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Impostor Syndrome: The Writer Behind the Curtain

On Writing

Impostor Syndrome: The Writer Behind the Curtain

Stephen H. Provost

“Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain!”

So said Oscar Zoroaster Phadrig Isaac Norman Henkle Emmannuel Ambroise Diggs (aka the Wizard of Oz) in the 1939 movie adaptation of L. Frank Baum’s classic fantasy.

The wizard, of course, wasn’t really a wizard at all. He was nothing more than a charlatan – a con man. 

In writing this piece, I wondered to myself: Did Baum, in some sense, see himself as the wizard – an impostor hiding behind a curtain, performing marvelous feats that were really nothing more than tricks or sleight of hand? 

Many of us authors do.

No small number of us are prone to viewing ourselves as men and women behind a curtain. Our books serve as our magical veil, which both connects us to and protects us from the outside world.

Many of us are loners who never quite fathomed the social games played by our more outgoing peers – even though we studied them scrupulously in the hope, perhaps, of imitating them. Of pretending to be a series of someones we’re not.

There’s a name for this: It's called “impostor syndrome.”

Those of us afflicted by it become so accustomed to playing roles that we wind up thinking it’s the only way to succeed.

But then, if someone happens to catch a glimpse of that “man behind the curtain,” we feel certain we’ve been found out. We aren’t real authors, after all. We’re just play-acting, and worst of all, we’ve failed in the one thing we believe we just might be good at: putting one over on the public at large through some elaborate ruse.

When we do venture out of our literary cocoon for book signings, presentations, conventions and the like, we often take great care to avoid any possible missteps. We don’t want to give off even the slightest hint that we might be something less than the larger-than-life image we’ve projected onto that curtain. It’s called keeping up appearances … or, to our way of thinking, maintaining the illusion.

Two sides of the curtain

Writing is both the perfect and absolute worst profession for those of us suffering from impostor syndrome. It’s perfect because it allows us to relate to the world in a very intimate way, scrawling or typing out insights and details that other, less observant sorts, are wont to miss. Yet in the same moment, it denies us the very intimacy we crave because it separates the real “us” from the world we’ve been so carefully observing.

We can create worlds of our own in which to find refuge from the real one, wherein reside all manner of critics ready to expose us as the frauds we’re certain we really are.

Our writing is our curtain.

But that veil of protection can’t shield us from our own desire for acceptance … which we’ve merely transferred from ourselves to our writing. Our baby. And, lo and behold, those critics out there are just as eager to bully and ridicule that baby as they were to assail us.

So we’re right back where we started.

Scathing reviews confirm that we are not now, nor were we ever, “real” writers. So do those rejection slips and emails, which bombard us as long as we keep sending out query letters.

Are you seeking affirmation? Adulation? If so, you might want to think twice about becoming a writer. Fame isn’t part of the job description unless your name is Rowling or King or Patterson. Achieving even a cult following is a major accomplishment.

And job security? Forget it – your chances of making a cushy living as a writer are akin to your chances of making it in the NBA.

Being a writer will most likely make you appreciate the day job you’ve held for the past 10 years a lot more. (Most of us have to keep our day jobs, by the way.) Think for a moment about that 8-to-5 job. Now imagine having to reapply for that position every time you completed a project. Imagine sending out another resume, going through another series of interviews, enduring another background check every six months or so just to keep doing the same job you were already hired to do.

Unless you have a contract that covers more than one book, that’s part of what it means to be a writer.

Rending the veil

Repeated rejections are the last thing you need if you’re struggling with impostor syndrome. At best, they’ll reinforce the feeling that you’re just not “worthy” (whatever that means); at worst, they’ll make you feel like even more of a pretender. “I knew I was never any good in the first place, and this just confirms it.”

Even successes are often rationalized away as flukes.

  • “I may have sold one novel, but who knows if I’ll ever sell another!”
  • “Yes, I sold a few thousand copies, but it’s not enough to pay the bills, so I’m obviously a failure.”
  • “I didn’t win that award I was up for. Those readers who bought my book? Sure fooled them!”
  • Or, conversely: “I won some award? Big deal. People still aren’t buying my book. I must have done a real snow job on those judges!”

See what you’re doing here? Not only are you denigrating your own work, you’re insulting your audience – whether it be the people who’ve bought your book or the judges who thought it merited an award. Nobody wins here. You’re only accomplishing one thing: perpetuating the singularly pernicious illusion that your talent is all just an illusion.

The curtain is suffocating you.

This is the challenge authors face when they find themselves enmeshed in impostor syndrome, and it’s why you’ll hear so many of us encouraging one another to ignore the bad reviews, wear rejection letters like a badge of honor and, above all, keep writing, even if no one seems to care or even notice.

But perhaps most important piece of encouragement anyone can offer is the reminder that the writing is its own reward. When it comes right down to it, our writing isn’t really a curtain at all. It’s more like a prism that allows us to fashion our “inner light” into an array of colors that we can send forth in unique patterns at impossible angles to illumine the world around us. We get to discover ourselves and, in the process, offer the world at large a ticket on its own voyage of discovery.

What could be more exciting than that?

Despite what we might tell ourselves in moments of self-doubt and frustration, we writers aren’t impostors at all. We’re explorers.

An impostor can only mimic what’s come before. It’s an explorer’s unique privilege is to go forth in search of something new – and, upon finding it, to unveil it for the rest of the world do see.

Then, suddenly, curtain is gone. And the wonders we've hidden behind it are unveiled in all their glory.