By Lisabet Sarai
When I was twenty one, seeking admission to graduate school, I interviewed at ___ University. The department to which I was applying offered to pay all my travel expenses - airfare, hotel and meals. I bought a new suit and headed to ____, simultaneously thrilled and terrified. This was one of the first times I'd traveled on my own. I vividly recall the rather stodgy, old-fashioned hotel where they put me up. I even remember what I ate for dinner the night before my appointment.
I spent all day talking to various faculty members, and probably (though I don't recall it) gave a presentation on my undergraduate research. My most enduring memory is my final meeting, with one of the young but already famous stars in the department. In retrospect, I realize he was a new Ph.D., probably no more than half a dozen years older than I was, but his brusque, no-nonsense manner intimidated me from the start. Confronted with his authoritative presence, my already feeble confidence wilted. I knew I was about to be exposed.
I sat in his office while he rapid-fired questions, probing my knowledge of the literature, testing my understanding of both my own research and his. I answered to the best of my ability, but as the interrogation continued, I grew more and more intimidated. A lump congealed in my chest. Tears gathered in my eyes. We probably talked for no more than twenty minutes, but I felt as though I'd been subjected to hours of torture by the Inquisition. By the end of the interview, I was appalled to realize that I was crying outright. How could I be so immature? So unprofessional?
At last he sat back in his chair, watching as I choked back my tears. “So,” he said, with a small smile that I knew hid his scorn. “Do you have any questions for me?”
“Um – well...” My voice quavered. Self-disgust almost overwhelmed me. “Do you think I belong here at ____?”
His smile broadened. “Oh, definitely. You'll fit right in.”
It turned out he was right. But that's not what this post is about. No, I want to focus on that sense of inadequacy, so deep that it inspired tears. Of course, everyone feels nervous when they're being evaluated, but all the evidence suggested that I was perfectly capable of succeeding at this university. I was graduating from another top school with combined bachelors and masters degrees. I already had a research publishing credit. My transcript showed a single B (in Physics, due to my klutziness in lab) over four years of study. I brought stellar recommendations from my adviser and other faculty. Why did I feel like I was a fraud?
I recently heard the term “imposter syndrome” for the first time. Apparently it's pretty common to feel that your successes don't reflect your underlying ability or knowledge – that you've just been “lucky” and “had the breaks”. It's somewhat discouraging for me to realize that I still suffer to some extent from this syndrome, not just with regards to my profession but also my writing.
Because you know, I'm not really a writer. I don't write every day – hey, if I can force out a few thousand words on Sunday, I'm grateful. I'm not driven to write, the way a real writer is. In fact, sometimes I'll do anything to avoid sitting down at the computer and attacking my latest WIP.
My publishing history looks impressive, but remember, that's over a twelve year period. My incremental rate of publication is pretty pitiful, especially compared to my peers. Even more telling is the fact that I really don't suffer for my art. I don't agonize, trying to find the perfect way to express my ideas. I don't dig deep into my soul for truths and then expose them on the page. I pound away, satisfied to produce superficial, forgettable stories that at best entertain. I rarely do more than two drafts, and the second is likely to be pretty close to the first.
Oh sure, I'm proud of a couple of my early stories, especially the ones that explore the relationship between submission and spirituality. But lately, the stuff I've been publishing – well, it really doesn't cut it. It's crap. And then I spend week after week, here at the Grip and on my own blog, pontificating about the writing life.
What a phony!
Sound familiar? I'll bet that it does. When I read the work of some of the other contributors on this blog, I'm simultaneously awed and envious. They're such excellent writers – their words move, inspire, arouse and disturb me. Even their blog posts sometimes bring tears to my eyes.
However, I suspect – no, in some cases, I know, because they've told me – that they feel the same way as I do. In my more rational moments, I recognize that this sort of comparison undermines my satisfaction, my motivation and my peace of mind – and theirs, too. That doesn't stop me from crying sometimes - from frustration and guilt.
Reason doesn't always win.