How to Battle Impostor Syndrome: Owning Your Writing as Art

How to Battle Impostor Syndrome: Owning Your Writing as Art

Recently, while visiting family, I contracted a bad case of suburban ennui.

I was desperate to connect with people who care about what I care most about: Reading and writing literary work. So I set off to meet two online writer friends I admired and enjoyed; they were doing a joint reading from their new novels.

But when the time came to meet them afterward, the whole thing went pear-shaped. Alex and I had nothing much to talk about, although I had copyedited his book. When Garth asked me what I did, I mumbled about being an editor and writer, but you know, mostly an editor, but I want to do more writing…

He peered at me politely with his arms folded across his chest.

Days later, it hit me: That afternoon, I’d been a walking, talking example of impostor syndrome.

It’s true, gender plays a large role in impostor syndrome. But for me, another critical factor is in play.

Call it the divided professional self.

As a freelancer in a tough market, I’ve got to diversify. I mix copyediting, content editing, copywriting, and branded content with book reviews, profiles, and other pieces. And then there’s my personal creative work, for which I earn little despite its central role in my life.

Sometimes that identity feels lost among so many professional selves. Yet it feels increasingly important, as I experience small hits of success, to connect more with writers in the literary community — to be known and accepted as part of the tribe.

After my dreary meeting with Alex and Garth, I knew I needed an intervention. How could I nurture my identity as a creative writer, and keep that identity strong enough to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with my other professional identities as editor, content writer, chief cook and bottle washer?

I put together a combination approach: Some internal reordering and thoughtful attention to making purposeful connections.

Show up for yourself

Humility is good. It opens you up. But self-negation completely shuts you down.

When you show up at the desk or you interact with writers, resist the reflex to belittle your ability and accomplishments. The hidden agenda of self-scorn gets in the way of the work you want to write and the connections you want to make.

Hear and accept praise and validation

When someone says they like your story, your poem, or your novel chapter, hear them out. Open your ears. Let those words in, and don’t shake them off. Maybe even write them down and keep them somewhere handy.

When I’ve received good feedback on my work, I’ve sometimes refused to take it in and integrate those comments with my idea of myself. I’m working to break my reflex habit of undervaluing these compliments.

Get a check-in buddy or two

Last fall, a friend and I started checking in each evening by e-mail to share what we’d done that day. Maybe she’s written three pages on her theater piece and I wrote 750 words for my essay-memoir.

We’ve found it motivating, satisfying and centering to have that moment in the day when we touch base. We often share a favorite line or two from what we’ve written, too.

It’s fun to get glimpses of her work-in-progress and receive a little thumbs-up for a new passage I’m excited about.

Work on your creative projects as often as you can

Even if it’s only for an hour or two.

You have to pay the bills with less-exciting projects, but your creative work still needs to matter above other things.

First, because regularly producing work is what will, more than anything else, make the change you need and want. Second, making art is a habit. The foremost antidote to impostor syndrome is committing to regularly producing work.

When I’m not writing creatively, I soon feel impostor syndrome start to take over. But doing the work and owning myself as an artist make me feel good — always more than I expect.

If you’re feeling stuck or discouraged, try meeting up with writer friends for a joint session. I’ve started doing this with two friends by Skype (no one has to get out of those scruffy PJs or sweats) and been astonished by the energy, inspiration, confidence boost, the sheer results.

Be generous to your creative self

Consider finding a full day here and there where you can devote yourself to playing with ideas, experimenting, reading, or just dreaming. Your art and ideas deserve time and space to unfurl, but just as important, you’ll be making a statement to yourself that your creative work deserves investment.

If your usual workspace doesn’t feel right for this, check out a new cafe or a coworking space, where you’ll have the added benefit of the sharing energy and encouragement of others. My city has lots of these places, and I’m setting aside at least a couple of days a month to spend at a favorite one I’ve found that’s affordable — and includes snacks!

Create community, both online and local

We all know writing is a lonely gig, especially the dream-driven work few people out there are demanding of us (I just sent a 10,000 word essay off into the ether, after working on it for several months).

Online writing communities are flourishing and for most of us, critical — but local support is still important.

