The Limits of My Knowledge, Professionally (and Otherwise)
Someone asked me about “impostor syndrome” today on Twitter, so I linked over to the piece I wrote about it a couple of years back. Not surprisingly, this being Twitter, some folks had criticisms of the piece; one of the most cogent came from Lindsay Ellis, who essayed it in a multitweet thread which begins here, and which I encourage everyone to read. Among other criticisms, Lindsay says the following:
Scalzi talking about why he thinks he’s never suffered from Impostor Syndrome is a separate issue from people overcoming their own. I’m sure he gets the question “how do I overcome impostor syndrome?” a lot – but here is the thing; if he’s never had it, he doesn’t know.
This is, in fact, entirely accurate. I can say that I believe people shouldn’t have it, because (in the case of writers) if you write, you’re a writer, and that’s a thing in itself. Hopefully that’s encouraging to some people. But as Lindsay and others noted, me saying that doesn’t actually essay the issue for lots of folks, or even come close to addressing the root issues of impostor syndrome for many people. It’s not something I’ve ever experienced, and the closest I’ve come to experiencing it manifested itself in a different way: not “They’re all going to figure out that I’m fraud” but rather “Look at me I’m totally getting away with this,” and even that in a mostly transitory way.
I don’t feel bad about this. I’m not going to pretend I’ve felt something that I haven’t, and by and large I’m pretty happy not have experienced impostor syndrome. It doesn’t seem like a good time, although Lindsay notes that one can harness it for one’s benefit. But inasmuch as I’ve not experienced it, I’m probably not the right person to give advice on how to avoid it, or how to deal with it when it happens to you. The best I can do is to explain why it’s never happened to me, which mostly boils down to privilege, encouragement and ego (the last of which substantially helped by the first two). These things are what allowed me, when confronted with naysayers, to say “Oh, yeah? Watch this,” rather than to wonder whether they were right.
The conversation on impostor syndrome also dovetails for me into a larger thought I’ve been having, about the overall usefulness of writing/publishing advice I might give people, particularly newer writers. I’ve been writing professionally for almost 30 years; I’ve been a published novelist for almost fifteen. There are certain things I feel comfortable talking about these days with regard to writing composition (I can tell you how to craft reasonably good sentences, paragraphs, chapters and stories), and I can give you a reasonable birds-eye view of the publishing world, because I’m high up enough in it that I see a whole lot of what’s going on, including the things that most people don’t see. And, I’m good about talking about all the fun ancillary things that could happen when a book takes off, like TV/movie deals and other such projects. There are things I know about all of these, and it’s contemporary information.
But — when I started off as a professional writer, newspapers were still a thing, and they were hiring journalists, not laying them off by the score. The Internet existed mostly as a communication system between universities and defense department outposts. When I got my start as a novelist, eBooks were barely a thing at all, and not even covered in contracts; audiobooks were mostly an afterthought. Amazon was still mostly about books. These days, my business is novels — I don’t do a whole lot of other writing for money because, bluntly, Tor pays me a shitload of money to keep my focus on books. Oh, and, also, I’m a millionaire now, which is a pretty good thing for me, but also means that I’m well-insulated from a lot of concerns and issues that affect other writers. And of course there’s the part where I’m straight, white, male and cis, so I get that complement of societal buffs for free.
So while there a lot of things I know about writing, and publishing, and creating and so on, there’s also quite a lot of stuff that I don’t have direct experience with anymore, because where I am in my career is sufficiently removed from those issues that they don’t affect me, and I don’t have to spend any great amount of time thinking about them. If you ask me about these issues, I will tell you what my experience was, and how I understand things work today, but do keep in mind that asking me about a lot of them is like asking your dad (or grandad! I’m technically old enough now to be one!) tips on the hottest upcoming bands. If you’re lucky you’ll get “Uh, I don’t know, that Imagine Dragons group?” before he throws up his hands (note: 40-to-60-year old men reading this, this is not your cue to drop the names of hip young bands in the comments to prove that you’re not out of touch). Likewise, while I do try to keep up with trends and events in my industry and community, there are now gaps in my knowledge. Things today are not like when I was coming up, and I’m not in the same place today that I was when I was coming up.
This is not a bad thing. It’s fine for creative people to go through stages in their career, where the knowledge useful to an earlier stage falls away and knowledge useful to their current stage takes its place. Time happens, whether we prefer it to or not. Experience likewise happens. My experience is valid, and the information I have can still be useful, but all of it exists in the context of this is who I am and where I am now in my professional life. Additionally, it should be viewed in the context of survivorship bias — which is to say, I have made it to a particular place in my career, and while I can offer you information based on my experience to tell you how I got here, it might be more useful to examine the careers of people who haven’t landed where I have, despite having similar starting points and early career arcs.
I think I’ve generally been pretty good at disclosing and disclaiming who I am and what my place is in the world, and I think I’ve likewise been pretty good at reminding people that one, what worked for me might not work for them, and two, that when I opine about things (including things relating to my profession), I might occasionally be pulling things out of my ass. And to be fair I think a lot of writers and creators near, at, and above my status do the same thing. Many if not most of us are happy to tell you that our experience is our own, and that you should take it with the same grain of salt that you should take any advice, opinion or claims of experience. Successful writers are no less full of shit than anyone else.
But in case you’ve forgotten this (or this is the first time you’re seeing it), well: Here it is. I can tell you what I know. But what I know isn’t always going to be on point for you. You have to make the determination of what value my words have for your experience. If they’re useful, great! I like being useful. But if not, I won’t be offended. I don’t know everything, and what I do know may be something you can’t use. It happens. It’ll happen to you, too, one day. If you’re lucky.