Imposter Syndrome, Writers?Jul 04, 2021
From the Desk of Polly Ho-Yen
The term “imposter syndrome” was first coined by Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes in their landmark 1978 study of 150 highly successful professional women in various fields. Susan Pinker, author of The Sexual Paradox: Troubled Boys, Gifted Girls and the Real Difference Between the Sexes, describes Clance and Imes's findings as follows:
“Despite accolades, rank, and salary, these women felt like phonies. They didn’t believe in their own accomplishments; they felt they were scamming everyone about their skills.”
You would not be alone; according to a review article published in the International Journal of Behavioral Science, an estimated 70% of people experience these impostor feelings at some point in their lives. Impostor syndrome is seen to affect both genders and all kinds of people from every part of life. Perhaps it’s not, in fact, a useful term and helps to mask and proliferate systematic bias and discrimination, as writers Ruchika Tulshyan and Jodi-Ann Burey explore in their Harvard Business Review article, ‘Stop telling Women they have Imposter Syndrome’.
I’ve just hit send on my ninth book. Mostly I’ve written children’s books: four are middle-grade novels, two have been commissions - a short novel for a reading scheme and illustrated fiction for young readers - and this year marks the publication of my debut in adult speculative fiction. I’ve a first draft of another middle-grade book with my editor and the story that I’ve just sent packing I hope will find a home with a younger audience. And yet despite this, I can’t shake the feeling that I don’t know what I am doing a lot of the time. If I stop to think about it, I begin to feel shaky with my own vulnerability. What better place to admit this but here in this blog post where I’m claiming to have the answers - or at least something useful to say.
Whether this is imposter syndrome or not, there is something that I feel sure of, with each published novel that I tuck onto my bookshelf and every first word typed in place of a blinking cursor, which means I don’t let these feelings of inadequacy take over. Despite my worries, I actually feel I write my stories with confidence (blog posts can be another matter!) This is because I know how to help myself when I’m feeling full of doubt, when I’m worn down and unsure, insecure and worried if what I’m doing is any good at all. I keep coming back again and again to the same lesson: it’s a lesson in kindness.
When I started writing my debut novel for children, I was teaching full time and I’d just taken over my first class – an exuberant group of five-year-olds in South London who were keeping me very much on my toes. The job was more than enough to be getting on with and yet I found myself turning a story over and over in my mind that I felt I had to write. The first hurdle for so many of us is giving ourselves ‘permission to write’. There are a million and one other things that you should be doing and in the time that you’ve even entertained the idea of writing, that list has grown to a million and two. To me, it feels like an absolute kindness to yourself to tell yourself that you do believe that you’re allowed to write - just because you want to. It’s the first kindness we must grant ourselves as writers: a playful self-belief. For we’re not asking anything of it (for now); it’s an experiment in curiosity.
I began to get up before I had to leave for school to write because I knew that I would talk myself out of doing it if I waited until the evening. My second kindness to my writing, and to myself, was giving this time over to this expression. I may not have felt fresh but I definitely wouldn’t have been able to summon the energy after a day of teaching. Unwittingly I had found my Golden Hour, the daily time for writing that we at The Novelry encourage all our writers to find.
It’s a gentle evening outside as I type this remembering those first hours I dedicated to writing. My days are quite different now; my daughter wakes so early sometimes that a Golden Hour before she gets up simply wouldn’t work. But I still have to carve out regular time, in the morning if possible, where I can disappear into my fictional world. So I instigated an alternate morning timetable with my husband and use my morning lie-in to write. If I don’t write in the morning, I’ll find an hour in the evening to write, as I’m doing now. I snatch up any other opportunity I can, of course – long car journeys, nap times, the odd hour when the house is quiet – but I know that the regular hours are a necessity for me – a kindness to myself that without them, I would simply feel so much less.
