Updated: Apr 26
Ah, imposter syndrome - that terrible, ugly monster made up of self-doubt, anxiety, and depression. I don't think anyone is immune to it, but I do think some people are better at coping with it than others. I am not one of those people.
I've always gotten praise for my writing. I recently came across a Fifth Grade Memory Book that my school had put together while I was going through some old storage containers and decided to take a peek inside. My teacher that year was Mrs. Wagner, and she took the time to write personalized messages to each of her students. My message was this: "Sarah, I have learned two very important qualities you possess. You love to read. You love to write. You excel at both. When you read a passage orally, you become that character. When you write, your words present a vivid image. I am so proud of you and your accomplishments." Looking back, I really do have her to thank for my enthusiasm towards writing. Mrs. Wagner did Writer's Workshop activities several times a month, and proudly published everyone's books before letting us share them with the class. I wrote furiously, and while the books are...not good to say the least, I've kept them all these years and still treasure them.
BUT despite the encouragement I received from a very young age, that Imposter Monster continued to lurk right behind me. If I showed my writing to friends and they complimented it, my first thought was always They're lying to me. When positive reviews flooded my inbox from my high school days posting on good old FanFiction.net, I couldn't help but take them with a grain of salt. They were probably just strangers being nice on the internet, right?
I loved to write, though, and I wanted nothing more than to reach a point where I could love my writing and accept the praise it received without second guessing myself. So, after a brief stint studying elementary education, I completely switched up my major in my sophomore year of college. English Literature with a minor in Creative Writing. Once again, the praise from professors started up. I was always encouraged to submit this piece or that short story to some lit mag or other. I never did. Because I was sure they weren't actually good enough. And I regret it.
I will never forget my last semester. I took a one-on-one creative writing course with a professor who was aptly named Dr. Funk. I tentatively showed her the beginnings of a piece I had scribbled out when I wasn't paying attention in one of my night classes - a shifting perspective, mental health focused YA I called The Suicide Club that would eventually become Life Support. I sat across from her, clutching the arms of my chair and watching every miniscule change in her features as she read. She mouthed one single word: Wow. And the look she gave me told me I had done something really special.
Throughout that semester, she helped me develop the characters and plan where the book was going to go. It was going to be my first full-length novel, and I was so proud of it! That should have been enough, right? The praise and encouragement I received from this distinguished (not to mention published) professor, should have been enough to make that Imposter Monster curl up and die for good.
After graduation, my enthusiasm for writing anything quickly fizzled out. I was drained from working full time at a demanding, customer facing service job. When I did try to write, I was convinced it was nothing more than garbage. I tried to remember all the praise, but somehow, I was still sure everyone was lying to me. I'm not that great. I'd read work from other writers and know I'm not that great - and I never would be.
When covid hit, my company shut down for a few months and I took advantage of that time. I started writing again. Furiously. The words I had kept pent up for so long poured out of me like water, and I started to wonder if maybe I could do this after all. My husband saw a change in me during those few months. I was happy and focused, and when he accepted a new job and we had to move ten hours away, we came to the agreement that I could take the time to actually try to make something of my writing.
It started off great. I wrote every day. I loved the words that were coming out. I joined a local writer's group that gave the encouragement I needed to get off my butt and actually finish The Suicide Club turned Life Support. I had left the book at about 50K, and ended up tacking on the final 30K within a month. They really gave me the push I needed.
While I polished up that manuscript, I started querying the novel I had been working on in 2015 and finally finished during that three-month hiatus from work - a slice-of-life, coming-of-age story of a 17-year-old just trying to reinvent her life. And that's where things started to go downhill. The fabled query trenches are not for the faint of heart. Form rejection after form rejection after form rejection came through. The few personalized rejections I received all praised my work, but the agents were ultimately going to pass. I didn't know what to think. Agents loved my writing, but they just didn't think they were the right fit for me. Talk about a mixed message!
I tentatively decided to give Life Support (still The Suicide Club at the time) a shot at the trenches, and I did end up getting a bite, but the kind but vague rejection I received after sending the manuscript told me that agent clearly didn't actually read it.
I decided I had two choices: Give up, or take matters into my own hands. Fortunately, I opted for the latter and dove into the world of self-publishing. As an experiment, I polished up the novella I had written for my first NaNoWriMo in 2017 called The Reaper's Quota, and released it into the world to see what would happen. I was nervous about it. The story is satirical and full of dark humor and death, and I worried it would be too much. Positive reviews began popping up on Amazon (from complete strangers, no less!), and I felt a little better. The worry is still there, but thankfully it's not as bad as it was.
After having success with my experience, it was time to break out the big guns. I changed the title of The Suicide Club to Life Support, polished up the manuscript one final time, and put it out there. And that's when my old friend the Imposter Monster decided to break out their big guns as well.
You see, Life Support was a tough one for me to write because of its strong focus on mental health. The book shifts perspectives between five characters who are all struggling with anything from eating disorders to abuse. Mental health is important to me, as my anxiety has tried to conquer me pretty much my entire life (I was six when I had my first panic attack, and I remember it vividly), and I think it's so important to bring these topics to light. But I was worried because I hadn't personally experienced some of the battles these characters face. I talked to people who had been through similar situations, I researched behaviors and characteristics of particular disorders, and watched people on YouTube share their stories. I had beta readers who assured me the characters were realistic. Hell, even my therapist told me the characters aligned with some of her patients.
Still, I couldn't shake the feeling that someone out there was going to get upset with my depictions. It hasn't happened yet, but I'm sure it will. The book has only been out for two months, after all. When that fear gnaws at me, I just remind myself that everyone experiences everything differently, and I know I did my due diligence to make these characters as realistic as possible. The Imposter Monster does not like that.
So, where am I going with all this? I wonder that myself. I wish I had some wise words or a tale of triumph to share, but I don't. Despite the positive feedback my writing receives (and god, I feel like I'm doing nothing but bragging just typing that!), that old Imposter Monster won't get off my back. All I can do is beat it back with a stick and tell myself I am good enough, even though I don't quite believe it.
I know tons of other writers who feel this way - tons of writers who write incredible stories and have no business feeling any kind of self-doubt towards their work. Maybe it's supposed to be humbling, this Imposter Monster. If it is, it's working too hard at it.
In this anxiety-riddled author's opinion, the Imposter Monster is just something we have to unfortunately learn to live with. The best I can do is tell you to take breaks. On the days when the Monster is whispering relentlessly in your ear, telling you you'll never be good enough, your work is trash, those reviews are fake, everyone is lying to you, etc... don't look at your work. You might end up deleting something great just so that awful Monster can have its way. You might, like me, consider taking all your work down and crawling into a hole forever. Don't do it. Don't let that Imposter Monster win.
Let it speak. Let it get the words out so they're not bottled up inside.
And then tell it to go fuck itself.