“Impostor Syndrome”

I’ve had a bunch of writer friends – at all levels of the game – admit to falling prey to this thing called the Impostor Syndrome at least once in the course of their writing lives and careers. The basic instinct of responding, in particular, to some glorious moment (like holding your own book in your hand for the first time, or being on a panel at a con, or being asked for writing advice, stuff like that) by responding to a remark or a situation by looking over your shoulder to find out which actual REAL writer that remark or situation pertains to – because it couldn’t possibly be you. It’s the perennial “I’m here under false pretences – there are so many who are so much more qualified to be here or deserve to be here so much more than me…” kind of response. It’s turning to look a piece of your own success in the eye, and finding yourself unable to hold that eye contact, feeling the urge to slink away into the shadows because you’ve somehow been “unmasked” as being at the ball wearing another’s robes of honour.

Time was, back when I wrote everything by hand, that I had a badge of honour by which I could identify myself as an honest-to-goodness writer. I had an ink-stained  callus on the third finger of my right hand, where the pen used to rest when I wielded it – and I could lift that hand, and show that mark, and it would announce to all and sundry that here stood a writer who had earned the name – look at my hand – I bear the Mark of the Scribe, and you only get this when you’ve spent hours and days and weeks and months plying that pen across the virgin page, creating words and worlds. It was a physical sign – better than a tattoo – it showed the world exactly who or what you were. Oh, the Impostor Syndrome was still around and no less strong and powerful than it is today – but you could offer this particular disfigurement as proof that you were, in fact, deserving of a place where a writer should go.

My callus is long gone, since I started writing everything via keyboard. I could be anybody now. An accountant. A taxidermist. A doctor. A lawyer. A Bloomingdale salesgirl.

My hands don’t bear the badge any more. No inkstains. No hardened wedge of flesh pushed into the bone to prove that I had been pressing a pen against it.

And the Impostor Syndrome persists – I can’t tell you if the ones at the VERY top of the pyramid in my craft feel it in quite the same way, but I know I still feel the pangs of it every so often, particularly if I”m offered a compliment on something I’ve produced. I’ve put in the years, paid the dues, I’ve pracised diligently and produced (at a rough estimate) about 3 million words in print to date. But I’ve no callus. And I still turn to look behind me if somebody comes up to me in a corridor at a convention and says something nice about a book of mine or a story that they’d liked.

Can’t be me they’re talking about. Can’t be me they’re talking TO. Can’t possibly. There’s another writer behind me, smiling and nodding as they graciously accept the offered compliment. There’s got to be.

I don’t think you ever quite get over that. That some stranger has read your words, and liked them, and what’s more liked them enough to come and tell you so. It’s the best feeling in the WORLD, mind you, to hear your heart’s children being praised in your presence – but every so often many of us have to MAKE ourselves remember the ink-stained callus on our finger, the ghost that lingers like an aura around our hand. YOu never quite get over Impostor Syndrome – but you might, in time, make peace with it – and learn how to channel that gracious writer who’s always standing behind you, and smile, and offer a sincere thank you to the person who just gave your work the gift of their approval and regard.

There’s a part of every writer which NEVER believes that it’s all right to just accept the mantle of WRITER flung around our shoulders and cultivate that sense of what seems like entitlement; there is another part that lurks in us all that has never believed that life could have turned out otherwise. Sometimes it’s hard to see the road that lies between these two conflicting impulses.

But we walk it. And try to keep our balance as best we are able.

Ask a writer sometime about that writer’s callus on the third finger, the one long gone. Most of us will know it, know of it. Most of us will smile when we tell you about it, and stop believing, if only just for a moment, that you could have only meant the question for somebody a lot more exalted than we could ever be…

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  1. 1. Elias McClellan

    God, I hope to have this problem. Though for me it’ll probably be the inverse. Just call me Pontificus Maximus, Lord of All Asses.

    Excellent topic and great (if veritgo inducing) insight to a REAL writer’s pysche.

  2. 2. Pamela

    This is such a common and tragic sentiment. Not only for writers, but for many people throughout their lives — in school, at work. I will never forget a PhD candidate, straight A student at MIT that I knew, who used to always say he was “lost in the sauce.” That statement was so at odds with everything else about his life!

    I wonder if it is created, or at least exacerbated, by the excessive praise our generation of kids grew up with (and are continuing to give to our kids)… certainly there were many times when I knew I didn’t live up to the wonderful descriptions my parents, teachers, etc made of me. The same feeling runs through that, oh wow, I’m such a charlatan, if they just knew, that you describe.

    My callus, by the way, still hangs on, though it is much neglected.

  3. 3. glenda larke

    *Laughs* Oh, yes, I relate to this, Alma. I think the jaw-dropping moment for me was when someone told me there was a Wikipedia article up about me. It would NEVER ever have occurred to me to look. Just to make sure I never get too swelled-headed about it, it has a horrible photo of me lifted from somewhere or another!

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Author Information

Alma Alexander

Alma Alexander is a novelist, short story writer and anthologist whose books include High Fantasy ("Hidden Quen""Changer of Days"), historical fantasy ("Secrets of Jin Shei", "Embers of Heaven"), contemporary fantasy ("Midnight at Spanish gardens") and YA (the Worldweavers series, the Were Chronicles). She lives in the Pacific Northwest with her husband and two cats. Visit site.

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