Sunday, November 27, 2011

Imposter

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.


7 comments:

  1. Lisabet - I met a very accomplished woman for lunch a few months ago. As we chatted about her successful business, her gaze shifted off mine and her voice trailed off. I said, "But you feel like a fraud despite everything you've done." She flinched and nodded. I told her how at meetings sometimes words came out of my mouth that sounded so professional and grown up that I wondered why people didn't leap up, point at me, and scream about how I was making it all up. She laughed, I laughed, and we talked for a long time about how many people we know who feel the same way. It's only the competent people for some reason. So you're in good company.

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  2. I never knew this was a syndrome or had a name. I simply thought this was fact, and that it was true about me. How about that? Thanks for sharing this. To say it's eye-opening is an understatement!

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  3. I think you've hit on something universal that we don;t often get to read about in fiction, and that is the sense of humiliation and inadequacy which i think is so universal to most people. As well as the sense of being an imposter and the incredible spiritual preassure it puts on a person whether they deserve it or not.

    You and I have had many noodles on the question of evil and evil people and villians and so on. What i always say is that evil does not recognise itself. Eveil people never think they;re evil, and it wouldn't surprise me if the real imposters in this world refuse to see themselves as posers. I think its the people who struggle over the idea of authenticity who are probably going to be the most authentic, and that would include you. I think you;re certainly authentic to people here, and people like me whom you;ve helped a great deal.

    Garce

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  4. Kathleen,

    Actually, Wikipedia says that there's a complementary bias, called the Dunning-Kruger effect. The essence is that incompetent people can't see that they are responsible for their own mistakes.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dunning%E2%80%93Kruger_effect

    I kid you not.

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  5. Hi, Kayelle,

    So many of the people I admire feel this way...I guess that I should feel encouraged.

    Thanks for dropping by!

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  6. Hi, Garce,

    I don't know if everyone feels this way. I don't think my sister does. She's very talented and successful in the human resources/relationship field, and seems to have no difficulty believing in herself.

    At least - I don't think she suffers from this syndrome. I'll have to ask her.

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  7. So, that's how you feel about your latter writings. If you could stand to one side and look at them objectively, would you still feel the same?

    If you can answer yes, then perhaps it's time to write something ... different ...not better, not worse, but different. Something that will stretch you beyond what's become familiar.

    Something that you read after you've finished and say to yourself, out loud, "F**k, that's bloody magnificent!"

    What have you got to lose?

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