazy and be unhappy. 

    Thanks for the book recommendation - Amy Poehler. I'll want to check it out. Keep writing - you are good at it!

  • Claire McAlpine

    t may be a cliché, but this is really worth listening to, to make a shift in terms of how we perceive success.

    It's not necessary to do anything, just continue to be who we are and observe. Bonne Continuation.

    Manifesting True Success

  • Avril Somerville

    I'm digging this, Emily- very transparent, human, and vulnerable.  We want and want, and even when we get, we are left wanting for more. Success then becomes an elusive, moving target at best.

    Also, we often choose the wrong comparators in our becoming. We need not compete against anyone but ourselves. Isn't that what life is about? Putting our best foot forward? Believing the latter can be liberating, frees you from the fear of being wrong, or having to get "it" right - whatever that "it" is.  There are so many dimensions of our lives that need tending, and not just our writing.  Submitting and surrendering to what is happening in on the inside of us is far more honorable than the race to publication, or worse yet, a continued strings of writing that still don't address our fuller, unattended selves. 

    Write On!

  • laura-lynne powell

    nicely done. thank you for sharing.

  • Eva Schlesinger

    Excellent post! Thank you for addressing this so eloquently!

  • Emily

    like you I grew up poor in a rich part of town. In a big family like the Waltons. I, too, craved all the things I couldn't have and saw all the children having around me. But I was lucky; I had a family to love me. I grew up to be an artist, a singer and finally, most importantly, a writer. Always striving for that better life, but with publishers, I never achieved it. I sold lots of books but never made much money and, thus, lived a frugal life. I never achieved the rich and famous life I had so wanted as a young woman. Now, in the twilight of my life, and self-publishing part of my back catalog, I am making a little money...but a large part of my novels are still owned and controlled by people I no longer trust. So, though I feel happy my books are being read and have been for decades...I am still waiting for that easier life. Perhaps I will have it when I again control all my properties. I sure hope so. I'm tired of working so hard and being poor. But that is often a writer's life.... It's ironic how many artists/writers and singers live a hardscrabble existence but long after they're dead their artistic endeavors become priceless. If only that would happen when they were still alive. But I keep on writing anyway. I have no idea some days why I do.

  • Maureen C. Berry

    Love this and your courage Emily. You aren't alone with your feelings. Thanks for sharing. And I agree, Amy Poehler Yes Please rocks!

  • Patricia Robertson

    Love the quote by Amy Poehler! Thank you!

  • Shary

    Gorgeous post, Emily, brilliant opening line!

    Such an honest and meaningful message that invites me to do a scan of my current "wanting quotient," especially now, two months out from pub date!  

    Thank you!

    Author, Insatiable: A Memoir of Love Addiction

  • Sheryl Sorrentino

    Very moving and so true! Many writers go completely nuts trying to make things happen, to the point of wasting time, sacrificing friendships, etc. We need to keep perspective. In the end, all that matters is what you produce and how that makes you feel. It really matters not whether you touch ten people or ten thousand, because in the end, as you said, you will always want more. Best of luck to you in all your endeavors!

  • Kirsten Shaw

    just what I needed to hear this week. thanks for sharing!

  • Jamie Rose


  • here here Bella. So true. 

  • Jill Jepson

    This is very powerful. There is so much truth here, and it spoke to me very deeply. Thank you.

  • Bella Mahaya Carter

    Great post, Emily. Important stuff. But vision boards and positive affirmations can be powerful tools for transformation, and gratitude is the best way I know to tame wanting. Have you heard the expression, “Let go or be dragged"? We show up, do our best, but in the end our “success” isn't up to us—it's out of our control. What's within our control is showing up. Writing success has to do with keeping at it, because you must, honoring the inner call. That's success. Knowing who you are. Appreciating what you've got. Knowing you're just as good as anybody else. The rest, like Cate says, is illusion. 

  • Cate and Emily: great posts and so relevant to life outside of writing. Yes, Buddhism (I have 40 plus years, teach some of it sometimes) speaks about desire but here's the thing. Desire itself is what is interesting. Just feeling desire as a state of consciousness. Don't add any nouns like success or end tables or tight thighs. Just feel the desire. All feelings rise from our bodies and all feelings dissolve. Only takes a short bit of time for the feelings to dissolve. But because we don't like certain feelings we want to push them away, or resolve them (by attaining success, or getting the end tables or tightening our thighs). Instead take an interest in the feeling state itself, naked of any material object including a body. Just the state. listen to it, examine it and then write about it. 

    Because of the way we are wired, when we write about something we feel more in control of it. 

    And Emily I love the quotes from Poehler you chose. We are endless desire machines, always with something/one on the horizon to want. I find it so affirming to hear Amy P's version, about ambiguity. Thank you both so much!