My experience of this beast
Impostor syndrome is the little voice in our heads saying, ‘Are you really good enough? Have you got enough experience to do that? Do you even know what you’re talking about? Surely there is someone out there who is better at this than you? Shouldn’t you go learn some more skills before you attempt this?’
This little voice crops up at odd times. Obviously, every time we do something new or step outside our comfort zones, especially if this move is in some way public. But it can also crop up midway through a project we’ve been acing, at the end of a speech we’ve worked on for ages, when you’re passed the slip of paper at a graduation ceremony that LITERALLY TELLS YOU THAT YOU’VE DONE SOMETHING YOU SHOULD BE PROUD OF.
Even now, I can feel this little voice creeping in as I write this blog post. ‘Anna, who are you to talk about impostor syndrome? Leave that to the more experienced writers, leave it to someone who knows way more about psychology and creativity. You don’t really know what you’re talking about, do you?’
But this is exactly the reason I feel like maybe it’s okay for me to talk about impostor syndrome – because I feel it ALL THE TIME. Every time I reach for my laptop, every time I finish a writing session, every time I think of a new idea – this little voice pipes up. Sometimes it’s not too loud and I can bat it away, but sometimes it’s grabbed a megaphone and will not shut the heck up.
IT DIDN’T WANT ME TO START
I took a long time to start writing – you can read a bit more about that here. I always wanted to write but could never seem to get off the starting block. I had ideas but always felt like I didn’t have the skill to execute them.
There were two main things impostor syndrome was shouting at me – ‘you’re not good enough’ and ‘your writing is awful.’
They’re interlinked, but slightly different. Feeling that I, myself, was not good enough, was a pretty standard feeling for me before I started writing about 10ish years ago. I had super low self-esteem for a number of reasons, but I’d just started to go to counselling to try to quiet the negative self-talk in my head.
That gave me pause when I thought about trying to write down my ideas and ‘you’re not good enough’ began running in a loop in my head. I was chucking out the old beliefs I’d had about myself, and maybe writing down the stories in my head was another way I could prove to myself that I could do something.
But after I cleared the road block of feeling inadequate as a human being, there was still ‘your writing is awful’ waiting in the wings. Dang.
One thing I did A LOT those days was write for about an hour, really enjoy myself, and then when I finished, I’d read what I’d written. BIG MISTAKE. I honestly think that everything I write is hideous unless I’ve given it a bit of space. I’m in awe of people who edit as they go, like they aren’t constantly wailing and rending their clothes over how awful what they’ve written is.
I need time to let my writing become separate from me, and then I can come back to it and make it better. But back then, I didn’t know this could happen. I read my first stumbling attempts immediately and was so disheartened by how far they were from the glory I had in my head.
I’m an avid reader, and one thing I was doing was comparing my shitty first drafts to the finished works of authors I was so totally in awe of. I wanted my writing to be like Joanne Harris’s – effortlessly magical and captivating – when actually it was just so absolutely hideous that I couldn’t bear to do anything but delete it straight away.
‘Your writing is awful’ held me back for a long time. I felt like I had to write something perfect or nothing at all.
It was actually Joanne Harris who took the power out of this poisonous whisper. She said in an interview something like, ‘write the story that’s in your heart.’ And I thought to myself, I can do that. I couldn’t write something wonderful and perfect, but I could write something true that came from the very core of me.
I started writing, and I haven’t looked back. Occasionally, these two whispers still rear their heads but I’ve been doing this for too long now, have utterly fallen in love with the process of creating stories, that I can’t listen to them. I’m not going to give up something that brings me so much joy and freedom.
This would be my advice for you if you’re struggling to silence impostor syndrome for long enough to get started – just try. Don’t tell anyone about it, but take ten minutes a day and write something down. Pick the idea you’re most excited about, and give yourself permission for that first draft to be awful. Let yourself play and fall in love with writing, until the idea of not writing is far more awful than writing something bad could ever be.
IT DIDN’T WANT ME TO CARRY ON
This is another version of impostor syndrome that (for now!) I’ve largely banished but which I used to find really tough to shut down. This time, the little voice was saying, ‘Writing? Now? Aren’t there loads more important things you should be doing? Writing is a waste of time.’
I struggled, for a long time, to take my writing seriously. I grabbed moments to do it around doing other things, rather than prioritising it because putting writing ahead of other things felt so… selfish? Self-indulgent? Like a waste?
I honestly had no preconceptions that my writing was going to lead anywhere, particularly for the first couple of years, so the idea of prioritising it felt silly. It was something I was doing just for me, something that was probably too bad to ever try to send it out into the world, so making time for it felt wildly self-centred.
