Impostor Syndrome is the belief among people who have accomplished something — anything — that their accomplishment is in some way a fluke, a mistake, or the result of a random act of charity from someone in a position to advance their career. It is the belief that, all evidence to the contrary notwithstanding, they do not belong, they have not truly earned their success. They are, this syndrome leads them to believe, impostors who are merely pretending to be skilled or talented. Any moment now, others will see through their deception, and they will be subjected to abject humiliation before being thrust back into the dim obscurity that they so obviously deserve.
I suffer from Impostor Syndrome. Not all the time. On certain days I feel pretty darn good about myself, my books, and my career. I would go so far as to say that my bouts of IS come far less often than they used to. But still, I do have moments. What’s more, I don’t know a single writer who doesn’t suffer from it at some point in his or her professional life. Even the most pompous, arrogant, full-of him/herself, bestselling, pain-in-the-a$$, jerk of a writer (and oh yes, I do have someone in mind . . .) has suffered from it on occasion. In fact, I think it likely that the biggest jerks tend to be those who, on some level, suffer from it most acutely. They’re not obtuse; they’re hiding from their inner demons.
And I am willing to bet that every person reading this post, has been through periods of acute self-doubt, and has thought “I don’t belong with the rest of these people. The pros know what they’re doing, and the aspiring writers I see here are so close to having that big break-through. They’re real writers. All of them. But I’m not. I’m a hack, and one day really soon, it’s going to be like the Eye of Sauron is turned my way, and suddenly I will be exposed for what I really am: a pathetic wannabe, talentless and doomed to a life of rejection letters and thwarted dreams.”
Sound at all familiar? Yeah, I thought so. That’s Imposter Syndrome, and it sucks.
It sucks because it is utterly false and yet it strikes so close to a couple of essential truths that it appears to be legitimate.
Let’s start with the falsehoods that lie at the root of IS. First of all, there is no Professional Writers Club. We don’t all have decoder rings and we don’t know a secret handshake (at least not that I can tell you about . . .). We are not judging every new writer who comes along, checking for impostors and seeking to keep out those who aren’t “worthy.” More to the point, we are far too aware of our own imperfections to be worrying much about anyone else’s. I’m not going to feed you some pap about how anyone and everyone can be a writer if they have the desire. We all know that’s not true. But I will say that if you’re writing, if you ply your craft on a regular basis, if you have stories — short form or novel length — that you’re working on, if you visit this site and others devoted to writing and/or read books about our craft, if you constantly find yourself thinking about characters and plot lines and wording, you’re not an impostor.
The fear that lies behind Impostor Syndrome assumes that each of us is static as an artist. It says “I don’t belong; I’m just faking it and I will never be a writer,” when in fact whatever shortcomings we face as artists are not permanent. There is a vast difference between “I will never be a writer” on the one hand and “I’m not yet where I want to be as a writer” on the other. We’re not impostors — in my saner moments I realize that I don’t even know what “being an impostor” means. Rather, we are aspiring to skills that we have not yet mastered.
And that brings me to that essential truths that lurk behind the Impostor Syndrome lie: First, none of us is without faults in our craft. Impostor Syndrome is so prevalent among writers and other artists because it preys on legitimate insecurities, because it recognizes that all of us have bad habits and crutches and other issues in our work that we wish we could overcome with a snap of our fingers. As I have said before many, many times, writing is hard. Those days when I am convinced that I have no business being a writer tend to be the days when I am struggling with plot points, or fighting to get my character arcs right, or reeling from editorial feedback that is more negative than I anticipated. I don’t feel like an impostor when the words are flowing, or when I’m reading through a completed manuscript and discovering that it’s better than I ever dreamed it would be.
That may sound self-evident, but it really is the key to dealing with Impostor Syndrome. I usually feel that I’m a pretty good parent, but there are days when I can’t get anything right. I snap at my kids, I try to help them with something but instead make matters worse, I screw up something that I was supposed to do for a school function. But I never feel that I’m a parent impostor. I’m a parent. I have the kids to prove it. Some days I get it right; some days I don’t. Parenting is hard, and I have no choice but to accept that today I messed up, tomorrow I’ll do better. It’s not that different from being a writer, except that my professional mistakes are visible to all who read my books, and when people call me on those mistakes they often do so in venues that thousands upon thousands of people can visit.
And that’s the second truth behind the Impostor Syndrome lie: While no one can take away the fact that I’m a parent, my status as a writer — at least a professional one — is far more tenuous. The hard truth of writing is that the “success” or “failure” of our work often seems to be out of our hands and subject to the tastes and whims of others. For a professional one book that sells poorly can doom a career. For aspiring writers, rejections from editors and agents, which are simply part of the business, can often seem like a never-ending drumbeat of discouragement.
So we are trying to master something that is incredibly difficult, and we are trying to do so in a business climate that is unforgiving, often to the point of cruelty. Is it any wonder that we feel like impostors, like people who are on the verge of being kicked out of “the club?”
There are no easy answers. I have fifteen years as a professional under my belt. I’ve published over a dozen novels, I’ve won an award, sold lots of books, garnered some pretty decent reviews, and still I feel like an impostor more often than I care to admit. But what we can do is refuse to give in to the fear and insecurity. And that begins by accepting our own fallibility.
The fact is, I have yet to read a perfect book. I have done a lot of reading this year, including novels that I’ve been asked to blurb for other authors. None of them has been perfect; all of them have been enjoyable reads with much to recommend them. Do I yell “Impostor! Impostor!” while I jump up and down and point at their imperfections? Of course not. I point to what is good in the books; I celebrate their artistic achievements. These are works of art created by human beings. Perfection is an ideal we can strive for, but which we cannot achieve. And if I can accept that in the works of others, I can also accept it in my own work.
Put another way, if all those other people around us, with their imperfections and self-doubts aren’t impostors, then neither are we.David B. Coe http://www.DavidBCoe.com http://www.dbjackson-author.com http://magicalwords.net