writing life

imposter syndrome: writer’s edition

I am not very kind to myself or my writing. It’s a funny thing. I am kind when offering feedback on other’s work. I always try to give their work in progress the benefit of the doubt. I don’t extend this courtesy to my own writing.

I’m never really satisfied with my work, and it takes a lot to convince me something I have written is successful. This lack of kindness is especially present for me in the revision process, when I am forced to assess what I have done on the page. Garbage. Unfortunately, because what I write feels like an extension of who I am, of my mind and my imagination, I also assess myself in the revision process. Garbage.

Writers also feel inadequate when writing first drafts. Staring down that blank page. Aren’t I supposed to be a writer? So why can’t I write? And then, after eeking out a paragraph or two, garbage.

Imposter syndrome sets in. Hard.

Self-criticism leading to self-hatred will not help us. In fact, habitually patronizing those mental states may keep us from being successful writers. A successful writer is: someone who keeps writing and never quits. 

In their wonderful book Art & Fear, David Bayles and Ted Orland write,

Quitting is fundamentally different than stopping. The latter happens all the time. Quitting happens once. Quitting means not starting again — and art is all about starting again.


What separates artists from ex-artists is that those who challenge their fears, continue; those who don’t, quit.

One of the fears I believe I share with many other writers is that my work isn’t good enough. I read amazing writers like China Mieville, Kazuo Ishiguro, Susanna Clarke, Jeff Vandermeer, and it’s very clear to me (as an English Literature major) that the sentences I have strung together in NO WAY compare. It’s like I’m using a lesser version of the English language.

I stumbled across this quote by Ira Glass a year-and-a-half ago in video format. Here’s a link: https://vimeo.com/24715531. It’s about 2 minutes long.

Here’s a transcript as well. I’ll add some bold lines for emphasis, but it’s worth reading the whole thing.

All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take a while. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.

Bayles and Orland also write,

vision is always ahead of execution — and it should be.

On an early spring day last year, I sat in a patch of sunlight with a growing kitten. The window gave me a good view of the vines growing on the fence outside. It’s an old network of vines, and an old fence, and the strands of it wind in an inextricable knot through the wood. And then, there are little branches dangling loose into the air. One tendril in particular was reaching out for the house. It bobbed on the wind. I could almost see it straining.

The vine stretches, reaching for where it wants to be. It will get there, eventually, but only by growing. So slow, imperceptible from day to day. Vines are patient. They know they will get there. It’s a matter of preparation, growth, and time. When it can touch the house, the fence, the pole, and grasp it, it is ready to do so. It is thick enough to support the weight of its branch.

You may see where you want to be as a writer so clearly, but you can’t get there. It’s like the chasm between the fence where you started to grow and the house where you can flourish, climb all over the walls and windows. You can’t jump. There are no shortcuts. We grow into the writers we will be slowly. By doing a lot of work.

Nothing in life is a sprint. Even literal sprinting competitions take years of training. You can’t do it all in a day, or a week. Do your work for today. Trust the work you are doing. That 1/8 inch you grew will one day exceed your expectations. You’re reaching for the house? Reach for the sky. You will get there, but only if you don’t quit.

So don’t.

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