What To Do About Imposter Syndrome

Written by A Guest Author

By Wendy S. Delmater

Is there anything a writer can do about “Imposter Syndrome,” that feeling that you are just faking it and you’re not really who everyone in the writing community thinks you are? Yes. Let me use myself as an example.

Back when in 2005, I started running Abyss & Apex, I used to joke that I had trouble spelling “HTML.” I knew I had absolutely no business running an online magazine. I knew less than nothing: I did not even know the questions to ask!

Plus, from what I could see those who are successful in the science fiction and fantasy field had more time to write or edit than I did. They did this full time, professionally. I was a working single parent struggling to make ends meet, with three children, who was living with my sister (who was ill} and my mother (who was dying). I was running an online magazine in my spare time, as a hobby. When I went to events like the SFWA Publishers Reception in glamorous New York City, I had the worst case of imposter syndrome you’ve ever seen. Who was I to hang out with these important people?

Lesson number one: You will remember fondly those who treated you as an equal back before you felt like an equal. One of the things that help me get over my imposter syndrome was the kindness of people who began to mentor me. This happened in my professional life, where I worked as a construction safety manager. Certain people in my local chapter of the American Society of Safety Engineers, now the American Society of Safety Professionals, made me feel at home when I was new to the field. This also happened to me in the field of science fiction and fantasy writing and editing. One of the ways I pay it forward is by mentoring others in the field just like those senior members in both of my professional fields mentored me.

I did have a natural talent for editing, and I did have an engineer’s instinct for organizing things, so I applied what little I knew for doing the best job running Abyss & Apex that I could. And, come to think of it, I did bring quite a bit of itinerant learning to my writing and editing: aside from being a voracious reader, I had a perfect score on my SAT verbals, and a National Merit Commendation. An unaccredited college had even offered me a full scholarship in English. And yet I didn’t think these talents or anything special.

Lesson number two: You may have more talent than you think you have; listen to what other people tell you the you’re good at rather than judging yourself by your own standards. To me, my ability in English was something that I thought nothing of. It was just “normal” to me. A good example of having a talent that seems normal to one, but exceptional to others, is my husband. He has an eidetic memory: he can remember thousands strings of part numbers, telephone numbers, IP addresses. To him, this was perfectly normal. I had to point out that this was an unusual skill before he saw it for what it was.

But, unlike me, perhaps you have a degree in English or a certificate in creative writing. You may not feel like you have talent in that area because the degree is new. When you don’t feel like you deserve what you’ve worked for, you feel like an imposter. When you don’t feel like you are who the world sees you as, you feel like an imposter. That degree may feel like a lie, because you have no experience yet.

Lesson number three: You will stop feeling like an imposter when you get experience. But the only way to break past feeling like an imposter is to make mistakes and get that experience. Writers are told that they should develop a thick skin. Frankly, editors should probably be told that, too — it’s not as easy as it looks.

Imposter syndrome can make people with growing talent feel like they’re incapable, and feeling incapable can cause writers to have writer’s block or give up entirely due to a negative feedback loop. As Ed Latimore says, impostor syndrome is largely an issue of perspective and focus rather than fact or belief. He says, “What you pay attention to is what grows in your psyche, for better or worse. We also remember what went wrong more than what went well.”

It’s relevant to any new thing that you learn. We’ll often give up on a new thing because mistakes are painful, but mistakes in the only way to learn and grow and become competent in any discipline. You have to learn from the pain of making mistakes like sending out a submission that had typos and grammatical errors in it that you only see after it was submitted. You have to get past the learning experiences of forgetting to take your name out of the header on the market requires blind submissions, or the fact that you realized that everything you’ve ever written was full of white room dialog, or tense shifts.

Pain is nature’s way of telling us not to do certain things, like touch a hot stove.

However, if you let the pain of getting rejection letters from editors stop you from continuing writing, or stop you from sending your stories back out, it’s not the same thing at all. A hot stove will always be painful to touch, but as you improve in your craft you will get better and better at this writing thing, and make fewer and fewer mistakes, and therefore earn fewer and fewer rejections.

Lesson number four: Pain is just inexperience leaving the body. Everybody starts out as an amateur on whatever it is they do. The people that gain mastery of any pursuit, whether it be musical instrument, a sport, or writing stories, all start out as newcomers that are so wet behind the ears that they might drown. Everyone you admire started out in the same spot. Don’t confuse the necessary, temporary pain of learning with the fear of things that will always be painful.

Writers experience imposter syndrome because they treat the embarrassment of mistakes that they make while learning the same way we would treat the pain of touching a hot a stove.

Again, Ed Latimore says, “The solution is to focus on the objectively constructive elements of your performance and abilities. Notice that I didn’t mention your feelings. Just telling people to feel a certain way almost never works. If it did, they wouldn’t need advice about dealing with their emotions in the first place. ”  

So focus on the things that you learn, the places where you’ve improved. And if you don’t feel like you fit in with other writers because you’re not of a particular age group, race, creed or socioeconomic class, remember that we’re an eclectic lot of oddballs.

Lesson number five: Whatever it is that makes you feel like you don’t fit in, embrace it. Accept who you are, with no apologies. I embraced the fact that I was poor, with very little time to run this magazine, and yet was doing it well, anyhow. When I realized that the way I was running Abyss & Apex was unique, I took up the slogan “Miracles on a shoestring,” which described how we helped our writers and published the best fiction possible with almost no money (or time).

If you belong to a marginalized group, or if you are an “unfashionable” cis het white male, enjoy being who you are and accept what makes you unique. No apologies, and no guilt. There will never be another you, with your voice, in your manner of writing. Sure you’ll make mistakes at first. But everyone does and we editors know something you don’t… *stage whisper* professional writers continue to make mistakes all the time.

If you want to write, please don’t deprive us of your unique voice. Learning experiences are setbacks, and you’ll grow past them. You’re not an imposter. You’re just on your way to an even better place.


Wendy S. Delmater is the editor of Abyss & Apex Magazine of Speculative Fiction.

 

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