Finding the Power in Submission

by Lisa Cheby

After my father died when I was ten, I watched my mother, who had been a stay-at-home mom, struggle with returning to the workforce while avoiding managing her grief. At the time, I only saw the struggle and deduced my job in life was to never depend on anyone else. This somehow translated into a reluctance to ask for anything from anyone. Through college and film school, I embraced autonomy, working summers to pay tuition on my own, coordinating moves within Florida then to New York City and Los Angeles on my own, paying my bills on my own, finding jobs on my own, buying a home on my own, and traveling on my own.

In her book Shakti Woman, Vicki Noble writes how the taboo of menstruation and women’s bodies paired with women’s conditioning to deny the Dark Goddess in themselves leads women to view autonomy as unacceptable and, quoting Sylvia Perera, devours their “sense of willed potency and value” (30). With all this autonomy, with all my effort to create a life where I depended on no one, I wondered why I still felt devoid of “willed potency and value.” Rather than empowered, I was disconnected and inhibited.

Freelancing as a video editor in a male-dominated Hollywood, my willfulness was at odds with the work ethic I learned from my parents that shamed me from asking for help in getting jobs. Even when I had the experience needed, it was a constant struggle for me to ask for jobs, leaving me incapable of reaching the glass ceiling, never mind trying to make a crack in it. From there I landed (with no regrets) a career in public education, a profession associated with the feminine and, thus, undervalued in our society. Though teachers may be found protesting board of education meetings, getting arrested in North Carolina, or creating DonorsChoose campaigns for books, art supplies, and field trips, teachers rarely ask for significant resources for their classroom because they are conditioned to be thankful for what scraps schools are given and to believe they are not willful participants in the education process. This demand for autonomy in the classroom setting and remaining submissive in the larger landscape of education was, unfortunately, a rather comfortable fit at the time. I was very good, maybe too good, at making due on my own.

Writing also requires autonomy in its demand to not depend on others to get the words on the page. At least in the creation stage. Once created, if writing is to make it out into world, it requires workshopping and submitting–asking for recognition, for validation, for a seat at the table, for a chance to speak. Getting published is not magical, but demands the ability to believe in your work and to ask others to believe in it too. This is grueling work–such faith—especially for women who are conditioned to be quiet and to subvert our own will to others. To vocalize our wisdom or to assert our will is to risk being labeled and dismissed as shrews, viragos, witches, bitches, crones, confessional, chick-lit writers, or any number of names. Even when we find autonomy, as Noble explains, we are robbed of the power it should bring.

Just as people build spiritual communities because holding faith in isolation is arduous, so Women Who Submit creates a community to support women writers as they overcome the conditioning of being shamed by autonomy, submissive through not asking, and disconnected from a sense of potency and value. One of my first submissions was a poem about my mother’s caretaker and her ability to bring my mother comfort and joy in ways I felt I failed. The poem was rejected, but the rejection included a note from one of readers telling me how the poem had resonated deeply with her. This was my first inkling that my writing held potency and value to someone other than my inner circle of friends and writers. This should not have been so surprising since I have spent my life finding comfort, companionship, and comprehension of the world through the written word.

Still, a lifetime of messages that women’s words and experiences are not universal, are not as important as men’s, imprinted in me a dread of the work of submitting. Even as I imagine sending out this essay to the world, I must quell the cells in my body that want to go turn on the TV and pretend I have nothing to say. When I doubt, my fellow Women Who Submitters share their own spreadsheets filled with evidence of work that was repeatedly rejected before getting published. We meet in person to set goals and cheer each time we dare to ask a journal, a press, a residency, or a fellowship, “Please give my words a home in the world.” Eventually, someone would announce that her story, poem, or book was accepted for publication, that she earned a space in a residency or workhop or writing retreat, or that she was invited to be featured in a reading or on a panel, and we all were encouraged to keep asking, keep submitting. I sent out that poem again, and it now lives in an issue of The Provo Orem Word.

Slowly, this practice became internalized and bled into other parts of my life. First, it started on a personal level. I found myself asking for help to load a new table into my car and carry it up to my apartment. I asked for the commitment I needed from relationships. Like in writing, often there were rejections. Like with my poems, I took what I had to offer and found other people or communities. I asked for understanding from my family when I wanted to spend the holidays in my own home. I asked friends to keep me company in the times when I felt most alone.

At work, I was the only woman to join an ad-hoc committee set up to determine how to spend a special grant from the school district for new technology. Just as I would with Women Who Submit, I reviewed the requirements for proposals for how to spend the school’s technology grant. I showed up at the meeting for proposals with infographics and a PowerPoint of circulation and computer use statistics to show how an expanded computer lab is essential to meeting the school’s mission and vision and a detailed budget based on the technology approved by the district. The other committee members had vague suggestions. They decided to postpone proposals until a later meeting in order to discuss distribution of technology we currently had.

As I would with a writing submission, I updated and revised my data. I took the proposal to the budget committee. They asked for more information. I revised and resubmitted. Six months later, the school governance council, thanks to many strong supporters of the library, approved the lab. Shortly after that, the district revoked a third of our budget. Since we already bought the computers with the technology grant, we were left with 40 new computers and no money for the furniture and additional electrical outlets and data ports needed to run all 40 computers. As I would with a manuscript I wanted to shop to a new market, I revised my materials to start a fundraiser. I added in floor plans designed by the drafting teacher.

People suggested I scavenge for discarded furniture and piece together a lab. Just as I spent five years sending out a poem before it was accepted because I believed in it, I believed our students deserve a properly assembled lab. I kept the computers visible and refused to let them be distributed and forgotten. Thankfully, the administrator in charge of technology supported me in this. I created an IndieGoGo campaign. I attended neighborhood council meetings and PTA meetings. Eventually, I gained the support of our local school board member who secured funding from our local district. It took another year of facilitating communications between the various district departments. Though many times I wondered if they would drop the project, I did not submit to failure. Two years since that first PowerPoint, the lab is complete.

When we as women writers support and educate each other in the process of submitting writing for publication and in applying for fellowships, residencies, and other opportunities to support or promote our writing, we are declaring that women be heard. We are burning scripts that have taught women to be silently submissive. We are modeling how autonomy and submitting to be heard or to be better at what we do are not shameful. We are teaching women to engage more fully and confidently in all areas of their lives.

The computer lab project is just one area I noticed this manifesting in my life. Many of my professors in my masters in library and information science program encouraged us to submit our work to journals, particularly the student journal. Despite my thesis advisor telling me my writing was not up to par, I submitted two other papers, both which have been published in library science journals. Last week I was leaving my friend’s mother’s beach house with a backpack and my carry-on suitcase. Though in her 70s, she is spry and offered to help me with my bags. I refused, “I do this myself all the time.” She took the handle of the carry-on and said, “Yes, but that doesn’t mean you can’t have someone help when available.” My participation in Women Who Submit is not just about the writing, but about nurturing confidence in my vision for my art, for my life, and my community and about not hesitating to ask for help to manifest that vision in the world.


03ed7441-a8ac-4c08-be2a-a1ae86ce4ac6Lisa Cheby’s poems and reviews have appeared in various journals including The Rumpus, The Citron Review, Tidal Basin Review, A cappella Zoo, and TAB, which nominated her poem for a 2015 Pushcart Prize. Lisa’s poems are also found in the anthologies Drawn to Marvel, The Burden of Light, Coiled Serpent, and Hysteria. Her first book, Love Lessons from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, is available from Dancing Girl Press and was featured in The Wardrobe’s Best Dressed Series. Lisa holds an MFA from Antioch and an MLIS from SJSU.

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