The Perils of Comparison and the Posse of Imposters Answered

To justify this feeling of not belonging I compare myself to others: what they do, where they are published, what they write, how often they write. In doing so I confirm, by my own set of warped principles, that I’m not worthy of keeping their company, much less have my work appear alongside theirs (even if some other impartial third-party thinks this—whether these third parties be editors or panels dispensing awards).

~ Shall I Compare Thee, 14.03.2011

This wasn’t what I set out to write in response to Paul Anderson’s all for the staff writers to conduct a skills’ audit in February and publish the results on Write Anything in March. The conversation among the other writers grew after one admitted to really struggling with writing their column and how they’d found the skills audit really difficult. I felt I was approaching the process in a rather shallow way if I wasn’t hurting, plagued by a thousand doubts. After all, really, how deep was I going to get just talking about dialogue and imagery (what I excel at and what I struggle with). You don’t grow and evolve by taking the easy path… even though the temptation is often overwhelming.

In the end I wrote about my bad habit of comparison and the underlying feeling of being unworthy of my position—which denies me any enjoyment of my accomplishments. Writing it felt like stripping myself naked in public! Did people really need to see this side of me—hell, did I need to see this side of me. The temptation to hit delete taunted me. You know, that easy path.

On the poise of meltdown and giving in to the delete key, I sent my article to Devin Watson. I just needed someone to tell me it was okay to say all these things, to think and feel this way. His response to me was—“Welcome to the club”—like I’d reached some special milestone. He also told me there was an actual condition called Imposter Syndrome.

Wiki defines it as:

The impostor syndrome, sometimes called impostor phenomenon or fraud syndrome, is a psychological phenomenon in which people are unable to internalize their accomplishments.

Despite external evidence of their competence, those with the syndrome remain convinced they are frauds and do not deserve the success they have achieved. Proof of success is dismissed as luck, timing, or as a result of deceiving others into thinking they are more intelligent and competent than they believe themselves to be.

It turned out to be the validation I needed to post the article, rather than scuttle it and return to safer waters of a dissection of my dialogue and imagery skills.

What I didn’t expect was the overwhelming response of others to the column. It is a long time since something I wrote aroused such discussion. The writers who commented (who are some my nearest and dearest colleagues, as well as others who I look up to) admitted they too feel unworthy or fraudulent of their place and accomplishments; they feel insecure about themselves, they have had fallen into the habit to comparison and have had creativity and confidence undermined by the practise.

Not only do I feel less alone inside my psychoses and self-flagellation now, the real power of the commentary was the pearls of wisdom shared. I see a way out of this crappy habit now to enjoy where I am, what I do and have done.

A Credo

I was feeling this way for a while. But I decided that maybe I am not a great writer. I am still learning everyday. But I am me. My writing is my voice. No one else writes like me. As long as I am doing the best I can than I am being true to myself. Honesty, hard work and less comparison is my motto. ~ Rebecca L Dobbie

So I thought about a personal writing credo. Something simple and actionable, even on the worst days. I’m tempted to spew forth an entire list of dot points, but when I think back across the last few months I’ve developed a credo organically (and why the hell reinvent the wheel):

  • “write dangerously” and often
  • give the best part of the day to writing
  • write with others
  • rinse and repeat

The Only Comparison Worthy

When I start to compare my progress to others around me, I try my best to shut it down. I usually distract myself by writing. Refocuses me on what matters.

There will always be someone achieving something you wish you could. Perhaps better to compare yourself to yourself a year ago. I’ve found looking at my writing from a year ago and my writing now gives me a sense of how I am doing, rather than how I am doing in relation to anyone else. ~ Dan Powell

A year ago I was hurting toward the first of my massive meltdowns. Writing was the last thing on my mind, my confidence mostly shot to pieces. The only real memory I have of my writing last year was how much I hated most of it… not just what I wrote but the actual process. The swoon long dead, it felt like something I ‘had to do’, like dragging myself in a daze through water.

I saw my stories printed in Dead Red Heart, Hope, Nothing But Flowers and Eighty Nine, and had another story accepted for publication in Sunday Snaps, The Shorts, but they were either reworkings of existing work, submissions from the previous year, something I wrote for Literary Mix Tapes. Then there were all the stories which were never finished, including a mid-November bail on NaNo.

There were plenty of other opportunities which passed me by, including  Ride the Moon (the debut publication of Tyche Books), Vine Leaves’ first issue and Tony Noland’s April Fools Day Blog Swap.

I’m in a much, much better place this year, and just looking back fills me with confidence of what is achievable this year. Already, in the first two months of my creative year, I have already completed a month of haiku, the first five Form and Genre challenges (and won the readers’ choice twice), received my first acceptance (Vine Leaves Literary Journal – yes I finally got there) and I’m currently five weeks ahead of deadline on my first competition submission (ever!)

It doesn’t matter at the end of the day what anyone else is going. It only matters what I’m doing… and well, that I am doing, not just full of hollow good intentions.

