Impostor Syndrome is one of those topics that I think we all instinctively grok. We all feel like we’re stowaways, and success really doesn’t ameliorate that. They could give us the captain’s hat and we’d still be all HOLY SHIT I DON’T KNOW WHAT I’M DOING HERE WHAT IS A BOAT IS THAT THE OCEAN OH FUCK FUCK FUCK. Emmie Mears had a cool take on it and she wrote that take up for you all to read. Behold!
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A Face pops up over the shoulder of the person I’m talking with. Beatific smile, too-thin lips, very even but too-small teeth. Hair that belongs in a barber shop quartet. Too much pomade. The Face exudes a sour smell, like a dirty sock that fell in a catbox. That smile stays plastered on the Face like it’s been rolled up there with wallpaper glue.
“You don’t belong here.” He says it in a nasal, bureaucratic tone, floating over the shoulder of my conversation partner. “Really, they’re all better than you. You really ought to just walk away. And just wait until they catch you here.”
I get this feeling like I’m about to be picked up by the scruff of the neck until I curl my feet up under me, duck my head, and T-rex my hands in front of me. I force myself to keep smiling anyway, trying not to make eye contact with the Face even though it’s right beside the person I’m talking to.
“They’ll find out,” he sing-songs.
My own smile is starting to feel plastered. I forget what I was talking about. I filter back through the actual conversation happening. Release dates? Audiobooks. Mutual friends. Right. Right! That’s what it was. I was supposed to tell one of the guests this person says hello. Not the Face that keeps popping up over his shoulders. The actual person.
“I’m sorry; I won’t take up any more of your time,” I say, ignoring the floating Face.
I get a what-are-you-talking-about sort of look that shows he’s oblivious to the presence of the spectre behind him and the way it’s making me splutter.
“No, I’m glad you stopped me! It was awesome to meet you! Tweet me your book.” The co-executive producer of my favourite show walks away, leaving me in the middle of the floor at New York Comic Con, half beaming, half about to pass out.
Right. So that happened.
As my Patronus of a TV writer disappears in the crowd, that insipid Face hovering in the air does not.
“Do you seriously think he meant that?” The Face scoffs it at me. “He’s not going to read it.”
I feel that sinking feeling that the Face immediately recognises as me acknowledging he’s right.
Who am I to think I’m anyone?
I’m in Artist Alley, admiring the work of an extremely talented woman. Her line work is fantastic; her shading is impeccable. She’s got style and voice in each panel I look at, and I praise her work loudly. She beams.
My brother’s an artist, and her work reminds me a bit of his. They both do exquisite shading in ink — the textures are stunning. I say so, and I pull up a couple of my brother’s pieces.
I can almost hear the Face poof into existence behind me this time.
“Oh, wow — yeah, no. I’m nothing like him! Your brother’s in another stratosphere. He’s amazing!” The woman’s voice goes up a couple pitches, and I see her head shaking as if she’s agreeing with the floating, plastered-grin head I can feel behind me. He’s not focused on me right now. It’s all her.
“But no, your work is amazing!” I tell her this with as much sincerity as I can muster, because it’s true. My cheeks feel hot.
She almost backs away from her table as if she wishes she had a smoke bomb to smash so she could vanish into the aether.
I rattle off some more praises, trying to keep the I’m sorry! from flinging off my tongue.
As we walk away, I hunch, turning to my friend. “I feel awful. I totally just invoked Impostor Syndrome in that woman.”
Impostor Syndrome. The Fraud Police. The Men With Clipboards. Whatever you want to call the Face (you read how I picture it).
I spent the weekend in New York last October, with one day at Comic Con and the rest running to and fro between various meetings and shindigs. It was a fantastic weekend. I met heroes in the flesh. Had breakfast with the Illustrious Owner of This Here Blog. Got a couple snazzy gifts for friends. Went four hours without peeing because I was waiting for a limited signing. Saw Orlando Jones’s beautiful, beautiful self lurking between Felicia Day and Danny Glover. Saw an epic Magenta and Riff-Raff cosplay. Ate way more delicious food than I am used to encountering, and I didn’t have to make it myself!
I spent a lot of time talking with writers, artists, agents, editors, actors.
And sometime in the middle of all that, I had the strangest epiphany.
It slowly detached from me like one of those B’loonies from the 80s you inflated like a giant bubble through a straw until you were lightheaded.
The common thread in every conversation I had with someone who arts for a living?
At some point in the conversation, literally every single one of them said something like this:
“I mean, it’s fucking BIG NAME. Like….somehow I ended up with them.”
“I had to ask BIG NAME for a blurb. He even remembered me!”
