I was a lawyer for almost a decade, and every brief I wrote was edited by other lawyers. This never bothered me. Once, my boss crossed out a paragraph in which I’d explained, in multiple dependent clauses, not unlike this sentence, that the plaintiff — while perhaps well-meaning and confused — was, unfortunately, operating under several sadly incorrect assumptions. He replaced it with four words: “The plaintiff is wrong.” I gave that revision a slow clap all alone in my office.
So I assumed I’d be able to handle criticism of my fiction. Until my first MFA workshop. My submission was critiqued last, right before I left for the airport, and I stared at my suitcase while the two teachers eviscerated my submission for nearly an hour. Then I spent the cross-country flight sobbing into my cocktail napkin and thinking about giving up writing altogether.
Why was that critique so much more devastating than “The plaintiff is wrong”? Partly because it was public, with nine other students as witnesses. Mostly because it wasn’t about shaving 47 words down to four, it was about how my writing betrayed a lack of confidence that was unseemly in anyone with real writing aspirations. In other words, it was personal. Then I ran across the term “impostor syndrome,” and all the little bells went off in my head.
Impostor syndrome is a term coined in the 1970s to describe a feeling of “phoniness in people who believe that they are not intelligent, capable or creative despite evidence of high achievement.” Its sufferers “live in fear of being ‘found out’ or exposed as frauds.” It can strike anyone, no matter how successful. Maya Angelou has it, for example. “I have written 11 books,” she confided, “but each time I think, ‘Uh oh, they’re going to find out now. I’ve run a game on everybody, and they’re going to find me out.’”
I decided I had impostor syndrome, and I felt pretty good about this. Maya Angelou seemed like good company, and, unlike hers, my feelings of inferiority were rooted in empirical fact. I didn’t have impostor syndrome when I was a lawyer because I’d gone to a reputable law school and gotten good grades, so I felt I deserved my success. I did have it in my MFA program because everybody else had been writing for years, many were already published, and I was a poser who’d only written fifty pages and got into the program off the wait list. Basically, in a mind-boggling misapplication of the concept, I decided it was okay if I had imposter syndrome because I really was an impostor.
But now I have a book deal, and I still feel like a fraud. My agent and my editor are wrong; my book is terrible; no one will buy it; the reviews will be heinous; and soon everyone will see me for what I really am: a desperate woman sitting in a workshop while two real writers dismantle all her feeble pretensions. Sometimes I feel so anxious about this impending disaster that I’m even a little bit impressed with myself, because it’s astounding that someone with such crippling insecurities can even get out of bed, much less continue to write.
So now I really do have impostor syndrome. And I do not feel good about it. I’ve encountered numerous successful, talented women writers who are dying of fear inside, afraid of exposure, afraid of disappointing, and I wonder if I will ever shake this feeling, even if I somehow publish more than one book. I don’t know many male writers–do they have this problem, too? Or is it just us women, who have always been told, insidiously and from every side, that our creative efforts fall short in unquantifiable ways we can’t understand? That we’re all posers, even Maya Angelou?
I don’t know the answer, but I know which way I’m leaning. A few years ago I attended a prestigious writers’ conference. In my workshop group were three men who prefaced their remarks about every woman’s submission with, “I don’t usually read this ‘relationship’ stuff, so I’m not your target audience.” After four days of these sniffing remarks, one woman apologized for her brilliant and harrowing piece about a couple in the middle of a divorce. “I’m sorry,” she told them. “it’s another relationship story.” Whether she’d had impostor syndrome before she came to the conference I’ll never know, but she certainly left with it.
As a lawyer, I was immune to the voices of men telling me what I’d done wasn’t good enough because I was a woman, but I’m not so sure that’s true about me as a writer. I’m still trying to sort out which of my anxieties are the normal fears of a debut novelist; which are rooted in the impostor syndrome; which I’ve internalized from the patriarchal literary establishment; and which come from some other hangup I haven’t even figured out I’ve got yet. Most of all, I’m trying to sort out which of them I can overcome, because I’ve figured out this much since I soaked that cocktail napkin with my tears: I’m sure as hell not going to stop writing.