No, really, you don't want to publish that.
October 11, 2011 10:08 PM   Subscribe

How do I deal with my impending success? Is there any way I can feel like less of a fraud, and can anyone who has been through this before give me tips to move the process along?

Anonymous because I don’t want to attach this question to my username, though I’m sure I’m not disguising myself very well.

I’m a writer in my late twenties. After trying for two years, I finally got a great agent for my novels. We’re going on submission at the end of the month. She believes in me and my book. I have wonderful, supportive friends. This week, I was lucky enough to attend a well-regarded writing workshop, and the instructors have been beyond supportive. Like really, I’ve been floored. One of them said that my writing is clearly at a professional level and they consider me a pro, despite not having any substantial sales.

The problem is that I feel like a complete fraud.

Online, I’m able to fake it pretty well. But this workshop has brought all these issues into stark relief. I don’t feel comfortable thinking of myself as a professional; I feel much more comfortable with the other students here (who are also at the beginning of their careers, though I’m the only agented author). Whenever I begin to feel confident in my abilities—and I do sometimes; I know I’ve worked both very hard and that I have certain gifts—I start to simultaneously feel guilty. I’m hyper-worried about creating a competitive atmosphere with my peers, or appearing ungracious, or full of myself. I also feel kind of like I’m some weirdo teenager. I’ve always had a hard time fitting into any kind of corporate culture, and so the idea of thinking about my career strategically terrifies me, too, even though I know it’s something I need to do. And I’ve always been shy—while I can fake confidence on the internet, the idea of faking it in person, at conventions and conferences and readings, is pretty scary too. I feel certain that people will be able to see right through me.

I’d love to hear stories from others who have coped with impostor syndrome, especially in writing specifically or the arts generally. Once you knew your career was going to happen, how did you accept it? And how did you whip your self-image into shape?
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (21 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
Stop thinking about yourself so much. I don't mean that flippantly, or in a mean way. I mean, just be. Write, eat, exercise, do whatever you do. And think about non-you things: writing, food, kayaking, other people. You're asking how to think about thinking about yourself. Just don't go there, and you won't become a navel-gazing bore. And be nice to other people. That'll go a long way.
posted by Capri at 10:18 PM on October 11, 2011 [14 favorites]

It's OK to be a weirdo author -- that's kind of a thing, right?
posted by cosmologinaut at 10:20 PM on October 11, 2011 [1 favorite]

I agree with Capri. Kindness is the highest form of wisdom. Focus on others and supporting them and you won't come across as... a "weirdo teenager," "ungracious," "full of [yourself]." etc.

And if you don't consider yourself a professional, then fine. You don't have to be. You're just being paid to do something you enjoy, so keep on doing it well. Let your agent worry about strategy. That's her job.

I've known many professional writers... and the ones who don't act like professional writers or who don't consider themselves professionals are certainly the most enjoyable to be around. I once met Stephen King at a little league game. He had no interest in talking about writing or in having people focus on him as a writer.
posted by GnomeChompsky at 10:26 PM on October 11, 2011 [2 favorites]

I also feel kind of like I’m some weirdo teenager... And I’ve always been shy—while I can fake confidence on the internet, the idea of faking it in person, at conventions and conferences and readings, is pretty scary too. I feel certain that people will be able to see right through me.

When I first found out about hipsters and started encountering them, I was kind of resentful that these very normal people my age were going to such lengths to appear weird and odd, when I had spent so much of my life feeling weird and odd and putting in crazy amounts of effort to appear normal. Evidently, once you're past suburban adolescence, weird is interesting to a lot of people. I think in this scenario, shyness and a little weirdness will probably only make you more interesting.
posted by Ashley801 at 10:29 PM on October 11, 2011 [6 favorites]

Sounds like textbook impostor syndrome. It's totally normal to feel that way.
posted by zsazsa at 10:40 PM on October 11, 2011 [3 favorites]

Well, from my own experience, this phase, the phase where you're like "OMG IT IS ALL HAPPENING!!!! I am going to be incredibly succcessful! Wait, what if I'm a fraud?!?" doesn't last that long. Pretty soon the reality of what it is to be a working writer will set in, and then you will do some panicking about how you can't do it, it's too hard, you're an idiot... and then you will do it anyway. And then there will be a part where you realize that being a writer doesn't pay as well as it did in your fantasies. And then comes a phase where you realize that you may actually hate being a working writer, but what else will you do with your life?!?

