Imposter syndrome is one of the most common afflictions of writers. Not new writers, but writers period. I haven’t yet met a writer who hasn’t struggled with it. Imposter syndrome is a persistent feeling that you’re not worthy of whatever success you are having or trying to have in your endeavors, and that you’re going to be found out. It can suck the energy completely out of you, and actively sabotages your actual success. Conventional wisdom goes like this: everyone has imposter syndrome. You are not alone, so keep working, keep believing in yourself, and fake it till you make it.
Some writers take “fake it till you make it” to an extreme, and they create a “persona” or a “brand” for themselves. Maybe a distinctive style of dress outwardly, or an over-the-top personality. That helps them live up to the ideal in their heads of what an author is and how an author looks and acts in public. And there’s nothing wrong with this, if it’s the best you can do. There are a couple ways that “faking it” can be problematic, though.
One is that it is simply exhausting. I’ve seen authors come home from convention or tour, shed their personas, and collapse for a week. Another is that some people will inevitably see through the act and be put off by it. Lastly, it actually gets in the way of you doing you, which is better than any brand or persona. Whenever you “fake it,” it’s a vote of no confidence in you. When you let your authentic self shine, opinions of others matter less.
I used to be a “fake it till you make it” advocate. Now I’m all about “you do you.” I believe that in the long run authenticity wins every time. Being authentic as an author at a convention or on tour may mean not actually being out and about that much, because you need time alone to recharge. Being authentic might mean wearing “boring” clothes like jeans and T-shirts or business casual because that is how you actually feel comfortable and attractive, rather than an “author uniform.” Not that an author uniform is necessarily inauthentic–I know people who have certain lucky items of clothing they pull out for appearances, but if it doesn’t match who you are deep down, you’ll never feel right.
Much of this attachment to image and persona comes from a belief in and attachment to specialness. That’s a challenge that the science fiction writer and fan community share. The community believes that some people are special–specially gifted and talented, specially important, etc–and some people aren’t. And everyone wants to be on the right side of the divide.
Since being special is about comparing yourself to others, in order to maintain a consistent belief in your specialness, you need constant confirmation and validation from others. When the supply is cut off, imposter syndrome strikes! And no writing career provides consistent praise and validation.
Check out this statement: “Believes that he or she is “special” and unique and can only be understood by, or should associate with, other special or high-status people (or institutions).”
How true does it sound to you? Do you either believe you are special or are you afraid you’re not special enough?
That sentence is actually cut and pasted from the DSM IV criteria for narcissistic personality disorder. Just because you may subscribe to it in some way doesn’t mean that you have a personality disorder, but the fact that believing it puts you at 1/9 criteria for actually having a personality disorder should be enough to give pause, to look around and see that even if you don’t believe in the statement, that the industry and fandom function as if it were true.
There are no special people.
You are not more or less special than your siblings, your elderly neighbor, the developmentally disabled guy who bags your groceries, or your bigoted uncle.
Many of us get stuck on specialness as we’re growing up. Maybe we were “smart” kids in school, getting praise from teachers for academic achievement while at the same time not quite getting emotional needs met at home. Suddenly, it seems very important to be special and smart at school, and we carry that with us into adulthood, where being special and smart is completely useless, and in fact can backfire badly.
Then, as authors, every success or setback becomes a re-evaluation of that specialness. Did my story get rejected? Oh no, I’m not special enough. Did I land an agent? Yes! I am special.
Feeling special, important, or more talented than others can be a very good feeling, but you can’t escape disappointment, failure, and occasionally being “beaten” by others, either. These are the roots of imposter syndrome, of knowing deep inside you’re not perfect and superior–because no one is–and of feeling like you’re on the verge of being “found out.”
When we no longer believe in specialness, we are free to just be and do whatever and whoever we actually are. It is no longer necessary to exhaust ourselves maintaining a persona, and mistakes and failure are just an occupational hazard of being human. If you stop looking for the “special” and “superior” qualities in yourself and others, and start appreciating basic humanity, imposter syndrome becomes irrelevant. It’s just not a thing.
Will someone, at some point, eventually read a book you wrote and declare it garbage and you a bad writer or worse? Quite possibly. But who cares? You are too busy writing your next one to bother with some random opinion.
Fake it if you want to. I’m not here to take anyone’s coping mechanism from them. But my advice is that if you suffer from imposter syndrome, whether you’re a brand new writer or a seasoned professional, take it as a sign that you need to believe in and love yourself and stop worrying about the illusion of specialness.