It’s still on my road tonight; there’s just the occasional car, the sound of a territorial blackbird piercing the quiet. I now write in the room that is my studio: a simple space with a large desk and a lamp, bookshelves and a bed for guests in the corner. For a very long time, I didn’t have a room of my own and I relish it now (and the door that can be closed.) Since I started writing professionally, I’ve sought out spaces to write in any place I could find them. First, it was the table in the sitting room of our tiny, damp flat before my husband woke up. Then, balancing precariously on a pulled-out drawer in the bedroom (when my husband was awake.) After that came very many public libraries, staffrooms, trains, coaches, a narrowboat, the chair in my mother in law’s attic room, the dining room table at my parents’ house … each of these places I feel strangely connected to. I can recall the way the light would fall, the hardness of the chairs, the texture of the tables. I wonder if this is because each stint of writing feels like such powerful moments of connection for me that they have become etched into my memory. Recently, talking to my fellow tutor Emylia Hall about writing retreats and deciding afterwards that I have just got to book one for myself, got me thinking more about the gift of space that we must also give ourselves as writers. Holding a space, physically, to write in goes hand in hand with guarding the temporal space. Whether it’s a studio or a shed, a corner of the kitchen table or a park bench, seeking out the place or places that will become your writing home is in my eyes, an essential kindness.
I’m about to start my tenth story and I begin my books, in the same way, every time. I like to collect ideas on a blank piece of paper and I scrawl them down on the page as they fall. I let myself think big and small, weird and ordinary – but whatever comes, I welcome it. I trust that I’ll find a story I want to tell - if I just do this for long enough. If I feel stuck, I doodle and let the doodles wander. I’m unstoppably kind with myself at this point because I know I need to get every idea out before I can find the one that grabs me. If I try to weigh each one up as it comes then I’ll end up freezing, worried that none of it’s any use, that it won’t come to anything. I try not to think in terms of an idea being ‘good’ but simply whether it interests and engages me enough to want to write it. It’s never failed me this process; I have my tenth idea for a story scribbled out in between looping curls and inexplicably, sketches of trees, a cup of tea and a woodpecker.
Another incredibly important act of kindness in my process is that I set myself very achievable goals. Just before I started writing my debut I went to an event to hear John Boyne speak and heard him share how he’d written ‘The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas’ in a period of something like five days. It felt in equal measure inspiring and down-heartening to hear this. ‘It can be done, in just five days!’ flashed through my mind. But when my word count wasn’t stretching to a good eight thousand at just day one of writing, I already felt I had failed. But what if I just brought the daily count right down? What if I made the decision to feel damn right pleased with myself if I wrote five hundred words a day? This is one of the methods we teach at The Novelry. We find that by taking the pressure off, our writers do better.
Sometimes I could do more but by setting myself up to succeed – finding kindness towards myself rather than a strict agenda has meant that finishing a book has never tormented me. I know I can build it, day by day if I continue to show up and keep on writing.
This piece-by-piece approach is liberating when the whole thing is starting to feel impossible. Perhaps life is taking over, which it has an annoying tendency to do; it’s all too easy to start to feel wretched and frustrated that you’re being kept from writing your story although you’re well aware that your headspace is at an all-time low. A technique I employed when I needed to write when my daughter was tiny and feeding interminably, my brain was depleted of sleep and sanity, and we’d just entered the first lockdown, was to set a timer for five minutes. I would tell myself I would just write for that long. Before I set the timer I was sure that I wouldn’t be able to achieve anything but by granting myself the kindness of making it utterly achievable, I’d get stuck in. Five minutes would pass and by then I’d invariably be hooked until a nap would end and I’d be pulled back into babyland.
Once you’re over the hurdle of actually making the writing happen, that’s when the real fun begins and you can be sure that your inner critic is alive and kicking. By starting, you’ve actually given yourself something that you can tear to shreds. This is when showing kindness to yourself becomes both a shield and a weapon. One of our ten commandments for writers at The Novelry and perhaps the most fundamental is 'don't be mean to yourself it serves no purpose so just stop it.' The opposite can be said for kindness. By approaching your work with kindness I absolutely do not mean an acceptance that your work is the best thing that’s ever been created – for me, it’s all about clarity and a belief in moving forwards. It’s about, in your re-reading of your writing, to look for what is working and to lose what is not. To connect with your shortcomings and then do something about them.
