Impostor Syndrome: A Navigational Toolkit

https://www.flickr.com/photos/el_cajon_yacht_club/9335126935

Some years ago, I was lucky enough invited to a gathering of great and good people: artists and scientists, writers and discoverers of things. And I felt that at any moment they would realise that I didn’t qualify to be there, among these people who had really done things. On my second or third night there, I was standing at the back of the hall, while a musical entertainment happened, and I started talking to a very nice, polite, elderly gentleman about several things, including our shared first name. And then he pointed to the hall of people, and said words to the effect of, “I just look at all these people, and I think, what the heck am I doing here? They’ve made amazing things. I just went where I was sent.” And I said, “Yes. But you were the first man on the moon. I think that counts for something.” And I felt a bit better. Because if Neil Armstrong felt like an imposter, maybe everyone did. Maybe there weren’t any grown-ups, only people who had worked hard and also got lucky and were slightly out of their depth, all of us doing the best job we could, which is all we can really hope for.

-Neil Gaiman
From http://neil-gaiman.tumblr.com/post/160603396711/hi-i-read-that-youve-dealt-with-with-impostor

That anecdote illustrates just how pervasive impostor syndrome is, and that it even affects people outside of creative spheres. Both Gaiman & Armstrong are widely celebrated for achievements in their respective fields, so if they feel like impostors, it’s fair to say that nearly everyone falls victim to it at one point or another, no matter where you are in your career, no matter the industry. I’ll direct you to the insights of people much wiser and more experienced than myself, and hopefully this post will serve as a toolbox that you can pull from to hammer, chisel, drill, dynamite, or scream your way out of impostor syndrome episodes whenever they strike!

If you’re still not sure about what exactly impostor syndrome consists of, or have questions about its validity, this piece from Time Magazine is the perfect launchpad. Abigail Abrams runs through its origins and evolutions, references the psychology behind it, and pinpoints the personality types most likely to be affected. http://time.com/5312483/how-to-deal-with-impostor-syndrome/

Kirsten Weir conducted a thorough examination of impostor syndrome in graduate students for the American Psychological Association. While its primary focus is academia, this piece is loaded with information that can be applied regardless of the disciplines, industries, or institutions that have you feeling like an outsider. https://www.apa.org/gradpsych/2013/11/fraud

This essay by Alicia Liu caught my eye because of a brilliant accompanying graphic, but the text surrounding it is just as exceptional. Liu details her experiences in programming, and has even written follow-ups (linked at the end of the original) to help guide others through the entire arc of impostor syndrome, including moving beyond it! https://medium.com/counter-intuition/overcoming-impostor-syndrome-bdae04e46ec5


https://medium.com/counter-intuition/overcoming-impostor-syndrome-bdae04e46ec5

Sometimes you feel like an impostor when things get more difficult, but Mary Robinette Kowal has a theory that might just set you back on track! http://maryrobinettekowal.com/journal/impostor-syndrome/

Unfortunately, impostor syndrome can strike twice for people of color, people with disabilities, LGBTQ and gender non-conforming people, and other marginalized folks. It’s an ugly truth that many establishments have a default of straight-white-cis-het-able-bodied-male rather than qualified. Mario Montoya runs down what it’s like to be othered in an already anxiety-inducing MFA program. http://bmr.unm.edu/2018/11/07/double-impostor-syndrome-being-of-color-in-an-mfa-program/

Afrofuturism! Music! Academia! The power of imagination! What do these things have to do with impostor syndrome? Inda Lauryn lays it all out in this transformative personal essay at The Toast. http://the-toast.net/2014/11/19/afrofuturism-imagination-impostor-syndrome/

Working behind the scenes at Simon & Schuster, Janelle Milanes saw that the reality of publishing wasn’t as daunting as it often appears. In this interview with Vivian Nunez, she discusses impostor syndrome, her Latinx heritage, and how to create a space for your work. https://www.forbes.com/sites/viviannunez/2018/12/14/this-latina-young-adult-author-shares-how-she-navigates-impostor-syndrome/#16752ed9135d

Sci-Fi writer John Scalzi maps out the other side of the coin: a potentially infuriating glimpse into the life of a successful writer who’s never experienced impostor syndrome. He explores the privileges that carried him along the way, but also acknowledges that when you are a writer, you are a writer, no matter what anyone else’s perceptions or opinions may be. https://whatever.scalzi.com/2016/01/30/impostor-syndrome-or-not/

