9 min read

‘I’m Successful, But I Feel Like a Fraud.’

Your power is uncertainty.
Photo by Yanyi: In Greece, a stairway between two white walls reveal a warm yellow wall with, from left to write, a closed window, a door with a door-knocker, and another window, all framed in dark wood trim. The morning light comes down at a slant from the top right and runs long shadows across the bright face.
Dear Yanyi, I come to you with an issue that I’m not sure can be easily solved. I’m not even sure if it’s exclusive to writing, but I certainly feel it the most when I’m thinking about/focusing on my writing.

I am a freelance writer who publishes cultural criticism as well as fiction, and I think I suffer from imposter syndrome. I am convinced that all I have worked for and have accomplished is the result of mistake, or fluke. I feel deeply relieved when a pitch or submission is rejected. I automatically reject any instances of praise or interest because I feel that it’s not deserved, or that it’s a joke. When I received a personalized note from a well-known writer attached to my acceptance letter for my university degree, I thought it was an error. When a literary agent reached out to me three years ago with an inquiry, I immediately closed the email and didn’t respond, convinced it was spam. (I checked recently; it wasn’t.) With all of my jobs, I felt that I had committed some kind of fraud; that I somehow convinced others that I’m something I’m not. I feel shame and guilt in being able to fool others around me so easily, for taking up a space that I feel should have gone to someone else. Every time I am assigned a story, I have this overwhelming anxiety and belief that I will not be able to complete it.

I’m writing to you as I do realize (maybe) that this is all ridiculous and possibly untrue, but I still cannot shake it. I find that I can motivate myself to write (miraculously), but once the words are on the page, the self-doubt begins. It complicates everything. Because my fiction is about diaspora identity and Hong Kong, where I live, I struggle with issues of authenticity (“you’re pretending to be someone you’re not”) and permission (“you’re a nobody and you haven’t lived here your whole life; you don’t get to write about this place”). In my cultural criticism, I worry that I am perpetuating tokenism; that because I am Chinese and female and living in Asia, editors in the US or Europe can check boxes when they assign me pieces.

I feel there is such a large disconnect between this internal part of me that loves and wants to write, and another part of me that is connected to the exterior world and to external value and capitalist definitions of usefulness, to all of these anxieties and fears and rage. Because I publish slowly and don’t readily talk about my work or my writing unless asked, many of my closest friends and relatives are of the opinion that I don’t do anything all day. Some have even pointed this out to me, directly or indirectly. I am so afraid that this will become a self-fulfilling prophecy. I have tried to, weakly, assert myself in situations where I am asked who or what I am. But how can I truly do that, when I don’t even really believe myself?  

I’d really appreciate any advice you might have. I love your writing.

Sincerely,
A Lonely Imposter

Dear ALI,

Thank you for writing to me all the way back in July. I have been saving your letter because, I admit, I didn’t know exactly how I could help you at the time. I still don’t know exactly what I’m about to say, but I hope whatever comes out will be of use to you, whatever your situation has become (or remains).

From here, I can’t judge what exactly your work means to you. I do know, however, that you might feel like a fake because the work you’re writing doesn’t actually matter to you. You feel pulled, perhaps, to writing all these “useful” articles that don’t activate or realize the potential you see for yourself. Something could be off between the person whose life you’re moving through and the person you know yourself to be.

I’m going to assume, however, that the things you’re writing feel true to you, and you’re having trouble reconciling the recognition you’re getting. As far imposter syndrome goes, you’re far from alone. Right now, I’m in the midst of writing a talk that I feel deeply unqualified to speak on. For months, the mere thought of the talk has thrown me into a spiral that I can only describe as overzealous prepping.

Even though I think of myself as a critic and know myself as one, the moment I have the opportunity to really assume that authority, I lose all composure. A loud voice screams at me about how I never studied English or Asian American studies or queer studies. Another one wrings its hands at the prospect of bringing something to class and to have students or colleagues laugh in my face about a misinterpretation or, even worse, denounce me for having the wrong politics for a subject. This all leads to that overzealous prepping that I was talking about: I want so much to get it right. My assumption is that I’m all wrong.

The voices in your head, the ones telling you that you’re an imposter of the place you live in and an inexperienced one at that, seem like they would be friends with the voices in my head. If we’re anything alike, you’ve already done your own version of prepping, searching for the cure of what to do with your imposter syndrome every month or so, so I’ll fast-forward the advice you know I’m going to give you—let yourself be imperfect. Right? Right.

Except none of these advice columns do us the favor of telling us exactly what being imperfect looks like and how this “letting” is supposed to happen. Because you and I still live in a world to which we are responsible to each other. Where we wish to do no harm. Where we hope to make something of ourselves one day. The good neoliberal in you is left to assume that your attitude is the problem, and it just reinforces this story from the very beginning: there’s a right way to do something, and you’re the only one who doesn’t know how.

So let’s break down your imposter syndrome even further. You’re afraid of being seen and read by others, as is shown by the examples you’ve listed in your letter. You feel trapped under the gaze of your family and friends, who think you do nothing all day, then the gaze of the reading public, who might accuse you of tokenizing yourself.

