The Imposter Syndrome

A friend, a professional musician, told me that sometimes, waiting to be introduced, he looked at his trombone and thought, “What is this thing I’m holding? And what do all those people out there expect me to do with it?”

He called these occasional feelings of incompetence the imposter syndrome.

businesswoman speechThinking he was joking, I laughed.

Then came an evening when I finished reading to an audience from my book and asked for questions. A young woman volunteered first: “When did you discover your writer’s voice, and how did you develop it?”

 I stared at her, thoughts ricocheting in my head: “Who’s she talking to? Me? What’s voice? Who’s a writer? I have nothing to say to these people.”

I cleared my throat and managed to choke out an answer. Then, through some miraculous act, I returned to my body. My mind cleared, and my words flowed in response to their questions.

PARKERI described how the best advice I’d ever heard about writing came from Dorothy Parker, who wrote for top magazines including The New Yorker. When asked how to become a good writer, she responded in six words, “Read, read, read, write, write, write,” and took the next question.

I follow her counsel nearly every day.

94px-Stephen_King,_Comicon I talked about a revision strategy Stephen King advocates in his book On Writing: using the delete key. Frequently. It might seem ironic, but Mr. King, a writer who publishes books as thick as dictionaries, cuts his manuscripts daily and then again by at least ten percent after he thinks they’re finished.

After studying his reasoning, I vowed to eliminate bird walks, distractions, any word that doesn’t directly contribute  to my story or message — even when they are charming words I labored over and fell in love with.

Strengthening my relationship with the delete key has also strengthened my prose. I now understand George Bernard Shaw who sent a letter to his friend ending with: “I’m sorry this letter is so long. I didn’t have time to make it shorter.”

I also told my audience about my fourth-grade students who taught me another writing skill: reading my writing aloud to myself or others before I publish it.

In a safe classroom, most children like to read what they’ve written to their peers and, when doing so, read with conviction. Occasionally, however, a child in my class would grind to a halt, scrutinize what was written, look puzzled, then smile with relief and explain: “Oh, I forgot some words,” or, “I meant to say George did it,” or even, “That doesn’t sound good. I need to fix it.”

We hear flaws more clearly when we read our work aloud, because, when we read silently, no matter how many times, our sly, informed minds supply what is needed; and we think everything is hunky-dory.

I read everything I write aloud: sometimes the entire piece, sometimes only the troublesome parts, but always. My husband calls it my muttering phase.

As I shared with my audience the things I’ve learned by reading, reading, reading and writing, writing, writing, I realized I knew something about the craft of stringing words together in a meaningful way. I was not an imposter.

I suppose all of us who work at something we’re passionate about can fall prey to self-doubt and a loss of confidence. Fortunately, it’s usually fleeting.

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53 thoughts on “The Imposter Syndrome

      • I tend to drift around in that I deal with a mix of planned stories and prompts but the technique that helps me the most is to set things aside for a bit. If I look back over my blog, the best posts are the ones that I wrote and then ignored for a few days before editing them. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that it’s a consistent technique. The results are consistent but I don’t apply it consistently. Thanks for asking.

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      • Interesting,Dan. I think one reason I like to write a month or two ahead is that several weeks can go by between my decision a post is ready to be published and the re-reading of it before publication, which always results in changes: sometimes several, sometimes few, but always.

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  1. I used to drive a decrepit van, “Betty Ford” Before setting out, I would sit in Betty, and say to myself, we go when the van says go, I use the same method in writing, go when it feels right- odd yes odd. The wit of Dorothy Parker has got me in trouble a few times, with the humorless masses. This is a fine, thoughtful post, thanks Janet.

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    • Ah, a fellow Dorothy Parker fan. Again, I’m not surprised. From your highly entertaining and steadily flowing blog, I’d say that your Betty-Ford-van approach to writing must work consistently and well for you. It’s good to be back in touch, Sheila. I’ll drop in on Godfrey soon.

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  2. Great post as always Janet. I love your insight. I remember when I decided to do more with my art, JL Introduced me to someone and told them I was an artist. I had that imposter moment. Especially when they asked more about my art. Well… As time goes by I am more comfortable saying I am an artist, but a part of me still feels like an imposter!

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    • I’m happy to hear that you, like I, have experienced the syndrome; and equally happy that we both have arrived at a place where we are comfortable labeling ourselves as practitioners of our passions — with only an occasional twinge from the syndrome.

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  3. Flashback to a quippy car response I subsequently adopted: Getting a lift home from rehearsal, I say, “Go straight until the next stop sign.” And CJ says, “Never go straight. Only forward.”

    Love your post as always. Now read Maisie Dobbs!

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    • So you recognized the trombone player! I love the quote and am happy to hear from you, Carolyn. My reading list has spiraled out of control lately with more good books recommended or given me by friends than I’ve had time to read, but I’ll get to Ms Dobbs. I will; I will.

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    • I’m happy to hear we share a belief in the effectiveness of reading aloud; and, after reading your skillful blog posts, I’d like to know more about your approach to writing. Is there a technique that has proved helpful to you that you could share with me?

