Who Am I To…? What To Do When Imposter Syndrome Sets In

“I assure you, all of my novels were first-rate before they were written.”
– Virginia Woolf

I’m sure most – if not all – of us can relate to this statement. The idea comes, the characters take shape, we start hearing dialogue, and the setting comes into view. We sit down, we write, and when we read our words a few days later, it feels flat. Or like it’s missing something but we don’t know what, exactly.

We start to have doubts. About our initial idea. About our writing. About ourselves. We can start to question whether or not we should proceed – at the very least, with this new idea – and at the very worst – with writing at all. Ever. We lapse into self-flagellation, even if only metaphorically.

It’s easy for imposter syndrome to set in. And it’s easy to compare our “less-than” prose to all those polished, finished, printed books on the bookstore shelf. We believe we don’t – maybe even, can’t – measure up.

You’ve become enmeshed with your work, much like a person who’s become enmeshed in a relationship. You can’t find the edges of yourself. (Where do you end and the writing (or the other person) begin?) It feels icky. It feels claustrophobic. It’s unhealthy.

When this happens, take a step back. Separate yourself from your writing – the work. You and it are two separate entities. And as Chuck Wendig says, “Your First Draft Does Not Require Your Faith In It.”

What matters most is that you just keep moving forward. Keep massaging the idea and the story and the character, and like a bound-up muscle, it will start to relax. In subsequent drafts (and it could mean – almost always means – A LOT of drafts), you may just start to see a glimmer of the brilliance that first came to you.

And always remember Virginia’s quote: For most of us – even the greats – the original idea may always feel like a dream.

And that’s okay…


Writing is Re-writing: Just get it outside yourself

As a college writing instructor, I found that one of the most difficult concepts for students to embrace is that writing is re-writing. None of us gets it right the first time. So many who claim they want to write either don’t want to put for the effort of re-writing or are driven by perfectionism and want their first drafts to be their final drafts.

That never happens.

As Anne Lamott says in her excellent and entertaining book on writing, Bird by Bird, in a chapter titled “Shitty First Drafts,” “All good writers write them.”

I like to think of the analogy of a potter spinning clay. The first draft is the act of throwing the clay onto the potter’s wheel. Just as the clay has to be extracted from its package to be turned into something meaningful and useful, the same is true of our words. We have to extract them from our mind – get them outside ourselves – before we can begin to shape them into something meaningful and useful.

While working on a first draft, just get it outside yourself. Dump the words on the page or screen the way a potter throws the clay on the wheel. Don’t worry about organization, sentence structure, word choice, or punctuation.

After the words are outside your busy brain, then and only then, can you do something with them.

Try it. Do a word dump. Just one page. Do it now…

Then re-work it
5 times
10 times
20 times
… or however many times it takes.