But then I went on a writing retreat run by the lovely Stephanie Butland at The Garsdale Writing Retreat. I highly recommend writing retreats generally, but this one specifically is FANTASTIC. Glorious food, wonderful environment, and Stephanie is such a knowledgeable and compassionate teacher.
I met people who were willing to shell out a load of money (I was very lucky to get a creative grant) to spend a week focusing on their writing. They took it seriously, and it was the first time that I really believed I could do the same.
I came home and blocked out times in my diary for writing. I wrote for an hour most days before work, because I wanted to give it my best. I stole days from my calendar and dedicated them to falling into the stories in my head.
The idea that there are much more important things we should be doing is a hard one to quiet down. I find myself slipping into old patterns – carving off chunks of my writing time when other things crop up that I feel are more worthy uses of my time. When I notice this, I try not to beat myself up but just reshuffle my priorities again. I love writing, so it’s something I want to give time to.
If you’re struggling to prioritise your writing, I’d suggest making small changes. Make sure that the space you write in is good for you – what could you do to remove distractions? Make sure the time you’ve picked is best for you – do you have the energy and head space to write? And don’t beat yourself up if, for the moment, prioritising writing just isn’t possible. We all go through those times. It doesn’t mean that the mean voice is right, it just means that sometimes life is a bit loud and the things we really want to do have to take a back seat. They won’t always have to, and some time you’ll be able to carve out some time for writing again.
IT DOESN’T WANT ME TO FINISH
You may have noticed that I’ve been able to quiet elements of my impostor syndrome during the writing process, but that there is one thread that runs through it all – ‘Are you sure your writing is good enough?’
I could write a first draft despite this, because first drafts are allowed to be rubbish. I could keep going, because no one was going to see my writing so I could just have fun with it.
But finishing… well, when you finish a book, what do you do with it? It can sit in a drawer and still be just for you (totally valid!), but there is something in me that wants to see my book out in the world. I want my books to be read.
That means people will read my awful writing though. Gah.
I’m honestly a bit terrified at the moment. I’ve got an agent (read more about that here) and we are working on edits to get my story ready for submission, and I am totally bricking it. My impostor syndrome is being SO LOUD – I’m talking megaphones, trumpets, flashing lights. It’s doing anything it can to get my attention.
I believe, at its core, impostor syndrome is really, really trying to do a good thing. It has stupid arse ways of going about it but deep down, all this little voice is trying to do is protect us. Because putting words out into the world is freaking scary.
I can be as logical as I like, I can tell myself my book isn’t for everyone and avoid Goodreads like the plague, but I know that at some point some tool will tag me in a negative review on social media and it will break me a little bit. I know some people will take exception to creative choices I’ve made and attack me personally for it. I know that people will have so many hecking OPINIONS and sometimes they will express those opinions LOUDLY.
I want my stories to be read. It will be a joy like no other to see my book on shelves and in reader’s hands, even better if it connects with their hearts, but there is always a downside to putting any part of yourself out into the world. And impostor syndrome is trying its best to protect me from that.
But sometimes we have to be brave. I really want something, and I know that sometimes having that thing will be tough. Impostor syndrome is always going to have something it’s trying to protect us from, but we have to ask whether being protected is worth it. Would you rather hide away in total safety with your stories, or would you rather throw them out into the world and, just maybe, become someone’s favourite author?
I know I want my stories to fly. I want to write for a living, and the only way that’s going to happen is if I take impostor syndrome by the hand and tell it that I don’t need to hide away. I want my stories out in the world, with all the good and the bad that will bring.
And that’s what you need to ask yourself, if you’re struggling to take that step towards putting your story in front of other people – is it better to hide away and be safe, or do you want more? Take small steps – ask a kind friend to read sections or connect with an editor. Let yourself ease out of your comfort zone.
I don’t think my impostor syndrome will ever go away. It’s been programmed into us since we were cave people that seeking safety is of paramount importance. Our brains sometimes get confused and identify threats now as things that need to be totally avoided, but I’m not going to get eaten by a tiger if I put my stories out into the world. It might be tough sometimes, but the scariness that impostor syndrome wants me to believe is there, simply isn’t anymore.
We can be brave. We can take a deep breath, and step out. Just think of all the wonderful stories the world will gain if we do.
I hope this has been helpful! I love helping other writers make their stories shine. If you’d like me to take a look at your story, check out my editing options. And I’d love to keep you up-to-date with all my editing tips, writing adventures, and editing availability with my monthly newsletter.