I am an imposter. At least I feel like I am. I feel like I'm pretending; that I've not earned the right. I don't always feel this way but I do some of the time. The veneer is very thin and all it takes is one sharp remark to tear it and then the truth will be out. At least that's how I feel. If I keep writing, if I keep firing out words between you and me, then I feel safer. The words are a distraction. So I write as many as I can. If I can keep them coming then you won't find me out, although I know it is only a matter of time. Of that I'm sure. And then everyone will know I'm not a real writer. The words should be enough. That's all real writers have to work with, that and some genuine talent. I feel that I have to keep writing because as soon as I go silent then there will be room for someone to do one of those fake attention-getting coughs and I’ll know I've been found out.
Do you ever feel like that? I do. As soon as I'm not writing then I feel that I'm no longer a writer. And the more time that passes the more I'm convinced that I'm a fake. You could take me through to my office and pile up the folders on my desk with all the hundreds of thousands of words that I've written and I'd still find some way to shrug it all off as if it was some other me that did all that. I know it’s not true, but, as I've said to my doctor several times, it is possible to have an irrational fear, know it's irrational and be able to talk rationally about it but still be unable to face that fear.
When does one become a real writer? I don't have an MA in Creative Writing. There's no bit of paper in a teak-effect frame in my office saying that I am. I don't have letters after my name. What proof am I looking for?
There's an expression for this: imposter syndrome. It's more common amongst women so I've read but I assure you men are not exempt and I suspect this has nothing to do with genes of chromosomes or any of the biological differences between the sexes. More likely it has to do with how women have been treated over the years but let's not get distracted here. We can talk about feminism some other time.
Dr. Valerie Young was sitting in class one day in the fourth year of a doctoral programme which, as you can see from her title, she must have got through. Another student rose to present the findings of a study conducted by psychology professor Pauline Clance and psychologist Suzanne Imes called The Impostor Phenomenon Among High Achieving Women. I'll let her continue:
In a nutshell, Clance and Imes found that many of their female clients seemed unable to internalize their accomplishments. External proof of intelligence and ability in the form of academic excellence, degrees, recognition, promotions and the like was routinely dismissed. Instead, success was attributed to contacts, luck, timing, perseverance, personality or otherwise having "fooled" others into thinking they were smarter and more capable than these women "knew" themselves to be.
Rather than offering assurance, each new achievement and subsequent challenge only served to intensify the ever-present fear of being...
"Oh my God," I thought, "I've been unmasked!"
Clearly flustered, I quickly scanned the room checking to see if anyone had caught me nodding in dismayed recognition. No one had. They were too busy bobbing their own heads in like-minded unison.
The bottom line is that the good doctor has now spent twenty-five years working with women who feel like imposters, fakes or frauds. She maintains a site called Overcoming Imposter Syndrome, runs courses and – of course – has written a book about all this. I've not read her book nor attended any of her courses so I'm not recommending her as such but the simple fact is that she clearly has a market for her product.
Examples, one famous and three not so much:
Jodie Foster said in a tv interview.. that before her Oscar-winning performance in The Accused she felt "like an impostor, faking it, that someday they'd find out I didn't know what I was doing. I didn't. I still don't." - Gifted Women: Identity and Expression
Social anxiety and personal insecurities are at an all-time high. The situation is probably a bit better than the way it feels (it just has to be)... My stomach is constantly churning--when will my new co-workers figure out how much I actually don't know? I just know they'll find me out for the impostor that I am. – Land of Yajeev
Why is this so difficult? It's a confidence thing. Every time Kelly and I start a new book, I am scared shitless that this is the one that will reek. I'm terrified that we have run out of gas; that our ambivalence is showing and we will become one of those pathetic writers who phone it in. I'm worried that we don't have the energy to do it again. I'm thinking that this is the plot that is pallid, that this story is shapeless. I am certain that this is when it will all fall apart and everyone will see me for the fraud I am. – Cabbages and Kings
You know, I've been working where I am now for almost a year. It's gone very well. I've achieved a great deal since I've started, learned a great deal, and met some great people. And almost every single day I go to work, sit at my desk, and wonder if they'll catch me. If they'll finally realize I'm faking it. – Stultiloquent, The Observations of a Lifelong Introvert
There were two things that came together for me to write this post. The first was my wife reading an article about Imposter Syndrome and mentioning it to me. The second was a comment made by Marcy on a recent post, When is enough enough? In her comment she includes a quote from the post:
"I shy away from [regarding myself an expert on Beckett] because although I know a lot I couldn't stand up and take questions from the audience with any degree of confidence."
Actually, I would bet that you could to some degree. Based on my experience, I would guess that the only difference between you and those who do regard themselves "experts" is that you actually admit to not knowing things.
I've thought about what she said for a while. Would I be happier if I'd written a book on Beckett? Perhaps. I did write all those entries on Wikipedia, every Beckett play bar Endgame (don't get me started on Endgame) and I don't see anyone hacking them to pieces. I even included a couple of pieces of original thought which I know you're not supposed to but I did back them up. I should be quite pleased with myself and yet I shrug them off as if they were nothing but the simple fact is they took me six months to research and write; the entry for Waiting for Godot alone took me six weeks since I felt I needed to triple check everything. So, why am I dissatisfied with them? I think one of the main things is that I had to cut my cloth to fit. The Godot entry alone is just under 10,000 words although I see someone has added in a section on 'Interpretations from compassion' that makes a few unsubstantiated claims. Anyway, add all the entries together and you'll have a book. That's all I'm trying to say.
