I've probably fantasized about holding a copy of my very own novel since I was a contributing writer to the Franklin Times—the mimeographed newspaper at my elementary school in New Jersey.
Images of opening the box from my publisher, digging through the paper, and grasping my novel in true book form have etched a groove in my brain over the years along with the anticipation of the joy and satisfaction it would bring to fan the pages and watch my own words fly by.
That long-awaited dream came true last month and the exhilaration of opening a box with Advanced Reader Copies (ARCs) of my debut novel, Henderson House, did not disappoint. Luckily, one of my children was home from college to share the excitement of my very first unboxing. I was thrilled beyond words for about an hour and then I sensed a little anxiety seeping its way into my euphoria.
I am not an anxious person by nature, though I have been through periods in my life when I did suffer from anxiety, so I knew what the tightness in my chest and the racing feeling behind my eyes were all about. This writing career thing was about to get real. The shiny galley copies in those boxes were meant to be sent out to reviewers and bloggers and bookstore owners. Strangers who might hate my heartwarming story and tell the world my talents were only "meh" or worse.
Questions began churning in my mind: What were you thinking? You're not a real author? What possessed you to spend the last six years of your life sacrificing to get this silly little story published? Do you really think you have what it takes to be a successful writer this late in life?
Wait a minute! I've heard other authors talk about self-doubt as a natural part of the writing and publishing process. Was I experiencing the dreaded impostor syndrome?
noun: impostor syndrome the persistent inability to believe that one's success is deserved or has been legitimately achieved as a result of one's own efforts or skills. "people suffering from impostor syndrome may be at increased risk of anxiety"
I first heard the term impostor syndrome when I began hanging out with published authors, participating in writer forums, and reading books about writing and the publishing process. From what I gathered, impostor syndrome could strike at any stage of the creative journey but often enjoyed strolling into your life and setting up residence during the querying process (when you're trying to get a manuscript published) or the review phase of a new release (which I find myself in now.)
No stranger to therapy, I knew identifying the beliefs behind my anxiety was an important step in managing it. Not that it made those first few days any easier—I had a good deal of trouble sleeping after I began shipping out ARCs. (I'm a big fan of the Calm App, by the way, if you're looking to quiet your mind, breathe more deeply, and/or encourage sleep.)
Once I looked up the definition, I realized that the impostor syndrome most writers talk about is usually a temporary state brought about by imagining all sorts of terrible future outcomes that are the result of your work not being good enough. The writer's impostor syndrome is a temporary disbelief in one's worthiness. True impostor syndrome is a "persistent inability" to believe you deserve success based on your own efforts or talents.
Most of the writers I know, pass through phases of impostor syndrome. They don't stay there. They couldn't. As a writer, you have to believe you have a story no one else can tell or you wouldn't be writing. Your belief may waiver from time to time, but it's there at your core. Realizing the anxiety and disbelief I was experiencing were temporary helped me start pushing through to the other side. One of my favorite sayings is "sometimes the only way out is through" and that has definitely become my mindset recently.
Reflecting on my feelings over the last few weeks, I uncovered the fact that I've never considered myself an artist—even though I've been a writer, songwriter, singer, and actor pretty much my entire life. I think it's because I've been an active participant in all the art I've created up until now, I've seen myself as a performer, not an artist. When you are a performer, you have a great deal of control over how well or how poorly your performance lands with an audience. A performer knows, in real-time, whether they nailed it or fell short.
Distributing a story as the written word is a completely different experience. I have no control over how my novel will perform for a reader, no live connection with my audience. How many times have you picked up a book and it's not at all the genre you feel like reading at the moment, or you read something a friend loved and it falls completely flat for you, or you stumble upon a book with no critical acclaim that becomes one of your all-time favorites? The author has no way to control if their book finds its way to the right person at the right time and place.
Hmm, control, eh? I had to ask myself if my anxiety was truly impostor syndrome (a belief that my work was inadequate and I was a fraud) or if I was struggling with the fact that am now putting art into the world and I have no control over how it will be experienced.
Merriam-Webster defines an impostor as "one that assumes false identity or title for the purpose of deception." Given that definition, I am not an impostor. I'm certainly not the best writer who ever lived, but I'm not out to deceive anyone. I did the best I could at the time. As Carolyn See said in her wonderful little book Making a Literary Life, "Remember, it's a game. The objects are love, fun, and truth."
My debut novel and the process of bringing it to life have certainly been all about love, fun, and truth. Once I realized I was not suffering from thinking I was an impostor, I knew my anxiety centered around lack of control, not lack of belief.
So, I'm working on learning to let go and send my book out into the world with love and gratitude, believing it will find its readership. Not every reader will love it, but some will and that's all any writer can hope for.
This past month has been a good time to revisit the Serenity Prayer:
"God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference."
And also the Writer's Serenity Prayer: "Lord, give me coffee to change the things I can, and chocolate to help me accept the things I can't." Good thing we've got great chocolate in Vermont.
I hope this article helps anyone else out there who's learning how to let go and launch their art into the world. If so, I'd love to hear from you.