Impostor Syndrome, or Not
At ConFusion last week, I had a great many conversations with a great many folks on a large number of topics, but there was one topic that seemed to pop up more than usual: Impostor Syndrome.
Impostor Syndrome, briefly put, is the feeling that one’s achievements and status are a fluke, and that sooner or later one will be revealed as a fraud. Anecdotally speaking, it seems, Imposter Syndrome affects a lot of writers, editors and other folks in the publishing life. I think this is in part because the writing life is a precarious one, financially and otherwise, and also in part because people in publishing seem to be a generally neurotic lot anyway. Imposter Syndrome is just another log on that particular fire.
Imposter Syndrome is a real thing and it’s not something I’d want to make light of because I think it has harmful effects. I think it can make people cautious in the exercise of their art and their career when they could be (and want to be) taking chances, and I think it can make people vulnerable to being taken advantage of by people/organizations who intentionally or otherwise leverage those feelings for their own advantage.
It’s pernicious, basically, and it frustrates me that so many talented people who have earned their places in the field with their work battle with it. I think it’s good that people are talking about it, however. It means that they are aware that it’s a thing and that it’s a lie. Naming it and describing it and knowing of it goes a long way in fighting it.
The discussions over the weekend also made me reflect on the issue of Impostor Syndrome and me, and the fact that as far as I know I have never had it, particularly in regard to being a writer. This isn’t an accomplishment, mind you, or something to brag on. It’s just an observation; at no point in my writing career did I ever feel like I didn’t deserve to be where I was, doing what I was doing. I’ve always been, yup, this is who I am and what I do.
Which is nice for me, you know, but also prompted me to think about why it was that I felt that way. I mean, it could be the Dunning-Kruger effect, in which incompetent people don’t believe they’re incompetent. Certainly I have enough detractors who would be happy to suggest that this is exactly the case, when it comes to me. Which, okay, sure. Maybe. Why not.
But if it’s not that, and I’m pretty sure it’s not, then what explains my lack of Impostor Syndrome?
Here’s what I think.
One, I knew fairly early that I wanted to be a writer and worked toward it directly. I knew at age fourteen that I wanted to be a writer. Having decided that, I was done seriously considering any other career choice. I didn’t have a back-up or fallback plan.
It helped, I suspect, that the type of writing I wanted to do back then was journalism, which was at the time both a practical and achievable goal — there were newspapers in the 80s! And they hired people to write in them! — rather than to be a novelist or fiction writer, which was (and is) a more amorphous thing.
But basically, having decided in my early teens that I was going to be a writer, I did not doubt I would ever become a writer. So when I became a professional writer I didn’t question how I got there. I got there because I had planned it all along. That said,
Two, no one ever questioned my intent or ability to be a writer. Which is to say that, particularly in high school, no one ever pulled me aside and said to me either “hey, you know, writing is a tough gig, maybe you should plan to do something else with your life,” or “you idiot, what makes you think you can be a writer?” Not my mom, or any of my teachers, or any of my schoolmates.
Indeed, quite the opposite: At every step in the early years of my ambition I was encouraged. My mom encouraged me because among other things that’s what parents should do at that point. My teachers were more grounded about it but did the same — they gave me tips on how to write, and pushed back at me when I got lazy (which was often), and otherwise were very much like, this is what you want to do? Okay, let us help. And as far as my schoolmates were concerned, they very quickly accepted my persona as That Dude Who Wants to Be a Writer (plus I wrote stories where many of them were characters, and they were all very clever in the stories, and who doesn’t like that).
So: I knew I wanted to be a writer early on, and early on everyone I knew — really, everyone — accepted that I was going to be a writer. That early determination and reinforcement went a long way.
Three, I progressed without impediment early on. This means that I never found a problem in leveling up to doing the things that reinforced that writing was a thing I could do, was good at, and that people expected from me. When I showed up to the University of Chicago, pretty much the first thing I did after dropping my stuff in my dorm room was head to the offices of the Chicago Maroon, the student newspaper, and announce that I was going to write a column for them. And what did they do with this cheeky twerp who said this? Well, they let me write a column. And then another, and then after that I was a weekly columnist and reviewer of music, books and films.
Later I became an editor and then editor-in-chief, these things in turn opening doors to become an intern at a daily newspaper. That in turn helped me become a freelance writer for newspapers and magazines in Chicago, which (in addition to my degree from Chicago) helped me land my first full-time professional gig as a film critic for the Fresno Bee newspaper.
All of this socially reinforced the idea that I was a writer. At Chicago, most people who knew of me knew me first through my column in the newspaper. So, literally, what people knew about me, before they knew anything else, was that I was a writer. That column also gave me cachet and status (to a minor extent, let’s not overegg the pudding) because the students read it, or at least knew it existed. They might have thought it was terrible and that I was a jackass, jackassedly spouting jackassed opinions, but they knew who I was nevertheless. Later as the film critic and a columnist at the Bee, it was the same dynamic, on a larger scale.
Again: The way most people knew of me, if they knew of me at all, was as a writer.
Four, when I went upward, my reaction was not “now they’re going to find me out for sure,” it was “look what I just pulled off!” When I got that column gig at the Maroon, I was proud of the fact that I was a first-year student writing a weekly column. When I got the gig at the Fresno Bee, I was inordinately proud of the fact that, at 22, I was the youngest full-time syndicated film critic in the United States. A couple of years later, when I got a weekly opinion column, not only was I the youngest nationally-syndicated opinion columnist out there, I had achieved my actual life goal — Hey! I’m newspaper columnist! Like Mike Royko or Molly Ivins! — before the age of 25.