And then eventually, as the rubber hits the road of being a Real Writer, and you realize how much of it is about business savvy and really hard work and being the captain of your career fate instead of about talent and inspiration, you stop fretting about being a fraud who doesn't deserve this tremendous good fortune and start worrying about WTF you will do if you can't keep delivering the goods.

As time passes, I have become more and more confident in my own ability to accurately assess my writing. Which is not to say that I think I am the greatest writer in the world, but I no longer feel much urge to be awkwardly humble - oh no, thank you, but really, I just accidentally wrote a good piece of material, I don't know what happened. Instead I feel like - hey, thank you. I'm glad you liked it. I enjoyed working on it. (Mostly.)

Because it's nice that somebody likes something, of course it is. But because I'm a craftsperson who mostly knows what she's doing at this point, I think my own assessment of how I'm doing has become more and more important, and what other people think has become less and less so. Not that I don't still like it when people dig what I write. But external approval doesn't have the same kick it once did. I definitely remember, a couple of years ago, being thrown into the heights of glee by someone really fawning over my work. (OMG THEY THINK I AM GOOD! Maybe I actually AM good!!!!) And now I kind of... it's not that I don't care, it's that I no longer get the satisfaction from external authority I once did. I basically know when something is good - it's like a tone sounds in my head. That's it. Stop writing. And that's the reward, not what other people think.

So feeling like a fraud, I think, really goes away as an issue as you become more and more able to tell for yourself when something is the best work you can do. (Other issues will arrive in its place, of course! Nature hates for neurotic creative types to have an anxiety vacuum.)
posted by thehmsbeagle at 10:43 PM on October 11, 2011 [17 favorites]

Could you try thinking about being a professional as if it's a gradient instead of a yes or no question? In other industries this is easier, because there are actual job descriptions that mark out the gradient of professional knowledge, so you don't start out trying to be a Grand Master Poobah Instructor. You start out instead trying to be an Assistant Instructor, which feels more manageable, and then as your knowledge increases you work your way up the ladder.

This might sound sort of stupid, but since you don't have the benefit of someone else making up the official levels for you, you could make them up for yourself. I don't mean that as a way for you to judge everyone else around you, but more as a way to remind yourself that you don't need to know everything at once. You could borrow from the old guild designations: Novice, Journeyman, Master, Grand Master. Or from Taekwondo belt ranks: white, yellow, green, blue, red, black (levels 1-10). I'm sure there are others. I think it's worth noting that both of those scales are somewhat exponential rather than linear: there is a smaller difference between the skills of a white belt and a yellow belt than there is between a 1st level black belt and a 2nd level black belt (or there should be in an ideal world).

At any rate, from within the first system, you're probably a Journeyman Author right now. So you shouldn't feel bad about not knowing as much as a Master Author or a Grand Master Author, and you also shouldn't feel bad about knowing a bit more than a Novice Author.
posted by colfax at 10:54 PM on October 11, 2011 [3 favorites]

Writing is a solitary profession, and it always will be. Even if you become a superstar, it's still just going to be you sitting at your keyboard writing draft after draft. Once you're done, you'll start all over again with something else.
I did a little magazine writing and to be honest, it can be a pretty shitty job sometimes. Remind yourself that you're only ever going to be as good as the last thing you did. That should sober you up a little.
posted by Gilbert at 10:55 PM on October 11, 2011

I am not a novelist myself, but have moved in these circles a lot, having spent a number of years writing journalism about novelists and books etc.

I just want to throw it out there - maybe this isn't you or something that you think, but just but when you voiced discomfort with "corporate" stuff, I couldn't help but think back to my time in the industry, and wonder if what you're actually uncomfortable with is corporate stuff - stuff that is the same in publishing, business and other fields - or if it isn't some of the totally dickhead arrant self-promotion bullshit that some people in the publishing industry engage in and think is corporate stuff. But it isn't actually. It's a nauseating combo of egotism, a relentless drive for fame, and a self-belief that verges on messianic.

I mean, you get that in the corporate world, too, but it's not inherent to it. I used to think it was when I was working in artsy journalismy publishingy sectors, and was thus very wan and jejune about "corporate" stuff.

