Pretty much every writer I know has had or continues to suffer from the infamous “impostor syndrome.” Authors, academics, bloggers, etc. If they do some kind of writing, they’ve likely had a moment of pure doubt about their abilities, their place in the “field,” their right to success, and so on. Part of what makes it such a pernicious “bug” is the way it can crush your ability to produce anything. Some people give up. Others feel like anything they do isn’t worthwhile. Still others constantly doubt their abilities at every turn, no matter how minor. I’d guess that a lot of “writer’s block” are just forms of impostor syndrome.
Impostor syndrome also has a disturbing best friend: the cruel complaint lobbed at successful writers who dare talk about their struggles. This doesn’t happen nearly as often as my memory suggests. That’s probably because my social circles have changed in the past decade. Regardless, even successful writers can feel like their work isn’t worthwhile, especially when they step into new creative waters. Telling someone that they can’t complain because they are successful is almost like telling someone they’re not allowed to have feelings — and if they do, they’re a selfish ass. Rather than assuming success equates to confidence in the self, we should search for solidarity on things that affect almost all of us.1
The good news: most of us aren’t the impostors we think we are.
Pretty much all of us have a right to write, whether it’s a review, a story, a comic, or whatever. There’s no barrier to entry for being a writer, even if there are barriers for getting published. And if being published isn’t a “cure” for impostor syndrome, not being published (or popular) is a poor measure for knowing whether your work is worthwhile. After all, there are only so many publishers, so many agents, so many eyeballs on the Internet, etc. People slip through the cracks all the time. It’s not a judgement on the individual. It’s just the way things work.2 But if you’re doing something creative, you’re just as much part of this whole thing as anyone else.
For me, the issue of impostor syndrome most comes into play within academia. My work primarily focuses on non-U.S. literature from postcolonial nations. As a white man from the United States, I often have this sense of being an outsider. This isn’t from any act performed by someone for whom Caribbean or Indian literature (etc.) might be particularly personal. Rather, I get the sense of being an outsider because of my broader concern with the imperial system and the ways it influences how we think and talk about the (post)colonial world. Am I able to completely remove myself from those systems? If so, does that grant me the right to enter a space that is not my own simply out of academic interest? Can academic interest exist outside of the oppressive history of the academy? Can I truly understand the conditions of empire or the postcolony from the perspective of the oppressed?
I still don’t have answers to most of these questions. Or, to be more accurate, I have answers that I find unsatisfactory. And maybe I never will have the answers I want. Which leads me to…
The bad news: there isn’t a magic “fix” button.
Maybe this is just part of what writers go through, or perhaps there’s a certain personality type that leans towards writing. Whatever the reason for this being so common, there’s really nothing we can do to correct it except hard work on ourselves — me included. It sucks3, but realizing that this isn’t necessarily your fault or unique could be a way to help you get yourself out of the hole. I know that sometimes hearing my tenure-track professors express solidarity with my own plight has helped me from completely crashing into Quitsville. It didn’t fix everything, but knowing that people further along in their careers continue to struggle with the same things a PhD student does is actually comforting.
But I take solace in the idea that I’m not alone. A lot of us go through this. Talking about it is OK. Just listen to Michelle Obama (and pretend she’s talking about writers, not just men):4
@MichelleObama: “Are we protecting our men too much, so that they feel a little entitled, a little self-righteous?” https://t.co/EyAaCJP5AW
- I would also argue that there is a point at which impostor syndrome can become emotionally manipulative to others, but that’s for another post.
- Yes, sometimes “the way things work” sucks.
- Again with the sucking…
- Yes, the video is really about men, but it’s a good sentiment for everyone: we should talk about our stuff, and allow others to talk about it.