Charlie Jane Anders is writing a nonfiction book—and Tor.com is publishing it as she does so. Never Say You Can’t Survive is a how-to book about the storytelling craft, but it’s also full of memoir, personal anecdote, and insight about how to flourish in the present emergency.
Below is the second chapter, “Imposter Syndrome Is Just Part of Being a Writer”—you can read the introduction and Chapter 1 here. New chapters will appear every Tuesday. Enjoy!
Imposter Syndrome Is Just Part of Being a Writer
You can never know what your stories are worth.
When you put a story out in the world, you will never know who’s read it, or how many people, or what it’s meant to them. A single copy of a book can get passed around and shared and picked up, over and over again.
Nobody is ever going to come along with a magic wand and say “You’re a real writer now.” There are a million different definitions of writing success out there, and almost everyone feels like a failure sometimes. (Constantly, in my case.)
And we’re not really competing with other writers. The first thing people do when they finish reading a book they enjoyed is search for more books like that one. Your biggest competition is always the dreaded “reading slump,” when people just fall out of the habit of reading because they haven’t found the right book for them lately. Anything, or anyone, who gets people reading more is good for all of us.
Nevertheless, imposter syndrome is everywhere, and everyone has their own supposedly ironclad rules for writing—and if you let this stuff get you down, you’ll find it harder to write. And you definitely won’t be able to use writing to find liberation, or to see a better future, if you’re worrying about whether you’re “allowed” to do this, or whether your work matters.
But we can banish imposter syndrome, and the insecurity that lies behind it, by finding the communities of people who want to give each other props and encourage each other to make better dreams. And to take pleasure in whatever aspects of writing (and publishing) you can enjoy right now, even if that’s just knowing that you crafted one really kick-ass sentence today.
Imposter syndrome is forever
The bad news is, imposter syndrome never really goes away. But that’s also the good news. Apart from a handful of exceptions, everybody who’s writing and publishing and doing appearances is plagued by imposter syndrome.
As I’ve written before, imposter syndrome can be a sign that you’re doing well, because you always feel more insecure when you’re starting to get more recognition. It’s also a chance to stretch your imagination because you’re sort of playing make-believe until you actually believe you’re a writer, and to build empathy for other struggling writers. Being honest about imposter syndrome is a great way to connect with other people in the same boat.
But also, imposter syndrome is fundamentally a fear of not living up to the role of “author”—which is sort of a one-size-fits-all garment that doesn’t fit anybody perfectly. It’s bound to pinch in some areas, and poof out in others. It’s like any other professional identity. If you were a seismologist, you’d have people judging you on whether you wear the right kind of quake-proof shoes, and how well you know your subduction zones by heart. (I’m guessing.)
The main difference is, there’s a lot of mystique built up around writers, especially the notion of who gets to be a “real writer.” A lot of writers are overly invested in keeping the mystique alive—like, people are shy about talking about the financial and other support they received, that allowed them to do this. (Full disclosure: my parents supported me through college and gave me some help when I was starting out—so while I did have a full-time day job until recently, I did not have to pay off a mountain of student loans.)
Speaking of money… if you don’t get paid (or paid enough) for your writing, you might also get force-fed the idea that you’re not a real author. Whereas in fact, two seemingly opposite things are true:
- Writers should get paid for their work.
- Writers who don’t get paid are still real writers.
During my painful first decade of trying to be a writer, I mostly published my work in small-press publications, which paid a small amount (or, in some cases, paid in copies.) And for a while, I was just posting my stories on message boards, or taking part in group story-writing projects, where nobody got paid. Truth is, even if you achieve more financial success, a lot of the work that writers do is emotional labor, which never gets compensated.
We all know that some of the most valuable work you can do is unpaid, and a lot of the work that you get paid for is worthless. I found that out firsthand when I temped in my early twenties, and was literally paid to “look busy” for days at a time. In one case, I was told to get my work done more slowly, and in another case I was paid to be a “receptionist” with a disconnected phone and a dead computer, because these finance workers wanted a receptionist but also wanted to answer their own phones.