However, now that I am safely ensconced in the corporate world, those things I associated with it back in those days, are not representative. I'll tell you what "corporate" means to me these days (this is the platonic ideal, not necessarily my day to day reality, but it's broadly accurate).

1. Producing a certain standard of work, regardless of other considerations.
2. Responding to everything in a timely, courteous manner, in a relevant way.
3. Ensuring that good work is packaged in a way that speaks to its strength, and ensuring that good work (mine, or someone else's) is seen, encouraged, and emulated.
4. Dealing with fellow employees with respect, generosity, and the same standards that I hold myself to.
5. Encouraging collaboration and better ways of doing things, where possible.

That's what corporate means to me. It also means being able to take a compliment, being able to give one, being able to call out when you've done something you think is valuable and not bitching out other people; that shit will come back to bite you.

You can do all that as a novelist and person in publishing, because it is your industry and it is (or will be) your job. The other shit that you see, the distasteful self-aggrandising, air-kissing crap, you don't have to do that. People will respect you anyway.

It took me many years to come to terms with the fact that I was talented at some things, but things that helped me come to terms with it were: 1. Demand excellence, in yourself and others.
2. Fake it till you make it really does work; the way you see yourself is not at all how others see you.
3. Own your strengths. It doesn't matter if someone is better or worse than you; they're themselves, let them work out how to sleep at night. No one else can write like you because they're not you, and there's value in that.

Being "corporate" has actually taught me an awful lot in this regard. Having seen people slip backwards for want of following those two lists - and undeserving sociopaths go forward because they mostly did - I reconciled myself to the fact that I wasn't gonna get a Daddy Warbucks to pick me; I had to pick myself first.

Good luck, memail if you like, you're gonna be great. :)
posted by smoke at 11:14 PM on October 11, 2011 [4 favorites]

I felt like a fraud, too, when my first novel was published. People said some awesome things about me, and all I could think was, "The publishing world must be in a sad state if they think I'm a good addition." I constantly worried that it would go to my head. Two things helped: 1) reality and 2) talking to other authors.

The reality is getting that book deal and then working on it. You'll think something you've written is a small moment of genius, and your editor will tell you to trim it down. You'll lose sleep, feeling that your writing is horrible, but you've been working on their requested changes for weeks, and you have to send in something... and then your editor will tell you it's absolutely perfect. You'll wait for months to hear back and then find out you have two weeks to get several months' worth of corrections made. You'll have a deadline you can't possibly meet, and when you're a few days late, your editor is pleasantly shocked that you got it in so soon. All of these moments will help you realize what is true, despite your loathing of the term "professional": this is a job. It's a job you want, but it's still work. Remembering that simply getting an agent and/or a contract does not make you a literary god will keep you humble. But also remember that this is a hard job to get and that it's not an easy one to take. Your agent believes in you for a reason (they want to earn their percentage, so why would they just tell you you're good just to be nice?).

Talking to other published authors also helps. You learn that none of them are perfect and that no one who matters expects any of you to be. You are all mostly normal people with normal lives. You all have pride and fear. You have all written crappy first drafts, and you'll all have gotten at least a few bad reviews. But you also got (or will get, in your case) published, and your lives went on.

Check out the forums at Absolute Write some time, and you'll see what I mean.
posted by katillathehun at 11:25 PM on October 11, 2011

Seconding what other have said, this is a very common feeling for people in all kinds of work.

I like this speech by Amanda Palmer about this feeling (and she relates it to the arts of course).

But even in fields like engineering, science, etc I know tons of people who have felt this way at one time or another. It's also probably connected to the Dunning-Kruger effect, in that the better you are at something the harder you tend to be on yourself.
posted by wildcrdj at 11:59 PM on October 11, 2011

All of this is true. At a certain point, it will just feel like your job. An awesome job, often -- it will be a delightfully surreal moment of awesomeness when you go into Barnes and Noble, and YOUR BOOK IS ON THE SHELF -- but also that thing you do for a living and you have to get up and do it in order to keep paying the bills.

I don't think you should think of yourself in any way differently than you would if you were working at, I don't know, Joe's Donut Shack. Focus on doing a good job, enjoy the writing, talk to your friends...basically, keep on as you always have done. Personally, when I meet people who have enjoyed my writing, it is so flattering and wonderful -- but after about ten seconds, I am ready to stop talking about it and start taking about Vampire Diaries this week, or whatever. So I truly believe that if you don't think of yourself any differently than you ever have -- beyond realizing how fortunate you are, and enjoying these exciting moments -- you will never turn into someone who is too full of themselves.

