March 22, 2014 by Renee
Earlier this week I shared a review of Dirty Truths with my friend, Katrina. I said something about how crazy it was that the reviewer got so excited about it. I also told her it amazed me every time someone does that over my books. I know I gush over books I’ve read, but this is me and my book, so it’s weird. Apparently, I’ve said something similar before, because she replied, “It’s funny how you’re continually surprised when people like your books.”
I almost denied it, but she’s right. I am surprised. Every single time. A positive review is more of a shock than a negative one. Why? I don’t know. It just is. Then Hanna joined the conversation (we often have these three-ways), telling me that my weirdness is called “Impostor’s Syndrome” and it’s very common for authors.
This term is new to me but when you think about it, the feeling that you’re not “good enough” and someone will eventually figure it out and tell the whole world is understandable in a creative area that involves reviews.
So I Googled it, of course. And it’s not really new to everyone else.
Impostor syndrome if defined by folks who know more about this stuff than I do as a ”collection of feelings of inadequacy that persist even in face of information that indicates that the opposite is true. It is experienced internally as chronic self-doubt, and feelings of intellectual fraudulence.”
But let’s break it down a little more. Impostor’s syndrome involves the belief that you don’t deserve your success or position and have somehow deceived others into thinking you do. You fear at some point readers will figure out your game. In my case, it’s not that I believe I don’t work hard or don’t produce good work (I’ve worked damn hard for every scrap of success I get), but I do fear someone will suggest I’m not as good as some reviews say I am. I know it’s ridiculous, but the fear is there nonetheless. Is it rational? Of course not. Who says I’m rational?
Some “impostors” credit success to luck instead of their abilities. I think most of us believe this at least once in our writing career, but we also know we’re competent enough at writing to deserve the “luck.” An impostor fears he never had good ideas or writing to begin with. Basically, you believe a publishing contract or publishing a book that pleases readers is a fluke you may not be lucky enough to see happen again.
Impostor’s syndrome can also cause you to “downplay success,” saying things like you really didn’t work that hard, or the book isn’t “that” good. You might have a hard time accepting compliments about your books too. I can totally relate to this one. I confess, I’m always skeptical of a gushing review. It’s like they’re up to something that will turn out horribly wrong. We never said I was sane either.
You’ll find a lot of psychological mumbo-jumbo from really smart people (who are probably right) to explain why or how you became an impostor, but I think for authors, part of the cause is this industry.
Right, blame publishing.
Actually, I’m not blaming publishing specifically. You have to have a certain type of personality for this to be an issue. For example, when I was in school, I decided my identity and my worth was directly linked to how smart I was. Yeah, I was one of those kids. I was taller than all the boys were, my hair was reddish and poofy, I had freckles, my skin was so pale you could almost see through it, and I was ridiculously clumsy. Before that, I was so fat I couldn’t even run without falling over my thighs… I had to find something to make myself feel good or I probably would’ve jumped in front of a truck.
Anyway, I’d make myself sick over a grade that was less than the best in the class. It was exhausting to be that person. This type of person going into publishing is perfect for Impostor Syndrome.
The query/submission process as well as the way books are marketed (reviews, author platforms, personal image, etc.) make it easy for any of us, neurotic or not, to fall into this kind of mental trap. As authors, we’re putting on a show to sell each book. With each show, we struggle to maintain some of our selves in that image, or to make sure every reader likes the self we’re putting out there. And I don’t think I have to explain how querying agents and publishers makes you feel like a sack of shit. Rejection always puts a ding in a person’s self-esteem and cranks the paranoia level to “high alert.”
And let’s not forget the editing process, in which someone changes your words, phrases, sometimes, the direction of the plot or characters, and points out every mistake you made, so it feels like maybe you didn’t do such a shit-hot job on your own. You need these edits. Everyone does. But it’s easy to feel “not good enough” after reading through 300 pages of red marks. It’s harder to remember EVERYONE needs an editor and even the authors making the big bucks write shitty first drafts.
Once the book is out there, readers take a stab at your ego as well. Reviews sell books. We need them, both good and bad. It’s hard to ignore the sting of a bad review. Now that your ego is so battered, it’s also hard to believe the good reviews.
So how do you stop thinking this way? Good question. I’m not sure. I’m a confident person. I rarely get tearful or stabby over slights, but my books make me feel vulnerable in a different way than regular life does. Vulnerability is not a comfortable place. No matter how well I do, I can’t stop doubting myself or my writing now and then. Is it because we’re always learning? Because writing is never perfect? Is it lunacy on my part? I don’t know. I’m aware that my surprise at good reviews is ridiculous, and I know I can write a decent story. Yet, I feel undeserving. Do what you will with that.
Anyway, the professionals say imposter syndrome causes you “over internalize” your failures. Well, speaking from my personal experience (I queried for four years), more than 500 rejections tends to make a girl more than aware of her shortcomings. I think it makes sense.
I do think authors are under a lot of pressure not to fail. This pressure comes from both from themselves and their readers. This makes it hard to enjoy success when it happens.
So, now that I’ve rambled on and on, and I’ve confessed my insecurities, please tell me I’m not the only one. How do you stop the inner critic?