Impostor syndrome … as described by the fount of all knowledge that is wikipedia … is
the psychological phenomenon in which people are unable to internalize their accomplishments despite external evidence of their competence, those with the syndrome remain convinced that they are frauds and do not deserve the success they have achieved. Proof of success is dismissed as luck, timing, or as a result of deceiving others into thinking they are more intelligent and competent than they believe themselves to be.
and it is extremely prevalent in the professional sciences. I rapidly run out of fingers when I try to count the number of friends and ex-colleagues from the astronomy world that have impostor syndrome to some degree. I, of course, never suffered from impostor syndrome when I was active in that world – I knew that I didn’t deserve to be awarded my PhD and I knew that I lucked out when I got my postdoctoral position and I knew that I had somehow fooled my bosses when they offered me a permeant job! I was a total impostor. The number of scientists that go through their careers believing they are undeserving and that they will be ‘found out’ as a fraud is startling. A few days ago I started to wonder if the phenomenon is as prolific in the artistic fields as it is in the scientific ones.
One of the many unexpected gems of living in Toledo is the ‘Authors! Authors!’ series run by the local public library and sponsored by a local newspaper. The quality of the writers that they attract is remarkable – in the last couple of years they have hosted (among others) Elizabeth Gilbert, Zadie Smith, Henry Winkler, Marjane Satrapi (who was phenomenal), and just last week, Sandra Cisneros. Furthermore, the tickets are only $10! Since Munchkin’s grandparents were in town for a visit I got the pleasure of dragging the hubby as my date to listen to Sandra Cisneros speak. Since I didn’t grow up in the US I wasn’t exposed to Cisneros in high school where her novel The House On Mango Street is often taught over here. In fact, I only read Mango Street last year and have yet to explore the rest of her catalogue but after finishing the treasure that is Mango Street I knew that I would enjoy seeing her speak. But I didn’t know just how much I would enjoy hearing her speak.
She read from her ‘picture book for grown ups’ Have You Seen Marie and she completely embodied the characters bringing a colour and vitality to the words that made them come alive. Indeed, during the Q&A section one audience member commented on her skill and she admitted to loving reading out loud and that she had recorded all the audio versions of her books. However, while hearing her speak about her deep connection to her work, and her spirituality, and the artistry that she brings to said work, it brought back a familiar feeling of ‘being a fraud’.
Since starting out on this adventure of becoming a writer I have questioned more than once whether I have the ‘artistry’ in me to be considered worthy. I am very much not religious, nor would I call myself spiritual. I am an atheist. I am often scathing and judgmental. I am methodical and logical often to a fault. I am a scientist, and even though I no longer work in that field – it is part of who I am. I don’t meditate. I don’t believe in a higher being. I don’t believe in soulmates. I see humans for the complex, evil, wonderful, only-around-for-a-single-lifetime collection of molecules that (I believe) we are. Does that mean I can’t be an artist? Do I want to be an artist?
I haven’t travelled far enough down this road to know what I want to be yet, nor do I know enough writers to know whether the insecurities I assume they experience are the same as the impostor syndrome that is rife in other fields. I suspect frustrations and doubts originate from rejection in the writing world more than achieving things you don’t feel you deserve. What I do know is that I love words, I love language, I love books, I love stories and I love creating stories. I do know that I am receiving local recognition within my university for my writing and I know I want to see if I can gain recognition on a bigger scale. I am in the incredibly lucky position to be able to explore this new path without the pressures of having to make an income (thanks hubby!) and I look forward to discovering if there is a real place for my cynical-old-self in this new world.