So getting paid is essential—but it’s not what makes you a real writer.
When you peel back the layers of insecurity behind imposter syndrome, you start to find a lot of preconceptions about what an author should act like, sound like, or look like, which come out of all the class, race, gender and other stratifications in our society. I’ve literally had people tell me you can’t be a real author unless you have the right kind of expensive haircut. (And nah, my pink bob isn’t what they had in mind.)
There are plenty of social situations where you might feel like a fraud—but imposter syndrome is especially a problem if it keeps you from being able to write. Or keeps you from tackling the projects you really want to create, because you doubt your own capabilities. We’ll talk later about what to do when you hate your own writing in another essay, but for now just know that if there’s one thing that absolutely makes you a “real writer,” it’s having a bad writing day.
Seriously. I interviewed George R.R. Martin, and he bemoaned the days when he hates his writing and feels like his talent has deserted him.
If you ever string words together at all, you’re a real writer. I promise.
Screw the rules
Seriously. People will try to tell you “the rules” of writing, and it’s all nonsense. (And if you ever catch me saying anything that looks like a “rule” in these essays, you are cordially encouraged to smack me upside the head.)
You mustn’t write second-person narrators. You can’t include prologues, or maybe prologues are mandatory. No omniscient POV. You must write every single day—preferably at both dawn and dusk, while perched on top of the carcass of a freshly butchered Norwegian snow lynx. No adverbs! Every time you introduce a new character, you must give them a comical nickname, like “Batwing-Pants McDougal.” Only mention eyebrows when they are raised, or you will ruin foreheads for everyone.
And so on.
I get why people want to share their own writing rules—as I just mentioned, we’re all super insecure, and you never really know if anyone’s going to like a particular piece of writing. None of us have that much control over the things we care most about, so we cling to the illusion that we know some universal laws of authordom. Plus, when you find something that works for you, it’s natural to want to share it with everyone else, and to overcompensate by presenting it as more than just a suggestion.
But this is still another way that we internalize our anxieties, and then put them onto everyone else. And you shouldn’t ever feel like a fraud because you’re not following someone else’s rules.
Nobody ever wants to admit how confused we all are. To make matters worse, there’s a lot of intentional mystification around writing, to make a messy, clunky, trial-and-error process feel more like some kind of secret ritual that ensures success. When really, we’re all just stumbling around, and walking into walls over and over again.
Imposter syndrome doesn’t come out of nowhere—it comes from real experiences of people trying to tell us that we don’t belong. Recently I asked people on Twitter about their worst experiences of imposter syndrome and feeling like they’re not “real writers”—and I was startled by all the stories I got back, of microaggressions and other weird behavior.
Unfortunately, speculative fiction is full of people trying to remind you of your place in some imaginary pecking order. Many years ago, I was overjoyed to get one of my stories into a small-press anthology, which also featured a few “big name” authors. At the launch party, I read my story, and one well-known author read his. Afterwards, that author, whom I’d met a few times before, came up to me and said, “Your story was much better than I expected it to be.” Then he paused and, as if wanting to make sure his message had gotten through, he leaned forward and said, “No, really. I didn’t expect it to be that good.”
Everyone has had experiences like that. And a certain amount of this weirdness can be ascribed to social awkwardness, but some of it is also due to an overinvestment in some idea of a star system, when really we’re all in one slightly leaky boat together.
The world is full of famous authors that you’ve never heard of. I’ve been running my own reading series for nearly two decades, and I’ve found over and over that someone who’s a “big name” in one genre or scene is a total unknown to readers and writers in an adjacent scene. And often, authors who have a strong community behind them are better off, in the long run, than ones who achieve some “mainstream” success.
We need to stop putting a handful of authors on pedestals, because it’s not healthy for anybody. Where there’s one author doing a cool new spin on post-modern ghost stories, there’s always a whole group of people doing that same thing and getting less attention.
