More on Fear and Writing, part II: Impostor Syndrome

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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
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22 comments to More on Fear and Writing, part II: Impostor Syndrome

  • Wow. I *so* needed this post on Saturday, when I was overwhelmed by a major wave of Impostor Syndrome. (Fortunately, a friend and fellow writer, Tiffany Trent, was there to talk some sense into me.) But really, your words here would have been so very, very useful while I was in the midst of my temporary insanity… Thanks for writing about this — so truthfully and so well!

  • Been feeling that way off and on. In the writing and the singing. Part of me knows that I’m good, but that specter of doubt keeps scratching at the door and wearing down my confidence. Sometimes I wonder if I’m just not good enough. Then again, I also will find a book occasionally that’s getting high reviews that I find sheer drek and wonder how it got picked up and mine isn’t when I know I’ve written better. I often wonder if I should just write like that because that’s what seems to be popular, even though it’s not my style, or even below my ability at times (probably that tiny vain streak). I flash between incredulity and doubt so much I feel almost bi-polar. 😉 I often wonder if people are just being nice when they say they like my singing voice or my writing voice or style or the work I’ve written. But in the end I plow past it. Ya have to. There’s gotta be someone out there that thinks as highly of my work as I do.

    Course, it’s the people I don’t hear anything from that hits hardest. :\ Thankfully that’s only been a couple. And even then there’s that double edge to the sword. The part that says, they must have hated it so bad they were laughing too hard to bother hitting send on the rejection. And the other part that says, thanks a bunch. I’ll remember that when I’m in demand. 😉 In the end, it’s that part that gets me through the doubt.

  • Great post, and to it I say “AMEN!” Why did I (like you) pick TWO careers where impostor syndrome is rampant? (writer and prof). Of course I imagine other careers have it too–doctors, etc.

    Maybe I’m just in a snarky mood (it is Monday, afterall, and oh look! a pile of grading I can avoid!), but I do believe there are impostors, and I’ve met them. Most folks who think they are impostors are absolutely NOT. But I’ll use an example from grad school: a guy was incredibly charismatic, well spoken, and spoken often in classes and in social gatherings. He always had something to say about academic theory, about the topic, etc. He was always erudite–he was never openly mean, but had a great gift for intimidating other folks. I felt like HE was so the academic and I wasn’t. (Impostor syndrome). He failed out of the program in a blaze of freaked-out glory. He was more interested in making others feel bad than in actually doing work. He had a friend (not in the program) teach his classes for him. (This got found out and contributed to his leaving). Maybe I’m being mean, maybe deep down he was afraid, but he specialized in making others feel bad (I’m pretty sure on purpose) and wasn’t interested in the subject, but in being special. He tore down lots of folks, maybe contributing to some people quitting who were NOT impostors, even if they felt like they were. I’ve seen, I think, people like this in the writing community. They’re more interested in being viewed as a writer than in writing. They’re more interested in tearing people down than in getting better themselves. Even if their meanness comes from insecurity (and it might), I still don’t have much compassion for them. They make everyone else feel more like impostors. Once I got over feeling that way in my own career (though I still have bouts of it, but the major episode–grad school–has long passed) I’ve gotten more and more hostile to people who behave this way.

    Maybe what I’ve described isn’t an impostor, but something else. Either way, these are the people that make the syndrome worse. As much as I fear that I’m an impostor, I really try never to make anyone else feel that way.

  • Ken

    There’s no decoder ring!?!?!
    #disillusioned

    This is fantastic post and it’s something I constantly need to remember. Thanks!!!

  • Hepseba ALHH

    So, from the science perspective, I just have to point out the number one excellent thing about this post: That this is a professional writer talking about imposter syndrome AND discussing his own experiences with it.

    This is, in fact, one of the very most awesome things about writers in general. As mentioned, imposter syndrome is rampant everywhere people are striving to do something difficult, very not least in the sciences. And in the sciences (at least in astro) imposter syndrome talked about plenty, because anything that might be contributing to the loss of female students/scientists from the field is talked to death. But you *never* hear a professor relate their own experiences with it. Ever. Meanwhile, there are plenty of conversations like this:

    -me (student member of the Exams committee (who, b.t.w. aced this exam the previous year)): I don’t think the students should have to have memorized obscure things like the double-angle formula to be able to pass this question (1 of 6). I certainly don’t remember this formula. This is what books are for. We should provide a sheet with these sorts of formulas with the exam.

    -professor heading the committee: Absolutely not. I don’t know how anyone could possibly have even graduated high-school without knowing that formula.

    I did not make this conversation up. Here is a situation where I am patently not an imposter, and yet I have a professor basically telling me to my face that I *am* an imposter. Egos in the academic sciences can be rather…amazing.

