If social media has done anything for society, it’s made us realize that we’re not alone. Not just because we can find our ex-whatever from junior high… but because we see memes and status updates in our feeds that have us nodding our heads with a deep understanding and reverberations of “me, too.”
This morning, a fellow writer commented about how he looks at his first published works and wonders whether or not his future (i.e., better, more honed) publications will be judged on what he feels is inferior to what he’s producing now. I’m not going to name this author, because I don’t have to. Why? Because it’s all of us. Every. Single. Writer. has these same thoughts.
We doubt our abilities. We question our own successes, chalking them up to luck. We harbor fear for what-comes-next. We’re terrified of failure, and we quake equally – if not more – at the very notion that we could possibly achieve the same greatness as our heros. We think that success is another person’s game, and that we’re only toying with trivial ideas. We’re convinced that we produce poor imitations of the greatness of others. We talk ourselves out of writing, because what’s the use? We ignore the voices in the dark, choosing instead to call ourselves crazy for even entertaining their existence. We do anything and everything but that which opens our minds and fills our creative souls.
Neil Gaiman, one of the greatest writers of our time, has this to say about his own self-doubt: “The first problem of any kind of even limited success is the unshakable conviction that you are getting away with something, and that any moment now they will discover you. It’s Impostor Syndrome…”
As writers, we tend to torture ourselves with self-doubt and we choose to see ourselves as imposters… and that’s okay. No really… stick with me. It is how it’s meant to be, and here’s why…
Our self-doubt moves us steadily toward understanding, even if we never get there
Have you ever hung out with someone who knows all the things? Yeah, fuck that guy. While he’s spouting off what he knows to be true, us writers are researching, turning ideas inside-out, proving, disproving, and discovering. Through gaining answers we find even more questions – some that don’t and can’t have answers – and we revel in those questions. We rip them apart, and we write about them. We give them emotion, and we downright terrify that guy who thought he knew all the things.
The thing about our self-doubt is that we’re certain that no one knows all the truths – ourselves being at the top of the “don’t know shit” pile – so we’re constantly trying to learn more. We keep our noses entrenched in books, articles, ideas, concepts, theories, histories, and wild-assed notions.
As writers, we live and breathe learning. We doubt our own understanding deeply enough that we’re constantly asking, “what if?” If we ever stopped doubting what we “know” to be true, we’d stagnate, and we’d cease to evolve. For a writer to continue to write, constant evolution is not just a nice-to-have personality trait, it’s required for the job; it’s our doubt that keeps the drive to learn alive.
Our self-doubt makes us improve our craft
When I was growing up, I did pretty well in school. I wasn’t the valedictorian, or the captain of any sports team, or any such nonsense. Even still, there were many in my life who loved to call out my accomplishments. I excelled in music, math, and science. In college, I had teachers tell me I was a great writer.
Throughout my life, whenever I got called out for excellence, it made me downright uncomfortable. It was squirm-worthy, really. On the outside, I’d smile and thank them… or even come off as cocky and arrogant sometimes… but on the inside, my thoughts were a jumble of “There’s no way she’s referring to me” and “It’s not that good” and “I could do so much better.” I was fairly certain that every compliment would eventually be met with “Hah! You thought I was serious? You suck and you know it!”
Looking back from the other side of 40 years old, I can say without a doubt that it has been, and continues to be, my own doubt that keeps me moving forward. Maybe that’s not how it works for some people, but for me, my doubt kept me on my toes. When I’ve failed at life, I’ve been able to pick myself up without issue – I expected that failure. When I succeed, though – that’s when the true questioning comes in to play. It’s been through copious heaps of self-doubt that I’ve honed my writing craft into the shape it’s in today. And it’s through continued self-doubt that I’ll improve into the future. Maybe. Or maybe I’ll suck. Who knows…
Our Imposter Syndrome keeps us vigilant
Ever hear that old phrase, “It isn’t paranoia if they’re really out to get you”? Yeah, that’s what a writer’s Imposter Syndrome feels like. It took me 20+ years in a non-fulfilling career (that was a very nice way of saying, “I fucking hated it”) to figure out that writing is my life. Recently, I gave up my first writing job because it was going in a direction I didn’t want to go (it was taking a hard turn back to the job that I fucking hated).
My internal Imposter Police showed up like the goddamned brute squad. “Of course your writing job is edging back into software development – that’s where you’re supposed to be!” “You think you’re a writer! HAH! Have we got news for YOU!” “Don’t even think about trying to escape!”
This world tries to convince artists of all types – writers, painters, sculptors, musicians, etc. – that we’re unnecessary. Yet where would we be without art? Some of our greatest scientific achievements have come from art. Music fills our daily lives. And the evidence for the need for writers is quite literally everywhere you look. The world is going to devalue and de-legitimize us as writers, and we just need to smile, nod, and continue on.
I’m not going to lie: It’s hard to tell the Imposter Brute Squad to take a hike. But you have to do it. It’s been sheer hell, but I put myself back on my own path. It’s a terrifying and uncertain process, but “terrifying and uncertain” is a writer’s way of life. Hell, it’s often the very definition of life, writer or not!
When it comes down to it, I think there’s a reason us writers were gifted with crippling self-doubt and raging Imposter Syndrome. Writing is powerful. Through writing, we change ideas. We forge new territory for thought, and thus for action. There’s a reason they say the pen is mightier than the sword. Imagine a world full of writers who blaze forward without a second thought of what they put into the world.
So writers, know that your words are your superpower, and though your self-doubt may be your kryptonite, and your Imposter Syndrome may keep you from leaping to action, know that it’s part of what makes you powerful. Keep reaching. Keep learning. Keep doubting – because through doubt comes questions, and questions beget growth. Above all, keep writing. It’s what makes you amazing, whether you believe it or not.