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.
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.
I 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.
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.