If the local scene in your area is underwhelming, consider giving it a nudge: An open-mic night, a reading by members of your writing group. My city, Berlin, is home to a lot of creatives and a strong literary scene, but naturally English-language and bilingual events are relatively few. I’ve started organizing writers’ drinks evenings by finding local English-language writers on social media and inviting them out for a meetup, and some of us are exploring ways to start a reading series.

Be vulnerable

However you find community, it’s important to reveal yourself, to make yourself vulnerable by publicly owning your creative work. Protecting yourself from embarrassment is not worth the sacrifice of connection, as I learned from my disastrous encounter.

Sure, I’ve gotten to be online friends with writers I admire, but I haven’t always made it known that I’m pursuing similar work.

I’ve decided I may need to rehearse meeting writers I admire as if I were preparing for a job interview. Otherwise, when interacting with those who are notably more accomplished, I start to blanch and feel like an impostor, a wannabe.

But a bit of simple anticipation would’ve gone a long way. For example, it’s natural for almost anyone you meet to ask you what you do, and I could’ve easily seen the question coming.  

I have a way to go with these resolutions, but I’m practicing: I’m a freaking artist, fiction writer, and essayist. Maybe I can come up with my own, saltier description to share with people, something like Caitlin Moran’s self-description on Twitter: “Writing the f–k out of s—t.”

Whatever works.

How do you deal with impostor syndrome?

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17 comments

  • Excellent ideas on addressing imposter syndrome. It is so true. We have to show up for ourselves and see our value clearly, because if we don’t, no one else will.

    I’m running a webinar tonight on finding mentors, and imposter syndrome comes up in this for the same reasons. How can we ask someone to mentor us if we aren’t sure who we are and what we want.

    Sharing this now!

    • Marian says:

      By the way, I was a Webinar attendee! It was helpful in kicking off thoughts about different kinds of mentorship needs a writer can have and how to try to meet them. Thanks!

  • Robert says:

    As a freelancer, it’s important to be open to a multitude of different ideas. Look inside yourself to find your “why” and gain the inner strength to build up your business.

  • Kensy says:

    Well, I also have experienced this conflict of interest within myself. Still, I am not sure whether I have come out of it. But one thing is for sure, being a freelance writer is not easy. You have to toil hard in multiple directions to reach your target

  • Robyn says:

    I had a similar experience a few months ago… I had been instrumental in the revision and promotion of three books for this one author; when she found herself driving through a city near where I live, we decided to meet for lunch. She brought her business partner, who dropped the dreaded question about my own writing projects. Once this man realized I had not yet published a book he labeled me as more of a secretarial/support person, not a fellow “writer,” and left the table.
    What I learned that day was that when someone asks what I’m working on, I don’t need to answer with what freelance work I might be doing–nor do I need to spill all the details of my precious WIP. A simple mention of the genre or subject matter of my current artistic endeavor is probably enough to satisfy. You’re right, I didn’t realize that “lunch” was actually an interview for inclusion into their club–and there is a difference between being humble and “hiding.”
    Thanks for the tips; I realize now that I need to “be more generous to my creative self.”

    • Marian says:

      Ugh! Such experiences are all too common, I think, and it’s important to guard against them, and anticipate these kinds of situations and how to respond. Hiding is so easy! At least for me. Humility has value but hiding doesn’t!

  • Marian, great article! Your experience reminds me of some of my own.

    I have found it important to connect with people who affirm my identity as a creative business owner. Just as importantly, I have had to cut back on contact with people who undermine that identity. It’s sad when that need interferes with interactions with family or long-time friends, but I’ve found it to be a necessity.

    I also find it necessary to “talk to myself” about my business and about the creative endeavors within it. I even created a set of journal prompts for reflecting on “the identity of a writer” and found them so helpful I chose to sell them on my Etsy shop. After I do my taxes, I will probably write an annual report for my business. It’s just for me, looking back on the business’ last year both financially and creatively, then looking ahead to future goals and strategies.

    I wish you a good year! Remember, you are NOT an impostor. You are the real thing.

    Trish O’Connor
    Epiclesis Consulting LLC
    Freelance Editorial Services and Writers’ Resources
    http://www.epiclesisconsulting.com
    http://www.epiclesisconsulting.etsy.com

  • At a time when I was transitioning out of screenwriting into novel writing, I struggled. I wasn’t actively working on a project, so I didn’t feel I could call myself a writer, and didn’t feel worthy enough to join the local writer’s group. I waited until I had completed a draft of a large work before joining. Then discovered there was plenty of support I could have capitalized on had I viewed myself differently.

