The Proverbial Apple: Imposter Syndrome

June 7, 2018 § 14 Comments


By Dana Mich

Who gave you permission exactly? To call yourself a ‘writer’?

Um.

And while we’re on the subject, do you really think that your words matter?

[Sigh.]

That they’ll reach anyone?

…Well there was that one time I—

Yeah, that was a fluke.

Welcome to the ongoing conversation in my head. It’s pathetic, really. Counterproductive, and embarrassing to admit. A cheerleader (both back in high school and still at heart), I wear a smile like my insecurities don’t affect me. I speak with candor and ease, make eye contact, even mic up and take the stage from time to time. And yet, most mornings as I slip from dreaming to waking, my familiar writing foe is there to greet me.

I first learned about Imposter Syndrome before I’d ever experienced it. There I was in Eden, entirely new to the writing life. Fearless, naïve, filled with wonder and bursting at the seams with creative energy. I remember it sounding absurd at the time, like telling yourself that you don’t have the right to breathe, or grow hair. The thought of thwarted talent—entire libraries of would-be memoirs, novels, and poems—broke my heart. Thank God I don’t have that problem, I said. And then, just like that, I fell.

Was it that unexpected manuscript rejection? The first “your words meant so much” from a stranger? My own foolish ‘Thank God’ decree? I don’t know. But if there’s one thing I’m sure of, it’s this: there’s no un-biting the proverbial apple.

And it’s a total shame. I ache to feel the bliss of my fingertips flying across my keyboard, my heart growing fuller with each terrible first draft. But here I am now, self-judging. (Wait, Thesaurus.com surely has a better way to put it…) The fall was strange: as soon as I began to pull words from the void, I turned my head. I saw others conjuring more impressive words from the same void—drawing larger crowds and louder applause—and I began to feel less legitimate than I had before I’d picked up my pen. I looked at my craft and told myself that it wasn’t enough.

That I wasn’t enough.

____________

“Do you suffer from Imposter Syndrome?”

I don’t know what got into me, asking Melanie Brooks that question—an author whose book, Writing Hard Stories, I’d dog-eared and highlighted and hugged to my chest. Perhaps it was the vulnerability she’d expressed in those opening pages.

[I was] uncertain about whether I belonged or not. Whether the story I had to tell… could adequately compare to the work around me.

Nonetheless, as soon as my question escaped my lips, in waltzed my illness: Of course she doesn’t, my own Imposter Syndrome scoffed. What reason would she have? All right, listen—she’ll excuse your faux-pas, give you a little figurative pat on the back, ‘there, there’—

But no.

“All the time,” Melanie said.

Our words dovetailed like two rivers meeting an ocean:

“I tell myself, if I could just have my memoir published

“Get a piece into a higher profile literary magazine

“Reach 12,000 Twitter followers

“Land that dream agent

How liberating it was to find out a writer I admired was on the same page. In voicing our self-doubts with one another, I realized how truly ubiquitous the need is to prove ourselves to the world. And how corrosive: seeking external approval eats away at our core—the very place where our creativity is born. The thought of thwarted talent.

If only for a moment, our mutual confession freed me from my writerly woes. I felt understood and forgiven. I was reminded of the reason Melanie and I were on the phone in the first place: our shared desire for community. “A diverse collective of memoirists,” I said. “Writers of true, first-person accounts coming together to elevate each other’s voices, craft, and causes.” My idea for Moving Forewords wasn’t a wholly unique one. Other authors have discovered the benefits of these pay-it-forward models. Tapping into peer-to-peer support networks and sharing audiences makes the work of writing so much less siloed. It brings us out of our own heads and into a larger dialogue. And for those of us in need of reclaiming ownership over the title “writer,” it reminds us that permission is granted unconditionally. That the act of asking is the only thing that has ever diminished it.

We’ve heard it before—what matters most is what we do when no one else is listening. But the reality is this: People will listen, and we will want them to. Perhaps as writers, that’s our own special brand of original sin. We can’t afford to forget, though, that our craft is an exercise in empathy. A reaching out; a coming together. And what makes our words worth reading isn’t our ability to turn heads. It’s our desire to touch hearts and change lives.

_________________________________________________________

Dana Mich is a writer living in Virginia. Her memoir-in-progress commemorates her life with her father, who she lost to suicide, and her grandfather who survived the Holocaust. Her writing has appeared in The Washington Post, The Times of Israel, The Manifest-Station, Folio Literary Journal, PsychCentral, and DIYMFA. Follow her @DanaMichWrites, and the memoir-writers collective @movingforewords.

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§ 14 Responses to The Proverbial Apple: Imposter Syndrome

  • philipparees says:

    How sharply this resonates!

  • Here’s the problem, though. Does self-diagnosing myself with imposter syndrome really alter the fact that I may be, in fact, an imposter? I call myself an imposter all the time. Are people just being polite when they don’t confirm it, or being vindictive when they do? How will I ever know?

  • calmkate says:

    powerful post, touched my heart!

  • etod62 says:

    Dana, how is it possible you woke up in my head today? Thanks for articulating for all of us!

  • Margarita G. Telesca says:

    Hermoso! Tan claro y real! Muy buen artículo! Felicitaciones! Congrats!!

  • Thank you! I insist to my writing students: You are powerful. You can do this, you have shown you can do this, allow yourself one more beat of effort and be amazed at what you can do! And then, in my own heart, that terrible voice rasping, “That I wasn’t enough.”

  • Phyllis Brotherton says:

    Loved this, Dana. You’ve really captured that voice within us, saying, This is crap!! Thank you! Signed up for Moving Forwards!!

  • Saved it to my Writing folder. How proactive of me. Moreover, I like the idea of such community so much that I have opened Moving Forward too.

  • barbaragoss says:

    Writing is for introverts, but we need recognition. Our thoughts and words matter too!

  • Dana! I just loved this and so connected with it. You continue to inspire me, girl.

  • Pete Mercer says:

    In writing about your own writing demons you captured mine too. Thank you for this. Feels good knowing I’m not the only one.

  • lbenton80 says:

    I love the last line to this essay: “It’s our desire to touch hearts and change lives.” That’s what matters. That’s what we should remember as we write. Focusing on ourselves and whether or not we have the right to write or are good enough doesn’t help us get our words out, actually it’s sabotages us. I say we stop measuring ourselves against others and just, “Write on!”

  • WandC(D) says:

    Perfect timing. As I get ready to face a group of people who are coming out of their way to hear me read and ask me questions, all I can ask myself is “why the hell do they want to hear what I have to say?” Imposter all day long.

  • Deb King says:

    No truer words spoken. Feel like an imposter almost every day when I face the screen. I’m totally unknown to all except my writer class, my memoir a work in painstaking, slow progress. I ask myself every day if I’m wasting time at 65 and who cares what I have to say? So, thank you for giving words to my experience and knowledge I’m not alone.

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