Writing Through It: On Impostor Syndrome

Who am I to write this post, anyway?

Ironically, that’s the thought running through my head right now. It’s not like I have any secret formula for defeating impostor syndrome.

But I do experience it frequently, and I’m not alone. Discussions and expressions of impostor syndrome come up in all of my writing groups, and they come up often. It seems most writers feel like this at some point in their career, if not a lot of the time.

In fact, one could say it’s endemic in my communities, and there’s probably a reason for that.

What is impostor syndrome?

Impostor syndrome (IS) refers to an internal experience of believing that you are not as competent as others perceive you to be. While this definition is usually narrowly applied to intelligence and achievement, it has links to perfectionism and the social context.

Arlin Cuncic for VeryWellMind

The term “impostor syndrome” was coined in 1978 by psychologists Pauline Rose Clance & Suzanne Imes. They studied the phenomenon in high-achieving women who struggled to internally acknowledge their success.

The writing spaces in which I feel most at home are majority-female and non-binary, queer, and racially and culturally diverse, all groups historically excluded from the highest echelons of publishing. This excellent article points out that for people with historically excluded identities, impostor syndrome is often the result of gatekeeping and gaslighting. In other words, if you feel like you don’t belong and that you have to work harder to prove yourself, it might be because historically privileged “authorities” in the field have overtly or implicitly told you that a certain space, profession, or title (like, for example, “author”) is not for people like you.

To put it in simpler terms, it’s not just a “syndrome” if powerful structural forces really are working to exclude you from mainstream success. It’s a symptom.

But misnomer or not, impostor syndrome can affect anyone. Besides structural exclusion, there are a variety of factors that can predispose someone to feeling like a fraud. In her TED talk, Lou Solomon emphasizes that impostor syndrome often afflicts survivors of developmental and/or relational trauma, such as when sensitive kids are raised in an unsupportive, critical environment.

In this post, I’m going to talk about my personal experience of impostor syndrome and how I cope with it. Everyone is different, so what works for me may not work for others. Some other good suggestions for creators coping with impostor syndrome can be found here.

Hitting your goalposts doesn’t help.

Here’s what I didn’t expect about selling a book: it doesn’t stop those feelings of inadequacy. In fact, whatever feelings you have about your creative work, new achievements will only magnify them.

I experienced some of the most intense anxiety of my writing life after I signed my book deal. My therapist asked me how I planned to celebrate my success. My mentor wondered why I wasn’t shouting about it from the rooftops. Everyone was excited but me. I was terrified. I had always wanted to be a published author, but now that it was happening, all I could think was that there must have been a mistake. It couldn’t be real.

Worse, if it did turn out to be real, my book would be out there in the world and everyone would figure out that I can’t write my way out of a paper bag.

A white man in a green t-shirt over a gray long-sleeved shirt (Sheldon Cooper of Big Bang Theory) breathes into a paper bag

With every new step along the path toward release day, my anxiety spikes again. Now that I’m writing book 2, I’m convinced book 1 was a fluke. (I hear that Book 2 angst is normal, and that this cycle never really stops.)

I’ve realized that there’s no goalpost achievement that will quiet the inner voices saying my work isn’t good enough. That leaves two choices: quitting, or learning to defy my internal naysayers.

Success is subjective.

When I’m worried about how my writing will be received, one of the things that helps me feel better is to look at my own To Be Read list. I am a flagrant DNFer, quick to abandon a story that doesn’t connect for me. My e-reader overflows with well-reviewed and objectively good books that I just couldn’t get into. It includes quite a few stories that display what I think of as “workmanlike” prose, but that I couldn’t put down. And it is also full of books I loved but other readers whose opinion I respect did not.

For instance, I would give a limb or two to have written Arkady Martine’s A Memory Called Empire. But my spouse, a voracious reader of science fiction, didn’t care for it. When I asked him why, he said he couldn’t figure out how to pronounce the names and it distracted him the whole time. This goes to show how different brains process the written word, because I happily slurred over all those names in my head without skipping a beat. (It’s still the Teix-mumble Empire to me but it didn’t stop me from falling head over heels for Three Seagrass. Don’t @ me.)

Is it weird that the idea that authors can’t please everyone comforts me? It does, though, because it demonstrates the subjectivity of art. Perfection is impossible and personal standards change. No author has ever written a book that everyone loves. My favorites are no exception.

A blonde white woman in a black sleeveless top (Eleanor Shellstrop of The Good Place) shrugs and says "Pobody's nerfect"
Okay THIS show was almost perfect.

Compare bloopers, not highlights.

We’ve all heard the advice to “keep your eyes on your own paper.” But it’s easier said than done.

Comparisons happen. But don’t just compare to the masters, the critical darlings, the established authors with years of experience. This may sound petty, but one thing that really helps me is recognizing how much badly written media gets produced, published, or greenlit.

That doesn’t mean just media I dislike, either. For instance, I just started a rewatch of Star Trek: TNG. Those writers had no idea what they were doing in Season 1. But they muddled through and their work became the foundation of an incredible show.