    But I have encountered many snobs who felt that if you weren’t reading and writing their band of prose, you were not worth the time.

  • Nurturing your identity as a creative writer. Beautifully said. I don’t think this receives nearly enough attention in writing books, workshops, Top10 lists, etc. The fact of the matter is that owning up to your art -powering through all those morale blockers standing in the way of finishing – is often the only thing that stands in the way of realizing the dream you had when you began writing in the first place. I’d certainly love to see a lot more on this topic. Thank you for sharing.

  • I can completely relate to this. In fact, I have even said, “I feel like a fraud.” My website and email both include the word “author,” even though I’m not published yet. I set it up that way because I intend to be an author so I’m marketing myself as one. I work toward that goal full time. I am writing and studying the craft and marketing every day, all day. Yet, I feel like and imposter.

    Jeff Goins wrote in his book, “You’re a Writer (So Start Acting Like One),” to claim the title. He says to write the words, “I am a writer,” every day for the rest of your life until you believe it. I’m still working on that, but I’m getting there.

    • Ditto. I was in this exact same boat. I started thinking more actively and objectively, and not letting myself judge my work, or my lack of published creds. It took a while, but then one day – it just clicked. Important thing to note is that despite how simple it is to say “I’m a writer” it really does take work and discipline to reach the point where A) you believe it and B) it doesn’t really matter what anyone else thinks. Being a writer just doesn’t require external validation.

  • Tom Bentley says:

    Marian, I’m with you: I’m a business copywriter/content marketer, as well as a book editor, as well as an essayist. (Maybe you’re my long-lost sister.) But I’m a novelist/short story writer as well, though I have little to show for that. I get some validation (because I’m paid) for the other ventures, but the fiction writing is paramount for me; however, because I don’t have much to show for it, I feel the impostor syndrome there.

    You give some good tips on working through that—thank you! And best of luck on a (wow!) 10,000-word essay. Keep writing the holy eff out of sh*t.

    • Marian says:

      Thanks, Tom! You too! I’m glad you found the piece helpful. I sort of wrote it to cheer myself up – it’s working pretty well so far. All good wishes for your fiction!

  • Tara says:

    Hi Marian, Wow, the right words at the right time for me. Thanks! I’m trying to edge my way out of this phase right now. I’ve just come off a bit of a writer’s high from my first convention a few weeks ago. The energy I felt in my sessions was so empowering I nearly cried. For so long I’ve put off being a writer, my life-long passion, to do other things, mainly a result of giving it (or myself?) little prospects or value, somehow giving in to childish dreams. I finally decided to give up on the notion of “successful” and, as an author at this convention said, “write the thing that needs writing, publishing be damned.” I’ve scheduled out the times/days I can put a couple of hours in, shared these plans with my husband, started telling my young daughters “I’m going to the cafe to work on my book.” Saying it with confidence to people who believe me (ha ha) has such power! I am giddy. I’m also in the planning phases of starting my own writer’s group. I live in Bern (Switzerland) and my German is enough to get me a coffee at that cafe, 😉 so I’ve not been able to find a group already established. I twisted the arm of another writer I know to meet once a month to keep the fires burning. It’s this sense of community I’m beginning to feel along with letting go of feeling “less than” that has really gotten me moving. You’re so right, too, when you say that writing keeps the “impostor syndrome” at bay. If I take two consecutive days to work on other projects, my blog, or a blog I edit, for example, then my creative work feels intimidating, like I’m fooling myself. I’m printing out and pinning your article to my board for inspiration! Thanks so much, again!

  • Sandy says:

    I love the timing of this article! After being harassed and nagged to find a real job, it was only after I divulged my earnings and how they compared to my previous jobs that my “support” structure finally backed off. In my community, passion and work very rarely mix, especially if it’s a creative passion. After finally convincing my family that this is a real job, I found myself sitting in a coffee shop one day looking at the professionals coming in for a quick takeaway coffee. I admired the fact that they had a “real” job. It was then that I realized that the biggest bully in my life was me.

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