Criticism and the Impostor Syndrome

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 maya-angelou-quote-600x400“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.

i-have-no-idea-what-im-doingBut 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.

imposter-syndrome-bart

The following two tabs change content below.
After a decade practicing law and another decade raising kids, Heather decided to finally write the novel she'd always talked about writing. She holds an MFA from the Bennington Writing Seminars, and is an alumnus of the Squaw Valley Writers Workshop and the Tin House Writers Workshop, all of which helped her stop writing like a lawyer. She lives in Mill Valley, California, with her husband and two teenaged children. When she's not writing she's biking, hiking, neglecting potted plants, and reading books by other people that she wishes she'd written.

Latest posts by Heather Young (see all)

This article has 11 Comments

  1. But Heather….if you listen to those voices in your head isn’t that ok? Why….? I would think yes, if they are telling you this is a great idea for your novel! I hear that great authors hear voices in their heads!! That idea is so impressive to me, to hear/see the characters of the books you write. So imposter thoughts….( what an compelling syndrome) I have them too but know I am not a writer, just a sometimes artist. So….. Just saying I love your post! And I love Maya Angelou!

    1. True! I do have to listen to those voices!!! And all the ones that say nice things, too. There are a few of them, believe it or not, and they all sound just like my mom. They are excellent defenses against impostor syndrome.

  2. Gosh, those old wounds still smart. Mine from film school will never go away. But I did read somewhere that the severity of a writer’s imposter syndrome is inversely proportional to that writer’s actual talent and character. At least that’s what I want to believe.

    So maybe it’s a good thing for writers to fret about being “found out”. Though if this fabulous post is any indication, you have nothing to fret about, Heather!

      1. Eileen, if you can’t get your comparisons right, you must be an impostor!! Just kidding. And I hope you’re on to something about talent and impostor syndrome being directly proportional, because if you are then I must be Maya Angelou! 🙂

  3. Since you’ve made the observations that girls are often told they’re not good enough, and that the males in the group made a show of saying they don’t read “relationship stuff”, I’d just add a reminder about boys. We’re often told to, “be a man”, and to, “stop whining/pouting/sniveling/crying,” and to, “toughen up.” There’s also, “if you can touch it, you can catch it,” which leads to many, many skinned knees and elbows, also which you cannot pout or cry over. Oh, was that just my dad? Well, hopefully you begin to see my point. I certainly see yours.

    And who knows? All of the “toughening up” might even lead us to better hide our recurring bouts with impostor syndrome. Interesting piece. Thanks for the perspective!

    1. I have a sixteen year old son who hears thiese messages from coaches, teachers, and others all the time., and I’m trying hard to raise him to have the strength to reject those models and to be his own, healthy person. Isn’t it strange that our society’s imposed barometers of success derive from this extreme “alpha male” set of benchmarks? We should all do our best to raise our sons and daughters to speak in their own voices, not the ones that society “values.” Yet you also make a great point that sometimes those “man up” lessons do give us the impetus to succeed despite things like the impostor syndrome that might otherwise cripple us. Thank you for your comment and your perspective, which I completely understand.

  4. Heather, this post spoke to me. I have a very successful series, and now I’m tackling a completely different type of book, and I am a mass of insecurities. I have been more and more convinced that what I’m writing isn’t very good. This week I asked for help from a friend who is a long-time editor, and he (gently) confirmed my fears that I am on the wrong track. But he didn’t crush me. He gave me suggestions, listened to my ideas and made me determined to move forward. (Today I wrote a blog about it, if you are interested, at http://www.terryshames.com.)

    But there is another reason this resonated with me. Years ago I attended a very prestigious writers’ conference–everyone there congratulated each other on how lucky they were to get in. I was in a workshop with a wonderful teacher who gave really thoughtful, encouraging feedback and encouraged everyone to be judicious in their critiques. I looked forward to my critique. Unfortunately, when I arrived the day of my critique it was to find that this teacher had been replaced by a bombastic author who had the sensitivity of a wild boar. He proceeded to rip me to shreds. I had become friendly with my fellow workshop members and they were as stunned as I was. Crying wasn’t an option. Throwing away my computer seemed viable. But a young man in the workshop spoke to me afterwards and said he thought the man had been unnecessarily harsh. Yes, there were problems with my manuscript, but his derision was unwarranted, and he advised me to ignore and move on.

    I still can’t hear the writer’s name without cringing, but I remember also the words of that young man, and I have tried to take away the lesson that criticism can be honest without being devastating. This applies not only to other authors, but to ourselves. I think we have to learn to be as kind, but firm, with ourselves, as we are to our fellow writers.

    1. Ugh, Terry, what a terrible experience. We all have our scars, that’s for sure. I’m glad you are persevering in your goal to write something that’s out of your comfort zone. I didn’t put this in my post, but I do believe that doggedly continuing to write and put our work out there to be judged, even in the face of grave self-doubt, is a brave thing to do. If nothing else, we should celebrate ourselves for that one seemingly small but actually quite large act!

Comments are closed.