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Living with Imposter Syndrome

Posted by on May 26, 2017 in Blog Posts, Work and Career, Writing | 2 comments

This post originally went live on Fictionvale in 2014. Unfortunately, Fictionvale has since closed and the article is no longer available online. I’m taking the opportunity to repost it while I’m moving to my new apartment and have less available to blog. If you’re currently battling a bout of imposter syndrome, I hope it proves timely. This is a piece to read not when you’re fleeing constructive criticism, but when no feedback, not even positive feedback, feels encouraging to you. Here are a variety of tools, from a perspective change to the encouragement of friends to sheer spite, that might help you out of your rut.

Living With Imposter Syndrome

The first mercy of imposter syndrome, in my experience at least, is that it isn’t constant. Instead it attacks at intervals, at moments of either my deepest despair or highest success.

Of course success attracts this psychological beastie’s attention: in the grips of imposter syndrome, my jerk brain is happy to dismiss any achievement as a fluke or a fraud. Surely I’ve tricked people into thinking I can write, or they’ve reviewed my manuscript favorably out of pity for someone so pathetically incompetent. “Despite external evidence of competence,” Wikipedia explains, I have been “unable to internalize [my] accomplishments.” Sure, I’ve managed to pass myself off as a writer—somehow—so far—but sooner or later, I know my luck will run out. I’m just one bad review away from dying of exposure.

You might think almost a hundred short fiction publications would serve as some reassurance that I’m either not a fraud, or I’m so successful at defrauding dozens of intelligent fans of fiction that this con might as well be my calling. And sooner or later, I do decide that I might have something going for me after all. If not talent, still more elbow grease than sheer luck.

The problem is that nothing will ever make me officially, unquestionably a writer. There’s no shiny medal handed down by an omniscient judge. I majored in philosophy, not fiction, and I know enough MFAs still struggling with writer’s block to prove that’s no silver bullet, either. Nor is getting published—no short story, chapbook, or novel can scratch my deep-seated itch of inadequacy. Even if this work goes off well enough, what about my next story?

One thing’s for sure, when I’m in the grips of imposter syndrome I don’t dare slack on that next story. And here’s its second mercy: worrying that your ‘fraud’ will be discovered may inspire you to be a better writer.

The Dunning-Krueger effect  goes hand-in-hand with imposter syndrome: competent people mistakenly assume that what comes easily to them comes easily to everyone, underestimating how accomplished they really are. While humbleness is a virtue, it can unfairly hamper writers who assume their years of practice and imaginative talent are nothing beyond ordinary. When writers surround themselves with fellow writers, they start to assume everyone has overwhelming literary talent. Worse yet, after viewing the finished products of our friends and idols, we see how our own stories are made like sausage: we know our every misstep.

To adapt the words of David Dunning, “The skills you need to write a good story are exactly the skills you need to recognize what a good story is.” The very judgment that condemns your own story may be what makes you a writer. If that doesn’t convince you, consider how authors as widely admired as Neil Gaiman and Jim C. Hines have shared of their experiences with imposter syndrome. The talented people who make you feel inadequate may be in doubt about themselves.

Don’t read too much into reviews, positive or negative. Reviewers are insightful readers and fans, but they are not the final arbiters of your literary fate. While nothing will officially make you A Writer, neither can anything  disqualify you from writing. You might get bad reviews, some editors may reject you, but ultimately, if you’re convinced of the quality and importance of your writing, and especially if you work on improving it, you’ll find a way to get it out in the world (self-publishing makes this even easier). No one can stop you from being a writer.

And, you know, sometimes the reviews are good. Personally, I find it easier to ask my friends to read reviews of my work first, and let me know if they’re worth looking at myself.

Supportive friends are crucial allies against imposter syndrome. This doesn’t mean fans who never breathe a word of criticism—if someone can tell you the harsh truth, you can also trust their praise. Constructive criticism keeps you from making certain mistakes. But people who openly admire your work encourage you to build beyond your mistakes. Supporters are also helpful in providing a reality check (I still remember the dry tone of my mentor when I worried about not having sold a story in weeks—”Oh, a has-been,” she drawled, simultaneously indicating the book I’d just had released the month before*), and in spreading the blame around. Sure, that reviewer hates your subplot, but your beta reader begged you to keep it in, so whose judgment should we be questioning here? I’m being a bit facetious, but friends can help you realize that multiple audiences can have multiple opinions about your work at the same time, and since this is a matter of taste, the people who like your work often have as many points in their favor as the people who dislike it.

Speaking of spreading the blame, some writers may find having a penname keeps them from internalizing rejection and unhelpful criticism. However, if you’re already having trouble internalizing your accomplishments, hearing someone else’s name winning the praise may not help the problem. It’s up to you—you can only pass the buck so far.

Even if you’re hesitant to let your penname absorb the blows and earn the reviews, you don’t have to go it naked and alone: sometimes learning from another’s mistake can help you improve and give your quaking confidence a boost.

I wouldn’t underestimate the inspiring power of an anti-role-model. Stephen King reflects, “Most writers can remember the first book he/she put down thinking: I can do better than this.” A lot of us can also remember the stories we wrote afterwards. Nor did our inspiration impact our anti-model’s career.  It’s not pretty, but it can be helpful to realize that, despite all the one-star Amazon reviews, nobody’s stopping that writer from achieving their dreams! Nor will they stop you.

Nobody can force you to write, either, and they won’t. I remember a friend’s striking suggestion for curing imposter syndrome: “Then quit. The world is full of other writers.”

This advice sounded cruel, but only because I know the need to write. When you need to write, you’ll only be able to quit for a few days—or hours—before retrieving your pen.

Knowing that nothing is required of that pen is freeing. Rather than trying to write something good or important, you can write what you love. You can write without hope of recognition or award. I’ve found that writing something completely, subjectively pleasing to me, and then publishing it, produced a breakthrough. I read the reviews: the confused, and those who “got” me, precisely. The only group better than the last were the ones who confessed, “it’s just not to my taste.”

So what? I thought. It’s to mine.

And so I keep writing. And eventually, I start to feel less like a fraud.

Even if we start as imposters, we are what we repeatedly do.

*At the time of reposting, I haven’t had a new story published in approximately 18 months (as a result of failing to submit many stories for approximately two years). I have reason to believe–namely, signed contracts–that this drought will end soon (as a result of submitting at least one story per month for the past four months). Your membership in the guild of writers does not lapse!


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  1. Cody Leet

    If you put words down on paper and complete a thought, you are a writer. If you make a living at it, then you are a pro. Perserverence makes you not an imposter. That’s my feeling at least.

    • Therese Arkenberg

      That’s a good point, Cody! I agree with you on the definition of “pro” and may even be more expansive, since a lot of writers I know are part-time rather than full-time (this economy is not kind to creative workers). And amateurs, who write for the love of it without thinking of getting paid, can be pretty cool too, if perhaps naive about the value of their time and talent.

      Speaking of perseverance, how has your second novel been going? The pitch you sent me looked very interesting!

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