If you’ve had a conversation with me, you have probably heard me say, “Awesome possum” at least once. That cute but curmudgeonly creature has vacated my rhetoric and invaded my business (which is also my home), establishing itself as my very own cynical cheerleader. Whenever I need encouragement, I can now turn over any couch cushion and from a shadowy upholstered crevice hear my awesome possum hiss like the Pythia of old, “Kayla… you can write the thing!” And on my favourite work mug, a gift from colleague Shannon Edgett, its likeness screams, It’s called trash can, not trash can’t!
Caffeine might keep me going, but it’s not a great life coach. Especially when my week includes running a reading series, collaborating on community projects, finishing Poet Laureate assignments, hopping on Zoom for consulting calls and mentorship sessions, and working overtime to meet deadlines. Not to mention when exactly am I finishing my next book, and I still need to cook supper? Suddenly my possum is not so awesome, it’s just screaming its head off.
So, it might be trash “can” but there are periods when I feel that I’ve waded out of my depth into the landfill of self-doubt; I’m sure I reek of compost and mouldy pizza boxes. When I say, “Can you handle my projects for a week while I move into a bag in your closet? Just bring me a coffee twice a day, I’ll be fine.” Shannon laughs and asks me, “Blue or clear plastic?” while reminding me that this is Imposter Syndrome. Not to be confused with false humility, this condition affects many people at least once in their lifetime. And it is prevalent among writers, many of whom do not suffer from poor self-esteem.
While Maya Angelou never considered moving into her friend’s closet, she admitted, “Each time I write a book, every time I face that yellow pad, the challenge is so great. I have written eleven books, but each time I think, ‘Uh oh, they’re going to find out now. I’ve run a game on everybody and they’re going to find me out.'”
They’re going to find me out. That’s what my awesome possum screams. I sometimes think that will also be my epitaph. Like The Simpsons tombstone gags, my middle name will be replaced with “Uh oh, they found out I’m….”
While many authors can relate to that side of Imposter Syndrome, unhealthy competition and social media have bolstered the Comparison Trap. Shannon reminds me that this is when individuals fixate on thoughts of ‘I can’t even compare with so and so’ or ‘I don’t dare classify myself among them’. This may be true in the beginning—you don’t have that skill level yet. However, anyone can learn to write—creatively or technically. You do not need someone’s permission to write, to accept an invitation to join a writers’ community or make your own, pursue publication, or expand into a new genre. You don’t need praise, either. Take genuine praise when it is offered but seek to impress yourself first.
Time and experience will bring you vital things, but one of these is perspective. Albert Einstein said, “Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing it’s stupid.” I can tell you, like a fish who did learn how to climb a few trees, that when I finally clambered up into those branches (still feeling stupid and out of place) I wondered, Why did I want to be up here in the first place? There is a group or a genre just waiting for you be its corner piece. However, we are told that to be acknowledged as “real writers” we must reach certain milestones and reach them in a certain order. But what if you’re still unpublished? What if you’ve never written a book? What if you fail to place in another contest?!
Doesn’t matter. Doesn’t matter. It really doesn’t matter.
Why? Because if those things are important to you, one day you will. You will see your writing in print, you will likely win a writing competition, you will find a publisher. It can be a long journey from slush pile to final selection and a lot is happening behind the scenes. Rejections aren’t personal.
Imposter Syndrome also springs from perfectionism and idealism. However, the perfect is the enemy of the good when it comes to writing. “Perfection” is only achieved through the revision process, yet excessive self-editing, when you can pare your original material from your draft, will sabotage your piece. Take your self-doubt and your drafts to a writing group, and you will likely receive a simple solution—something you couldn’t see because you were too close to your text. Remember, there is nowhere for you to grow if your work is already “perfect”. To grow you must flounder and make mistakes. Playing it safe in writing often suggests avoidance.
Avoidance is another aspect of Imposter Syndrome. For a writer, this can masquerade as process—needing to be in a certain mood or space, a certain kind of light or a special pen, tea or wine pairings with pieces. I worked those things out of my system long ago because they were destructive to my writing. For a while I made myself sit and write, drinking any cup of tea in any mug so that I could just get everything down. At some point, discipline saves you.
However, if I find myself procrastinating three days in a row, I schedule a mental health day. I’ve learned that procrastination is an excellent indicator of when I’ve been working too much. I think of it as pulling on my red cloak and facing up to the Big Bad Wolf. When my partner and I moved in together, he brought the houseware and I brought the tool bag. I have no problem grabbing an axe and slitting open the beast’s belly to see what’s inside. Usually, it’s a screaming possum. But hopefully when I die my screaming possum will rest in peace because my tombstone reads, Kayla “writing life” Geitzler or something cheesy like that.
Loving your work and being reasonable with yourself—your current abilities, your aspirations, your love of writing—will save you from self-doubt time and again. In the end, Imposter Syndrome is always ascribed to “high achievers” and even if you don’t think that’s you, or that you haven’t accomplished “great things” in your writing, well, perhaps you want to and that’s enough. There is greatness in all of us. Keep writing you.