Writers & ‘Imposter Syndrome’
The book is the book is the book.
As used by Michelle Obama, the term ‘Imposter Syndrome’ is, I suppose, what used to be called ‘low self-esteem’, in that it refers to the feeling that you don’t have the right to be here. ‘It doesn’t go away, the feeling that you shouldn’t take me that seriously. What do I know? I share that with you because we all have doubts in our abilities, about our power and what that power is,’ said Michelle on stage in her London interview.
The term was coined in a 1978 paper by psychologists Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes, who noticed that successful women can feel their achievements are down to luck. Of course it also extends to men, and ‘Imposter Syndrome’ strongly affects writers.
You can work all your life in corporate companies without ever being publicly judged on your work. You are part of a team or a division, and you reflect the fortunes of the company. If it’s doing well people happily suggest that it’s at least partly down to you. If the business tanks you can change jobs and take something else in your field. I have friends I’ve known for decades whose jobs are still a mystery to me, not through lack of trying to understand but because they are facilitators, negotiators, media manipulators, disseminators being paid handsomely to produce intangible product. There’s a delightfully Kafkaesque novel by Keith Waterhouse called ‘Office Life’ in which the hero sets off on a journey through his company to find out what on earth it is they do. Of course he eventually discovers (hardly a spoiler alert) that they don’t do anything.
For a corporate executive, a well-performed job is not necessarily a benchmark of talent so much as survival instinct. For a writer, the book is the book is the book. It comes out and lies there, waiting to be judged. And those who judge it judge you.
But long before we reach that stage, writers start out with nothing but the vaguest sense of a few ideas. Although I started writing short stories as soon as I could hold a pen, I was crippled by a debilitating shyness and lack of self-worth that as a teenager made me alternately introverted and aggressive. It took years to find the courage to write anything because I felt like a fake, mimicking the actions of others.
The snobbery of one’s supposed peers can be horrendous. I was once at a gathering of newspaper feature writers, all white Oxbridge males, who literally laughed in my face when I said I was trying to write a collection of short fantasy stories. There has always been a coterie of writers – many in the extended Bloomsbury Set were entirely devoid of any talent but dilettantism – who sneer at any kind of popular fiction, for to find true success is to publish a slender volume of verse printed in editions of 200.
It amazes me that anyone can be so determined as to produce something at the outset of this excursion into ritual humiliation.We find role models, copy them badly and eventually find our own feet. I was introduced to a grand county lady who turned out to be an agent, and she invited me to a party. I remember being terrified. I didn’t talk enough, I talked too much, I left feeling horribly ashamed of my gaucheness. I’ve since been to events for new writers held in friendly old pubs, where the writers have hovered outside the door, too conflicted to come inside.
Once you become ‘respectable’ (a state that has happily eluded me) you get a better class of invitation. A high table dinner at Oxford, an awards ceremony at Mansion House, an invitation to speak at a press luncheon. And you may find yourself sitting between an astronomer and a diplomat. Or, in my case at last year’s Yeovil Festival, stuck in the back of a clown car with Michael Portillo. You have to find the confidence to hold your own in any situation that’s thrown at you.
I still feel like an imposter; right now I’m working on a thriller entirely built around the notion of family mistrust. It’s an area beyond my comfort zone, and I know a number of great authors who write this sort of thing beautifully. If I succeed in getting it published I’ll be with others who are far more experienced in the field, and the notion of being an imposter will return again. It never goes away entirely.