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On Writing

Filtering by Tag: impostor syndrome

Treasure maps don't inspire me — real people do

Stephen H. Provost

If you’re successful, please resist the urge to utter these five words: “You can do it, too!”

You may think they’re encouraging, but what if they have the opposite effect? How many J.K. Rowlings or James Pattersons are there? I can do it, too? Really?

Still, I’ve heard this kind of statement often enough from writers who’ve found success. I’m sure other creative people – visual artists, musicians, poets – have heard it, too. But let’s change it up for a moment. How would it sound coming from a Wall Street executive telling someone in the inner city how to succeed in business? Do the words “presumptuous” or “clueless” come to mind?

But for some reason, it’s considered OK – even “inspiring” – to speak to creative people like that. Kind of like the old saying that anyone can grow up to be president of the United States. Well, no, not just anyone can. Only people who receive millions of dollars in donations, are nominated by a major political party and receive a majority of Electoral College votes can do it. Oh, and you’ve got to be a citizen by birth and at least 35 years of age. If you’re a naturalized citizen or wind up dying before you hit 35, you’re out of luck.

I know this sounds cynical, but I’m not writing this from a cynical perspective. I’m trying to illustrate how people who have “made it” often view the world through the lens of their own narrative ... and then try to apply it to everyone else. Yet how they feel about their own success is informed by their hindsight; they might remember how hard it was to be a poor or struggling artist, but they no longer feel things from that perspective (not would they, I suspect, wish to do so).

Some people do this intentionally, to augment their income. They want to make everything seem “easy peasy” so they can sell you how-to books containing a “sure-fire” formula for success. But the only thing sure-fire about these books – even those that contain helpful advice, and some of them do – is that the author is going to be making money off each sale.

Most successful people, however, do it unintentionally. Some may suffer from impostor syndrome and can’t believe they deserve what they’ve achieved. They see themselves as frauds, and if they can fake their way to stardom, they assume others can do the same. Others look at how far they’ve come and sincerely want to encourage others – to share the “secret to their success.”

But the effect can be just the opposite: Instead of instilling hope, it can encourage people to place expectations on themselves that they have no way of ever fulfilling, because every situation is different, and everyone has a unique story to tell.

I’m not you

Whenever I hear someone say, “You can do it, too,” the little voice inside me says, “No, I can’t. Not the way you did it.” I want to tell them not to sell themselves short with false humility, because they have a talent I can’t replicate. Nor would I want to, because I’m not them. I can’t do what they’ve done, because what they’ve done is uniquely amazing and should be recognized as such, not downplayed as some sort of happy accident that can be duplicated by me or anyone else.

That being said, there is luck involved in any success, and I’m just as likely to duplicate a successful person’s luck as I am to match their skill.

What most people probably mean when they say, “You can do it, too,” is that they worked their asses off, and they view their success as the payoff for that hard work. Our nation’s Protestant work ethic has drummed it into us: We believe that hard work is the key to success, as though one automatically follows the other. Of course, it doesn’t. Any more than innate talent or even a single stroke of luck does. It’s just not as simple as that.

A successful person’s story can, indeed, be inspiring. I’m not for a moment suggesting that those who have found success “shut the hell up about it.” On the contrary. Those stories are part of what made them who they are, and they should be told – so we can get to know that person and celebrate their successes along with them.

But to suggest that “you can do it, too” is to cheapen those stories, to make them seem more pedestrian than they really are. I can’t live another person’s life or achieve someone else’s success; I can only live and achieve my own. When all is said and done, it will look different than that of another author who made more or less money, sold more or fewer books, became more or less well-known than I did. That’s not only OK, that’s how it should be.

Even if we don’t write books, each of us has a unique story to tell. It’s not a template for someone else’s story, because we aren’t cookie-cutter clones of some ideal. Each of us is unique, and each of our stories is, too. Someone once compared my writing to Stephen King’s, which is certainly flattering, but I’m not the next Stephen King ... and no one will be the next me.

When we stop trying to follow someone else’s treasure map, we stop trying to adopt their expectations as our own. Then, we’re free to appreciate their story as truly theirs, and learn about what makes them uniquely who they are. That’s authenticity, and it’s how we really get to know one another – not as “role models” but as real people.

And it’s real people who inspire me, whether they’re authors working their asses off, people juggling two jobs to make ends meet, stay-at-home parents or scientific geniuses. I’m encouraged by hearing about their unique life journeys, not by listening to two-dimensional success stories that end with false promises that “you can do this, too.”

I already know I can’t. And that’s part of what makes life beautiful.

 

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.