Assorted Thoughts On Impostor Syndrome, Gathered In A Bouquet

So, a few weeks back I did a couple threads on impostor syndrome, which is a very common thing that writers of all experience and comfort levels seem to experience — I certainly do, and you probably do, too. If you don’t, you might be a monster, maybe some kind of Yeti, so get that checked out. I figured I should grab these tweets and pop them somewhere, like, say, at this little blog, to share with those who maybe missed the threads on Twitter when they first appeared.

This is two separate threads, broken out by asterisks.

And asterisks, as you know, are also Cat Butthole Emoji. So, look for the trio of ASCII cat poopers, and you know when the next thread is beginning.

[Note: I’m not using Storify for these anymore because Storify is going away.]

* * *

I will now tell my own impostor syndrome story, as it relates to .

So, two years ago, I had the distinct pleasure of getting to speak in NYC as part of ‘s birthday event at the 92Y.

I was one of the speakers alongside a set of luminaries like , , and — in the presence of herself.

I mean, holy shit, right?!

Already I was going to the event with the utter certainty I didn’t belong there. I felt like a shadow on an X-Ray, a notable stain on an otherwise beautiful skeleton.

When I got there, arriving a bit early for the event, I went into the green room and I was alone.

Except for Neil Gaiman.

Neil Fucking Gaiman. Good Omens! Sandman! The Ocean at the End of the Lane! Stardust and Coraline and American Gods and Neverwhere and…

(C’mon. Dark poet, elegantly mussed hair, you know him, you love him.)

And I stood there for a moment, utterly frozen. He was, if I recall, looking at his phone.

And I said: “I can go.”

Because I thought, I should leave him alone! I don’t belong here. THIS IS RARE AIR AND I DO NOT DESERVE TO BREATHE IT.

And then he Tasered me and called security.

*checks notes*

Wait, no.

He smiled warmly and invited me in and was friendly and delightful and made me feel like I belonged. The other authors welcomed me too and it was awesome, even if I (even now!) still feel like a stowaway on that boat.

As writers we so often have the feeling like we are a Scooby-Doo monster about to be unmasked. I don’t think you ever really lose that.

BUT — and here is a vital part of the lesson — you can help diminish that feeling in other writers by making them feel welcome and a part of the tribe.

Recognize other writers feel like impostors too — and you can combat the feeling in yourself by helping them combat it when you welcome them. In this, community blooms.

You’ll never lose it. But you can help others feel like they belong. And when community grows you feel less alone.

At whatever level you are, other authors are likely to feel isolated and impostor-ish. You aren’t alone. And you can help them not be alone, too. Thanks to for doing exactly that for me, that day. , and obviously , too.

* * *

Can we talk a little [more] about impostor syndrome? Let’s talk about it. More specifically, let me tell you how I — well, it’s not how I defeat it, but rather, how I lean into it.

DOCTOR PENMONKEY: HOW I LEARNED TO STOP WORRYING AND LEARN TO LOVE THE IMPOSTOR SYNDROME. Or something.

(This is a follow up somewhat to last week’s thread, which talked about the value of community in regulating impostor syndrome in others and, by proxy, in yourself.)

[Note, seen above]

So, the facts on the ground are, blah blah blah, impostor syndrome is bullshit, but most (all?) writers suffer from it regularly, you’re not alone, it’s totally normal, and so on and so forth.

But —

A lot of advice goes toward how you stop feeling it, which is not always helpful because — ennnh, you’re gonna keep feeling it. You just are.

Maybe you’ll experience it with less regularity, but it’ll be there. It’s like a ghost. You thought you got rid of the ghost but then you go to shower and BOO, the ghost is there, and you pee yourself a little, because ghost.

For me, writing is two things: it’s DOING THE WORK plus MITIGATING MY MINDSET. The first part is sitting down and gnawing your keyboard until words come out.

The second part is all in my head. And it’s a heady, gurgling broth of mental adjustment, from managing expectations to punching self-doubt in the kidneys to not comparing myself to others to not second-guessing myself and the book every 13 minutes, and so forth.

Part of the thorny tangle of my authorial brain-briar is the snarling snare of impostor’s syndrome. You feel like you don’t belong, as if at any moment someone will unmask you like a Scooby-Doo villain. AND I WOULD’VE GOTTEN AWAY WITH IT IF IT WASN’T FOR YOU MEDDLING BRAIN WEASELS

And yes, I used the Scooby-Doo metaphor in the above thread, but I like it, and I’m keeping it, so.

*tasers you*

Here, though, is how I lean into my impostor syndrome rather than suffering from impostor syndrome:

I learn to embrace the joy of the forbidden.

