Most of you have probably heard of Impostor Syndrome, a condition described in the linked article as “a feeling of incompetence and a belief that success is achieved by fooling others.” Many of you probably suffer from it. I know I do. What’s interesting is how many apparently successful people (up to 70%) admit to it, particularly women and minorities in professions where they are underrepresented, such as women in the sciences. Since I’m both a woman and minority, in a profession with very few Asian women novelists, I think I got a double whammy of it.
Novelists suffer from an additional dimension of impostor syndrome, because we belong in the realm of “public figures.” Our success depends on consumers buying our brand, and part of that brand is our image. The public wants to believe that the romance novelist is actually romantic, that the thriller writer is dashing and daring, and the hard-boiled noir writer is — well, a gloomy alcoholic. In truth, we may be none of those things but we do our best to play the part. Some of us even manage to convince ourselves that, yes, by god, we are dashing, daring gunslingers in black leather.
But most of us know we’re just striking that pose for the book jacket.
When you step out of that role and reveal your true, perfectly human personality, it can be disconcerting to the public. They don’t want to know that you’re a quivering creature of self-doubt. Destroy the illusion of “successful author”, and the public will smell blood and sprout fangs. And what, exactly, is the illusion? That you are utterly confident, fearless, and in control. That you dress stylishly and drink only the best champagne. That nothing — bad reviews, hate mail, plunging sales — can rattle you. That you’re invulnerable to brickbats. You’re perfect.
In short, that you’re James Bond, a cartoon hero who exists only in the pages of a thriller novel.
Maintaining that illusion is exhausting. I’ve tried, but I just can’t keep it up. There comes a time when you just have to let the mask slip, and reveal that the illusion never really existed. That the tough-girl author on the book jacket is just a hoax. Here, I’m sorry to say, is the truth:
THE ILLUSION: A writer is confident. THE TRUTH: Are you kidding? I am the original quivering creature of self-doubt. I know I’m here only because of luck, timing, and massive re-writes.
THE ILLUSION: A writer is in control. THE TRUTH: Right. That explains why I inhaled that platter of french fries last night.
THE ILLUSION: A writer dresses stylishly… THE TRUTH: Well, I think L.L. Bean is stylish.
THE ILLUSION: … and drinks only the best champagne. THE TRUTH: Are you buying?
THE ILLUSION: A writer is fearless. THE TRUTH: Guns terrify me. Heights terrify me. And you know what terrifies me most of all? Book reviewers.
THE ILLUSION: A writer is invulnerable to brickbats. THE TRUTH: I don’t know anyone, writer or otherwise, who likes hearing that they’re a failure. Writers must endure it on a very public level, the equivalent of having your employer broadcast your lousy performance review to the whole world. Over time, you learn to deal with it, but it’s never pleasant. And sometimes, it really, really hurts.
THE ILLUSION: A writer is an expert on the obscure subject he’s writing about. THE TRUTH: No, we make a lot of it up. That’s why we call it fiction.
THE ILLUSION: A writer is perfect.
THE TRUTH: Yes, I am. Perfectly human. Beset by all the doubts and angst and worries that every other person on this planet endures during a lifetime. I’m not going to apologize for it. A writer is not an “image” or a brand or a slick mannequin in black leather. A writer is just someone who has the rather bizarre profession of entertaining people with the written word. Other workers produce toothpaste or rocking chairs or lawsuits. We produce stories. That’s our widget. And all the rest of it — the glamorous photos, the black leather, the breathlessly hyped press releases?
Too often, just an illusion.
Of course writers feel like imposters; they make things up for a living. Frank Abegnale has nothing on a writer in the "passing oneself off as an expert" category.
All kidding aside, I think all of us are too eager to grant an aura of invincibility to many public figures or "experts." With writers it’s harmless, except possible for the writer who’s afraid of being "found out." In other areas it can be dangerous. We expect political leaders to know what they’re talking about, or voting on. Often they don’t, basing their votes on selfish political goals.
We expect doctors to be all powerful and feel there had to be negligence or malfeasance when something goes wrong. Medical science still has a lot of art in it; there are few sure things. Open heart surgery is performesuccessfully every day; that doesn’t mean you might not die and it’s no one’s fault.
