Overcoming Imposter Syndrome in the Creative Process
The creative process generally feels like a rollercoaster. There are moments of intensity, from the highs to the lows, partnered with a wide range of emotions from fear and anxiety to a sense of calm, to excitement. This is a journey that shouldn’t be taken lightly, of which only many years of practice will prepare a person for the mental game of publishing—for both the author and publishing professionals.
As someone who witnesses this rollercoaster for many authors, it’s always important at least one of us stays grounded. The role of the agent, the editor, and other publishing professionals is to ensure we can help our authors along the way. Transparency is the goal, communication is key. Slow and steady will always win the race in the end.
I was recently chatting with an agent friend about this rollercoaster. It seems that despite after many years of doing this, even we occasionally feel the same highs and lows. We agreed we both sometimes doubted our own achievements as agents; that an unwanted visitor on more than one occasion had invaded in the form of “imposter syndrome.” Many already know what this is, but for those who don’t, this is the definition from the Cambridge Dictionary: “the feeling that your achievements are not real or that you do not deserve praise or success.”
I’m not sure why this happens; I’m no psychologist. But I do know writers feel imposter syndrome sometimes. even when they already have writing credits under their belt. These seeds of doubt, these anxieties, may show up when you least expect it. So, what are a few steps to overcoming this?
1. Set small goals in your writerly life: Obviously getting a book published is a larger goal, but it’s equally important to set other writing goals. Taking the time to submit shorter pieces (stories/novellas/essays/poems, etc.) to print and online publications is a great start to the mental game of publishing. Not only will you develop the necessary thick skin for rejections, but those publication credits will eventually add up. You’ll be more than prepared for the publication process around a book. You’ll be able to confidently know your book is ready for readers. You’ll hopefully be able to speak about your book without self-doubt.
2. Ask questions, never assume: One of the biggest signs I’m working with a new writer is all the questions. This usually happens when the first book contract is being negotiated. Even something as basic as the difference between delivery of a book and acceptance will leave many feeling anxious. If you have questions, ask them! No question is ever dumb. Your agent will be happy to answer them, as generally these open conversations should help rather than. hamper the process. There is power in knowledge, and the best way confront doubt is transparency.
3. It’s okay to say “No”: Part of being published is also being a willing participant in the general process. Those moments of doubt should never result in an automatic “no.” It’s important you do the figurative homework, in that you’ve asked all the questions of your agent, editor, and/or any other publishing person. If working on a project or accepting an offer isn’t settling well with you, it’s okay to walk away. This would not be a case of imposter syndrome, it would be a reflection of doing the necessary research and coming to a decision you can sleep on.
4. Embrace every success (no matter how small it is): If ANY of your works are published, share it with the world. This is something to celebrate, to be proud of. For every success in publishing, there will always be a long list of rejections. Those rejections should not define your worth as a writer, but those successes (no matter how small they are) should be celebrated.
I remember, as a teenager, writing a poem that one of my teachers absolutely loved. Not only did she frame that poem for me, she encouraged me to submit it to a small contest. I took her advice, and did it. To my surprise, it was published. That was over 30 years ago, but her act of kindness made me believe in myself. Those tiny celebrations can be life-changing. As I realized years ago, this act by my teacher made me want to learn what happened beyond the “book”—that my words mattered.
This past week on APR’s Marketplace Weekend, the staff provided advice they wish they’d received at graduation. One of the contributors pointed out, “you have to feel fear to pursue your passion.” She stated that we are not alone, that doubt will happen. This was a solid advice, and while it was obviously provided for graduates, this is a life lesson for any adult.
The act of writing is an act of love, a sacrifice of time. It requires an intuitiveness and passion for the characters and the worlds that are created. Those anxieties are normal; they will always try to interfere. Always remember your passion is why you became a writer. And when that imposter knocks at your door, walk away. You’ve already proved even through the mere act of writing that you’re following your passion, that you’re ready for that rollercoaster.
Dawn Michelle Frederick is the owner and literary agent of Red Sofa Literary, established in 2008. Red Sofa Literary is a celebration of the quirky, eclectic ideas in our publishing community. Dawn’s previous experience reflects a broad knowledge of the book business, with over a decade of experience as a bookseller in the independent, chain, and specialty stores, an editor for a YA publisher, and an associate literary agent at Sebastian Literary Agency. Dawn earned a BS in Human Ecology and a MS in Library & Information Sciences from an ALA-accredited institution. She is also one of the founders of the MN Publishing Tweet Up, which brings writers and publishers together over a monthly happy hour. Red Sofa Literary was voted as one of the Best 101 Websites by Writer’s Digest in 2012 and 2013. Dawn will be in attendance at the Loft's upcoming Pitch Conference this April.