The worst thing that ever happened to me was attending a graduate program (at another institution) notorious (although I did not know it at the time) for its dysfunction. I will not say much about those days, except to note that when, a summer ago, I finally cleaned out the last of the paperwork (papers I had written, academic files) long stored in our garage, I was horrified to see–as if for the first time–the deeply personal invective that characterised one of my advisors’ responses to almost every piece of work I submitted. The worst thing was realizing that none of what this person had said had, at the time, stood out as inappropriate. I had taken it for granted that it was normal or perhaps even proper for an academic advisor to denigrate and abuse a graduate student.
How did this experience affect me? Going on two decades later, I have published one book that has been well and widely reviewed and won an award and has, I believe, been one of my publisher’s best-selling titles. I am working on two new books and have plans for more still. I have published dozens of articles and essays in popular and scholarly publications.
When I inventory my publication record, the thing that stands out is not the long list of works, but the long span of years during which I did not write.
I began publishing articles in community and regional newspapers when I was fifteen. I was a paid, accredited freelance photojournalist before I was twenty. I am probably the first (and possibly last) person ever to have published a poem in Plan Canada
After that there is a long and telling gap.
It is a gap of years in which, despite all the history that should have indicated otherwise, and all the internal aching to the contrary, I decided I was not a good writer, and had nothing interesting to say, and as a result should not write. And so I did not.
In the fall of 2005 the (different) department in which I was teaching while completing a (very different) graduate program invited me to design a new course, a course entirely of my own choosing and design. And while crafting the outline for that course it occurred to me that the syllabus looked a lot like the outline for a book.
“Do I dare eat a peach?” asks Prufrock in T.S. Eliot’s well-known poem–a poem suggesting that it is not only women who experience imposter syndrome, or something like it.
Me, I chanced a tiny bite. In the spring of 2006, almost by accident, I began writing short pieces for a then well-known (but sadly now defunct) city blog. Short, inconsequential pieces, as I saw them, although I meant every word I wrote. A blog post is not real writing, I reasoned, meaning I wasn’t risking anything by doing so.
Around the same time Coach House Books put out a call for chapter proposals for the second volume of its acclaimed uTOpia series. “Why not?” I thought. “Maybe even someone like me could have something published.
And, well, they said yes.
And me, or someone like me, began to publish semi-regularly in newspapers and magazines and journals.
And then, the publisher of a literary press asked if I would write a book for him.
I began to write again, almost (almost) as if for the first time.
The difference between the writing I did prior to my mid-twenties and the writing I do now is that two voices drive me.
The first is summed up in a kind of double mantra: “You will go further and faster than anyone thought possible,” and “I don’t give a sh*t what anyone else thinks.” When this voice is in my head, I am able to write solidly, intelligently, even powerfully. This voice helps me do my best work.
The other voice asks “Who do you think you are?” over and over. This voice paralyses me until the point at which pure terror–of failing entirely–propels me to write.
[The frightening thing is that sometimes I think the latter voice will push me to produce better work, and so I end up waiting for its inevitable tantrum to run its inevitable course.]
This is why I take issue with most pronouncements about imposter syndrome, and why I think its cyclical reappearance as a subject of discussion does far more harm than good.
It is an error, I think, to suggest that imposter syndrome is the product only of internal doubt, of an individual lack of confidence rooted in some personal psychological failure.
It is a mistake to think it can be addressed primarily by telling ourselves ‘new stories’ about who we are, via an “I’m okay, you’re okay” kind of mental sleight-of-hand.
I think imposter syndrome, or something like it, is at least as likely to be a response to something that it is not entirely an exaggeration to call trauma.
Researchers seem to find again and again that while men also experience imposter syndrome, it is far likely to affect women. Parallel evidence suggests it is also disproportionately likely to affect people who are racialized or who identify with other minority groups.
In short, imposter syndrome is as likely (and probably far more likely) to reflect structural power imbalances as it is to be a manifestation of individual neuroses.
This is why I have never felt comfortable with saying that I, too, experience imposter syndrome. Because I don’t think that is what it is. There is a material difference between thinking (rationally or irrationally) “I’m not qualified to do this” and someone else–especially someone else determined to assert their power for no reason other than to maintain it–telling you that what you do and therefore who you are is garbage.
I call bullsh*t on that.
Me, I have plenty of inadequacies. I know I am a mediocre public speaker (although I have interesting things to say and am often asked to share them). As a teacher I am best doing one-on-one consultations (at which I am very good) rather than working with large groups (at which I am distinctly average). As a (pseudo-)academic writer I am drawn to the evocative in ways that can come across as (and be) anti-theoretical.
But the one thing no one can ever legitimately say about me is that I cannot write.
That someone in a position of power said it to me, over and over, in deeply personal and abusive ways, says quite a lot about them.>
That I internalized the judgement says something about me.
And this is why I do not like it when talented, accomplished people describe their struggles with ‘imposter syndrome.’