Tag Archives: imposter syndrome

Nevertheless She Persisted

Senator Elizabeth Warren tried to read a letter by the widow of Martin Luther King. It argued against Session’s nomination for the role of Attorney General because he had used his position to prevent black voter registration in Alabama. Senator Elizabeth Warren was warned to stop reading. She didn’t stop. Senator McConnell made the famous/infamous statement:

She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted.

Her persistence led to the creation of the hashtags #shepersisted and #NeverthelessShePersisted. I like persisters. I think it is especially appropriate for political struggle, and also for women writers. Which can be the same thing, of course.

Mandatory Credit: Photo by AP/REX/Shutterstock (8325697b)
Holding a transcript of her speech in the Senate Chamber, Senator Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass. reacts to being rebuked by the Senate leadership and accused of impugning a fellow senator, Attorney General-designate, Senator Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., on Capitol Hill in Washington. Warren was barred from saying anything more on the Senate floor about Sessions after she quoted from an old letter from Martin Luther King Jr.’s widow about Sessions
Senate Warren Breaking Rules, Washington, USA – 08 Feb 2017

Persistence

Sticking at it in the face of opposition, that’s what persistence means to me. For women the opposition can be in the form of a person in authority blocking their way, as for Senator Elizabeth Warren, or Vera Brittain’s determination to study at Oxford in 1914 despite her father’s refusal. Or it can be persistence in the face of cultural opposition such as the Suffragettes’ activism, or women seeking to join the professions. My examples refer to opposition based on gender, but many have experienced opposition on other grounds and also needed persistence to overcome obstacles.

Persistence for Writers

Writers need persistence in bucketfuls. Writing takes a long time, to learn the craft and to produce writing of quality, especially large projects such as novels, other books, play scripts and screenplays. And there are other challenges:

  • It’s lonely work
  • Life gets in the way
  • Many writers face self-doubt
  • Imposter Syndrome
  • A writer’s inner critic
  • External critics
  • Rejection (see below)

Women writers can expect some addition obstacles:

  • Less exposure
  • The pram in the hall
  • Shorter history to draw on (see A Room of One’s Own)
  • Cultural expectations of women’s writing

Jane Austen, Winchester Cathedral. Photo credit: Jayembee69 on Visual hunt / CC BY-NC-SA

Rejections

All writers need to be able to face rejection. It’s always reassuring to hear how many rejections were received by writers later credited with great work.

William Golding received 20 rejections for Lord of the Flies.

Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 was turned down by 22 publishers

Carrie by Stephen King was rejected 30 times.

Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind was rejected 38 times.

Anne Frank’s Diary was rejected by 15 publishers.

To be rejected that many times I note takes persistence.

Not even getting to rejection

Many women’s lives are so busy and occupied with care of others that they may not get to prepare writing for publication until quite late in life. Mary Wesley published her first adult novel at 61. Laura Ingelis Wilder, author of Little House on the Prairie, published her first novel at 64. These two writers both turned to writing in times of financial need. Anita Brookner published her first book at 53. Anne Goodwin, author of Sugar and Snails and Underneath refers to herself as an ‘elderly prima-authorista’.

Practising Persistence

Persistence is a quality needed by writers. But how can they acquire and develop it? Julia Cameron, who pioneered the idea of Morning Pages, wrote recently (August 2017) about their value to her.

For more than 25 years, I have faithfully written Morning Pages – three pages of longhand stream of consciousness that serves to unlock my creativity, guiding me a page at a time into my future. The pages, I often say, are like lanterns—illuminating the path ahead. I write them daily, aware that skipping them leads back to blocks. The faithful practice of pages leads to freedom. They bring ease and inspiration to my life. (MindBodyGreen)

And the first thing she learned is that persistence paid off. Regular writing, not for publication, is practised by many writers. It gets creative juices going.

Dealing with the obstacles that require persistence is the focus of several chapters in Jurgen Woolf’s Your Writing Coach. One section is called Persist! and in it he offers practical approaches to some difficulties: space, isolation, critics, finding time. And some ways to speak to yourself about keeping going. I especially like the advice, to be good to yourself.

So, fellow women writers, Persist! For my sanity I need per-sisters!

Your Writing Coach by Jurgen Woolf, published in 2012 by Nicholas Brealey.

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Imposter Syndrome for Writers

‘It’s only me …’ That’s the first part of imposter syndrome. The second is ‘… and I’m about to be found out.’ This is a recognised psychological syndrome. According to some writing blogs it is especially prevalent in writers. I suspect that’s because they read mostly about writers and their difficulties. It is more likely common everywhere, and in all walks of life, with the possible exception of politicians who often are imposters but have no fears about discovery.

If any group experiences its discomforts more than others I suspect it is women, who, like everyone, suffer from believing they may not be good enough, but have the added experiences of being constantly told that women are not as good.

So there is a lot of it about. What can writers do to mitigate its paralysing effects?