We are all our own harshest critics. I certainly am. I wasn’t always – when I was a teenager I was a genius and the world was blinded by my brilliance which is why they failed to recognise that. Yeah, right. In her article, The Inner Critic, author Sharon Good makes this comment:
* The first step in dealing with the inner critic is to recognize it as a separate entity from yourself.
It is a voice within you, but it's not you. This voice has been your constant companion since childhood, and it's likely so much a part of you, like the air you breathe, that you hardly even notice it.
Realize that these are the combined voices of all the authority figures you grew up with -- parents, teachers, religious leaders or just about any adult. When you were small, not heeding these voices could result in physical or emotional pain or humiliation.
I found this interesting. It states the obvious but so often the wisest words of wisdom do exactly that. I look at some of the things I've written that have affected people and I scratch my head because all I've done is exactly that: state the obvious.
Those lucky few of you who have a copy of my first novel, Living with the Truth will recognise these words:
For my father
despite the fact he never finished it
The dedication was always going to be 'For my father … something, something' although it was years before I realised what the 'something, something' was going to be.
My father lost his sight after he retired from work. Gradually it slipped away from him. By the time I'd finished my novel he could no longer read and so I offered to read it to him. He'd not heard any of my work since I was a teenager at which time my 'genius' escaped him I'm afraid.
I read the book to him over several sittings but we never got to the end of it. I don't know why we never finished it and I'm not simply saying that because I don't want to talk about it. I honestly don't remember why we stopped. He never said he liked it. He never said he hated it. I don't think he really got it.
We used to trudge up the stairs to his study. And he'd call out to my mum:
"We're just going upstairs to read our Jimmy's story."
"It's a novel, Dad."
"Aye, that's what I meant."
Of course he meant no insult by calling my novel a 'story' because it is a story but I would've been so much happier if he'd at least said 'book' but it wasn't a book, not then, just a manuscript, not a real book.
Now, let's not paint my dad in too dark a shade here. He was actually very supportive and he would often come into the front room when I was a teenager and get me to play him some of my tunes. Music made sense to him. All you had to do was like it or not like it. Words needed thinking about. He read but never fiction. My mother was the same.
My parents are both dead now. And yet still my inner critic lives on, impossible to please as always.
There's a bit of writing that had a great effect on me which I've mentioned before. It's by Camus, from his novel The Plague. In the book there's a character, Grand, a low-level clerk with a passion for writing who has been working on the same opening sentence for years, unwilling to move on until he is convinced his first sentence is perfect, something very romantic and imagistic involving a horse and a complicated narrative perspective.
Triumphantly he read out the sentence:
"One fine morning in May a slim young horsewoman might have been seen riding a glossy sorrel mare along the flower-strewn avenue of the Bois de Boulogne."
But, spoken aloud, the numerous "s" sounds had a disagreeable effect and Grand stumbled over them, lisping here and there. He sat down crestfallen; then he asked the doctor if he might go. Some hard thinking lay ahead of him.
I used to be like that, putting in the proverbial comma and then taking it out again. You can drive yourself potty doing that. More and more I became dissatisfied with words; they were all inadequate, imprecise. This is how I began to realise I wasn't the genius I was so sure I was in my teens; I couldn't string a sentence together and get it right. I was an imposter, a pretender to the throne.
Nowadays I don't pretend so much. Or at least I'm more open about my pretences. I realise that anhedonic character I am prone to be is never going to be completely pleased with anything I ever do. So I use other people more often than not as benchmarks. If my wife is pleased with a poem, it gets a number and goes in the big red folder. And that's it.
It's easy to lose perspective and find yourself writing the same sentence over and over again until you get it right.
Without looking you can find you've lost perspective and find yourself writing the same sentence over and over again until you get it right.
Without thinking you can discover you've lost perspective and find yourself writing the same sentence over and over again until you get it right.
Without thinking you might suddenly realise you've lost perspective and find yourself writing the same sentence over and over again until you get it right.
One day you might suddenly find you've lost the plot and find yourself writing the same sentence over and over again until you get it right.
One day you might suddenly find you've lost the plot and discover you've been writing the same sentence over and over again and it's never going to be right.
One day you might suddenly find you've lost the plot and discover you've been working on the same sentence or poem or novel over and over again and it's never going to be right.
One day you might suddenly discover you've been tinkering with the same sentence or poem or novel for days or weeks or years and it's never going to be right.
One day it will dawn on you that you've been reworking the same sentence or poem or novel for days or weeks or years and it's never going to be right.
Some day it will dawn on you that you've been reworking the same thing for days or weeks or even years and it's never going to say exactly what you wanted to say.
One day it will dawn on you that you've been going over the same ground for years and it's never going to say exactly what you wanted to say.
And one day you've have forgotten what you wanted to say in the first place and you'll wonder if what you had to say really needed to be said at all.
I'm not famous or successful. I may never be either. Probably when I'm dead – that's the way it usually goes. Possibly. Who knows? But I don't think it's too early to put what talent I have in perspective. And I'm sure there will be a few out there reading this "bobbing their own heads in like-minded unison."