Normally I write about how beginners shoot themselves in their feet, but you know what? Even the most advanced writers come across stumbling blocks. So today, I want to start a new series for writers who are quite advanced. Or at least beyond the advice “writers are readers first and foremost.”
I want to tackle my own big writing demon first. This demon affects not only my writing, but also how I run my business, my editing, and (funny enough) even my cooking and parenting.
The general term for this demon is “impostor syndrome,” but it often hides as humility or teachability. I often feel, though reality (and my clients, friends, and co-workers) would disagree, that I have no idea what I am doing and why anyone would pay me to help them write.
Why on earth do advanced writers feel like they are bad, especially when lesser writers often think they’re better?
I know I’ve touched on this before, but it basically comes down to that the more you learn, the more you realize you don’t know a damn thing. It’s the reason teenagers are so annoying. They think that if their parents would just get out of their way, then they could get their lives together. I know I thought that way.
But I’m 35 now. (Shhhhh….) And guess what, I don’t have my crap together still. And those parents of mine who I thought had their own crap together? Never did either. And they even told me that. But I didn’t know how much I didn’t know, and so I thought, this thing called life would be great and smooth if I just had the chance.
I feel like I don’t know anything because I see how much I’ve learned and how much I still need to learn. It seems insurmountable. And really, especially with how much knowledge is expanding these days, it is an insurmountable task.
And that’s really the first step in tackling impostor syndrome: realizing that you will never max out. Life isn’t a video game where you can max out a skill tree. Life is a process, a never-ending story. Don’t sell yourself short because you aren’t where Shakespeare is. Shakespeare didn’t start out where Shakespeare is. And if he had lived longer, he would have gotten even better.
Impostor syndrome might seem like a silly little problem dealing with self-esteem, but it comes out in very physical and detrimental ways. Some very accomplished authors whom I work with have put off querying agents simply because they are not “an awesome writer.” Never mind that he’s a Harvard psychiatrist with tons of academic publishing under his belt or that Barack Obama offered to write the foreword for his groundbreaking research on a cure for schizophrenia.
I simply said to him, “What agent do you want?” I sent a quick email to that agent, and bam: six-figure advance by the end of the week. He was floored that he got in because it’s so hard … and he’s “not a great writer.” You got a six-figure advance … you’re a great writer.
I had to take my own advice this last week. I was not charging enough for my services. You know you’re stuck in impostor syndrome when you have clients telling you that you need to charge more.
“I paid $100 to some intern at some small literary agency to give me a critique of my query letter. And you just charged me $200 to completely rewrite the query, edit the first chapter, and give me a name of an agent who is interested. Why am I not paying at least three times that?”
I had a writer friend say, “Man, I’d pay $1000 just for a couple of names of agents who would actually look at my query.”
Then my assistant started in on me. “After expenses, you are making, like, half as much as me an hour.”
So, ahem, I raised my prices. Because … I’m worth it? I am. I AM WORTH IT.
Repeat after me: even though I feel like a fraud, I am not. I AM WORTH (respect, money, time, whatever it is you need).
I think impostor syndrome plagues writers a lot because even when we are near the top of our game, we still have to deal with a lot of rejection. My friend Sheri, who is an Oprah Book Club author, had to shop around for a year for a new agent. Imagine being the head of a prestigious creative writing program and on Oprah and you still get turned down by a couple dozen agents.
The big question then is, how do I know I’m really good? I think that depends on the writer. Let me know in the comments how you realized that you were actually good at writing, or even something else. Maybe you thought you couldn’t cook well and then you had to teach your newly widowed grandfather how to boil water. And now your flat souffles don’t seem so bad.
Okay, vulnerable moment is over now. At least until I tackle the next stumbling block for advanced writers next week. Again, it’s a favorite demon of mine and the sister to impostor syndrome: perfectionism.
I live in Athens, Georgia, with my son, my husband, and an ever-revolving list of exchange students, who are a never-ending source of entertainment and writing material.