    So, go ahead and curse those darned swaggering writers, but remember to bless, bless, bless those other writers out there who acknowledge what things are like in the trenches, and hold out these bits of commiseration that help us all along.

  • I have a book coming out tomorrow. I am having a TOTAL IS day today. Thank you for bringing me back to earth, David. (takes deep breath) I can do this. I can.

  • Hep> My experiences were in the humanities, but I totally feel your pain, and I think that situation persists everywhere. Academia is a bastion of “I walked up hill both ways in the snow and through fire pits and tornados so don’t you think for a minute you’re remotely worthy if you don’t do things the exact way I did them!! Worthless pleb.” When the student said “isn’t it nice that all the catalogues are on-line now and we can get books more easily!” (Yes, exaggeration, but still…) We don’t have the “keep the women!!” move because most grad students in the humanities are women at this point (I think. I could be wrong with that stat).

  • I’ve never felt like an Impostor when writing. But then again, I’ve attained no critical nor commercial success in which I might feel like such an Impostor. With no significant publications to my name, it’s easy to feel that I’m right where I belong: at a level on obscurity that befits my skill and talent as a writer. I don’t think that’s impostor syndrome, but I suppose it’s related.

    Of course I aspire to a level of skill that is presently beyond my own. My fear is that I shall never obtain that skill, nor make a name of myself. Right now I have zero evidence to the contrary, and plenty of evidence in the affirmative for that hypothesis. I hope to change that, but it is what it is. To keep going, I have to ignore the evidence that I’m unskilled and keep wokring toward the skills I desire to achieve.

    By-the-by, though, there are super (not-so-secret) writing clubs for established (non-impostor) professionals. I aspire to eventual membership in such a club myself, one-day. The one I aspire to is called SFWA… :)

  • Thank you, David. Amazing post. I know exactly what you mean (to the point I have to be paranoid that you’ve become psychic and peaked into my brain . . . ^_~ )

  • Thank you for this post and all of your help. You’re advice has been immeasurable.

  • quillet

    The Eye of Sauron tends to turn my way at night. When I’m trying to sleep. Evil is stronger in the dark? Fear definitely is. Hello insomnia… :(

    I believe you’re right that the biggest jerks suffer most acutely from IS. People who are confident and happy with themselves are not threatened by others’ successes and/or talents (or at least, not in daylight 😉 ). Terribly insecure people think — WRONGLY — that putting down other people makes them look better by comparison. Just have to repeat: they’re WRONG, and it backfires. (I too have someone in mind.) (Someone you don’t know, don’t worry!)

  • To all of you: More internet problems have kept me from responding until now. Sorry for that. Internet problems aren’t fixed yet, and won’t be for days, but I’m in town for a while and so can comment . . .

    Mindy, sorry to be a couple of days late, and sorry you were dealing with that. Tiffany is great — I’m not surprised to hear that she helped. Hope you’re doing better today.

    Daniel, all those feelings are natural. The one thing I will say from personal experience is this: Sometimes you hear nothing because people never read what you sent, or because they never got around to responding, not because they don’t care, but because life got in the way. I often have to remind myself that it’s not always a reflection on me. Sometimes it has nothing to do with me at all.

    Emily, thanks for the comment. Yes, academics and artists tend to be most susceptible, and so hear we are, you and I, getting a double whammy. I have to say that your impostor sounds like someone who was SO insecure that he couldn’t deal, and so his case of IS became self-fulfilling. But that’s just my observation from a distance. He does sound like quite a piece of work. I do think that those who cut down others do so to prop themselves up, to reinforce their own tenuous hold on confidence. But then again, they might just be asshats.

    Misty, thanks. I hope in a good way.

    Ken, thank you for the kind comment.

    Hep, I do think that fields that are dominated by one demographic can be particularly hard on those who don’t fit that profile. My wife is a professor in the sciences, and she dealt with this a lot early in her career — from professors, from students, from fellow grad. students. It’s infuriating, and again — to my mind — it speaks volumes about the insecurity and self-doubt of those trying to guard their territory. I appreciate your kind words about the post.

    Faith, your book is going to be huge, and we are all rooting for you with all our hearts.

  • Stephen, I hope to see you in SFWA one of these days. I think that impostor syndrome applies even when an aspiring writer is convinced that s/he deserves her/his present obscurity. You are making progress, you are working toward your goal, and you deserve kudos for that.

    Thanks, Kalayna. We all deal with this crap; the only brain I’ve peaked into is my own, and it ain’t a pretty sight . . . .

    Thank you, Mark. Glad you found this helpful.

    Quillet, Yes, I’m afraid all of us know someone who fits that “tear-you-down-to-build-me-up” profile. I hope that your person leaves you the hell alone. Thanks for the comment.

