Confidence can be a fleeting thing. Some days you are on top of the world, and others you’re just barely scraping by, wondering how you ever made it this far. Then there are those days where you begin to suspect that others have the same doubts about you as you have about yourself. Where you think that any minute now, someone somewhere is going to figure out you have no idea what the hell you’re doing.
And then everyone will see you without the mask. Everyone will know: you’re a fake, a fraud, an impostor.
This is called impostor syndrome, and almost everyone experiences it at some point.* A lot of us will face it again and again, and when you’re in the grips of those doubts, it can be nearly impossible to keep pushing forward, to keep writing, to keep working.
But I think impostor syndrome isn’t such a bad thing in the end. Let me explain why.
We all know that one rare person who exudes confidence, who is absolutely certain of themselves and what they’re doing and where they’re going. These people can trigger an experience of impostor syndrome, or make extant feelings of unworthiness and fraud even worse. After all, for some people, everything seems to go their way, and everything they touch seems imbued with a bit of magic. Their confidence can be debilitating to the rest of us. But don’t let them fool you. Their confidence is just another mask, and underneath that persona they’ve built they’re covering up the same fear as you or me:
That we’re not good enough.
I realized just how universal this phenomenon is while teaching a first-year composition course at my local university. We were discussing an article by Nancy Summers and Laura Saltz titled “The Novice As Expert,” where the authors tracked 400+ first year students at Harvard for four years, periodically surveying and interviewing them to track their writing progress. This was Harvard, the preeminent institution of higher education in the country, and these were Harvard students–supposedly the best and the brightest, the most ambitious and motivated students in the country. And what they reported was fascinating: the excerpted interviews show just how filled with self-doubt the students were. These most gifted and privileged of students were terrified that they didn’t belong, that they didn’t deserve to be there, that someone would figure out they were phonies and they’d be booted from those hallowed halls.
They were experiencing impostor syndrome.
After the discussion, I had my students–63 of them across 3 courses–write an in-class essay describing their feelings about writing in general, about their abilities as writers, and what they wanted to get from my course. All of them earned their seat in my course–my university turns away a large number of applicants every year. These students made it. They might not all be Harvard material, but very few of us are, myself included. And yet despite good reasons for confidence, and very different circumstances to that Harvard freshmen class, reading through my students’ responses I found eerily familiar results. The vast majority of students expressed uncertainty, trepidation, doubt. They were afraid they didn’t really belong.
The felt like impostors.
How does this apply to writing in the larger sense, the kind of writing that I want to do, the kind of writing that we want to read?
Later that same day, I was working on a paper for a literature course I’m taking (after seven+ years away, I’ve decided to go back to graduate school for another Masters program). And I realized as I checked my introduction, and checked the assignment sheet, and checked my introduction, and checked assignment sheet… that I was feeling the exact same thing. I was overly conscious of the possibility of over-stating or under-stating, of not knowing this professor well enough to know what she really meant by the questions she was asking. I was overly conscious of my writing process, and this threw me into a recursive loop that slammed the gates shut.
This was especially difficult and debilitating because I already have a Master’s in English, summa cum laude. I’ve earned an A in every literature course I’ve ever taken, undergraduate or graduate. On top of that, for the past 3 years I’ve been paid to write reviews–very little, to be sure, but nonetheless it is a professional entity recognizing again and again that I have interesting and valuable contributions to make to literature. My awareness of my qualifications only served to magnify the doubt and feelings of unworthiness I was feeling.
And I could not write this simple paper. I felt like I didn’t belong in graduate school, and that the professor would spot it right away as she read my work. I felt like I was masquerading as a graduate student. I felt like an impostor.
Normally, this is where I slide down into the darkness and spend the rest of the day moving in slow-motion, deliberately wasting time on Youtube and video games while various deadlines pile up. I’ve come to recognize this self-destructive, self-sabotaging behavior, and in my experience there’s only two ways out of it: go down the rabbit hole and wait till you pop out the other end, or go meta on that shit. The first is easiest, and it’s what I normally do. But I wanted to do better, I wanted to be better.
I wanted to prove to myself that I did not have to be a slave to my fears.
So I started thinking. And I took a step back and looked around.
I follow a lot of my favorite authors on Twitter, and guess how many have confessed to dealing with writer’s block? Every. Single. One. All of them felt this same self-doubt. These are NY Times bestselling authors, writers with 5, 8, 10, 20 books out there that have sold hundreds of thousands of copies. Bona fide successes. And you know what?
They all have felt the same way my students reported, the same way those Harvard students reported, the same way I was feeling right then. And I’m not talking about in the early days, working the night shift and scribbling in notebooks under the counter, feeling the thrill of pleasure that comes from a rejection notice that is actually personalized. I’m sure they felt it then, too. But I mean right now. As giant successes. They have days where they doubt themselves. They have days where they feel like impostors.
There’s a saying in this industry that you’re only as good as your next book. You might have a backlist a mile long, but if your next book under-performs, under-whelms readers, that backlist is just going to sit there. For readers, this is a good thing; it means writers can’t just check out and publish poorly written copycats of their previous works (with some exceptions… see your local supermarket for examples of big name authors who get away with this). It means even successful writers have to push themselves, stretch their abilities, flex their writerly muscles on every book, just as much as the new writer hoping to break in does.
I find that heartening. Why? Because successful writers might have their backlist and their agent, their editor and their readership, but they’ve still got to put their ass in the chair and do good work. They still have to spend the same solitary hours wracking their brains as the rest of us. They still have to make good art.
It also means that even successful people, perhaps especially those people, feel like impostors from time to time, too.
I find this heartening as well. Why? Because it means that, while we’re all engaged in a very solitary activity, we’re all in this together, too. We all face the same struggles, the same fears, the same doubts. We all want to do our best work, and we all at some point feel like we’re not living up to our potential or ambition.
What I’ve learned while thinking about this phenomenon is that impostor syndrome is unavoidable, and that’s OK. Impostor syndrome can be a major catalyst for writer’s block, a huge impediment looming between you and your characters. And that’s OK, too. It will pass. It will pass. It will pass.
And when you absolutely can’t,
And when you absolutely can’t,
You are not alone.
*Note: this is not to suggest people suffering from the mental disorder are not experiencing a very real phenomenon, nor to water down their suffering by spreading it across the general population. Rather, I want to point out that, on a lesser and non-clinical level, almost everyone experiences this feeling, and it is perfectly normal.