The Imposter Syndrome

I was telling my therapist how I never feel that I’m good enough as a writer and he suggested that I might be suffering from “the imposter syndrome.” No matter what accolades come my way, or how hard I worked to earn them, I always feel like they were given to me by mistake. The first time I was paid for something I wrote was in 1994. The publication was Ladies’ Home Journal and I was paid $700. I was floored. But instead of thinking that my writing was good enough, I felt that they accepted what I wrote only because the topic was timely. I imagined the editors shaking their heads and saying, “Well, it’s all we have to work with.” The worst part was that I didn’t even get a by-line; the column for which my piece was accepted was written anonymously because it was about things that women keep secret. (I won’t divulge here what my secret was.)

My next sale I was a little more proud about even though I didn’t get paid nearly as much. But it was an essay that I dashed off late one night in a fit of inspiration and so I figured that was just a fluke. It’s when things don’t come so easily that I get caught up in the imposter syndrome. Who am I to call myself a writer? I haven’t published anything in years. Yes, I write everyday, but I never finish anything so I’m not a writer. What I really mean is that I’m not a famous writer, but how many writers are? And what do I mean by fame? How famous do I have to be before I’ll stop feeling like I’m pulling something over on my readers?

The main reason I rarely write in this blog is because I feel presumptuous writing about the writing life as if I was really a writer. As if I had a thing to say that would be helpful or interesting to (other) writers. And the fact that no one except for my husband has visited this blog proves to me that I don’t. It’s easy for me to come to this conclusion because that’s how I view everything I do: as uninteresting, unhelpful, unimportant. As my therapist says, “You never cut yourself a break, do you?” No, I don’t. And I don’t think I deserve to.

The other day it dawned on me that maybe I’ve been trying to write in the wrong voice. After all, I’m a gloomy and pessimistic person and I’ve been trying to write like Ms. Well-Adjusted. No wonder what I write comes out sounding false. It might not always be pleasant reading, but if I want to write “true,” I have to let the real me come out. That’s the only way I can stop feeling like an imposter. Or at least not as much of one.

If I do have anything to say to other writers it’s that I know what it’s like to doubt yourself. I wallow in doubt everyday. Some days the only reason I think I’m a writer is because I can’t stop writing. I’ve tried to give it up and I can’t. But most days that’s not enough to make me feel like a “real” writer. Dr. S (the aforementioned therapist) says that I need to be realistic about what I’m shooting for. It’s all right to shoot for the stars as long as you know what is likely to happen–or not happen. He told me that his father made him apply to Harvard and Yale when it came time for him to apply to medical school, even though he didn’t have a chance in hell of getting in. Being rejected probably hurt even though he knew he wouldn’t be accepted. But he also applied to other schools and was accepted into one of them and became a very good psychiatrist with a thriving practice. Is he a failure because he didn’t go to an Ivy League school? If that’s all you care about, yes. But if you look at things realistically, it’s obvious that he has made it.

I don’t submit to or query the top magazines for the same reason that I wouldn’t have applied to Harvard or Yale: I don’t want to be rejected. And I’m sure I would be. Dr.S’s father reasoned that sometimes “ordinary” people get into Ivy League schools, but not if they don’t try. I just don’t have the guts to put that to the test with the big publications. If I did get something accepted, I would feel like they made a mistake, but that my piece might slip through if no one takes a really good look at it.

Years ago, I got up the nerve to say that I was a writer. I needed to be able to do that. Now I’m going through the same crisis of confidence. I’m older, I haven’t published for a while, I’m harder on myself than I was then. I’m afraid that when I say I’m a writer, others are thinking, “Right.” But they would probably think that unless I became the next Anne Tyler or Elizabeth Berg. And even then they might not be impressed. Why do I worry about the impression I make on people? The only one who can really say whether I’m a writer or not is myself. So I’m going to try to stop feeling like an imposter and say it proudly: “I am an authentic writer.” And then get about the business of writing authentically.

2 thoughts on “The Imposter Syndrome

  1. Hi Ellen,

    Just came across this post and, gosh, can I just say you are quite the writer.

    Your voice is already authentic and not only have you captured your own feelings, but I think you’ve echoed the feelings of so many of us who put ourselves out there in some kind of artistic form (writing, acting, painting, etc). I think we all feel like frauds every now and again. At least I know I do.

    My new goal (thanks to “Page After Page”,a wonderful book by Heather Sellers) is to rack up 100 rejections. Write. Submit. Write some more.

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