First Emerging Writers Group (EWG) meeting. I’ve already googled everyone, obviously. Their accolades are big. Big awards, tv shows, productions. I hope no one googled me.
We go round, introduce ourselves. My eczema flares up when I’m nervous, and I feel myself getting itchy. I try not to scratch.
After the first session I phone a friend.
‘But you’ve done x y z, I’m sure they’re looking at you and thinking the same thing’.
But I’m sure I’m the weakest link, the one they threw in at the end because they needed to fill the space.
‘It’s just imposter syndrome’ my friend says, ‘it’ll go away’.
Imposter syndrome is that feeling where you look around a room and think ‘there has been some mistake, I don’t belong here’, ‘luck got me here’, ‘they think I’m better than I actually am and they are going to find out’. There are loads of different versions of it, but the first study™was done in the 70s and found that ‘despite outstanding professional accomplishments, women persist in believing that they are really not bright and have fooled anyone who thinks otherwise’.
It affects women more than men, and working class women of colour are hit hardest by it. That should tell you all you need to know. In industries like theatre that are dominated by white middle class men, anyone who does not see themselves in the room has an inclination to question whether they belong there.
There is a split in that. Firstly it is – ‘do I belong here because I don’t see myself around the room?’ Then it’s – ‘do I not belong here because I’m not good enough?’ This is an internalisation of the first question, but it’s hard to realise that. It’s hard to believe that you are deserving of a seat at the table and that you (and your talent) are enough.
In the following weeks I try to get writing.
I open my laptop everyday and everyday I get the –
You are not very good at this
You are only here because someone knew someone who called in a favour and they felt sorry for you so there you go
You are only here because they didn’t have enough women
You are only here because of clerical error that they were too embarrassed to correct
You aren’t very clever, especially compared to the other people in this room
You are only here because you wrote one good thing and now that’s over you don’t have anything left to say.
My eczema spreads to my face.
It’s not a new feeling. I spent two years in New York on a writing course, and not to grossly generalise, but a lot of Americans tend to be into the culture of self promotion. Sometimes this is healthy – because why shouldn’t you vocalise your achievements? But a lot of the time it manifests into social media braggers who you have to unfollow because it’s the fourth time this week they’ve been selected as a finalist for the Best Script in America Award.
This endless not-so-humble bragging may come from a place of insecurity, I know, but it’s hard to sit in a room with all these confident people who seem so self assured and trust that they are also screaming in their heads ‘AM I THE WORST ONE HERE?’.
I call the same friend. She’s getting a little impatient with me. She’s a teacher and she sees it in a lot of her female / female identifying students. They write tentatively. ‘This may show’, ‘perhaps this indicates’, ‘maybe the author is trying to…’
‘It just annoys me because their sensitivity actually makes them better students but they don’t have the confidence to carry it through. And so much of it is about confidence these days. Confidence and big dick energy.’
She tells me she gets them to write down all the good things people have ever said about them. She says to try this with things people have said about my writing.
‘Just write down why you deserve this. And stop scratching’.
It’s hard to internalise your experiences of success. It’s hard to believe that the person who wrote that meant it, especially when you see such shit get praised. It’s hard not to attribute your success on luck or other people getting you there.
You try to be healthy, to follow the cause and effect of your actions and your hard work and how it got you to where you are. To feel grateful to be able to share a space with writers who are so amazing, who inspire you to be better. To trust the taste of the people who got you this opportunity, to know that if it was a clerical error they would have definitely said something …
But next EWG meeting we have to bring pages in.
That song by the Merrymen goes around my head.
Feeling shit shit shit.
This is shit shit shit.
I need to itch itch itch.
Imposter syndrome is the last thing you need as a writer, especially when you’re in a writer’s group. Most writing is bad before it’s good, and you have to share the bad stuff, and you have to feel comfortable in the room to be able to do that. But if you are constantly thinking ‘you gotta be good, you gotta prove yourself or else they will see you for who you really are’ then that’s a bit tough.
And it’s also a product of binary thinking. ‘Do I have to be perfect for people to approve of me?’ Almost every work of art I love isn’t perfect. It’s too long or neglects something etc. But I still think they are amazing, and the people who created them are brilliant artists. It’s not one or the other. You aren’t good or bad, talented or talentless. There is nothing wrong in admitting that you are learning and growing. It seems so simple to acknowledge this but all my overachieving children out there may feel a pang of understanding. If you’ve spent your whole life getting the top marks, where your self worth has been predicated on the fact that you achieve things, what happens when the test gets harder? Or there is no such thing as top marks anymore? Or worse – what if there is no test at all?!
Four months later, in another EWG meeting, when I’ve lathered myself in dozens of creams and swallowed enough antihistamines to induce heart palpitations, one of the writers asks the room –
‘Do I belong here?’
We go outside for a cigarette.
So many brilliant people experience it. Maya Angelou. Michelle Obama. Einstein.
The irony of quoting (straight) white men to emphasise my point doesn’t go unnoticed to me but – ‘Wiser people so full of doubts’ (Bertrand Russell)
‘a fool thinks he is wise, but a wise man knows himself to be a fool (Shakespeare)
‘he who saddens at the thought of idleness cannot be idle, / And he’s awake who thinks himself asleep’ (Keats).
Does having doubts legitimise you as an artist?
But then does that mean being successful means constantly carrying self doubt? Will it ever end? Will I ever sit in a room with other artists (or any room) and feel at ease?
She hands me my lighter.
‘But I just want to say’ I say, ‘you are the reason for my imposter syndrome.’
And it’s true. She’s talented, intelligent and articulate. I sit across from her in the writer’s circle and go fuck she’s so good why am I in the same circle as her?
She laughs and stubs her cig out –
‘But you’re the reason for mine’.
After that chat I finish a first draft
It’s shit because it’s a first draft
But the voice in my head quietened down a bit
As did my itching
And after that chat I realise
You can’t speed your career up
I am where I am
And I’ll write when I can
As much as I can
And I’ll show it to some people I trust
And then I’ll rewrite it
Then I’ll show it to some strangers
And then I’ll re write it
And maybe it will be good
And maybe it will be put on
But maybe it won’t
And all my suspicions will be confirmed.