“You don the disguise long enough, and you can’t even recognize that you are acting. That you are behaving inauthentically, from a place of fear and insecurity. That you can’t figure out how to reconcile the real you with the pretend you.”

So writes Facebook’s Product Design Director, Julie Zhuo, in her article The Imposter Syndrome. She talks about the insecurity and fear she used to feel while she studying and working in software development. It spoke to me because not only have I felt that way working in software development myself, but because even after a change of career paths, I still worry that I don’t belong, despite feeling all the while like this is what I was born to do. And I’m not the only one; so many of the writers I’ve come to know have these thoughts all the time.

While Ms Zhou talks about being a female in a male-dominated industry, and asserts that impostor syndrome is far more common among women, I suspect it’s far more common among men than perhaps anyone realises. I doubt there is a [good] writer in the world who hasn’t worried that one day someone is going to discover he or she is a talentless hack. Are men simply more adept at hiding their insecurities? Perhaps, particularly with the inherited legacy of countless generations; men are still often taught that vulnerability = weakness.

As usual, however, I digress. Honestly, I wasn’t particularly perplexed about the gender issues raised. What interested me was how similar Zhou’s feelings about succeeding (or failing) in the competitive field of software development were to those felt by writers. Maybe it’s true of any field of expertise. I don’t know about that, but I do know writers: there are over two hundred members in the writers’ group I founded; I am a member of an online community of YA writers numbering over 1,000; most of my close friends today are writers.

Many writers are introverts. Many writers are highly sensitive. Many writers obsessively compare their work to others’. Many writers feel inadequate, and don’t take even the hardest evidence—such as obtaining an agent, book contract, publication in a prestigious journal, strong sales figures, etc.—as proof of their abilities. Neil Gaiman famously said:

“The first problem of any kind of even limited success is the unshakable conviction that you are getting away with something, and that any moment now they will discover you. It’s Impostor Syndrome—something my wife Amanda christened the Fraud Police.

In my case, I was convinced that there would be a knock on the door, and a man with a clipboard (I don’t know why he carried a clipboard, in my head, but he did) would be there to tell me it was all over, and they had caught up with me, and now I would have to go and get a real job, one that didn’t consist of making things up and writing them down, and reading books I wanted to read. And then I would go away quietly and get the kind of job where you don’t have to make things up any more.”

And that’s Neil Gaiman! Beloved, acclaimed, best-selling Neil Gaiman. If he doesn’t believe in himself, how will the rest of us ever get there? But in the same speech, given to a graduating arts class in 2012, he also said:

“The moment that you feel, just possibly, you are walking down the street naked, exposing too much of your heart and your mind, and what exists on the inside—showing too much of yourself—that is the moment you might be starting to get it right.”

Words to live by. They won’t necessarily take the impostor feelings away, but I doubt any writer can deny the power of being real in their writing. As an editor, I often have to give the feedback that certain writing is “trying too hard”. And it’s often the answer to why things aren’t working in my own writing. I don’t mean writing should be effortless, but like any art form, the effort shouldn’t be visible. Center Stage might be a mediocre (maybe even downright bad) movie, but a line from it has always stuck with me: “…you make it look like work. I need to see the movement, not the effort behind it.” Good writing doesn’t feel like work to the reader, and the writers who know how to show you their stories—rather than the work they put into telling them—are often the ones who push past the discomfort (or even pain) of vulnerability.

This is something that Zhuo learned in the course of her career, too. She learned to look at her vulnerabilities as strengths, even when they feel like weaknesses. Gaiman is making the same point: you are at your strongest, no matter what you’re doing, when you let your true self be seen. How can you be an impostor when you are being you? I firmly believe—though still need to remind myself often—that no one is ever an impostor in his or her most honest form. If you can find success, however you may define it, by being yourself, you will never need worry what others think.

To my writer friends who struggle with this at any point along the journey, I say the following:

  • for every writer you envy, there is another who envies you;
  • the vast majority of people in the world can’t do what we do;
  • NO other person in the world can write exactly what or how you write;
  • and eternally, and for all I’ve just said: I know. Me too.

Neil Gaiman’s speech can be viewed in full here:

photo credit: Pug Imposter ‘Pug Love’ via photopin (license)