“Oh, I mean, well. Thanks. I’m uh….glad you like it!” *foot scuff*
“Every project I have just went kaput. I’m starting from scratch. I don’t know what to do.”
These people I was talking with? I already mentioned one was a co-EP on a major network show. Actors with a couple million Twitter followers. People who make books happen at major publishers. Bestselling authors. Also new authors, newly agented or sold. Artists breaking in, like the one I mentioned. That last quote was one of the actors.
This shit is real.
And I sure felt it. In pretty much every one of my meetings I primped and shellacked myself and tried my damndest to look the part because I was 99.999238% sure that when I opened my mouth, the warbly yodel of a turkey would come out because I grew up in a barn and who knows, maybe while I slept on the other side of the tarp from the turkeys I inhaled turkey DNA and it lay dormant for fifteen years, waiting to manifest the moment I was face to face with People Way More Established Than I.
I watched the Face hovering over their shoulders all weekend, taunting me like somebody was about to turn up behind me, stuff my head into a burlap sack that smelled of rotten anchovies, and haul me off the island of Manhattan. After which I would dust off any old Real Job (™) and never write again because I wasn’t allowed in the club and they’d caught me playing dress-up in author clothes.
I’m not the only one who sees that awful Face.
We all see it.
When I was fangirling to peers about meeting that EP, inside my head I was thinking, “Why did he even TALK TO ME?” But looking back in that conversation, he was just as shocked that I’d stop him to tell him how much I love his art as I was that he gave me the time of day. (He didn’t actually give me the time of day, but I bet he would have if I’d asked because he was very nice.)
This isn’t a thing that goes away.
It’s now 2016. I have five books out in the wild. I’ve made deals that paid real advances. I occasionally get fan mail/tweets/one star reviews. I still see the Face. I still think about that epiphany that we all have our own Face whispering that we’re faking it.
Part of me felt really depressed after that rubber cement smelling epiphany bubble burst into a cloud of fumes. It settled over me, making my eyes burn. This Face was going to keep haunting me. And all the arty people I know.
Earlier this year, I got to go see Neil Gaiman speak. Someone asked him when he felt like he’d made it. He said when he won the Newberry Medal in 2009, thirty-some-odd years into his career. That was the day he realised the Men With Clipboards weren’t going to come take him away.
So I guess all the arty people feel this way except Neil Gaiman.
(I’m willing to bet he’s felt it again since then, though. Feelings are tricksy like that.)
After a lot of pondering on the subway, I realised something else.
If we all feel like we don’t belong — if at any and all stages of our careers we feel like we’re acting our little hearts out to keep anyone from noticing that we’re interlopers in our field — maybe the secret to beating the Face until it poofs back out of existence is to gang up on it.
Own the feelings that we have something to prove. Own our insecurities. Own our desire to throw the word “but” after someone compliments us.
And maybe the secret to fighting it is talking about it. It can be hard, especially if you know people whose careers seem a lot more established than yours. But we all are allowed to feel this way, whether we’ve just landed an agent and our friends haven’t, whether we’ve got two books out or twenty, whether we work on a successful TV show or make web videos, whether we peddle our art at Comic Con booths or have just put together our first portfolio.
Making art for a living is hard.
The Face makes it worse, because it tells us we don’t deserve the success we’ve had to wrestle from this path until our knuckles bled and our teeth were caked in mud. It tells us someone’s going to notice and that they’re going to boot us back to where we came from. It tells us we’re never going to break in, break out, break free of its awful-awful whispers.
But I for one would rather sit side by side with my fellow art-makers and listen, then link arms with them and all kick the Face in its too-small teeth until even the pomade won’t hold it together anymore.
Fuck that Face.
So you — yeah, you. Whatever you’re doing to make your art, keep doing it. You belong. You can sit with us. It’s a lot easier for me to extend my hand to you than it is to offer the same to myself. I’m trying. But for you, we’re not going to police you out of here, so don’t believe the Face. Keep working. Keep trying. Someone else’s success does not diminish you or your work. We can all be awesome together.
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Emmie Mears is an author, actor, and person of fannish pursuits. Born in Texas, the Lone Star state quickly spit her out after three months, and over eight states and three different countries, Emmie became a proper vagabond. She writes science fiction and fantasy and is the head of a pride of cats in Maryland. Slightly obsessed with Buffy and Supernatural, she haunts the convention circuits and joins in when she can on panels and general tomfoolery. She is the author of the Shrike series and the Ayala Storme series. Emmie is open to bribery in the form of sushi and bubble tea. Emmie may or may not secretly be a car.
Ayala Storme series: Amazon
Shrike series: Amazon