Recently I went to a social event for writers. Nerves getting the best of me, I rehearsed my introduction in the car. “Hi, I’m Amanda. I write poetry.” As I continued to run the words through my mind, I realized that it was easy for me to say I write poetry, but impossible for my lips to form the words I am a poet. I couldn’t see myself as anything so real as a poet. I’m not a poet — I just dabble in poetry.
The week before, I spoke to a class of undergraduate students and told them that they don’t need capitalism to validate their creativity. I told them that to be a writer, all you have to do is write. Apparently I needed to learn my own lesson.
Impostor syndrome is common among writers. For those unfamiliar with the term, “impostor syndrome” is a feeling of doubt with regard to one’s abilities and accomplishments, often accompanied by the constant fear of being unmasked as a fraud. There is so much uncertainty and solitude in the writing process that it is easy to write oneself off as “not a real writer,” especially if one hasn’t met a milestone they associate with having “arrived.”
The thing about impostor syndrome is that for high achievers, the goalposts always move. When I was jotting my stories down in notebooks, I wasn’t a real writer because I wasn’t sharing my work; when I started sharing my work, I wasn’t a real writer because it was just in my university’s literary journal (that I helped produce); and when I sold my work to journals I didn’t compile, I wasn’t a real writer because I hadn’t published a chapbook or a novel. Where does it end? At what point do I admit that perhaps I am a real writer? The only thing one has to do to be a writer is write.
Having knowledge is one thing; internalizing it is another. How can a person believe that they are a writer, even when they don’t feel as though they deserve the term?
Know you don’t have to be perfect
The first draft is never perfect. Most debut novels are not that writer’s first book. Every writer experiences rejection. It’s unreasonable to expect perfection from yourself in everything you write. Understand that it is okay to be less than perfect. It is okay to write a lousy draft. It’s okay to be rejected by that journal, that agent, that publisher. The more you write, the better your writing will be. Dust yourself off and get back to work.
Remember why you write
What is it that drew you to writing? The magic of story? The feel of the words on your tongue? Tales you want to share with your family and friends? Rediscover that motivation, and set it as your true north. Publication is wonderful validation, but it is (probably) not why you write. Find validation in your motivation, not in what you think a “real” writer must accomplish. This will allow you to be consistent in your expectations for yourself.
Celebrate your accomplishments
It’s easy to get lost in your expectations when you don’t have a firm stance of where you are. Celebrate when you take a step in your writing. Finish a draft? Figure out the solution to the problem with that piece that’s been giving you trouble? Sell a piece to a journal? Celebrate! Tell your friends, get a treat, take a break. Acknowledge that you’ve done something.
Things don’t change overnight. You won’t wake up one morning and feel validated, never to have doubt or uncertainty again. It’s a journey, one with ups and downs and in-betweens, but if you’re patient with yourself, you can overcome your impostor syndrome and embrace your identity as a writer.