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How to Overcome Imposter Syndrome as a Writer

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My mother always told me not to brag. Whether this was a Japanese trait or her unique dislike, I do not know. But I do know she did not want me to draw the attention or jealousy of others. To be humble.  Nonetheless, she urged me to “ichiban” (number one) anyway, albeit secretly.

This is a hard line to walk. If you get into a mindset that you should not tout your accomplishments at all, it’s easy to then think that perhaps your skills aren’t as good as you thought. You can get sucked into what’s called “imposter syndrome.”

CalTech describes “imposter syndrome” thusly: “Impostor syndrome can be defined as a collection of feelings of inadequacy that persist even in face of information that indicates that the opposite is true. It is experienced internally as chronic self-doubt, and feelings of intellectual fraudulence.”

I first caught this tendency in myself when someone asked me to teach a writing class several years ago. I declined. “What do I know?” I thought. I feared people would criticize me, say, “Get her out of here! She has no MFA. She’s only published two books so far, and they’re just women’s fiction! She’s not a real writer.”

Then I saw the writing workshop was being taught by someone who had never actually published fiction. The ads made it sound as if this person had loads of experience and industry insight, when the opposite was true. I was astounded. If this person can pump themselves up like that, I thought, why can’t I?

Who Gave You Permission to Write?

I thought back to the times people questioned my abilities, even my very right to be a writer. About a year out of college, I met my now-husband and moved up to Washington State, where he was in the Ranger Battalion.

I applied at a temp agency and randomly got placed at a job doing classified ads for a publisher of two military-oriented newspapers for the Army and Air Force bases, and a weekly lifestyle paper. Of course, placing classifieds all day and doing bulk mail, getting my hands and arms covered in ink, was not the end of my ambitions. I wanted to be a reporter.

One day, maybe a month into my assignment, I was recycling the discarded faxes (because this was the mid-90s) I saw a note from McChord Air Base asking for a reporter to fly in a C-130.

I wanted to do it.

At that point in my life, I was extremely shy. The kind of shy that isn’t cute bashfulness, but extreme social anxiety. People mistook me for being extremely aloof, even snobby. In fact, I clammed up and felt sick to my stomach if I had to put myself on the line and talk to someone. To ask for anything. But I remembered the immortal words of the Smiths,  from the song Ask (look it up if you want the lyrics; I don’t have permission to reprint and you know what sticklers they are.)

I gathered up my courage and took the print out to my boss, the editor. He was young, handsome, and extremely intimidating to me. Hesitantly, blushing, I asked if anyone was going to write this story, because I would like to. He said why not, he’d pay me as a stringer, and told me to take photos while I was at it.

An ad sales rep was livid that I, a lowly classifieds temp, was going to get to report. Apparently she’d been harboring secret dreams of being a reporter. “Why does she get to do it?” I overheard her ask him. “She’s not a writer. I’ve been here longer.”

I went cold. I wanted to hide under my desk. She had found me out. My boss would come to his senses, say, “Oh my goodness, you’re right. I hadn’t thought of that. Margaret is a phony. You can do the report instead. Go ahead.”

“Because she’s the one who asked,” my boss replied.

The one who asked. I was the one who asked, and this set me apart. The article was a success (thanks largely to Dramamine) and I got more assignments. When a spot opened up, I was promoted to Contributing Editor.

I bet this willingness to ask is what sets most successful writers apart, too. They’re the ones who never gave up, who asked for feedback, asked for that chance. Risked criticism and rejection and the awful feelings of inadequacy. Ignored feeling like an imposter.

Be the One Who Asks

So, why can’t I always be the one who asks, who easily overcomes her imposter-ish feelings? Maybe it’s because I really do feel I still have a lot to learn, which is good. People who believe they know everything stop growing. I don’t think it’s a bad thing to stop for a moment and question whether you are indeed the most qualified person to perform a task.

However, it’s definitely bad to dismiss your own abilities outright. Maybe it’s because I no longer have that boss telling me I am indeed good enough. He gave me validation and permission.

I have to give myself my own approval and authentication, instead of depending on external sources. Nobody else can do that for you. You have to take that power and confidence for yourself.

Better yet, you should assume that confidence and run with it. Assume you are worthy. Like the actor Mindy Kaling said about her self-assurance, “ “My parents raised me with the entitlement of a tall, white blond man.” Since I wasn’t in fact raised like that, I had to learn it as an adult, and sometimes it requires a lot of self-talk. I have to remind myself to walk into a room as if I’m a tall, white blond man and deserve every ounce of respect given to me. Because I’ve worked hard and I’ve been on this planet long enough to know things others do not.

I’ve been teaching creative writing at a middle school this year. Today a student wanted me to read his story before he was finished. This is an A+ student who always incorporates my lessons on how to make his writing stronger. He takes criticism well and edits his work, albeit with some groaning. Over the year, he’s learned how to craft snappy, realistic dialogue and snappy plots. In fact, I gave him a writing award last semester. To me it seems like he ought to be one of the most confident students in my class. “Send it to me when you’re done,” I said.

“I want you to tell me if it’s good, though,” he said. “I need the validation.” ( Yes, he actually used that word!)

“You have to learn how to have validation from the inside, not from me,” I said.  “You’re a good writer.” So he went back to work and finished.

He sent it to me when he thought it was good enough. I read it immediately. Indeed it was.

About Margaret Dilloway [2]

Margaret Dilloway [3] is the author of the new middle grade series MOMOTARO: XANDER AND THE LOST ISLAND OF MONSTERS (Disney Hyperion) and three women’s fiction novels. She lives in San Diego with her family and a big Goldendoodle named Gatsby. She teaches creative writing to middle schoolers and does developmental editing.