This is all so much harder for science fiction and fantasy writers, because the outside world still views SF as an inferior, cheesetastic genre. That’s changing, but not quite fast enough. But then we turn around and impose genre snobbery on each other—like, some science fiction is “harder” than others, often for reasons unrelated to the science content of the story. Or science fiction is better than fantasy, for reasons. Or SF romance is less worthy of appreciation.
This is especially shitty when it leads to self-censorship—or worse, people getting creatively blocked because they don’t feel like they’re allowed to write the book they want to write.
Again, you never really know what a story is worth, or who will discover it and fall in love with it. Every writer is just throwing stuff out there and seeing what sticks to the wall, and we all have hits and misses. Everyone remembers Frank Herbert’s Dune, but nobody is reading Destination: Void.
Find the people who support you
I came up with a hack years ago, for when I find myself talking to someone who wants to geek out about status, and who’s up and who’s down.
At the soonest polite moment, I try to interrupt and ask, “Hey, what book have you been enjoying lately?” And it never fails: the conversation turns to this incredible book that this person discovered, and how cool it is, and how it reminds them of five other awesome books.
Because we all love to geek out about books, even more than we love to try and treat this endless struggle to create and publish like some kind of March Madness bracket. (And as an aside, I really do think some of this obsession with status comes out of the fact that it’s fun to nerd out about stats and points, because we all love gaming.)
Even people who sometimes behave obnoxiously share that same love of speculative fiction, and that awareness that we’re a community of book-lovers—or really, a set of countless intersecting communities. And none of us can do our best work unless we’re all supporting and encouraging each other. So it’s important to find the people who appreciate you, and who want to pull you up with them when they’re doing well.
During that aforementioned decade of struggling in obscurity, I found out the hard way that having friends and colleagues and chosen family around was essential to my sanity as a writer. But also, that those people made writing more fun and helped me to dream bigger and weirder. Writing groups, online forums, open mics, and con-buddies weren’t just a lifeline, they were a source of inspiration and happiness.
Here’s the definition of “success” I came up with years ago, which I try to hold fast to: I consider myself successful if:
- I get to work with people I like and admire, on projects that I am excited about, and
- I get to keep writing and having people read my stuff.
I strongly encourage you to find a definition of success that actually makes you happy, rather than encouraging you to be miserable. And then stick to it, no matter what.
As I go on, the first half of that definition gets more important, not less. When I want to know if I’m doing well, I look around at the people around me, and see that they’re badass weirdos whose work keeps surprising and thrilling me. It sounds sappy, but we’re there for each other. And whatever you’re writing and however you do it, there are other people out there who will share your ideas, and your ideals. They will be a lifeline when imposter syndrome starts to get in the way of your creative flow.
I spent some time in L.A. recently, where there are actual famous people wandering around all over the place and it’s easy to get reminded that we’re all just book people. And there was a big tequila ad soaring over Hollywood that said “FAME IS FLEETING.” For a month or so the “E” was burned out, so it only said “FAM IS FLEETING”.
I remember looking up at it and saying, “Nah. Fam is forever.”
New installments will appear every Tuesday at noon EST.
Charlie Jane Anders’ latest novel is The City in the Middle of the Night. She’s also the author of All the Birds in the Sky, which won the Nebula, Crawford and Locus awards, and Choir Boy, which won a Lambda Literary Award. Plus a novella called Rock Manning Goes For Broke and a short story collection called Six Months, Three Days, Five Others. Her short fiction has appeared in Tor.com, Boston Review, Tin House, Conjunctions, The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Wired magazine, Slate, Asimov’s Science Fiction, Lightspeed, ZYZZYVA, Catamaran Literary Review, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency and tons of anthologies. Her story “Six Months, Three Days” won a Hugo Award, and her story “Don’t Press Charges And I Won’t Sue” won a Theodore Sturgeon Award. Charlie Jane also organizes the monthly Writers With Drinks reading series, and co-hosts the podcast Our Opinions Are Correct with Annalee Newitz. She is writing a Young Adult space fantasy trilogy, to debut in early 2021.