I know that I’m always very keen to get to the exciting things in my story as soon as possible. I want to get to the action quickly because otherwise I fear I will surely lose my reader. I know I’m doing this because I’m probably a bit insecure about the story. Time and time again, I do this but especially so, when I was starting out with my first book, Boy in the Tower. I know now I need to employ the same lesson of kindness towards my characters that I’m purposefully and stubbornly giving myself: allowing them to have the time and space to grow before I move the story on.
At this point in writing, when I’m redrafting and editing, I know that every tool I’ve employed to get me to this point, I need to draw on more than ever. I must continue to hold both time and space for this story, even if I’m losing hope and my energy is flagging. My daily goals must be completely possible for me to achieve and so that I’ll keep at it, working word by word, sentence by sentence. The process of editing - of rereading, revising and reshaping - is one that fascinates me. I love what George Saunders has written on the subject, that editing is, in essence, an act of empathy towards your reader:
We often think that the empathetic function in fiction is accomplished via the writer’s relation to his characters, but it’s also accomplished via the writer’s relation to his reader … This mode of revision, then, is ultimately about imagining that your reader is as humane, bright, witty, experienced and well-intentioned as you, and that, to communicate intimately with her, you have to maintain the state, through revision, of generously imagining her. You revise your reader up, in your imagination, with every pass. You keep saying to yourself: “No, she’s smarter than that. Don’t dishonour her with that lazy prose or that easy notion.”
- George Saunders’, The Guardian, ‘What Writers Really Do When they Write’
Finally, you might find yourself reaching a kind of finishing line: your book is on submission, you’re waiting to hear back from agents or publishers and after that tiny beginning, that playful self-belief, and the hours upon hours of work, you await judgement. Ironically, either a negative or a positive outcome may still lead to feelings of being an imposter. Perhaps, if you are successful you’ll wonder how you ‘got away with it’ and if you are not, that you never ‘had it’ in the first place. This is the time when kindness to yourself is more important than ever. Reaching this point, I feel all you can do is to tell yourself that you have done everything that you could and that now it’s down to luck. I like to remember this quote from Charles Horton Cooley which I read in one of my favourite books I go to if I ever need a pick-me-up: ‘Your Inner Critic is a Big Jerk and Other Truths about Being Creative’ by Danielle Krysa:
“An artist cannot fail; it is a success to be one” – Charles Horton Cooley
I remember that if I have exercised kindness to myself throughout this whole process then the publishing of a work is a cherry on top. Having already had the reward of crafting the work, everything else that may or may not follow can fall away. I’ve given myself this gift of writing and nobody can wrestle this from me.
At The Novelry, we practice kindness as a way of helping our writers write. It's possibly our most important tool in terms of productivity. We don't have many rules, but we do offer some tips as a mantra on the novel course main page, the last of which seems so simple but is so hard for so many - do not be mean to yourself, it serves no purpose!
We are active in our support of our writers because as working writers - each and every one of us on the team - we know how doubt and fear can take over if they're not put in their place.
They do serve a purpose, in fact. They're there for taste and judgement and are useful when you're editing your novel. But they're not so much use when you're in the first draft creation phase.
One thing we find, and we thank our writers for this, is that the sense of not being alone, that others feel the way you do, means that we can - perish the thought - laugh at how rotten we can be to ourselves.
Writing alone is, well, writing alone. Come over to the sunny side. We're all imposters, for sure, but if we can grin about it we can get novels done nonetheless. The frailty so common to all of us is, after all, at the heart of the honesty that characterises memorable and touching fiction. Maybe it's good - and brave - to 'lean in' to feeling afraid.
We will look forward to seeing you at The Novelry soon where we'll take good care of you.