What I mean is this: impostor syndrome wants you to feel like a new kid in class, and every moment of your career feels like you entering the classroom and going to sit down at a faraway desk as everyone stares at you, The New Kid.

But there’s a different version if it, where you experience an illicit thrill of being somewhere you’re explicitly not supposed to be.

It’s like sneaking backstage at a concert. Or hanging out in your high school after hours, after everything is shut and everyone is gone. Or getting a tour of the chocolate factory OOPS one of the kids fell into the drink ha ha ha that’s okay she’s chocolate now, it’s fine.

There are a few real-world analogs to this I’ve experienced — in Hawaii, I’ve been to places where you’re not supposed to go, off-the-beaten-path, and you can see some truly delirious waterfalls, beaches, cliffs, if you do.

Or, having crashed a party or an event you weren’t invited to? Suddenly you’re shoveling down fancy horse-doovers and pretending like you’re supposed to be there.

Recently I got to sit in First Class for the first time, and it was like, exciting because I knew I didn’t belong there. I was like HA HA FUCK YOU I AM DRINKING SCOTCH BEFORE WE TAKE OFF AT 11AM THAT’S RIGHT, I’M A FLY IN YOUR MILK, RICH PEOPLE

I SEE YOU LOOKING AT ME, GUY IN THE THIRD ROW. IT’S ME, THE BARBARIAN IN ROW 4, BUDDY. HUGS AND KISSES, GUY-WHO-IS-PROBABLY-A-CEO. HA HA HA SUCK IT

And it’s that “ha ha ha suck it” that feels so good about being somewhere you’re not supposed to be. There is a great deal of freedom, in fact, in that.

Being the barbarian at the gate comes with a great deal of reduced responsibility. Because you’re breaking the rules. You’ve changed the game. You’re not supposed to be here…

…and yet, here you are.

Impostor Syndrome can either be you, The New Kid, nervous about not belonging. Or it can be you, the Party-Crasher, joyfully gobbling down fancy foods and enjoying the anarchy of your uninvited presence.

* * *

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Great storytelling is making readers care about your characters, the choices they make, and what happens to them. It’s making your audience feel the tension and emotion of a situation right alongside your protagonist. And to tell a damn fine story, you need to understand why and how that caring happens.

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32 comments

  • I’m part of a writers group in Brisbane called Vision Writers, started by the ever gracious Marianne De Pierres and Rowena Cory Daniels. It is frequented by writers at all levels of their career from starting out to multi published authors. My experience is most authors are incredibly supportive and wonderful, and to all aspiring writers who suffer from Imposter syndrome, (Pretty much all authors) I advise, join a writers group. It’ll nourish your soul and help combat the self-doubt demons, plus, as an added bonus, it’ll do wonders for your writing

  • It seems like people of all walks of life experience Impostor Syndrome. I know I do, even in my day job. But it may be more acutely felt in creative endeavors because there are fewer feedback mechanisms. You don’t get performance reviews, raises, bonuses or any other feedback on any kind of a regular basis. As a writer, you get agents, editors and readers – but that happens when the work is well on its way to completion (or finished). Success measures along the way are almost non-existent, which may be why word count is such a focus for so many – it’s one of the few metrics available.

    I wonder if the practice of using beta readers or having a trusted friend review things along the way can help? Not just to provide input, but also for the sake of getting some kind of feedback on a more consistent basis to feel more engaged?

  • THIS!!! You gnarly little (or large, I have no real idea of your size, having never met you, as they say, in the flesh) penguin you! I have felt like an imposter many times. A lot of them while up in front of a group of would be learners (of both the Yay and the Nay variety), and many more while putting words on a page or at signings where folks might be expected to purchase said words in book form. It is a harrowing experience, but I love your take on leaning into it. It is nice to know I’m not alone. And If I ever have the honor of meeting Gaiman or Atwood, I will mention your name with pride and enthusiasm.

  • Chuck, LOVE the analogy of reveling in a ‘pirates in the castle’ mindset instead of trying to use self-kindness to rid myself of impostor syndrome. I’ma enjoy the heck out of sitting in first class on a sales chart instead of waiting for everyone to realize I don’t belong there!
    Keep being awesome.

  • Much smaller scale, but I recall the first time I arrived at a school for a school visit and saw my name on the reader board outside. I recall thinking, What? They believe they got a real author?

  • I loved this imposter syndrome post! I’ve never been in the presence of Neil Gaiman, but every time I go to a writers’ conference, I feel like everyone else is a writer and I’m just faking it. Only since publishing my first book (self-publishing), have I even felt like I can honestly answer “I’m a writer” when people ask the what do you do question. And I’ve been writing for more than 25 years. So thank you for making me feel like a member of the imposter tribe of writers. We’re real, under the imposter blanket of insecurity, we’re real!

