Why I Don't Think You're an Impostor

I don’t believe I’ve ever gone through impostor syndrome.

I’m not saying I never doubt my work, because I doubt my work on a regular basis—but I don’t think I’m a fraud, and I’m not worried you’ll figure that out some day. I’m actually quite confident of my talent and my abilities; what gets inside my head is the fear that I’m not writing up to my potential, that I could do much better than this (well, not this; I’m feeling pretty good about this newsletter), and I’m settling for less out of… I don’t know, exhaustion, or laziness, or cowardice, or something.

But then I turn the essay in, and the feedback is encouraging, and, well, I trust my editors and my readers know what they’re talking about, and that if I did suck, they’d let me know. So, over time, I’ve gotten better at pushing that doubt away and choosing to believe that I’m handing in good work—especially in those cases where I’m working with an editor who will push me to fix the parts that aren’t as effective as they can be, and I don’t necessarily need to be perfect at the start.

This is going to feel like a digression, but bear with me: When I was twenty-eight, I was hired by Amazon to serve as a “nonfiction editor,” which—albeit with a great deal of editorial license—boiled down to writing and editing marketing copy for the details pages of fifty to sixty books a month, covering a range of topics from politics and current events to philosophy and gay/lesbian studies. And, though with two decades of hindsight I’d approach the editing side of the job differently now, I got to be pretty good at the writing side.

Gradually, though, I came to feel that, while this was a fantastic opportunity, the task of book reviewing was not an inherently remarkable one. I was very good at it, yes, but it’s something that any number of people could be just as good at, if not better. The difference was that I had chosen to spend my teens reading everything I could get my hands on, then spent my twenties developing my critical skills as an undergraduate, a grad student, and a freelance reviewer—while continuing to read as widely and as deeply as the time available to me allowed.

To be clear, I never doubted that I was good at what I did; I just didn’t think I was special. A few years ago, I gave some thought to this, spurred in part by Daniel Mendelsohn’s assertion that “criticism is a genre that one has to have a knack for,” one for which, he believes, “very few people are suited.” This is how I reacted:

“…I don’t think it’s a question of being ‘suited’ for the field. I find myself coming closer to the belief that we all have the potential to be critics, just as we all have the potential to be novelists or poets, or to take up some other creative form. We don’t have the qualities that make us good in those fields; we cultivate them, because we choose to cultivate them, in many cases because we are fortunate enough to live in circumstances that afford us the opportunity to make that choice and keep making it.”

I still believe that holds true not just for literary criticism, but for any other form of creative writing (or any other artistic pursuit, for that matter). I’ve put in enough time and effort—the 10,000 hours, as Malcolm Gladwell might put it—to develop a fair amount of writing skills, but I know I’m far from the best, and I’m okay with that.

In fact, at a certain point, I stopped worrying about being “the best” in comparison to any other writers out there. Now I just worry about being “the best I can be.” That’s an ongoing project with no end in sight—and, as long as what I write continues to reflect my deepest concerns, how can I be an impostor?

I started thinking about impostor syndrome because the science fiction writer John Scalzi resurfaced his own essay on the topic last week, and though we’re not coming from exactly the same place, I can see his house from my porch, so to speak.

But then the video essayist Lindsay Ellis responded on Twitter, examining some ways in which John’s response missed the point. The model of impostor syndrome she presents isn’t just about feeling like a fraud; it can also include feeling like you’re not good enough—a feeling that can be exacerbated by trying to write in the face of unrelenting criticism. If people tell you often enough that your work isn’t good enough, you might just start to believe it. And if you’ve never had to deal with that, Ellis says, you don’t know how to deal with it.

“Dismissing negative thoughts isn’t helpful for the people who have them,” she explains. “It is a form of invalidating emotions, and the root of these negative thoughts isn’t logic, but self-image.”

I guess that sounds like it’s at odds with my own belief that I’ve never dealt with impostor syndrome, and in fact Ellis goes on to describe a mental process that seems similar to what I told you about my recurring doubts:

“Every time I hit a milestone, I don't feel secure in it--I’ve already moved the goal post before I even realize I’ve succeeded at [Thing]. But the goal post has been moved, therefore the thing is not a success.”

That’s not exactly how I feel, though—by the time I hit the milestone, my insecurities have usually been addressed, mostly because I don’t move my internal goal posts. I think something’s not quite right; my editor tells me it works; I choose to believe my editor, and then I move on to the next thing, which I might even feel good about, buoyed by the success of the previous thing. (Although I might also still feel that I can do better.)

If I’m allowed to reuse a metaphor, I can see her house from my porch, too, and I think she offers a truly valuable distinction between perfectionism, which can be used “to create better, more thoughtful work,” and catastrophizing, or allowing negative thoughts to put you into a tailspin.

You might recognize your own writing experience at one pole or the other, or fluctuating wildly between both.

All of which is to say: I haven’t been through impostor syndrome, not as I understand it, but I know many of you have been through it, may even be going through it right now—and while I can tell you what’s worked for the problems I have faced in my writing practice, which usually boils down to “writing my way through them,” I know that’s not necessarily a satisfying answer. If so, I hope there’s something in the longer version, the one you’ve just read, that’s more helpful. If not, I hope you’ll keep looking for a better answer, and that you’ll keep trying to write about your own deepest concerns while you do.