Imposter syndrome and ‘real’ writers

It is clear from a small amount of research that published writers also suffer from imposter syndrome. Maya Angelou was one, despite seven volumes of autobiography, and praise for her poetry. She was asked by President Clinton to recite On the Pulse of Morning at his inauguration in 1993. You can see her performing this poem here. Neil Gaiman is another, but he changed when he met another sufferer – Neil Armstrong – according to his blog.

Imposter Syndrome and less experienced writers

In my writing group recently a member revealed that she wanted to write a book. She said she hesitated to say it in front of ‘real’ writers. And furthermore, when she thought about writing she always found something else to do, had no time available to write in, and no space she could shut herself away in.

Another member of my writing group recalled working for a poet, male, who retreated to his study every morning at 10 and expected to remain undisturbed until lunch was ready. There was some admiration for the man’s discipline and routine, but also the wry acknowledgement that the model was not altogether satisfactory for many women.

And it made me wonder what image of writers, ‘real’ writers, is common in people’s minds. Is it the silence, the closed doors, the removal from the world that our first member seemed to refer to? I mentioned a writer who frequently works in a café, loves the busy-ness of the public place. Perhaps by a ‘real’ writer she had a belief that this is someone who has been published.

A third member of our group reminded us that we can choose to call ourselves writer and that the only thing that makes someone a writer is … that they write.

Since imposter syndrome is not a rational condition, the solution is not to say ‘don’t be so silly, just write,’ but more to acknowledge that to be a writer you need to write.

The first piece of advice is Claim yourself as Writer and it comes from Writing Alone, Writing Together by Judy Reeves (2002).

Claim yourself as Writer.

Until you name yourself Writer, you will never be a writer who writes (and keeps writing).

Most writers I know, especially those who have not published, say, “I want to be a writer.” Or “I’m a [fill in the blank] and I like to write.” Or “I’ve always dreamed of being a writer.” But they don’t actually call themselves a writer. …

If you announce you are a writer, rather than simply mouthing that you want to be or you’d like to be, you may be transformed. Try it. Right now. Speak your name out loud followed by, “I’m a writer.” Let yourself experience the sensations you feel when you sound out the words. (2)

You can probably tell that this is an American text. Nonetheless, the first step is to claim I am a writer. The second step is to show up at the page. And the third step is to write.

And to support all of this claiming and naming, here are some ways to provide infrastructure for writing to substantiate the claim:

  • allocate time,
  • find a place or places to write,
  • budget money to support your writing (eg courses, tools, research activities),
  • invest in the tools you need,
  • socialise with other writers,
  • and read.

Imposter syndrome means being in danger of being found out

Just for a moment, apply some reason to the fear of being exposed. How often does it happen? Do you know people who called themselves writers and you find out that they aren’t? Or people who are bad writers? Actually this does happen. Dan Brown’s novels are frequently criticised for being badly written, publicly, loudly, and yet … You know he’s made a ton of money out of them?

Perhaps the fear is that you are an imperfect writer. This is true, you are. There is no such thing as perfection in writing, and even if your writing is excellent you still have more to learn.

But many, many writers have a fear that their writing will be rejected. The advice about rejection seems to be toughen up and grow a pair. I find this advice sexist and unhelpful. We do have to learn to accept rejection, and it is possible to argue that you learn through the experience. Writing being such a personal activity, in which writers have usually invested a great deal of themselves, it is not comfortable and to be told that your labours have resulted in something that is not wanted. And dispiriting. And discouraging.

Dorothea Brande in Becoming a Writer (1934) suggests that every writer goes through a slough of despond. Every thought appears to erode further the writer’s self-confidence. And, she suggests, many writers give up at this point. Only writers who decide to persist manage to crawl out of the other side of the slough, she suggests.

Another classic giver of advice to artists is Julia Cameron in The Artist’s Way (1993). Her approach is to practice affirmations, to turn negative thoughts into positive alternatives.

And what do writers say?

In Your Creative Masterclass (2012) Jurgen Woolf includes a helpful chapter on confidence. Checkov advises a version of turn up at the page.

You must once and for all give up being worried about success and failure. Don’t let that concern you. It’s you duty to go on working steadily day by day, quite steadily, to be prepared for mistakes, which are inevitable and for failures. (214)

Joyce Carol Oates, a very prolific writer, reminds us about writers who had to change after failure to become writers of other stuff.

One must be stoic, one must develop a sense of humour. And, after all, there is the example of William Faulkner, who considered himself a failed poet; Henry James returning to prose fiction after the conspicuous failure of his play-writing career; Ring Lardner writing his impeccable American prose because he despaired of writing sentimental popular songs; Hans Christian Andersen perfecting his fairy tales since he was clearly a failure in other genres – poetry, play writing, life. (215-6)

So, what to do?

You may have your own tactics for dealing with that voice saying – it’s only me and I’m about to be found out. We’d love to read them. Meanwhile think on this. What happens when you turn up and write? What happens when you claim it and invest in it? Can you practise persistence and affirmation when it all seems discouraging? Could you read your poems at the next presidential inauguration?

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Photo credit: Maya Angelou at President Clinton’s inauguration by staff photographer, President’s office via WikiCommons.

 

 

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