Still need a boost to get you out of the impostor bog? Sonia Thompson is here with motivation, understanding, and a little help from Maya Angelou, Seth Godin, and Tina Fey. https://writetodone.com/how-to-keep-writing-2/

If that wasn’t your speed, try this shouty, sweary explosion of impostor syndrome-checking inspirational hellfire in that only Chuck Wendig could conjure! http://terribleminds.com/ramble/2016/03/01/please-let-me-motivate-you-with-my-gesticulations-and-screams/

Last but not least, a gift from Kythryne Aisling to take with you on your journey.https://wyrdingstudios.com/blogs/news/83774788-fighting-impostor-syndrome-or-how-to-be-a-real-artist

Dear creative person, go forth and create!

When Less is Really More by Catherine Foster

Did the Edmund Dantes, the Count of Monte Cristo, have an accent? What color was the dress Emma Bovary wore when she swallowed the vial of arsenic? When Van Helsing hunted Dracula, did he wear his brown boots or his black ones? Did Odysseus wax poetic upon the length of Circe’s hair before she turned his crew into swine? Was Lancelot born with blue eyes or brown?

You probably never thought to ask these questions because they aren’t that germane to the story or even that interesting to ponder. Some details of stories are important to note. For instance, it is a key plot point that Harry Potter bore a lightning-bolt-shaped-scar on his forehead. It is less important for us to know that Hermione has buckteeth and frizzy hair. It might be crucial to the fairytale Cinderella to mention that there is a slipper, but it is not pivotal to reveal that the shoe is made of glass. How can we know which things are necessary to include in our writing and which ones we should leave out?

This is a question, of course, of personal preference. There is no central rule that applies, and this article can only serve to illustrate one viewpoint, which is to champion the cause of minimalism. In the course of my career as an editor, I have seen many mistakes the authors make, and one that touches my heart most is when the frank earnestness of well-intentioned authors causes a mess of florid prose to pile up on the page. We often enter this craft because we have a love of words. Many of us have had a calling to write or have been writing stories since we were children. Some of us have vivid worlds and characters inside our heads that are fairly bursting out onto the page. It may seems counter-intuitive or even close to impossible to pull back on description. And why should we?

The answer is simple: when you include extraneous detail, you rob the reader of the experience of their own imagination. What color is the little mermaid’s hair? For those of you who have seen the popular cartoon, it is a memory that is now branded foremost in your mind. But in the original tale by Hans Christian Andersen, it merely says, by turns, “flowing” “long” “thick” “waving” and “beautiful.” Never, at any time, does he describe a color. This leaves you free to imagine a mermaid and her beautiful hair any way you see fit—until, of course, you watch a Disney version.

Why is this important? Because Mr. Andersen undoubtedly had an idea in his own mind about what constituted beauty. We might surmise that, as a person of Danish ancestry, he might find the standard of beauty to include traditional blondes with fine features. This is conjecture, of course, but whatever Mr. Andersen considered beautiful, he did not impose his own ideas into the story. As an author, he must have had an active imagination, and he must have had a firm idea in his head of what his little mermaid looked like, but by not imposing those ideas on us, the audience, we are each free to imagine her as a blonde, a brunette, a redhead, even Chinese or African. He gifted us a blank slate and said “beautiful”—this allows each of us to imagine her in our own mind. As standards of beauty change throughout the decades, the little mermaid stays fresh and relevant. Her hair color isn’t important. The author’s idea of beauty isn’t important. Each person’s unique vision remains a gift through each retelling.

Many authors want to fight for the right to hold onto their vision of their story. That is understandable, but is it more important than the right of each reader to discover the magic of their own imagination? If it is a crucial detail, then by all means, include that detail. But if you include a detail that is for your own purpose, just to communicate your own vision, you are robbing people of a reading experience for no purpose than your own ego. It is similar to watching the movie before reading the book—which do you prefer? Which makes a more lasting impact? Explaining details instead of allowing for imagination, even on a small scale, makes for one less bit of interest they will have in your story and your vision. The more you explain to someone, the less they are invested and the less they care. If they imagine for themselves, they will come to love your tale more. You will gain more in the end with restraint.

Antoine de Saint-Exupery, the author of The Little Prince, said, “Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.” This is something I urge every author to take to heart. It should be the guiding principle not of writing, but of editing. Trust yourself, but also trust your readers. They will thank you for it in the end, and you will see your fans multiply!