We all have bad days. Sometimes you try to write something great and you end up with “Sub Rosa.” It happens to the best of us.

A red-haired white woman with a 90s fringe (Beverly Crusher of Star Trek: TNG) says, "I did fall asleep reading a particularly erotic chapter in my grandmother's journal."
TMI, Space Mom. TMI.

Take bigger risks.

At a certain point, you have to look your demons in the face and tell them to fuck all the way off.

For some reason, when I’m feeling like the world’s worst fraud, it helps me to take a really big risk. Like querying a moonshot agent, pitching a guest post to a popular media outlet, or throwing my hat in the ring for a competitive writing contest. You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take, etc.

If I’m so good at fooling people, and failure followed by exposure is inevitable, why not shoot my shot while flipping off my inner critic with both hands? If I’m going to fail anyway, may as well fail in style, right?

Tyrion Lannister of Game of Thrones says "Wear it like armor, and it can never be used to hurt you."

You have to write through it.

If I only wrote when I felt good about my writing, I wouldn’t be working on my third novel right now. That’s the bottom line. And how I feel about my work doesn’t have much relationship to its quality. Often, increased self-critique means that my standards for good writing have risen and my ability to evaluate has outpaced my ability to execute.

This chart has really helped me to understand the cycle of growth and self-critique. I keep it on hand to stare at during writing lows. It mentions drawing but I think it applies to all forms of art.

A chart shows two s-curves that cross each other. One curve represents an artist's skill at evaluating art, while the other represents skill at making art. Skill at evaluating increases first, causing a perceived lack of skill while one's skill in actuality rises during this period. Evaluation skill then plateaus briefly while skill in making art continues to increase, resulting in perceived skill. This pattern repeats, resulting in alternating stages of "art highs" and "art lows." But over time both skills increase!

Credit: Shattered-Earth.

Good support systems value mutual kindness.

I’ve talked a lot here on my blog about how important it is to find critique partners and learn to receive feedback. But it’s just as important to have a mutual support network with people who can hype you up when you aren’t feeling it, and for whom you can cheer in return. It can be so much easier to give kindness to others than oneself, and rooting for your comrades is a great way to lift your mood while giving back to your community.

Seek out positive, supportive communities that reinforce your sense of belonging with people who want you to succeed. Limit engagement with groups that spark feelings of inadequacy and undermine your confidence. Valuing kindness is a form of self care.

Impostor syndrome puts you in good company.

If all else fails, I take comfort in the words of some quite famous writers.

The problem is that bad writers tend to have the self-confidence, while the good ones tend to have self-doubt.

Charles Bukowski, Sunlight Here I Am: Interviews and Encounters 1963-1993

THIS IS INSTEAD OF TELEPHONING BECAUSE I CANT LOOK YOU IN THE VOICE. I SIMPLY CANNOT GET THAT THING DONE YET NEVER HAVE DONE SUCH HARD NIGHT AND DAY WORK NEVER HAVE SO WANTED ANYTHING TO BE GOOD AND ALL I HAVE IS A PILE OF PAPER COVERED WITH WRONG WORDS. CAN ONLY KEEP AT IT AND HOPE TO HEAVEN TO GET IT DONE. DONT KNOW WHY IT IS SO TERRIBLY DIFFICULT OR I SO TERRIBLY INCOMPETANT= DOROTHY.

Dorothy Parker, telegram to her editor, 1945

The last novel I wrote (it was ANANSI BOYS, in case you were wondering) when I got three-quarters of the way through I called my agent. I told her how stupid I felt writing something no-one would ever want to read, how thin the characters were, how pointless the plot. I strongly suggested that I was ready to abandon this book and write something else instead, or perhaps I could abandon the book and take up a new life as a landscape gardener, bank-robber, short-order cook or marine biologist. And instead of sympathising or agreeing with me, or blasting me forward with a wave of enthusiasm—or even arguing with me—she simply said, suspiciously cheerfully, “Oh, you’re at that part of the book, are you?”

Neil Gaiman, NaNoWriMo Pep Talk, 2007

Neil Gaiman also wrote about impostor syndrome on his blog with an anecdote about how another famous Neil –Armstrong, the first man on the moon–confessed he felt like an impostor in a room of scientists.

And I felt a bit better. Because if Neil Armstrong felt like an imposter, maybe everyone did. Maybe there weren’t any grown-ups, only people who had worked hard and also got lucky and were slightly out of their depth, all of us doing the best job we could, which is all we can really hope for.

Neil Gaiman, Blog Post, May 12, 2017

So there you have it. If two great Neils, Gaiman and Armstrong, both struggle with impostor syndrome, it’s clear that feeling like an impostor has no relationship to the value of your contributions to your field.

And if, like me, you deal with impostor syndrome, I hope this post was helpful to you in some way, if only to remind you you’re not alone out there. Please share your thoughts and coping strategies in the comments!

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