My old “friend” imposter syndrome

Spiderman pointing at Spiderman

Do you ever feel like a fraud? Like you’re faking it and you just know someone is going to find out?

I do. All the time. At least once a day, usually more often, I think things like:

  • Am I really a writer?
  • Am I a real creative writing teacher?
  • Is my writing any good, or are people just playing along?
  • And on and on.

November was… kind of insane. I spent the first half of the month finishing up my teaching duties at the three non-credit programs I teach writing at, decided to apply to English PhD programs, worked on recovering from a running injury, and somehow managed to keep up with NaNoWriMo. I also have one new short story out in the world, along with one reprint, and a book review forthcoming.

And yet, despite all this—or perhaps because of it—my imposter syndrome is at an all-time high. This is a state of doubt that hinges mostly around outside validation. The questions I ask myself are often incomplete, because I can fudge the answers to the “lite” versions. Of course I’m a writer! I write all the time! I’m literally writing right this second!

But I’m afraid the answers to the full questions will be “no.”

Questions like:

  • Am I really a writer if I don’t have a book published yet? (And the attendant, “Your book must be pretty bad if it’s not published yet.”)
  • Am I really a writing teacher if I’m not teaching in a for-credit college program for degree-seeking students?
  • Can my writing really be any good if I haven’t won a Pushcart or O’Henry prize or any writing contest, ever?
  • And on and on.

These days, a good portion of my rejection letters are, “We really liked your writing, but this piece wasn’t quite for us. Please try us again!” These are good rejection letters. They are encouraging rejection letters. They are more personal than the standard form rejection that goes out to a majority of submitters.

If a student told me this about their work, I’d congratulate them and tell them to keep trying. You’re making progress, I’d say. I read slush. I know what it takes to get one of those letters.

But when I get one of them? Oh, my writing is terrible and I’m just not good enough. And what’s more, I never will be. This feeling doesn’t come as fear or dread. It comes as a knowing, an infallible truth.

In reality, of course it’s all a bunch of nonsense that serves no purpose other than self-sabotage. And I know it’s nonsense, intellectually. But on the bad days, it sure doesn’t feel like nonsense. It feels overwhelmingly, oppressively real.

How I get over imposter syndrome

Graphic by Kristin Chirico at Buzzfeed. Click for the full article.

But even on those worst of worst days, I try not to let imposter syndrome get the best of me.

Mostly, I wait it out. I keep writing. I keep submitting. “Fake it ’til you make it!” I tell myself with a forced, completely false, smile.  I wait for a sunny day, and then spend as much time outside with my dog as I can. I read poetry or a stupid self-help book. I binge watch something familiar and comfortable, something I can safely let myself get lost in.

And then I keep writing. I keep submitting. Mostly I get rejections back. But sometimes I get a “yes.” Sometimes I get a kind word from an editor who wants me to send more work. Sometimes random internet strangers who are also editors ask me to send them something because they read “x” piece of mine and really liked it. Sometimes random internet strangers email me just to tell me they like my work.

All of this helps.

On a more practical note, I keep a folder in my Gmail inbox called “Cheer Up!” that includes nice things people have said about me and my work. It helps to go through those messages when I feel at my wit’s end with the frustration of rejection and the slowness of the publishing industry. Our brains are wired to remember and focus on the negative more than the positive, so sometimes I have to actively remind myself that there are people out there who actually don’t think I’m the worst human on the planet. Or the worst writer on the planet. That helps, too.

I’ve also found that engaging my imposter syndrome in a sort of conversation can remind me how melodramatic I’m being. “Why do you feel like your book is the worst? What, specifically, is the problem? What, specifically, can we do to fix it?”

If I can’t come up with an answer, I know I’m just being hard on myself. If I do come up with an answer, I know it’s time to go back to the work and see if it needs another revision.

Now, sometimes it really doesn’t, and I wind up editing a thing to death (this is why I always save a new version of the file before embarking on a new revision). But more often, it really does need another pass. And equally often, the questioning process helps me locate an overall weakness in my work that I can then take steps to address more generally.

I have depressive and anxious tendencies, so engaging the active, problem-solving side of my brain often helps me avoid the quagmire of wallowing in a deep pit of sorrow. Your results may vary, but I hope that helps.

Imposter syndrome never goes away

Neil Gaiman has written about dealing with imposter syndrome, and he’s amazing and brilliant and very famous. So, clearly, imposter syndrome isn’t going anywhere. Unless maybe you’re a narcissistic self-absorbed asshat, in which case you probably have bigger problems to worry about (like maybe not being such a narcissistic self-absorbed asshat?).

Accepting that I’m likely always going to feel “not good enough” in some vague way—because I didn’t get such and such award or published by such and such journal—also helps.

Imposter syndrome, for me, is just part of the process of being a writer, part of the process of striving to be really excellent at something. It’s part of the process of failure, learning, growth, and eventually success.

Do you struggle with imposter syndrome? How do you get past it?


1 Response

  1. January 6, 2020

    […] bother setting other goals for myself, because I didn’t think any other goals mattered. And failing to meet that goal took a toll on my mental health, over and over. First when my weird hybrid memoir/short story collection didn’t sell, and then […]

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