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.