If you’re anything like me (and I’m going to generalize and say you’re exactly like me), you’ve probably struggled with impostor syndrome. It’s this great feeling that others overestimate your ability and all of your accomplishments are unearned, even accidental. Three days ago in an interview with The Sunday Times, David Tennant, who has starred in Doctor Who, Broadchurch, and most recently, the Amazon Prime adaption of Good Omens, discussed his own insecurities as an actor. Specifically, that he felt guilt over success when his other acting friends weren’t necessarily making it, would be outed as a fraud, and wasn’t witty enough to dabble in social media. Tennant is in good company: Einstein, Maya Angelou, Neil Armstrong, and one of the original writers of the Good Omens book, Neil Gaiman, have all reported feeling unworthy of their success.
It’s easy for plebeians like us in the pits of obscurity to wave our hands with disbelief. They’re amazing, we shout. How could they think that when all their accomplishments to say otherwise? But we’re silent when it comes to ourselves. After all, how can you have impostor syndrome if you haven’t actually done anything? Not anything literally, (I mean, you’re reading this so at least you have that ability going for you) but anything big enough for notoriety? How do you fight impostor syndrome without throwing your accomplishments at it?
I spent this last weekend at a writer’s conference and it was spectacular. There was a faculty reading the first night of the conference and if you’ve never been to a reading, start looking for a local one now. There’s nothing like hearing the original voice of the author read out their words as intended. As attendees, we had our own opportunity to participate in an open mic at a local bookstore and I spent the entire first day flip-flopping on whether I should sign up to read. What made me worthy to take up other people’s time?
That’s where my inner impostor comes in.
Yes, maybe I’ve written a dozen short stories and a bunch of blog posts, and yes, maybe I dedicate time daily to writing and have done so now for years, but calling myself a writer? Wow, um, I don’t know about that. That seems like a stretch. Maybe when I’ve been paid for one of my stories will I have earned the title of writer. Or maybe when I get accepted into an MFA program, or get more than a dozen likes on my posts, or when I can hold a physical copy of my work in hand at a book store. But here’s the thing: even if I hit those goal posts, there’s a good chance my inner impostor will still be unconvinced. The impostor has already disqualified me from success because she’s defined it as the next goal post. Regardless of what I achieve, the impostor will push success out of reach.
A common theme at the conference was the idea of persevering regardless. This “regardless” could manifest as dragging yourself to the end of the first draft, editing your dumpster-fire, and accepting your work will always have problems. Even the act of placing butt in chair is it’s own battle and writing in spite of our own difficulties is one of the best ways to tackle them.
Here are some examples from the 2019 Chuckanut Writer’s Conference:
Kate Carroll de Gutes wrote for thirty years before releasing her first book, Objects In the Mirror Are Closer Than They Appear.
Garth Stein has written four novels, but the only one that’s talked about is, The Art of Racing in the Rain.
Oman El Akkad has three unpublished books squirreled away. He refers to them as sit-ups necessary to write his first published book, American War.
I’m sure world famous authors with dozens of titles under their belts and legions of fans clawing for their next book, lay awake late at night wondering if their best work has already been written. The impostor in you doesn’t care what you accomplish, so get over the idea that these feelings will dissolve someday when people literally approach you in public crying about how wonderful of a human being you are to grace this side of the galaxy. If that’s what your confidence needs, I suggest writing a screenplay and hiring an actor because that’s the only way you’re going to live out that fantasy.
So if we can’t just throw our accomplishments at our inner impostor, what can we do?
If your inner impostor is anything like mine, she’s fear-based and easily intimidated. Rather than enabling that fear, I challenge it. I fight by writing in spite of my insecurities, submitting my work for others to read, and reading others’ work especially if it’s better than my own.
Work-shopping pieces is when my inner impostor steps in the most. For those who have never heard of the term used for writing, a “work-shop” is where you post a story for critique while critiquing other stories. I try to focus on editing before I take a deep look at any constructive criticism on my work. It’s all about timing, really. Reading comments on my story is a lot like dumping two tons of concrete over my head intentionally. Better to politely do my job before I bury myself alive.
Editing other’s work , on the other hand, is like getting a sunburn: it’s uncomfortable for you in the beginning, but as the layers start to peel back it’s uncomfortable and a little disgusting for everyone around you as well. I wade through the first read-through carefully, trying to suss out the core of the story before I dig my claws into the grammar and syntax of its execution. But at some point, and I always try to fight it, miss impostor walks in and starts sizing up my ability compared to the author’s. Wow, they wrote this and it isn’t even published yet? Why do you have the right to edit something this brilliant? By the time I finish the first read-through of a particularly great story, I have to take a step back and ruminate before typing up my initial thoughts. My impostor is easily intimidated, but she’s also petty. There’s always this underlying, juvenile need to tear down an amazing story with nit-pickiness just to sooth my insecurities. It’s like stomping out your sibling’s sandcastle. Of course, that helps literally no one.
Receiving criticism- the other side of any workshop- is always humbling, but for my impostor? It’s humiliating. There’s this sick rush of energy whenever I notice my story has new comments on it. I want to open the Schrodinger’s box, but on the off chance the cat is dead, I also wish I never knew about the box in the first place. I’ll scroll through the comments convinced I’m searching for the compliments, but I’m searching with even more intensity for the critiques. The doubts settle in as each hits me like a sucker punch. You mean there’s something wrong with my story? Better throw out the entire thing and pretend all this never happened.
Everyone else has these amazing tools for crafting written work- the finest material for stories, word-smithing anvils, metaphor engravers- while I have a stick. And while they’re pounding away in ye olde writerly camp, spinning literal threads of gold, I’m doodling in the sand. It’s okay, the other part of me assures as we watch a cat paw through the doodles. You stories still have value even if they aren’t perfect. Flaws don’t disqualify them from existing. It’s a constant back and forth between these two, but I’d rather host a fight than a quiet surrender to the swamp hut by the cesspool of doubt my impostor dwells in by choice.
Living with an inner impostor is all about getting to know them. Once you understand they are driven by insecurity, it’s possible to map out how to interact with your inner dialogue. You don’t have to let the impostor drive: they can sit in the back-seat. It’s never too late to stop the car and switch seats.