The fact that I was objectively not a very good newspaper columnist at age 24 was immaterial to this feeling (I was just good enough, barely, and had a lot of slack cut for me, although unsurprisingly it wasn’t until later that I realized that fact). The point was my ego was and always had been turned to “this is good for me!” as opposed to “this is where they find out I’m unqualified.”
This can be a dangerous thing — remember that Dunning-Kruger thing? Well, my attitude is pretty much exactly how that happens — but I was also fortunate at every step of the way to be surrounded by people (editors, other writers, friends, etc) who helped to rein me in and also pointed out when I was being a jerk, or oblivious to the point of being an ass.
I even listened to them, from time to time. I remember at one point blathering on to my non-fiction agent about something and mentioning my age at the time as a qualifying feature, and he said, offhandedly, “You know, 28 is kind of old to be a prodigy at anything.” Which I’m sure he meant as a throwaway point, but which I took very seriously. It meant that I had stop being proud of stepping stone achievements, and start investing more in the quality of the work at hand.
Like I said, offhand comment, but it mattered, and I’m glad that at the time my ego was not so enormous that I couldn’t listen.
Speaking of which:
Five, when things hit a wall, I re-invested in being a writer. My ego in my 20s, particularly with regard to being seen as a writer, was huge, in part because it had never been challenged. Turns out it’s easy to cruise along in a wafty cloud of clueless self-regard when everything’s pretty much gone your way. What’s interesting is what happens when it doesn’t — as happened to me, in 1998, when I was laid off from America Online, where I was then working as a writer and editor.
I’ve written about this before, but the short version was that being laid off hit me like the proverbial ton of bricks. All my self-regard and ego did not save me from having my job cut out from under me for reasons that didn’t have much to do with me (the group I was in was dissolving; I as the in-house writer/editor was a company-wide resource; no one wants to put a company-wide resource on their departmental budget). I was not so special that I was not expendable. Yeah, that hurt.
More importantly, it made me question a lot of things that I had previously just assumed, including centering my image of who I was on my job, and the fact I was a writer. When it was all over, I reordered my self image a bit. I was a writer, yes. It was what I wanted to do with my work life and I was going to find a way to make that happen. But I was also not just my job anymore — or more accurately, the amount of my ego that was invested in “John Scalzi, writer” became less; it got refocused into being a person and husband and (soon-to-be) father. I was comfortable enough about what I did as my job that I didn’t have to let it define me to the extent I let it before. I could have the confidence to let it go a bit.
The conscious re-investment in being a writer, and re-evaluation of what being a writer meant to me, mattered. I can’t speak to anyone else, but for me, as drivelingly cliche as this is to say now, this crisis did become an opportunity, and (this must be noted) with the help of my wife particularly, and with the help of friends, I was able to take that advantage of that opportunity.
Much of what my life is now is because of that. This is why I often say now that being laid off turned out to be one of the best things that ever happened to me.
As a result of this:
Six, my view of myself of a writer is now not focused on whether other people consider me so. It’s not a coincidence that I started writing a blog soon after I was laid off from AOL; it’s not a coincidence that the first novel I wrote I decided to post here, rather than try to sell to someone else. To be clear, I like selling work and I like being financially successful as a writer — doing both gives me freedom to make more (and usually better) choices in terms of my career. Nor am I disingenuous enough to suggest that at this point in my career, the awards and contracts and so on aren’t useful signifiers.
But ultimately, I’ve done enough and I know myself well enough that if I never sold another piece of work to anyone, it wouldn’t matter in terms of my self-image as a writer. That is what I do. I have millions of words to speak to that point, but more importantly, I have self-awareness of who I am and of what writing has meant to me.
Now, it may be that some other people might then want to deny that I’m a writer, for whatever reason that they would need to do that. But you know what? That’s their karma and I wish them joy with that. I’m not obliged to care what they think. I don’t need anyone else’s approval or approbation to know what I know about myself. I’m a writer.
So there’s that.
(And having said aaaaall of that, let’s note a couple other things. Like: Hey, did you know I’m a straight white male who benefited from a really elite education? That helped — for example, when I forgot to apply for newspaper internships and a friend of mine called his dad, who called his pal the publisher of the San Diego Tribune, and a couple of steps later, whoa, look, an internship! Also, I happened to be in my 20s at the same time the first Internet Bubble was puffing up, which was great for finding gigs and building a resume. Also also, with respect to novels and fiction, I had been a professional writer for fifteen years before my first novel was published, so I had a decade and a half (not to mention several non-fiction books published prior to Old Man’s War) to get used to the idea that writing was a thing I could do. Also also also, I appear to be generally less neurotic than most writers, or at least, neurotic in somewhat different directions. And so on. It all helped, and helps.)
I think it’s important to note something at this point: These are reasons why I believe I’ve never had Imposter Syndrome. But at the end of the day, the main reason I would say to writers that they shouldn’t ever have to feel like they are impostors is that if you write, you are a writer, and it really is that simple. Whether you sell a book to a publisher is immaterial to this fact; likewise whether you become a bestseller, or award winner or if you write a book that people are still talking about two hundred years from now.
Here’s the question: Do you write? If the answer is yes, you’re a writer. Believe it.
And if anyone gives you shit about it, including yourself, come back over here and read this following graph:
Hey, that person? They’re wrong. If you write, you’re a writer. Done.
Now get back out there and write some more.