  • Hepseba ALHH

    @ pea faerie: Thank you for the encouragement, but my grad-school days are thankfully past. Ph.D. in hand, I am now seeking employment outside of academia. Cue whole new realm of IS issues… All of that “this is the way *I* did it” stuff in academia can make for some pretty out-dated training when it comes to technical skills. But, onward!

  • Thanks for this post. Imposter syndrome has been attacking me the last few days. Always good to know I’m not alone.

  • Gypsyharper

    Thanks for this, David – you hit the nail on the head as usual. I definitely suffer from IS, even as an aspiring writer with no significant successes. Some days, even here where everyone is so wonderful and encouraging, I’m afraid someone will discover me for the fraud I am (or feel like) – struggling to even sit down to my keyboard and put words on the screen on so many days. It’s worse when I’m tired. “I’m not yet where I want to be as a writer.” Yes. But I’m working on it. I’m actually pretty pleased with the outline I’m working on right now – we’ll see how it goes when I start trying to make a book out of it. Baby steps. :)

  • Razziecat

    I think most people experience this to a certain extent when they are still trying to learn something. And it can be especially hard when you’re around people who are better at it than you are. At work, when filling in for people who had more experience and greater skills than I, I used to say that I was “faking it.” And I was only half-joking. One day (not that long ago) it dawned on me that I’m good at my job, and other people actually come to me for advice now (and some of them are managers). Point is, it takes years, and lots of work, to get to that place of confidence. And there will always be people who are better than I am. So what? As long as I’m doing MY BEST, I will continue to improve. This applies to writing as much as to anything else.

  • Gee, I thought I could at least bribe my way into the sekrit club with enough whisky. 😉

    Thank you so much for this, David. I really get struck by IS when others around me are successful, because I start to question if I will ever be. Or if I’m not working fast enough. Or if I’m not trying hard enough. Or if because I didn’t do X, I’m stupider. This probably sounds silly, but it’s true: having not been one of the cool kids when growing up, I sometimes feel like I missed a few social cues and I am somehow behind. Forget that I am perfectly happy now. One of those ingrained fears, I guess, and something I think I’m over. But IS reawakens them. So thank you. I’m so glad I’m not alone, and I will try to remember that so I can put blinders on to the doubts. We’re all in this together. Forward!

  • This touches a chord. It was recently pointed out to me that I’m much more comfortable in the classroom than I am at cons, and I think you’ve identified why. My credentials as an academic are fairly clear cut and I can go into a lecture confident that unless a bunch of scholars from other universities have shown up, I’ll know enough about what I have to say to navigate any questions. As a writer, somehow, I never feel that. The impostor syndrome weighs heavy on me. Not sure how to fix it, but glad I’m not the only one.

  • Yeah… I must admit that I have this bad. Every time one of my friends finishes another book, or finishes another short story or sends out a query, I feel like I’m an imposter. More so this month than before because I’m at that critical stage of almost being done my novel, even the editing.

    It terrify’s me that other people may look up to me when in fact I am trembling in fear that they’ll “find me out”.

    I learned when I was younger though that being brave is just ignoring the shakes and laughing them off when other people are around. You can panic when its over and you’re alone.

    And I agree with all of the other posters above. It’s somewhat reassuring to know that I’m not the only one who’s suffering from this.

  • SiSi, glad to help. It hits all of us now and then.

    Gypsy, thank you. It’s definitely worth remembering that even in a space like this one, where we are supportive and the discussions usually remain positive, it is possible for people to feel the things you describe. Hang in there.

    Razz, I think you’re right that it can be worse for those who are still on the steep side of the learning curve, but the most insidious thing about IS is that it never goes away entirely. Faith, Misty, A.J., Kalayna, Mindy, and I have been doing this for a long time, and we still deal with it, as the post and comments above indicate. You are absolutely correct though, when you say that focusing on doing our best and improving our craft is the key to coping with it. Thanks!

    Laura, great comment. I appreciate your honesty. Many of us, myself included, have stuff from years ago still lurking in our heads. I wasn’t one of the cool kids, either. But being comfortable with who we are now certainly helps. And yeah, you get to come in to the sekrit club, even without the whisky (though you’re welcome to bring a bottle along . . .)

    A.J., I remember feeling as a grad student and aspiring academic that I would never be anything but a poser. I never really belonged in that world. Believe it or not, despite my insecurities, I’m much more comfortable in this life than in my academic one. I admire your scholarly confidence; if I’d had that, I might have found a way to stay in academia.

    B.A., thanks for the comment. I like your definition of bravery — I think it’s very apt for this discussion. And, no, you’re certainly not alone.