Thursday, July 30, 2020

The Fraud Police


By Cheryl Oreglia

As a writer, I have struggled with imposter syndrome ever since I hit the publish button on my first blog. My husband yelled from the office, "you misspelled corral," and I about fainted. They'll know, they'll all know, I have no idea what I'm doing! 

"You don't know how to spell." I lamented.

"Who do you think you are?"

"Nobody wants to read what you're writing."

"You're not an expert."

Even worse.

"You'll look like a fool."

Megan Culter says, "I gave up my agency. I had put power over my passions into the hands of unknown, unseen strangers. I had allowed the fear of failure to bar the way." Our fear of looking like a fool is one of the most powerful gatekeepers to the future we envision. We would rather play it safe than risk looking vacuous?

These are the tapes that play in my head every time I'm ready to publish a new blog. I feel as if I need some sort of validation outside myself to give me permission to put my work out in the world. Why are these thoughts so pervasive?

“I have challenged fate to chess and am now attempting to keep all my confidence from puddling in my boots. What if I’m the only one betting on myself because everyone but me can see I am not suited to play at all?” Mackenzi Lee

I have to ask myself what if no one ever read a word I wrote?

Does it ultimately matter?

I tell myself so what. I would still write because when I stop writing my life doesn't work. I don't know who I am and I struggle to find the significance of living a chaotic and complicated life. It's like "holding my breath forever," says Megan Culter. Life and my search for meaning force me back to the keyboard again and again. I inhale with every note, exhale as words form on the page, and only then do I recognize myself in that which I observe from a distance.

Some writers only feel this sort of insecurity on occasion, but other writers have to live with this sense of inadequacy for their entire career as if an agitated companion who continually scans for the negative, and has no qualms about exploiting your failings at every opportunity. I say divorce that dude and move on.

You would think that after an author had experienced some measure of success as a writer, (published a successful novel, received an acclaimed award, or was hired to write for a prestigious magazine) that they would leave these doubts behind? But the reality for many writers, no matter the endorsements, is that feelings of incompetence stubbornly remain.

So how do we keep imposter syndrome at bay?

I have read that regular exercise can help, along with practices of meditation, or yoga (although I resist all of these when I'm in the middle of an IS episode). I suppose what's most important is for you to recognize when you're being lured away by imposter syndrome that you get back on track as quickly as possible. I make a pot of coffee, call my sister who is my biggest fan, browse through old cookbooks for something new to cook. And for whatever reason that always makes my writing appear more appealing!

Do what works for you, we're all different, one of my writing friends likes to garden when her thoughts are chocked with IS weeds, another goes for a run as if she could distance herself from her thoughts. I eat. Whatever. 

“When you know you're ENOUGH! When you stop focusing on all things that you're not. When you stop fussing over perceived flaws. When you remove all imposed and unbelievable expectations on yourself. When you start celebrating yourself more. When you focus on all that you are. When you start believing that your perceived flaws are just that - perception...” Malebo Sephodi

Where does this come from?

Studies have shown that imposter syndrome can sometimes have its roots in childhood experiences. For example, maybe a teacher once said you were a terrible writer or a parent criticized your early attempts at authoring a short story? Bruce Watson says relentless criticism in childhood can internalize parental scorn that no amount of success will silence. It's possible to get to the core of these issues by seeing a therapist who can help with the tools we need to overcome these early experiences or move beyond their reach.

I remember watching a movie with Robert Redford and Barbara Streisand, they were taking a college course on writing, and both were working on an essay as the final in which the professor would select the best one to read to the class. Robert won the contest and I remember watching Barbara, completely devastated as she ripped up her paper, and threw it in the trash. That's what happens when we allow imposter syndrome to take possession of our thoughts, it's extremely destructive and crippling as a writer.

Is this common to all creative types?

Yes! Actors, painters, dancers, writers, singers all experience "the unshakable conviction that you are getting away with something and that any moment now they will discover you. It's imposter syndrome, something my wife christened the Fraud Police," says Neil Gaiman. Even Emma Watson from the acclaimed Harry Potter films says, "any moment, someone's going to find out I'm a total fraud." But just like Harry Potter, you have the power to overcome these negative forces in your creative life, but it might leave a scar.

Nava Atlas adds, “you'll be amazed how much you have in common with Edith Wharton (who struggled to feel worthy of success), Louisa May Alcott (who badly needed money), Madaleine L'Engle (who could have papered an entire house with her rejection letters) and many other writers.”

What if it's true?

The only truth is that creative types have fluctuating careers, ups and downs, successes and failures. This is the reality in which we exist and it's like cat-nip for imposter syndrome. When you're up you think it's a fluke and when you're down you blame yourself. This is IS's main talent, they have us chasing after some unattainable ideal, resulting in disappointment and defeat. As Elsa says in Frozen, "let it go."

What can I do to fight this affliction?

I use every distraction in my arsenal. When I sense these feelings creeping in through the window of my mind, I open it wide, stick my head out and yell, "I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take it anymore." Try it. It works.

Sometimes I stop and ask myself how my work can benefit others? Usually, that's enough to chase the boogeyman away. Basically, it's getting out of my own head, my own thoughts, and considering the needs of others. It's amazing how fast that clarifies and validates my work.

Try doing something completely new. I tried painting and immediately felt the icy claws of IS take hold of my thoughts. I believe I even said out loud, "I hate painting, I'm horrible at this, why am I doing this?" What a whinner! My sister-in-law had set up this perfect evening, where five of us sat around the dining room table, sipping wine, and painting our vision of Mt. Konocti on blank canvases.  I felt so insecure it was almost ludicrous. But I kept at it, and by the end of the evening, I had a decent painting of this majestic mountain and a new appreciation for the strength of IS especially when we're trying something new or outside our comfort zone.

The better you get at recognizing the destructive powers of imposter syndrome the better you'll be at chasing it away, or at the very least diminishing its effect.

What do you do when you feel insecure about your writing? Share a few thoughts in the comments, sort of like introducing your insecurities to mine.

When I'm not writing for Across the Board, I'm Living in the Gap, drop by anytime.

An aside:

“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 realize 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

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