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How to Battle Impostor Syndrome: Owning Your Writing as Art

by | Apr 6, 2016

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?