That’s the thing about being wrong: it only ever matters in the eyes of others. It’s easy to be imperfect away from the public eye. If you trip and no one sees, who cares but yourself? Perhaps that’s why you’re able to get a few words down before the self-doubt sets in, as you describe in your letter. But the moment when someone is looking, like an agent interested in signing with you or the moment you realize that your words can be read by other people, your imposter syndrome kicks in.

It’s not just a personal thing. If you were socialized as a woman, you were socialized to be an image before you were a person. Women, as John Berger wrote about in Ways of Seeing, must internalize a double consciousness of being both subject and object. “Men survey women before treating them. Consequently how a woman appears to a man can determine how she will be treated” [1].

If your worth to someone else has ever depended on being charming enough, well-behaved enough, or (especially) pretty enough to keep around, you’ll know what I mean. Systemic oppressions like patriarchy flow in the veins of communities. It’s not just a future husband who judges you: it’s family, it’s friends, and when you’re a public figure, it’s also strangers of all genders who will be upholding expectations of how you’re supposed to speak, move, and live. You’re never right. You’re always wrong. And every day, there’s someone in the crowd who’s more than eager to put you in your place, whatever that means or takes.

If you’ve lived your entire life with this kind of surveillance, it’s not outlandish to deduce how your focus on your image is a strategy of survival. You anticipate what others will do to you in a patriarchal, racist world. Your imposter syndrome is a shield that wants you to run back to safety, where you can’t be seen and your mistakes can’t be wielded against you.

Perhaps you feel relief when you are rejected because your only experience of public life is surveillance. When you’ve been told all your life to wait for others to judge you before you judge yourself, you can’t receive these opportunities in good faith. Prove it, they say. Maybe you’re good at proving yourself. Maybe you duck and run at any sign of being scrutinized. Imposter syndrome is the reflex of fixing uncertainty with the authority of others. So where do you find certainty when you yourself are asked to be that authority?

You probably have a dream that in a few years, you will be a successful writer with dazzling awards and publications. Because the awards and publications are there, you might imagine that all your troubles with imposter syndrome will go away once you finally get those “right” pieces down. In other words, once you are successful as a writer, your problems will be solved. I must say that this is a fantastic piece of publicity on the side of the publishing and creative writing industry. I’ve been fascinated by this other passage from Ways of Seeing since I read it:

The spectator-buyer is meant to envy herself as she will become if she buys the product. She is meant to imagine herself transformed by the product into an object of envy for others, an envy which will then justify her loving herself. One could put this another way: the publicity image steals her love of herself as she is, and offers it back to her for the price of the product. [2]

In the writer’s case, the product being sold to us is becoming a successful writer. You know the price: writing retreats, workshops, submission fees, graduate programs, self-help books, and manuscript consultations. The point of this publicity is that there is never enough expertise you can buy, never enough degrees you can earn, to claim your place at the table. The more you feel like an imposter, the longer you do, the better business booms.

Imposter syndrome hits when you’re no longer treated like an object in need of improvement. Someone asks you what you think. Someone gives you a compliment. Someone accepts your work and wants you to write more. And the certainty of other authorities give way to uncertainty—because there’s a voice inside you unlike anyone else’s. It’s the voice you hear right before you put your words to the page; the voice you’ve learned to betray and ignore; the voice who thinks and feels that what comes from only you is worth beholding, cherishing, and sharing with us all.

I wish, ALI, that I could give you some catch-all advice about being imperfect or learning how to believe in yourself. The truth is, aligning yourself with your own authority is a never-ending process of failure and belief. You must give yourself a chance to fail in order to have a chance to believe. Leave the uncertainty to the world, when it comes to it, and have compassion for yourself when you fail. Write back to that agent. Thank that famous writer. Give yourself the chance to be remembered. Believe that they—and we—want to hear from you, just long enough to get things done.

The journey doesn’t start with believing in yourself. You enact one glimmer of the future today to prove that it’s possible tomorrow. You are not an imposter, but a person figuring out how to become who you are. Like an unwritten sentence, your life calls to you from the future just out of your grasp. You may hear the music but fail to make out the words. No matter. Just write to the rhythm. The words you choose will carry the song. Live it, and it will come.


Notes

[1] Berger, John, Ways of Seeing. Penguin, 1972, page 46.
[2] Ibid., page 134.


Author’s note: Thank you to everyone who filled out my offerings survey from last week. I’m going to leave it up for a few days more. For those of you who left an optional email, I’ll be in touch soon with more info for a very, very small pilot program!

This week: It was my partner’s birthday so I baked a Swiss roll (it was a Frankenstein of many chocolate recipes). Did anyone else see that this week’s Ask Polly was about writing? I’m also grateful to Nicole Zhu’s newsletter for bringing me Kate McKean’s Agents and Books, which I binge-read this weekend with some curiosity, dread, and ever-Virgo need-to-know-everything relish.


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