I’ve always wanted to become a writer. It’s one of the few dreams that I’ve carried along since childhood.
Growing up, I wasn’t meticulous or patient enough to become a paleontologist. I wasn’t handy enough to invent the world’s first flying car. But observe the world around me, weave my impressions into a story, and put that story on paper? Surely, I could do that!
Turns out, it’s not so simple.
My biggest issue when writing is that I grew up bilingual. While I’m often told how lucky I am to have acquired a second language “for free,” it’s been a huge impediment to my confidence. To this day, I’m not comfortable calling myself a writer.
Despite dozens of articles and tens of thousands of readers, I still feel like an impostor.
Working with self-crafted tools
Good writing requires more than language skills, the same way good architecture requires more than the ability to build. It’s a masterful craft. But while the sky’s the limit, few practitioners ever get off the ground.
To build a story, you need three things: raw materials, a blueprint, and sturdy tools.
Raw materials are everywhere. They can be gathered in nature, by observing and reflecting upon the natural world. They can be derived from the work of others. They can even come from inside, through deep introspection. All in all, there are far more things to write about than there are writers.
The blueprint is trickier, as it requires a certain technique. The architect needs an idea of how to put their raw materials together in a way that’s appealing, but will also hold. A story has to entertain the reader, but also make sense. This is mostly an exercise in logic and imagination, transcending the barriers of language. If the blueprint is good, every piece of the story will come together to form a powerful whole. If it’s bad, the structure will seem flimsy, inconsistent, or downright ugly.
Then finally, there are the tools. The better the quality, the more control you have over your work. Using dense and archaic language will give your story an aura of self-importance. Concise and clear language — the kind recommended by most autocorrection tools — will make your story look polished and professional, but generic. Flowery prose and evocative metaphors will grant depth and mystique, but you run the risk of confusing your reader. A mix of all of the above is what gives each writer their own unique style.
Most of us have a default toolkit we receive from mandatory education. Anyone graduating from high school will have high school-grade tools. New tools can be added later through tertiary education, self-study, extensive reading, writing experience, and so on.
Within the time it takes to acquire that default toolkit, most people have a pretty solid idea of whether or not they’re good at writing. Some students are told they’re going places; encouraged to write short stories or pursue a literary career. Others are told they’re better off sticking to numbers, or creating things by hand. Few are misunderstood geniuses who peak later in life, but let’s face it, they’re vastly outnumbered by those who never peak at all.
My problem in all of this is that I don’t belong to any of these categories. I moved to Switzerland at age 10 and did most of my education in French. My English toolkit dates back to the fifth grade.
I hope you’ll be kind enough to acknowledge that I write beyond the level of a ten-year-old, and that’s because I’ve since added my own tools. But none of those tools have been properly inspected. No Mrs. Thistlebottom has ever grilled me about ending sentences on a preposition, or when to use “which” over “that.”
Instead, I’ve essentially been mimicking the writing of others. My work has directly and indirectly been influenced by a hodge-podge of literature, journalism, academic writing, business jargon, blurbs and tweets. For all I know, my English may be unnatural or incomprehensible to the average American. It’s probably downright repulsive to the finicky British bookworm.
This lack of structured development and the deep uncertainty it entails have come to serve as the bedrock for my impostor syndrome.
Facing unachievable standards
In a nutshell, impostor syndrome is the irrational feeling of being a fraud. I make a living writing articles for my company’s blog. Then, I write pieces like this one in my spare time. I’m also working on a novel. These facts would suggest that I am a writer.
Yet for some reason, it doesn’t feel natural to call myself one. I haven’t done enough to deserve that title. And neither have most other people.
A symptom of impostor syndrome is that I’m unreasonably critical toward other writers. Not to their face of course, I wouldn’t want to discourage anyone from their craft — however terrible I may find it. Yet I often catch myself wondering things like, “How can this person call themselves a writer when their prose is so ugly?” or “How can an English major not realize this sentence makes no sense?” It’s a common brand of cynicism: the idea that if I’m a fraud, this other person pretending to be the real thing must be out of their mind.