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      • I have trouble with the delete button esp with sentences and paragraphs I’ve labored over and think are clever and charming. I know they don’t fit and need to go so to make it easier I started what is now a very long misc. deletes essay where all my discards go. Knowing i can bring things back makes it much easier to do drastic cuts and to experiment.

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      • What a great idea you have: keeping deleted passages for future use. I’m going to start one today for those passages I know must go but I feel are worthwhile writing. In the past I’ve mourned them; now I’ll save them. Thank you.

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  4. You are no impostor. After every round of corrections, I read the piece aloud. I also read the piece backwards at least once to isolate each sentence, but it’s very important to then read it aloud, as I’ve found some of the corrections I make reading backwards don’t flow in context. Over and over and over, until I’m putting back and taking out the same thing, and most importantly, become convinced that it’s total crap; that’s when I know I’m done.

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    • Sounds like you have a muttering phrase as well; and I, too, have found that changes I made while rereading my pieces silently often don’t flow well when I read them aloud. I also have learned that when I’ve spent five minutes debating “the” or “and” and the entire piece is beginning to feel wearisome, it’s time to stop, if for no other reason than maintaining my sanity. It’s good to be back in touch, Rob.

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    • I’m glad you found me as well and led me to your blog. I had no idea when I began that I would find rewarding friendships with other bloggers like you. It’s great, isn’t it?

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  5. I believe I suffered from the imposter syndrome through much of my career. Didn’t you notice?
    On writing, sometimes I find that when I start a new piece it takes a while to discover what I’m trying to say. I’ll write a thousand or so words and eventually whittle it down to 600, distilling it down to its most critical elements. Also, letting it sit for a while helps me see it with fresh(er) eyes. Revision as re-seeing. That steeping period allows much subconscious to do its work as well. I’m very slow.

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    • No, Lorie, I certainly didn’t notice. Quite the opposite: I wished others had your diagnostic and teaching skills. I’m a slow writer as well, because I believe my writing takes time to season. I catch things three weeks later that I didn’t notice when it was fresh off the presses.

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    • No, not crazy at all, Debbie; instead you had the instinctual knowledge that you could hear the rhythm and flow of your words better when you read aloud. Thanks for taking the time to comment. I’ll visit your blog soon.

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  6. Awe Janet, here you go again making me shake my head in wonder at how you neatly tie so much into a post. I appreciate this piece so much. I suffer from the imposter bug, for sure. I too, read my words out loud before feeling “done” with something I am working on, it really does read differently in my head than out loud!
    And, maybe this falls along these lines as well, Gin Getz wrote me the other day asking to exchange poetry for 10 days, alternating photographs, just the two of us. I about fainted when I read her request. Me? We are day 9, I don’t want it to end!

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    • I would say your invitation from Gin Getz and your initial reaction are a perfect example of the imposter syndrome, Carrie. What a compliment Gin gave you and I’m so pleased you are loving it and don’t want it to end. You did a similar sort of thing for me when you encouraged me to enter the poetry challenge. which turned into a marvelous growth opportunity. It’s nice that we help one another and respond to one another even if it makes us feel shaky.

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  7. Ah, yes. Another case of LESS is MORE!!! That’s where my current problem with my writing currently is “bogged down”….How to describe the silly situation in a condensed, witty way and not lose your reader…I’m still a work in progress, but reading the likes of YOU to be a more talented “work”!!! 🙂

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      • Thanks, Janet. Means alot coming from you. I hope to enter a writing contest in March of 2016, so I want to hone my skills. Don’t want to enter unless I feel I’m somewhat competent and have something that’s worthy of reading. Thx,again, for the lovely comment and encouragement.

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      • Congratulations on deciding to enter a contest, Lucie. When I gain enough courage to do so, I feel like I win by just honing a piece to the point that I feel good about entering; and sometimes judges give worthwhile comments. Let me know how you do.

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  8. Eek! I just realized that I forgot to read my latest post aloud. I labored so much to type it all left-handed that I had Tim read it, then called it “good”.
    There’s lots of great advice in this post, Janet. I’ll reflect on it during those (fleeting) moments when I fear I’ve lost my writer’s voice. Thanks!

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    • Good to hear you have a post up, Rita, even though it meant left-handed typing. I’m sure if Tim read and approved your writing it is well done. I’ll check in with your blog soon.

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  9. As always, really insightful. I took so much away from this. The value of the delete key is real – less is more! I tend to find that my best blogs were the ones I sat down and wrote as soon as I got the inspiration. Just wrote whatever came out of my head. Then leave them sit, edit them a day or two later. They usually turn out pretty OK. Again lots to reflect on here! 🙂

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    • I’m glad you found this post meaningful, and that you had already discovered the delete key. I, too, find that letting my writing simmer — unread and not thought about — will highlight weaknesses when I return to it.

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  10. This is a wonderful post! I have had “imposter syndrome” attacks before. I can only imagine what people think as they occur 🙂 It is as if a giant spotlight zooms in and finds you, exposing all of your insecurities to the world!

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  11. I love your husband’s title: the Muttering Phase. What a perfect description of the method 😉
    I read a book years ago about “Imposter Syndrome ” it’s a real psychological affliction, and I believe you’re right–we all suffer a case of it now and then.

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