We’ve all been there…Writer’s Impostor Syndrome is real…
You’ve worked hard to achieve what you have to this point as a writer/author. Whether you are just finishing your first draft, manuscript, or you’ve already published dozens of books, you’ve felt it. It lingers in the back of your mind, and on your best days, you ignore it. With your shield in hand, you fend off the attacks of self-doubt, hyper-criticism, and feelings of fraudulence. Those days feel good. They feel really good. But as it is true in every other walk of life, the writer’s life has a sinister parasite that attacks us when we are down. It has a name.
Turns out just about everyone on the planet has felt this way…
Fledgling writers and seasoned vets feel the same crushing self-doubt, and quite a few have shared their views on this phenomenon. In fact, a quick google search of Impostor Syndrome in writers will show you that greats like Stephen King, Neil Gaiman, and Maya Angelou have spoken out on the subject. The reason I am writing this blog today is that it is an issue that I struggle with. While this article may be cathartic to me, I also hope that what I present can help you if you feel the same weight. There are a ton of perspectives out there, and although this blog is targeted at writers, I think something has been missed.
It’s not a writer’s problem, it is a human problem…
Sometimes as writers we get so wrapped up in our words, and more aptly our label as wordsmiths that we forget that we were first human. Doubt is a human experience, and it is one of the best teachers we have available. It lets us know when we have something to work on, and we have plenty to improve on as writers. It springs from fear. Fear keeps us alive in some cases and cripples us in others. If we take it further, we realize that doubt in itself a mental state, and as such, it can be changed. The best part is that it can be changed, even if it can sometimes feel like it weighs a thousand pounds. To help get a grip on how it comes about I want to ask you three questions.
1. Why do you write?
2. Who gave you permission?
3. Who can take it away from you?
If you’ve answered honestly then you are on track to finding your sword in this battle against doubt. Just for fun, I have put my answers here in case you’ve struggled to answer for yourself.
Why do I write?
I write because it is in my blood. Not in so much as I come from a family of writers, in fact, no one in my immediate living family has published to my knowledge. What I mean is, doubt is a human experience. The same is true about storytelling. I am keen on telling people that I am a storyteller first and a writer second. The reason is that writing is the sacred vehicle for the relation of information that we as humans want to share with others. When we write, all we are trying to do is to tell a story. To share an experience that we have had. I know that when I write, whether it be blogs, fiction, or poetry it is because I want someone else to experience the ethereal worlds that I have. I write because it is in my nature, and I am sure it is no different for you. Of course, there is the aspect of fame and fortune. Who doesn’t want that? But if you are truly looking deep enough you will see that the drive comes from a more primitive, magical place than being monetarily rewarded or critically lauded.
Who gave me permission?
Now logically we can think about answering this question by taking a pragmatic approach. Your readers did right? The people who pay for you to keep writing. Self-published authors or even “aspiring authors”, more on why I despise that term in a moment, are more conflicted by Impostor Syndrome than traditionally published authors. It seems obvious because we require more validation to make us “feel” like we are writers or authors. This entire subject is about feeling. Whether or not we feel like we are true, successfully writers. I want to stop you right there and go over two things that are massively important, at least in my own life philosophy.
1: As long as you call yourself an “aspiring” author, you will always be just that.
2: Validation is good but unnecessary
3: What you “feel” directly impacts what happens externally
Now that may sound like a bunch of new-age hippie dippy crap, but I am here to tell you it is true in more than one way. If you go back to our previous point that doubt is a mental state, one that can be changed quickly and easily then you have to know that by enacting the reversal or the anti-thesis will provide a shift in the mental state. For instance, the “aspiring author” label. It limits our possibilities by creating a mental state that we have not yet achieved our goal, which in the beginning was to write. Now it may have become inflated over time to include other things like being a “best-selling author” or being “critically-acclaimed”, that is fine. But it overshadows the original goal, the building block of your success. To simply write! Everyone who has ever achieved something knows this truth, that bigger goals are only met by achieving smaller goals. When we achieve the smaller goals the bigger goals begin to crumble in front of you. The most productive and successful people in the world have told us this for time immemorial. As writers we know that you cannot write a book without writing chapters, chapters without writing paragraphs, paragraphs without writing sentences, sentences without writing words. If you were looking for validation, then you have it. You’ve written something. If you have done any of the aforementioned things then I want you to take a second and think about something.