As far as conferences and readings go, you haven't sold the book yet, am I correct? Worry about getting your revisions done before you let yourself worry about how you're going to feel at a reading. One worry at a time!
posted by Countess Sandwich at 12:03 AM on October 12, 2011 [1 favorite]

One writer I dated was just so feet on the ground, she was pretty good in front of people, she was a good writer and she knew it and she wasn't all fuzzy-headed neurotic like some (ie -- me) people are when in front of people. For her, it pretty much was a natural thing, didn't get scared, loved it.

Myself, I'm not a writer going 'round selling my wares, but I have done a lot of public speaking and until I found this one trick I was ALWAYS a big scared sweating mess, standing in front of everyone scratching myself, moaning. But what I learned to do is just cop to it, put my damn hands on my hips and look the crowd dead in the eye and say something like "God-DAMN I hate when I get scared and goofy in front of people, it's just so. totally. annoying." Then continuing to look at them say "Don'tcha hate it when this happens?" and all around the room heads are going to be nodding, there will be friendly expressions, you'll have totally connected with many of the people and you'll have relaxed damn near totally, if not totally.

Ol' Amigo Ego just can't stand to be faced down, ever, but faced down in front of a room full of people? Man, it hates that. You do what I suggested above, your ego's like a scalded fucking dog, likely you'll not have too many more problems from that lump of shit for the rest of your presentation.

David Foster Wallace read here in Austin, Infinite Jest, read from it, then some question answer. He was clearly brilliant but also humble in his success, he stumbled some; one of the things I loved is watching and listening as his mind processed the question, all the ins and out of it, and then his answer, all the ins and out of that, he made these sortof whirring/clicking noises as he thought, he was so goddamn cool. The guy was a trip; go look up his readings on youtube, one of the biggest stars on the planet yet totally human. Mary Karr, also here in town, just friendly and kind and human. Yeah, she's a star, but she's a citizen, just another kid on the bus.

I mean, I just love this part about writers; there are some gas-bags of course but not too damn many, writers give us these remarkably beautiful things yet they're still here with us.

I guess what I'm saying is that you don't want/need to be The Big Great Author, even if that's a role you get put into. You can still be you, which is what we want, what we hope to see when we get in line an hour early to hear you read. Believe me, I don't give a rats ass if your diction is perfect or whatever else, I wanna see who you are, the real you, who's given us this gift.

I'm glad you're not certain of yourself. I'm sorry that it's hurting you but glad to know that you're going to be a more honest human being, regardless you get shoved onto a pedestal or whatever.

Have fun!
posted by dancestoblue at 12:57 AM on October 12, 2011 [2 favorites]

Two comments from someone who isn't an author or an aspiring author:

In college, I took a literature class, where we wrote a bit about what we read. Nothing special, just the usual college writing stuff. The teacher told me it was "a joy" to read my writing, the stuff I wrote pretty quickly. Sure, I labored over some phrasing, but this wasn't a writing class, it was writing about what we've read. All the same, that comment made me glow. Then another classmate said she had worked so hard to get a good grade on the writing portion of of the class, but never could improve much. This baffled me, and made me feel like a fraud. Was she so bad at writing, or I so good? I don't think so, but I never told her about my comment from the teacher.

And if you think your writing is nothing special, compare it to the dreck being pumped out and making it onto best sellers lists: Sexiest Vampire Alive.
When a video reveals to the world that vampires live among us, it’s up to “young” vamp Gregori Holstein, VP of Marketing, to persuade the U.S. government to declare the video a hoax. But first the president wants a favor, one that requires Gregori to spend forty-eight hours in very close contact with the First Daughter.
And it's currently #26 on the New York Times bestseller fiction list. There are a LOT of books in print, and many of them are not really that good. If you get published, congratulations, now you need to promote the heck outta yourself. Writing could have been the easy part. (And really, congratulations on your successes so far, but it's not done yet.)
posted by filthy light thief at 2:39 AM on October 12, 2011 [1 favorite]

I’d love to hear stories from others who have coped with impostor syndrome, especially in writing specifically or the arts generally. Once you knew your career was going to happen, how did you accept it? And how did you whip your self-image into shape?

