Woulda, Coulda, Shoulda
I was a child when I created my first book. Using construction paper, crayons, markers, and a stapler I produced my version of a paperback, complete with crudely drawn figure sticks and a riveting story about…well, who knows. The book is long gone. The memory of creating it is all that remains.
I was about 16 when I first declared (to myself, in a journal) that I would write a novel. I didn’t have a topic in mind, but knew I was going to write a critically-acclaimed blockbuster that would undoubtedly enter the canon of great American literature.
While in college, I began a script based on Stephen King’s The Long Walk for a screenwriting class. A handful of classmates expressed interest in directing a film based on my script, though this was likely due less to my ability as a writer and more to the story’s gruesome dystopia.
Now, at 42, I’m writing short stories and submitting them to literary journals. I’m blogging. I’m promoting my work and pursuing this passion that I’ve had for as far back as I can remember. Which is fine, but…
What the hell happened during those intervening decades?
The novel was never written, the screenplay never finished. Why didn’t I follow through with my aspirations? I had the imagination. I had the ability. I had the passion. I had the time.
I could have accomplished all of my goals. I could have published paperbacks and written a novel and finished a screenplay.
Further, I should have done all of those things.
Whether or not you agree with Malcolm Gladwell’s “10,000-Hour Rule,” there’s no disputing the fact that writing consistently every day is critical to bettering your skills as a writer. Had I written that story, that novel, that screenplay, my abilities would far surpass where they are now. Sure, maybe the tomes of my earlier days wouldn’t be particularly good, but twenty years of consistent writing should have churned out some decent works and possibly launched a steady career.
And maybe I would have done all of those things, but for Imposter Syndrome.
Like many writers, I’m not one who takes kindly to compliments. Tell me my writing is good, and my internal voice will remind me that it was dumb luck. Not talent, not skill, not the result of painstakingly hard work — just luck, plain and simple.
That, my friends, is “imposter syndrome,” a psychological pattern in which you are convinced you’re a fraud and a fake and any moment will be exposed as the imposter you are, before being rightfully laughed off the Internet for all of eternity.
I’ve dealt with imposter syndrome all my life, to the point where it has kept me from achieving my goals. Which kills me, because if it hadn’t stopped me all those years ago, I’d potentially be further in my writing career instead of launching it now, as I near middle age.
But even as I continue to struggle with imposter syndrome, I’m learning there are ways to defeat it. Or, at least, to quiet the inner voice enough to get some work done.
1. Remember that Other Writers Feel the Same Way. Imposter syndrome doesn’t discriminate. Stephen King, Shonda Rhimes, Sheryl Sandberg, even Maya Angelou have talked about their internal critic. Knowing that some of my heroes feel just as nervous about sharing their work comforts me. This tip seems to work for Neil Gaiman, too.
2. Think About the Worst Thing You’ve Ever Read. For me, it’s a recently published mystery novel (which shall remain nameless) that somehow became a New York Times bestseller. But let me tell you, it was awful. Unreliable narrator, clunky dialogue, plot holes you could drive a truck through, and an ending so confusing that I had to Google it to make sure I didn’t miss something along the way. (I didn’t.) When I begin to question my talents, I remind myself of that book. If such dreck can make it to the top of the Times bestseller list, anything I write has a shot at greatness.
3. Talk to Other Writers. Writing is lonely. You sit at a computer or bend over a notebook, pouring your words onto a page. There are no collaborative sessions, no group meetings, no brainstorming. Only you and your inner pessimist, who reminds you with every sentence that you’re a big fat phony sham. For the sake of your sanity, and your writing, you must network with other writers. Join writers’ groups on Facebook, find like-minded individuals on Meetup.com, check the local library for a writing group, attend conferences — in short, find your tribe. Having someone to commiserate with is a surefire way to quiet the critic inside.
4. Accept the Praise. When you get a clap on Medium or a like on Facebook or a positive review of your work, accept it. Don’t shrug it off as luck or good timing; take a moment and appreciate the recognition for a job well done. Note: this doesn't mean you will always do well, nor does it mean you will never have critics. But until you learn to authentically receive praise, you will continue to find excuses not to share your work or advance your career.
For years, I gave too much power to my inner critic. I allowed my fears to sidetrack my goals. I could have, should have, would have pursued a writing career if only that critical voice hadn’t been so damn loud. Coulda, shoulda, woulda.
The good news is, it’s never too late to start. Consider quieting the inner critic just another aspect of developing your craft; if you work at it, eventually you will feel comfortable publishing work and your response to praise will not be “it was just luck,” but rather, “thank you.”