NOW…Not Later, Not in a few years, NOW
Take that and chew on it for a minute. Really dig deep, think about it, congratulate yourself, and feel it. Feeling it is the most important part. When you feel the gooey internal goodness of finishing a great sentence, or paragraph, or chapter it leads to the creation of a good feeling book. This is how you crash through feeling like an impostor. How and Why? Because you are achieving the smaller goals. Because you are matching your internal reality with your external reality, and when you do that you can dramatically increase your output in writing. When you dramatically increase your output, not only in quantity but in quality then you set upon achieving the secondary goals like getting on a best-seller list. Now you have more validation, and the good “feeling” keeps on rolling in.
Then something really special happens… A realization and an answer to two of the questions I asked you to ask yourself.
It is a constant battle, but you can win!
Once you’ve shifted that mental state and gotten yourself back on track, writing yourself into your goals of being a critically acclaimed, best-seller, becomes a reality. You will begin to “feel” good. But wait, self-doubt and its ally Impostor Syndrome are durable demons. They will come back, no matter how much validation you have received, and they will come back when you have let your guard down.
So What Do You Do When Writer’s Impostor Syndrome Strikes?
There are a great many ways to dig yourself out of the doldrums of doubt, but I have gathered a few quick tips to help you on your way. The first step though is identifying the problem. Because of its nature doubt is also a sneaky little bastard. Often times we will identify a different problem when doubt is the real culprit. Example: I have writer’s block. I don’t feel motivated, etc. So analyzing our situation and determining what is going wrong takes a new level of awareness about our chosen craft. Doubt can disguise itself as procrastination, writer’s block, over-researching, and not hitting our writing goals. If you are experiencing these symptoms then it is possible that doubt is the root cause. If you “feel” that it is, then there are few quick tricks to help you get through it.
1: Talk to other writers/authors and ask them about their experiences and what they did.
Your community of writers, which I hope you are developing daily, is a key resource in this battle. They can help you in many ways, by telling you of their experiences, what they did to get out, and sometimes by validating your work through critique. You need to leverage your fellow wordsmiths from time to time to keep you on track. This is why I always say that your focus on social media should be Good Habits and Good Relationships. The self-publishing community is ripe with helpers, like me, who want to see everyone succeed in telling their stories. So don’t let doubt make you feel like you can’t reach out. I know through my own experience, being afraid to contact an author in an echelon just above me can be terrifying. You think they don’t have the time to bother with a peon like me. Well, it simply isn’t true, some may not have the time, but I know that they will reach out in some way to help. The reason: They have been there themselves, and they know the discomfort you feel. Clearly, they have done something to get over it, that’s how they reached that higher plane. When you see a fellow writer succeed, don’t be afraid to ask them how they did it, or are doing it.
2: Keep Writing by trying another form or work with a different medium altogether.
As I stated earlier, the heart of writing is storytelling, or conveying a meaning, idea, or feeling to another person. When our chosen craft or medium begins to falter, it is good to seek inspiration elsewhere. Remember that this doubt is a representative of fear. That our ideas will not be accepted, or worse that we will not. This stunts our artistic flow, our poetic muse if you will. We tighten up and then start beating our heads against the blank page. We feel trapped and inadequate. It is hell. Remember though that there is a way to move through it. Keep the flow going!
The key thing to remember here is that it doesn’t have to be writing. Other mediums, photography, painting, music, poetry, essays, articles, it doesn’t matter. Get back to basics for a minute and start telling stories again. Fuck the grammar, write free-form, stream of consciousness if you have to. It rocks anyways. Try out a new writing prompt, a new genre, get your feet underneath you again and you will find yourself running soon.
