Lyndsey Garrett takes a look at Imposter Syndrome and how it can impact our writing lives.
There’s irony in how long it’s taken me to put fingers to the keyboard and write this post about a topic that haunts many aspects of my life, but especially my writing. Whenever I write it’s always there, niggling away at the back of my mind, often in synchronisation with the inner editor (who – let’s face – it loves to make their criticisms known!) You may recognise the signs – doubts creeping in, clouding your mind and making your arms heavy until you can’t bear to lift your fingers from the keyboard or move the pen anymore.
They’ll find out you’re not a real writer.
How can you sit and pretend to be?
You don’t deserve this opportunity.
You are a fraud.
Part of Imposter Syndrome is the feeling that everyone knows more about the area in which you work than you do, whether that’s coding, research or writing. It’s the crippling doubt that everyone else is far more competent than you, that you don’t deserve to be in the position you are and that you will eventually be caught out by those around you. You feel like a lamb dressed up in wolfskin, terrified that the other wolves will discover your secret.
It doesn’t matter how many times you complete a short story, or if a poem you’ve written is published or even if you’re commissioned to write a creative non-fiction piece; those same doubts and fears persist: that you have only got to this position by luck and will be found out at any moment. In writing, we might also feel that everyone else seems to be able to create works that hardly need editing at all, while our own work needs continual revision and reworking. It could be the sense that others have read many more books and can quote from literary classics, while you confess to never having read Pride and Prejudice (I have read the zombie version, though I’m sure many would say that doesn’t exactly count). They all seem to demonstrate our own lack of skill and highlight how much of a fraud we are for even considering ourselves a writer.
Some of my own feelings of Imposter Syndrome have been rooted in the thought that I’m not well-read enough to be a writer. There are many classics of literature and genre that I haven’t read but it often seems that most of my friends or colleagues have. I’ve felt this most keenly in poetry where, until recently, I had not touched an anthology since GCSE English and felt lost amongst the analysis and descriptions of work that everyone else already seemed to know.
It’s no wonder that thoughts like this become overwhelming; instead of practicing our craft and honing those writing skills (and muscles) we procrastinate to avoid the daunting task that awaits– perfection on the first attempt. Imposter Syndrome often goes hand in hand with perfectionism. Everything HAS to be just right otherwise everyone will realise that we’re not writers. And with each hour of procrastination the more the intrusive thoughts invade.
I’m a firm advocate in that a little procrastination can be helpful; downtime is important to maintain a constructive creative output, and it has become a part of my own process. It can help clear the mind and settle it to the task that really needs doing. However, if left unchecked and allowed to take hold, procrastination becomes a destructive tool leaving you in a tailspin if I can’t reach perfection then why even bother? This is a trait that I frequently struggle with. When an idea comes to mind I want to reproduce it exactly that way on the page, but the fear of not being able to do this and for it to be judged not good enough, is paralysing.
So what can we do to support ourselves and others within the community? Both Franchetti and Rose’s talks look at ways in which we can help ourselves and help our community with managing Imposter Syndrome. We often feel alone when experiencing these fears, but the truth is that because we’re so afraid to talk openly about our concerns that we don’t realise that our neighbours are often troubled by the same doubts, the same anxieties. Discussing these concerns with our peers can help us recognise, and understand, that our own thought patterns have become unfairly negative. Being able to recognise these negative thought processes means we can challenge them when they begin, question whether the thought is a logical one or based on an assumption that we’ve internalised.
Collectively, we can also provide each other with positive and constructive feedback in workshopping. It can be challenging to present your work to others for review, inducing a lot of anxious feelings. By providing good feedback we enable each other to recognise when we have created excellent work, and to celebrate those successes, but also to have confidence to ask for guidance in areas we’re less familiar or comfortable with.
To try and combat perfectionism we need to remember that it is incredibly rare, if not unheard of, for anyone to create great work on the first draft. Everyone’s writing process is different and for some it’s in subsequent editing that their work really comes together. That’s certainly been my own experience, and this realisation is the first step in overcoming that perfectionist fear of the blank page. By acknowledging that the first draft will not be perfect, in fact it’s likely to be at the other end of the scale, relieves some of the pressure I apply to myself when starting a project. And I’ve come to enjoy that editing/redrafting process, the shaping of a story like clay at a potter’s wheel.
I’ve wanted to talk about this in a blog post for quite some time, yet could never manage to put words to the page until now. It’s hard to remember sometimes that, whatever stage we’re at in our writing lives, we’re all still learning. Whether it’s the style, form or the subject matter at hand, no one knows everything, but we often know more than we realise. And where would the fun be, if we already knew everything?
Personally, once I started talking to friends and other writers I found the writing community to be incredibly supportive. Imposter Syndrome is not something that ‘goes away’ but we can learn to manage the negative impact it has on our lives and the belief in ourselves. Perhaps in time we can all come to the realisation that, maybe, instead of being a lamb in wolf’s clothing, we’re all wolves.
Lyndsey Garrett lives in London. She took a bit of a wrong turn after school and ended up as an accountant for the next several years. As a current Creative Writing BA student at Birkbeck University she’s now working hard to remedy that! Lyndsey was a Notable Contender in the 2017 Bristol Prize. She is a member of the Secret Garden Writing Club and manages the MIROnline Blog.