On Writer Twitter, the topic of Imposter Syndrome comes up frequently. That’s when you feel like whatever success you may have had is merely a fluke, and someone is going to notice it. It’s when you feel like you’re not a “real” writer, for whatever reason — not selling, not selling enough, not being well known, not getting award nominations, not being invited to book festivals. I’ve been surprised by how many people I think of as far ahead of me confessed to feeling this way.
The thing is, I’m not sure anyone really gets over this, unless they’ve got a huge ego (that’s not just a front). I would guess that the people who don’t ever feel like they might be exposed as an imposter are those who are the real imposters. Self-doubt does have its uses. It can keep us from feeling complacent and pushes us to keep doing better. When I start to fear that whatever I’ve achieved is a fluke and feel like a nobody, that’s when I buckle down and write more and am hard on myself to make what I write the best it can be. You don’t want to take it so far, though, that you hold yourself back from opportunities out of fear that you won’t be worthy, and you definitely don’t want to take it so far that you give up and quit because you’re sure you’ll never be a “real” writer.
The trick to dealing with all of this is to think about your own definitions of success. Don’t look at what success means to other people. What does it look like to you? What really matters? What are you trying to get out of this career? Would you trade what you have for what you see other people having?
I had my wake-up call about that when I was at the Nebula Awards conference last year. What often makes me feel like an imposter is the fact that I seem to be a relative unknown in my field, in spite of the years I’ve been publishing, the number of books I’ve had published, the amount of money I’ve made. I was on a panel about dealing with discouragement, and I brought this up as one of my discouragements. I had the audience raise their hands if they’d heard of me, and only a couple of hands went up. But on another panel about finances for freelancers, I was with people I consider far more successful than I am. They’re authors the audience had heard of, people who get award nominations, who have thousands of Twitter followers. And yet they were talking about running through their emergency funds, having to take part-time jobs to supplement their writing income, doing various kinds of crowdfunding. I might be obscure, but I’ve always been fairly financially secure as a full-time writer. I own a home, have no debts other than the mortgage (that I’ll probably pay off soon), and have a big enough financial cushion that I don’t have serious worries as long as I manage my money wisely. That was when I realized that while I’d love to be recognized and acknowledged, I much prefer making decent money. Of course, if I’m already making decent money, then being better known should mean I’d make even more money, but I wouldn’t trade the income for the renown.
Meanwhile, it’s entirely possible that the other people on that panel were feeling like imposters because they weren’t living entirely off their writing income without having any financial woes. Or they may be okay with where they are because they’re getting what they want.
Back in my day job years, I was at a conference for people in my field (university communications/public information officers), and the speaker suggested keeping a “fuzzy file.” In that job, you get a lot of criticism and are often caught in the middle — the administration always wants more and better results, the faculty just wants to be left alone and not bothered with press inquiries, unless they want more attention but don’t have anything likely to get attention, the press want sources for their stories but don’t want to be pitched things they aren’t interested in. You can’t make everyone happy. So it’s important to hang on to any bit of praise. Keep a file of thank-you notes, press clippings, positive feedback, etc., to look at when you’re feeling battered. Writers should keep their own fuzzy files of good reviews, acceptance letters, good royalty statements, award nominations, screen caps of high Amazon rankings, etc. Write a list of your accomplishments. When Imposter Syndrome kicks in, you can look at your fuzzy file and remind yourself that you deserve what you’ve achieved. Then use that nagging sense of dissatisfaction as motivation to go above and beyond.