3: For god’s sake go Read, and Read about Writing
Gals, Guys, and everyone in between, I know how hard it is to read. As writers, we have a unique space in the library. We want to belong alongside the greats, we want our stories to be read by the world and because of this drive we often forget the key ingredient that makes our writing better. After all, if we make our writing exceed the standards we held yesterday, and we do this effectively each day with intent we will find ourselves growing beyond what we thought possible. That will bring validation and those good feelings into the equation again. But how do we improve? By writing, and even more important than writing we must make sure to READ and read voraciously. As Douglas Wilson says in his must-read, Wordsmithy, “Read until your brain creaks. I agree with him, his words have inspired me to fix one of the things that are wrong with my craft.
The simple fact that I do not read enough…
The more you read with intention and joy the better your writing will become. Read the greats, read crap, read comic books, read romance, science fiction, read dictionaries, read etymologies, read quotes, just READ. You will never retain it all, but it will shape you and it will give your voice a reboot. Do this and you will see your voice and style grow. Remember that you never want to mimic your heroes entirely. Remember that most of the ideas in this world have already been spoken about by someone else. What makes your story, your writing unique is how you tell your story. No one in the world can tell the story like you do, your voice is colored by the vast array of experiences you’ve had up until this point in time, and you can leverage that voice. Make it stronger by expanding the experiences and ideas that shape it. READ READ READ!
4: Reflect on why you are writing in the first place! Journal, Meditate, Get back in Tune!
That last quote brings this final point into closer focus. It sinks us deep into a place of introspection and reflection. This is a practice that is again a human experience first, a writing experience second. Take some time to reflect on why you are pursuing this craft in the first place. Writing is no different than any other craft in that from time to time we lose track of the big WHY? Journaling is a great way to jot down your thoughts about writing, about how you feel, and why you believe you need to be a writer. Meditation is another good way to process the feelings that can get bottlenecked when we face the fraudulent phony disease. After all, in the practice of meditation, we shed the facade that we present to the world. Believe it or not, you do this when you write. Your words, carefully selected and placed in a particular order reveal something about the true you, the deep you, the you that isn’t visible. Writing is meditation, and sometimes meditation can help us through the tougher times. Beyond those two quick exercises, there is one other tip I’d like to share.
Get UP! Stop staring at this screen!
Get out there in the world. Smell the fresh air, feel the breeze, listen to conversations. Experience. This is one of the most powerful tools in the writer’s toolkit. If you harness the power of your observation not only will you have a better grasp of description, dialogue, and feelings but you will be healthier for it. Go for a walk in the wood. Let nature recharge those batteries. Grab a cup of joe with an old friend and rebuild connections. In my college years a professor I had once said something that has stuck with me throughout the rest of my years. He told us that we were not yet ready to tell stories, because we had not experienced enough of life yet. How could we tell stories about a world we hardly knew? It seemed ridiculous to me, that is what we were paying thousands of dollars in tuition to learn, how could we not be ready? His message was simple. We hadn’t lived enough to effectively embrace the craft. I am now twelve years removed from his classroom and though I feel I have blossomed in many ways, I still think he is right. I need to remind myself daily to step away. Walk, get out, hear sounds, smell smells, talk to people, listen to the world. For we cannot tell stories of this world, or any world if we have no understanding of how it operates.
Take action against the demon of doubt…
In closing this topic I hope that you now realize that you are in fact NOT AN IMPOSTOR! You are not a fraud, You are NOT A PHONY! You are a WRITER and one day if you really go and get it you will be a damn fine wordsmith. Say it and feel it. I AM A WRITER! Go outside and scream it if you have to. Feel the elation that it gives you to embrace the achievement you’ve unlocked. Things will happen if you enact the steps of achieving small goals, balance your internal feelings with your external reality, and work hard at fortifying your position. The best weapons against doubt and Impostor Syndrome are being a well-equipped wordslinger. If you take the steps necessary to address your craft then you have nothing to doubt because you are being the very best writer that you can be. You did that, and you gave yourself permission, and no one can ever take that away from you. Ever.
I’ll leave you with Neil Gaiman’s view on Impostor Syndrome…