I’ve had a bunch of writer friends admit to falling prey to this thing called the Impostor Syndrome at least once in the course of their writing lives and careers.
It’s the perennial “I’m here under false pretenses – there are so many who are so much more qualified to be here or deserve to be here so much more than me…” kind of response. It’s feeling the urge to slink away into the shadows because you’ve somehow been “unmasked” as being at the ball wearing another’s robes of honor.
Time was, back when I wrote everything by hand, that I had a badge of honor by which I could identify myself as an honest-to-goodness writer. I had an ink-stained callus on the third finger of my right hand and I could show that mark; it would announce to all and sundry that here stood a writer who had earned the name – look at my hand. I bore the Mark of the Scribe that you only get when you’ve spent hours and days and weeks and months plying that pen across the virgin page, creating words and worlds. It was a physical sign – better than a tattoo – it showed the world exactly who or what you were.
Oh, the Impostor Syndrome was still around and no less strong and powerful than it is today – but you could offer this particular disfigurement as proof that you were, in fact, deserving of a place where a writer should go.
My callus is long gone, since I started writing everything via keyboard. I could be anybody now. An accountant. A taxidermist. A doctor. A lawyer. A Bloomingdale salesgirl.
And the Impostor Syndrome persists – I can’t tell you if the ones at the VERY top of the pyramid in my craft feel it in quite the same way, but I know I still feel the pangs of it every so often, particularly if I”m offered a compliment on something I’ve produced. I’ve put in the years, paid the dues, I’ve practiced diligently and produced (at a rough estimate) about 3 million words in print to date. But I’ve no callus. And I still think I should turn and look behind me if somebody comes up to me in a corridor at a convention and says something nice about a book or story of mine.
I don’t think you ever quite get over that. That some stranger has read your words, and liked them, and what’s more liked them enough to come and tell you so. It’s the best feeling in the WORLD, mind you, to hear your heart’s children being praised in your presence – but every so often many of us have to MAKE ourselves remember the ink-stained callus on our finger, the ghost that lingers like an aura around our hand. You never quite get over Impostor Syndrome – but you might, in time, make peace with it – and learn how to channel that gracious writer who’s always standing behind you, and smile, and offer a sincere thank you to the person who just gave your work the gift of their approval and regard.
There’s a part of every writer which NEVER believes that it’s all right to just accept the mantle of WRITER flung around our shoulders and cultivate that sense of what seems like entitlement; there is another part that lurks in us all that has never believed that life could have turned out otherwise. Sometimes it’s hard to see the road that lies between these two conflicting impulses.
But we walk it. And try to keep our balance as best we are able.
Ask a writer sometime about that writer’s callus on the third finger, the one long gone. Most of us will know it, know of it. Most of us will smile when we tell you about it, and stop believing, if only just for a moment, that you could have only meant the question for somebody a lot more exalted than we could ever be.