I used to sell myself short back in the day, and I'd ask for below my rate because I didn't think I was up to that pay scale.

I think the major turning point was in developing my self esteem, and realizing my self worth, and that hey, while I am not like the uber best in my field, I have put in my time, I know I'm quite good at what I do, and hence I deserve X. For me, it seemed alot of it was from my perfectionist side - i.e. I felt that I should not command payscale K because I am not at person J's level.

That's my experience, and with that said, I am still battling imposter syndrome. I think it is not something to overcome and be done with, but something to continually work on in life.
posted by TrinsicWS at 4:38 AM on October 12, 2011 [1 favorite]

By chance did you grow up in a blue collar working class family? If so, you may find the narrative and thesis of Limbo to be informative about this feeling. Professional writing is an alien concept if you didn't grow up around people who affirmed that this was even possible as a career.
posted by dgran at 5:31 AM on October 12, 2011 [1 favorite]

You may want to pick up a copy of Annie Lamott's Bird By Bird. In a few sections of the book she talks about both dealing with success and dealing with the weird neuroses writers get. It may help, but if not it will at least let you know you're not alone -- and let you laugh at it all a bit (she's quite funny about it, in fact).
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 6:06 AM on October 12, 2011 [2 favorites]

You don't really need to do much, aside from writing saleable books, to be a working writer. Carry on with living your life as you are, enjoy any larger money that comes your way, and leave it at that. You only need to become "famous" if that is actually a course you wish to pursue.
posted by Meatbomb at 6:37 AM on October 12, 2011

And I’ve always been shy—while I can fake confidence on the internet, the idea of faking it in person, at conventions and conferences and readings, is pretty scary too. I feel certain that people will be able to see right through me.

This sounds a lot like me, so I wanted to reassure you with my experience: when I do conventions and readings, there are so many people there who love my work, who think I must be so cool and are so excited to meet me, that I actually don't have to do a lot of faking. They want me to live up to their expectations, because it validates the place they've given my work in their own lives, so anything I do they're inclined to interpret charitably. I try to be gracious and not interfere with their relationship with my work.

Before and after the events I'm a mess of insecurity and self-doubt, I feel like the world's biggest talentless slack-ass faker, but in the moment, as long as I'm willing to go along with it, I do fine. It's fun.
posted by milk white peacock at 9:08 AM on October 12, 2011 [1 favorite]

Oh, honey, I feel you. I'm writing my first (nonfiction) book under contract right now, and I have an ongoing awful battle with the nasty little voices asking what makes me such an expert, why should anyone listen to me, and on and on. And of course once the book is published, everyone will know how little I know what I'm doing and I Will Never Work Again. This fear can be completely crippling.

I'm familiar with this very special feeling from lo these past few years of writing fiction and doing more general game design work. I think it's fair to say I'm objectively successful? At least I charge a pretty great rate now, I've won awards, I speak at conferences, I keep getting new projects. So you'd think I would be over it, right? Bad news: It totally sucks, but that feeling never really goes away. You just have to ignore it and keep doing the work.

The one thing that does help me is remembering this: Nobody gives you money just to be nice. They don't hand out book contracts to make you feel good, it's an investment because they think that you can make them money. If you're there, it's because you've earned it. While some amount of good fortune may be at work... good fortune alone doesn't put you in that position.

I'm also a big advocate of running to sweat the crazy out and giving up caffeine, but that's for more general anxiety. You are more than welcome to MeMail me for moral support should you need it. Oh, and there's this present I gave the internet a while back, this sometimes helps, too:

Good luck to you. Not that you need it. You'll be fine, seriously.
posted by Andrhia at 12:38 PM on October 12, 2011 [1 favorite]

My SO is an author that you have probably heard of. His last two books were best sellers; he won national book awards with the last one and has written for major publications in his field both in the US and abroad. The book he's working on right now is going to be the hugest one yet. By every characteristic he is a Successful Writer and an authority in his field. He is not a rising star anymore; he is up there. And *HE* still struggles with what you describe as well.

It might not go away, but you can change your mind on how you deal with it. He addresses it by not letting the self-doubt keep him from doing the work he loves to do, by reminding himself that he is blessed with a gift and it is his responsibility not to squander that talent, and by helping writers who are at an earlier stage of their careers than he.

Good luck!
posted by deliciae at 1:29 PM on August 12, 2012

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