It Doesn’t Mean the End of the World

The day you stop feeling insecure in your work is the day you don’t care any more. May that day never come. I’ve never met a writer yet who didn’t feel that way and work on despite it. ~ Alan Baxter

I’ve said the day I feel an internal air punch when I email edits back to an author is the day I give up editing. It will mean I have lost my humility, my ego running the show and I don’t ever want to edit from that space. The sense of nerves I feel returning edits is akin to the nerves I feel just before public speaking. The difference being, I use the nervous energy to infuse my speech with enthusiasm. It sounds counter-intuitive but it’s not. If I’m not nervous… I don’t really care.

This is what I need to do with the energy produced by my insecurities, let it fuel my writing, rather than set it up as a wrecking ball. Allow it to be a litmus test for how much I care about my work and myself as a writer. Let it inspire me to keep honest (not just in my writing, but with myself). Hallelujah!

We All Bleed Red

At the end of my original article I wrote:

As writers we all bleed in one way, shape or form for the stories we birth. In that way, all writers are equal.

I’d like to add, how very grateful I am for the company I keep, where my blood converts to ink.

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14 thoughts on “The Perils of Comparison and the Posse of Imposters Answered

  1. My own insecurities stem from the fact I am a n00b writer, being asked to write for Write Anything, in a field of people who I consider more successful than me, who write better than me, produce more than me.
    But…
    I feel proud because people have seen something in my work they connect with, trust me to write, and include me as their friend and writer. New I may be, and feel like an imposter from time to time, but my insecurity will challenge me to write as well as I can.
    Dreaming Big: Tim Winton and Marcus Zusak. That big.

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    • So when do you consider having served your apprenticeship as a n00b and moving up and on?

      I remember being invited to be columnist at Write Anything three years ago and being thrilled to step up and be part of a site which had been seminal in reinventing myself as a writer after almost a decade away from the page. But at the same time I struggled with the ‘do I actually have anything worthwhile to offer’ – that whole thing about ‘being expert’. And who was I to claim expert at anything – much less writing.

      While we’ve come to understand “Expert” in its modern definition: A person with a high degree of skill in or knowledge of a certain subject. But the word has its roots in Latin: expertus, (past participle of experr) which means to to try. Later definitions have it as “having walked the path”.

      It means as long as you are doing, you are an expert and have a worthy comment to make. The fact we have writers on differing stages of their writing careers means Write anything reaches the most number of readers… we’re not a bunch of old hands dispensing information like lollies… but people actually struggling and succeeding at different junctions from novice to professional.

      Writing with you this year, has been like standing on the top of a mountain and sucking in the clean, clear air. The sort of vista and experience makes you truly grateful for being alive. It has been an absolute honour being able to share a creative space with you.

      And I don’t think it is too big a dream for you to follow in the footsteps of Winton and Zusak – two of my all time favourite writers. Present in your writing are the same elements of emotional impact, simplicity of prose and evocative imagery which are trademark Winton and Zusak.

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  2. I like the community of Write Anything, Friday Flash, the old Fiction Friday and the new FGC, as everyone celebrates everyone’s achievements from small publications to book publication.
    When will I have finished my apprenticeship? I think maybe after a year of blogging for Write Anything and finished editing the draft of my first novel.

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    • I think I’m still serving my apprenticeship then. I am signing up for AWMO’s Year of the Novel with Alan Baxter to spur me through writing my novel (that was once novella, but now too big to contain!) and I want to do a collection of shorts etc based on what I’ve written for FGC – going to call it 52 Degrees of Madness.

      Thus I have an outcome for participating in FGC.

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  3. I am still learning and growing as a writer. And I ALWAYS feel as though my writing is nowhere near good enough. Until this past year, the only writing of mine that I let anyone other than myself see was on my blogs. I made it a goal this year to be more open with my writing and to get feedback on it. How else will I improve?

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    • It is a huge leap of faith putting your writing out there and soliciting feedback for it. It is bold and brave and ultimately allows you to grow as a writer.

      I had edited an entire anthology before I ever offered my work up for beta reading. I did belong to a critiquing group but felt as though it wasn’t a very good fit for me, so handing it to people I knew would get it – was huge for me. It is absolutely the best thing I EVER did as a writer.

      I watched my writing go from mediocre, to being accepted for publication in a very short space of time. I can’t wait to open the beta reading forums at Write Anything to provide a safe and private space to have work beta read!

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  4. Best thing I ever did was write with the express purpose of putting it on my blog. Tonight I looked back over some of my earliest [fiction] Friday posts and am amazed at the development of my writing. It’s tighter and more refined, but I can see the seeds planted back then that have now produced fruit. It was about validation in order to keep going. Could never have written solely for myself. I needed an external focus to keep me motivated.

    Like

    • This made me think about my process. I need two things (and one isn’t coffee!)

      1. external stimulation to inspire ideas – thus my love affair with prompts, music and conversations with writing friends
      2. to write with others – I am not cut out to be a hermit. I need the support and motivation of those around me.

      One day I will send you a cheer leader outfit for all those rah-rah moments you so eagerly seize.

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  5. I wrote a long, thoughtful and (for me) amusing response when I was at my Mum’s house earlier, but it wouldn’t post… boo hiss. I just wanted to say I can relate, and also I’m glad to know it’s not just me who has that impostor syndrome thing going on.

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  6. Pingback: April…It is all about the “A” in Attitude « Wrestling the Muse

  7. Pingback: April…It is all about the “A” in Attitude | Kim Koning

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