  • Perfect timing! I am a 54 year old that is going back to college and tomorrow is my first day of class with hundreds of freshman. I was feeling a tad of impostor syndrome but now I’m going to crash the party and have some fun. Thanks for your words today Chuck!

  • …and that’s why we sardines who sit in coach enjoy “crop dusting” you.

    I just signed the contract, submitted the synopsis and checked off whether I wanted chicken or fish for dinner. But…(please whisper as you read this) I think they’re mistaking me for someone else. Me? They’ve chosen me to teach the memoir writing course at the Moravian Writers Conference this Spring? Yes, that’s a question. I feel like an upper case IMPOSTER. Heck; that’s were I was “exposed” to you a few years ago.

    Ordering your book. Stat.

  • Apparently Agatha Christie felt impostor syndrome to the extent that she silently submitted to being turned away by a waiter before the official doors-open at an event held in her honour.
    Whereas I may be a flagrant impostor (although at least now I have an answer to “have you written anything I might have heard of?”) but at least I am an impostor with panache. And a hat. Hats help with the panache, I find.

  • Quite often, when I have started working on a new book, new project, a new set of painting, new big idea… it doesn’t matter what it is… I get a huge jab of feeling as though I shouldn’t be doing this. This isn’t meant to be something for me, why would I deserve the attention? People are going to think I’m an attention whore, and a whore is a slut and a slut is nobody good – and you’re nobody good… I’m no good. I don’t deserve to be here…

    This is my thought processes.

    And this is most probably why I’m in therapy too.

    So, no matter what I do with my life, in any artistic way, I still feel as though I should keep myself in the background of the world.

  • Thank you. Who knew that mindset (you, dark wizard, described so accurately in a soul-piercing sort of way) is part of the price of entry? No wonder I’m STILL stuck on this blasted manuscript. All the positive self-talk about already being published hasn’t propelled me anywhere but into a centrifugal spin. No wonder I want to vomit sometimes. It’s time to ride the dragons, letting self-doubt land on their fiery breath.

    Thanks for the change in perspective, understanding Imposter Syn. sticks around.

  • I must be in the teeny tiny minority who has never felt any of the things writers supposedly feel.

    I don’t feel like an impostor when it comes to my writing or books, I don’t feel guilt of any kind like so many do. I don’t have nervous breakdowns if I don’t get things written or done, nothing, zip, zilch, nada. I’ve never been turned off writing because a pub house turned me down, I’ve never shoved my ms into a box in the closet and given up just because someone said my book wasn’t good enough, I’ve never run away and cried because someone I didn’t know criticised the fact I write. I just get the fuck on with it and do what I want. I may not make a lot of money from my books, but at least I can say I’m a published author with full ownership of my copyright and IP and can do whatever the hell I want with my books. And that’s more than what a lot of trad pubbed authors can say.

    I really don’t understand all of these things that authors claim they feel, or other people claim authors feel. I don’t feel any of it.

  • January 23, 2018 at 8:58 PM // Reply

    I’d rather suffer Impostor Syndrome than be afflicted with Dunning-Kruger syndrome. The most amazing writers I know are also the least confident, whereas the godawful ones think they’re geniuses.

  • Four years ago, when my a capella singing wench troupe (yes, it’s a thing) decided we needed some original songs for our repertoire, I was tasked with writing them. I’d never written a song, although I’d written short fiction and non-fiction for years and I’d written some original verses to traditional wench tunes we were already covering.

    To my great surprise, I managed to write a handful of songs (lyrics and melody) that pleased both the other group members and our fans. Still, I didn’t feel like a “real” songwriter until we were recording these original songs with a producer who is a professional songwriter and performer and he praised my songs, backed up by fan reaction when we released our second album this January. (Our first album is a collection of cover tunes in our genre.) I keep telling myself that it’s okay that I’m not as prolific as other songwriters, as I’m writing them only for our group and we frankly don’t need that many new songs, given that our fans expect us to play our current repertoire when we do perform. (I have written two more songs that we’ll introduce over the next year and record them for a future album, but at our current rate, it’ll be another 2 years before that album comes out, so there’s no time crunch.)

    All that to say, I understand the need/desire for a stamp of approval from “real” professionals in whatever field you feel you are only dabbling in. Now that I’ve gotten a bit of it, I feel better about the songs I’ve already written and more confident as I try to write more.

    Anyone interested in checking out our album (with my original songs)? It’s called Just Desserts: Hot and Ready. You can find it for download on bandcamp at http://www.justdessertswenches.bandcamp.com/yum.

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