Have you ever heard of imposter syndrome? Scientific American describes it as “a pervasive feeling of self-doubt, insecurity or fraudulence, despite often overwhelming evidence to the contrary.”
It’s most commonly associated with the workplace, but as writers, I’d argue it’s just as prevalent, if not more so, in the arts. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve sat in front of my computer and thought to myself, “Who am I kidding? I’m not a writer,” while I squished around in my self-doubt.
Valerie Young, an expert on the subject of imposter syndrome, identified five imposter subgroups. She created them to apply to the work persona, but I think each of these rings true for writers. I’ve created the writer version of each subgroup below. Which one of these do you associate with?
You can never complete a piece because you can’t decide whether or not to keep a comma in the third sentence. Comma in. Comma out. Comma in. Comma out. Taps fingers on desk. Looks up comma usage for the fourth time online. Comma in. Comma out.
We all want our work to be the best it can be. If you’re on your 9th draft, go ahead and fight with that comma. If in you’re in your first few, here’s what you should imagine: a loud voice coming from the Universe who says, “No one f*&^ing cares about your comma. Finish the damn piece and get on with it. And by the way, I think you’re amazing. Clooney would have totally married you if he hadn’t meet Amal.” Your Universe voice may close that conversation differently than mine, but you get the idea.
Convinced you’re a phony among your writing peers? You decide to overcome it by sheer grit. You spend hours grinding out content and leave claw marks on your desk whenever anyone tries to pull you away for anything other the bottom tier of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Will Smith tells a story about persistence, “But if we get on the treadmill together, there’s two things: You’re getting off first, or I’m going to die. It’s really that simple, right?”
No one wants to pry your cold, dead hands from your keyboard. While writing is important, so are your family and friends. Your pets. Life outside of the screen and keyboard. Your book will be there when you get back. It won’t run away. So chill out. Do something fun. Your life away from the page will make the lives you create on the page that much richer.
The Natural Genius
The natural genius, according to Young, bases their success on their abilities and not on their efforts. It’s the opposite of Superwoman. So let’s say you go to your read and critique group. There’s one member who always brings beautiful work, week after week. You look at her work. You look at your own. The doubt creeps in. You look down at your first draft and picture the flies circling it because it suddenly looks like a pile of shit.
I’ve written before about the fact that first drafts are always crappy—but crappy with a cape. Too often we look around at beautiful pieces of work and compare our writing, negatively, to the talent we see on the page. In some cases, it’s because we haven’t been behind that writer’s curtain to watch them wrestle with their words. Or to see them completely overhaul four different drafts of the same piece before we see it in group. Other writers simply have more mastery. I read “The Bright Hour” by Nina Riggs and was so awed, I almost hucked my manuscript in the trash. Better to use other people’s writing as a guide and a learning tool, not as a way to discredit your own work.
You have no idea how to fix your character arc that isn’t quite arcing, but you just sit at your desk by the hour. Staring at the screen. At your dog. At the squirrel outside your window. You’re past the point of working it out on your own, because you’re too close to it. But there you sit. Not asking for help. Because then people would know that you’re not a “real writer” because a “real writer” would know how to fix the issue.
I have three words of advice. Get. Over. Yourself. There is not one person on this planet with all the answers. Not one. And yes, there is glory and valor and satisfaction in working stuff out on your own, but sometimes you’re just wasting your own valuable writing time. Ask a writer friend. Post in a forum. Do anything, but know you don’t have to go it alone.
You feel like you’ve tricked your read and critique group leader into accepting you. You think your story won an award based on sheer luck. You obsess about the fact you don’t have an MFA, or that you started writing later in life, or that you haven’t ever taken a formal writing class. You wonder if everyone can tell you don’t have all the writing credentials you “should” have.
Yes, more experience is always helpful. We should all aspire to be lifetime learners. But you know who changed the course of history without having all the fancy titles and degrees? Abe Lincoln. Anne Frank. Susan B. Anthony. Bill Gates. Plenty of famous writers who never studied writing. Harper Lee. Kurt Vonnegut. JK Rowling. Barbara Kingsolver.
All of us feel like imposters some time. Even writers who have been at this for most of their lives. So the next time you hear that voice in your mind, your inner critic telling you you’re not good enough, that you really are an imposter, take a deep breath. Settle into your writing chair. Tell your critic to shut his or her pie hole. And write.
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