Since there is no formal qualification needed to become a writer, I find myself making up my own criteria. I’m not a real writer because I don’t make a living exclusively out of writing. He’s not a writer because he only writes self-published blog posts. She’s not a writer because her only successful piece was a fluke.
These criteria evolve with my own progress. Instead of an objective definition, a writer is anyone more successful at writing than I am. Until I publish a novel, I’m not a writer. Even if I publish a novel, unless it pays the bills, I’m not a writer. Even if it pays the bills, unless it wins an award, I’m not a writer. Even if it wins an award, unless I keep on writing until my fingers turn to dust, I’m not a writer. And if I can’t be a writer, neither can anyone who has achieved less than I have.
For some reason, in my mind, being a writer isn’t about the act of writing. It’s about being recognized; a title bestowed upon the worthy. And because I’m not a real life-long English speaker, I can never be worthy. Because no one with undeniable writing clout has ever told me I was any good, I must not be. Even if I get compliments from those around me, I can’t accept them.
On the flip side, every bit of criticism serves to reinforce my condition. Every mistake is proof that I’m not cut out for this. Every convoluted sentence is evidence that I can’t write flowing prose. Every time I get asked if I’m a native speaker (which happens surprisingly often, and only by Americans), my reaction is, “Well obviously you’re not sure, so I must not be.”
Impostor syndrome is like quicksand. Escaping takes tremendous energy, while the slightest mishap just pulls you in deeper.
At least I’m doing something
I have yet to find a remedy for my condition. Even as I write these lines, a little voice in the back of my head is telling me not to publish. Nobody wants to read about my problems. This article won’t get any views. All this writing nonsense is a waste of time.
I’ve come across a few techniques to shut the voice up. The first is artificial deadlines. I’ve decided that if I start an article, I have two days to finish it. Also, I want a new piece of content up on my blog at least every two weeks, but preferably every week. That way when the voice comes to belittle me, I can respond, “Sorry, no time, I’m on a deadline.”
Another is finding other writers to do joint projects. Some people like to join large communities — in my case, I prefer just a few trusted friends. If we all plan to publish at the same time, I don’t want to be the person that chickens out. Peer pressure trumps my insecurities.
Then there’s one’s attitude toward success and failure. For me, the silver lining of impostor syndrome is that I expect failure, making it easier to accept. If my articles get absolutely no attention, that’s fine — I’m not a writer, this is just a hobby I’m doing for myself anyway. If my articles do get noticed, I’m delighted — who would have thought that this little side-project was worth anything!
In the long run, this attitude is problematic. I can only easily accept failure because the voice tells me I’m not a writer. In other words, my attitude reinforces my feeling of being a fraud. If I want to believe in my heart of hearts that I am a writer, I need a better coping mechanism. Perhaps just ignoring criticism altogether. Or convincing myself the haters don’t deserve my precious attention. I don’t know. So far, I haven’t found a healthy way to deal with failure. For now, at least this way of thinking gets my work out there.
Finally, instead of obsessing over made-up criteria for success, I set small milestones and celebrate every achievement. I bought a donut to congratulate myself on the first hundred visitors to my blog. I ordered a pizza when an article of mine passed a thousand views for the first time.
Come to think of it, my celebratory practices do seem to all revolve around calories. Another thing that will probably come back to bite me in the long run. But again, for now, the promise of a savory treat is enough to overcome the overbearing shadow of self-doubt.
I hope to write a follow-up to this piece someday on how I beat impostor syndrome. If I channel all my creative energy, I can just about see myself shaking hands with strangers and introducing myself as a writer. Until that day comes, every bit of writing will be an uphill struggle. The forces pulling me down are as powerful as they are relentless. But for me as for Sisyphus, the only real choice is to keep on pushing.
To stop would be to do nothing. What’s the point of living if I don’t at least do something?
Originally published at http://theforeignrational.com on May 28, 2020.