How to Beat Imposter Syndrome
“The beauty of the impostor syndrome is you vacillate between extreme egomania and a complete feeling of: 'I'm a fraud! Oh God, they're on to me! I'm a fraud! ' . . . just try to ride the egomania when it comes and enjoy it, and then slide through the idea of fraud.” -Neil Gaiman In college, I was one of a few first-years accepted into an advanced Human Rights and International Law class (you have to interview for all of your classes at Sarah Lawrence College). The class was taught by a notoriously tough visiting professor and expert in International Law. I was convinced he and the rest of the class would discover that I had no idea what I was doing there and wasn't smart enough. When my first paper was due, I was freaking out, sure that this was the thing that would do it. They'd all realize I didn't belong there, that I'd somehow sneaked through by mistake. I worked my ass off on that paper, determined to earn my place. When the professor was handing out grades, he told us that the person with the highest grade would have to present their argument on the spot. When he handed me my paper, I couldn't believe it. Was he really talking about me? Then I proceeded to stand up and muddle my way through my analysis of the ethics of cloning. At our next meeting, the professor said to me, "You're really smart and I need you to believe that." He saw through me! Oh no! After that moment, I thought, maybe I actually do belong here. I had a similar experience when applying for grad school. I decided to apply somewhat late and had exactly one month to write 20 pages to capture their attention. When I first sat down to write, I realized I hadn't yet set up a writing space in our new home, that I hadn't been writing regularly for months, and how could I possibly expect to get into a prestigious MFA program if I wasn't even a real writer? I did what I always did when I was convinced I wasn't good enough; again, I worked my ass off. Friends who read my work complimented it, but I was sure there was no way I'd get in and that it would crush me. A week after applying, I got the call. My cell reception at my new job was terrible, so the program's director was cutting in and out as he said "committee impressed...acceptance letter in the mail..." Wait, did I just get in?? I was flabbergasted. Hadn't they seen through me and realized I didn't know what the hell I was doing? Before I started, I just knew that everybody else was going to be better than me, that they'd have more impressive publishing credentials, that I'd be figured out.
Eventually, after writing A LOT, my confidence grew. With a regular writing practice and meeting deadlines each month, cranking twenty pages out became much easier. Now, I can sit down and the writing just flows. It's still work, but I put the work in. I've gotten so much better at receiving criticism and revising. I've written two books (in progress) and had a handful of publications in the past few years. I've won and been nominated for prizes, and been admitted to a prestigious residency. I found out yesterday that my application for a $50,000 grant has moved on to Round II. Not an acceptance yet, but still encouraging. Someone sees something in my work! Maybe I can really do this. I coach first-time authors in writing their books for New Degree Press/Creator Institute, and my students are mostly beginning writers with lots of anxiety about writing a book. One wrote to me this week that, every time he sat down to write, he was crippled by imposter syndrome and questioning whether he could even do this. I told him every writer ever has experienced this, including myself (like, all the time). I shared some quotes from famous authors about their own feelings of inadequacy and fraud. I promised him that the more he writes, the easier it will become. To be a "real writer," all you have to do is write. Often. Sometimes (or usually) badly. And keep working at it. That's the "secret" that real writers have. They write. All the time. And eventually, they improve and maybe even start to believe they can actually do this thing. As a writer I love, Cheryl Strayed famously said, "Write like a motherfucker." And eventually you might even realize you're a real writer.