Engineers. Pilots. Generals. Everyone has a bit of the imposter in them because no one can know everything they need to. The unforeseen will always plague us, sometimes more dangerously just when we think someone has it all figured out.
Oh, man, Tess, you’ve hit the nail on the head with this one! I have felt and feel all these things, and I’m not even a minority or a woman. The illusion: I’m sitting in some book-lined personal library listening to classical music and working on my new novel for which I will have to rewrite nothing…the truth: I’m sitting at my mess kitchen table, just enough space cleared for my laptop, working – once again! – on revisions of the novel I "finished" in the spring. Ah, the glamor of it all!
We writers are like the vampires in Charlaine Harris’s Sookie Stackhouse books – we must glamor our audience.
Tess, I love how you get to the heart of the matter. There is a perception that we are our characters. I remember the first time I read a book, then looked at the author photo and said, No, there’s no way that person wrote this book. She was much, much to sweet looking. But that’s the trick, isn’t it? Glamor them with the words and the rest goes away. I just wish we could glamor ourselves, too : )
Tess – I love your brutal, vulnerable honesty. I think the perception that most people have is that if you have a book in bookstores it means you’re rich and famous. All the problems have vanished and you’re living your dream. I feel like I’m dashing the dreams of others when I tell them I’m a long way from it. Or, people are shocked that I have a day job – the perception being that if I were a better writer I’d be able to write full-time. And my book isn’t even out yet! My strengths as a writer? Being nervous, anxious, passive-aggressive, compulsive, manic-depressive. If I ever have to write a character like that, I know where to mine for research.
You voiced everything I’ve been feeling for a mighy long time. Thanks for your honesty, and your humour. A really, truly great post
I wonder if there is a profession of creative people who don’t sometimes feel like impostors. An actor, whose job is to portray other people on stage or film, also finds that one of the job duties is to portray something similar to that image while off. The job of the novelist is romanticized in ways that you’ve already covered; I’m guessing the same goes for painters and visual artists who have to portray a particular role during showings, with or without the beret.
And there’s nothing wrong with LL Bean! =)
I’m just glad that we’re not sports figures, with every "at bat" or attempted pass criticized. Imagine a running commentary on each of our sentences as we wrote them!
Congratulations again Tess, on your "38D" status. I had a great time recognizing the answer to that crossword puzzle clue.
seriously, thank you, Tess! I’m not even published yet and already worrying about passing out from anxiety at book signings and not being what people expect from my writing. Glad to know this is normal!
I really enjoy your posts – especially this one. I think writers are making the effort of becoming closer to their readers – in this digital age it’s a little difficult not to. Sooner or later, all our flaws are going to show. Pay no attention to the writer behind the curtain.
Great post. Any writer who says they don’t suffer from some or all of these symptoms is very probably lying through their teeth … ;-]
"Some of us even manage to convince ourselves that, yes, by god, we are dashing, daring gunslingers in black leather."
Can’t I be a dashing, daring gunslinger in BROWN leather?
And how can anyone not like LL Bean when they have a 9ft tall stuffed moose in the lobby of the store?
Tess, you described me perfectly. I AM James Bond.
Not me. I have an ego so big it has its own zip code. I never feel doubt or uncertainty.
Now, I have this amazing bridge to sell you, cheap!
amusingly enough, men don’t seem to suffer from "Impostor syndrome" nearly as often as women do. Men are instead more likely to suffer from delusions of grandeur!
Tess, it’s because we learn from childhood that showing uncertainty or fear is a good way to get your ass kicked.
Wow, I thought you were talking about me. I thought all my angst would go away once I finally landed an agent. It didn’t. And I keep waiting for someone to point at me and reveal the truth. Thank you for giving voice to my inner doubt. Naming it may help me tame it!
Another fantastic post, Tess! Thank you!
I subscribe to the Indiana Jones theory of project management, life management, and just about everything else:
I’d don’t know. I’m making this up as I go.
What fun would it be if it all fell into place?
This would have been powerful coming from any writer. Coming from you? Words are inadequate. Gratitude will have to suffice.
As a psychotherapist and author it was heart warming for someone of your talent and notoriety to give it to us straight.
If only more would-be writers stuck inside the illusion would carefully read you words, and take them in.
Have a nice day.