The curious case of imposter syndrome

Spot the imposter. Andrew Gustar/Flickr/CC BY-ND 2.0

Before the Meeting

My writing group has in hand my manuscript, my precious baby, the one 10+ years in the birthing. What an arduous birth it's been, a creative labor beset by fits and starts, motivation and stagnation, eager confidence and crippling doubt, all leading to this. This. A meager, nondescript word for a momentous occasion.

As any writer will tell you, to arrive at a functional "first" draft (first only in the sense that this version is the first one fit for consumption outside your desk drawer) is to free-dive into murky depths with blind faith that pearls await you. Or maybe it's more accurate to say that finishing a manuscript is like choosing to live as if the afterlife exists -- as if, eventually, your effort, attention, and sacrifice will reap untold dividends.

My own first draft, or at least my conception of it, has been kicking around for more than a decade. After setting many well-intentioned and then-ignored annual writing goals to turn this blog into a book, I finally reached the end of my rope in the aftermath of becoming a mother. Now time was scarce. Now I had to maximize stolen moments. Now I had to shove aside the exhaustion and overwhelm and reclaim the flickering pilot light of my essential creativity before a gas leak exploded the house. (Confession: I need more sleep to craft stronger metaphors.)

So for the first time in many years, I set a writing schedule and ... I stuck to it. The night before we left for vacation, after a marathon day of final edits, I shipped my 300-page tome to the four members of my writing group. For a brief and glorious moment, I experienced the singular euphoria of reaching a milestone, achieving a goal, and realizing a vision all in one act. Then I considered that these same four members were tasked with evaluating my labor of love for both its artistic and possible commercial merits. My euphoria evaporated, and with it any ounce of confidence I had in my original vision.

In terms of first drafts and the allure of potential, I have been down this wavering road before. To pursue a dream is to name it, clothe it, make it visible -- and thus vulnerable -- to the world. Once my art escapes the safe confines of my mind, it becomes subject to criticism and rejection. And yes, while the chance exists that the work will engender connection, appreciation, maybe even celebration, is the chance significant enough to counteract the fear of irretrievable failure?

We meet this weekend to discuss my book. I will report back.

Imposter syndrome is a psychological term that refers to a pattern of behavior wherein people (even those with adequate external evidence of success) doubt their abilities and have a persistent fear of being exposed as a fraud.

-- Samyukta Mullangi, MD, MBA; Reshma Jagsi, MD, DPhil, JAMA,Vol. 332, No. 5

After the Meeting

Sometimes your dream catches up with you, and when it taps your shoulder, you faint from shock.

Such was my reaction at the meeting when my writing group handed my heart back to me wrapped in warm blankets, affirming for me that laying it on the line with honesty and vulnerability was worth the risk. When my writing has made thoughtful people laugh, cry, and contemplate, then I have to think I am on the right path. That my vision is not a fever dream in disguise. That the still, small voice is right yet again.

None of this means I have skirted failure for good. But for now I have banished my fear, and instead filled the hole it left with audacious hope. Onward.

Prayer #339: Imposter Syndrome

Is my art to be endured? Submitted to? Inflicted upon? Or is it meant to be placed with confident authority on its own inch of infinite bookshelf, sandwiched between other heartfelt works, part of an unceasing cascade of human expression that arcs toward the divine in a desire to illuminate it?

Stand beside me when I retract my hand from the spine, for at first I will hesitate to leave my soul so exposed. But the longer we stand there, bearing witness to the courage required for and of creation, the more I will grasp that You are not an editor, not a critic, but rather a patron ready to endow my work with inspiration.