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My Secret Life as a Fraud: On Imposter Syndrome

I was a recent college graduate when I landed my first paid freelance assignment. I was tasked with covering an adult-education class for a local publication, a simple piece that would nonetheless pay several hundred dollars. I was thrilled—and terrified. I’d written sporadic articles for my college newspaper, and I’d filed a few feature stories during my internship at a regional lifestyle magazine, but this assignment felt different. Deep down, I wasn’t sure I was qualified to act as a freelance writer with an actual, paying assignment.

While my editor assured me that phone interviews could suffice, I took it upon myself to actually attend one of the classes so I could get a better sense of the adult-education program I was covering. I sat through the entire class and then stayed late to interview students, the instructor, and even the program administrators. Afterward, I gathered my notes and went home, where I sat at my writing desk and started to panic. I was so afraid of making a rookie mistake or exposing myself as a fraud that I wrote a safe, clean, boring piece. While the article was factual and grammatically impeccable, it was also rigid and clinical. But I sent it off to my editor, relieved to be done.

Except I wasn’t. When my editor sent me an email a day later, he seemed bewildered. “Didn’t you say you were going to attend the class?” he asked. “If you did, I can’t tell by reading this. There’s no heart in this piece. It’s lifeless.” (Maybe he wasn’t so harsh as to call my article lifeless—this was roughly a dozen years ago, the email long since gone—but that was how his criticism struck me at the time.)

I was at work at my day job at a nonprofit agency when I received his message. After reading it, I got up, shut my office door, and started to cry. While my editor was largely patient and understanding, he also made it clear that I had failed to submit the article he’d been hoping for. In other words, my worst fears—that I wasn’t good enough, and that maybe I’d never be good enough—were coming true.

In retrospect, I failed because I was afraid of failing. Imposter syndrome—the secret fear that one is a professional fraud, despite high levels of education, experience, or competence—is an apt description for my state of mind as I approached that freelance assignment. True, maybe I wasn’t qualified to write something for Harper’s or The New Yorker at that stage in my career, but I certainly had the ability to compose a fluff piece for a local publication. But try getting my former self to believe it.

I thought of this moment recently when I read Leigh Stein’s “Poet, Writer, Imposter: Learning to Believe in Myself” in the current May/June issue of Poets & Writers. Stein opens with a mental list of her failings, which I love because the same lines have run through my head over the years as I faced new assignments:

To begin with, my credentials are worthless. I’m no expert. A better writer should have gotten this assignment. My editor is ignoring my e-mails because my work is unpublishable and she’s just trying to find the nicest way to tell me. I’m not talented; I’ve just been lucky, and what will I do when that luck runs out?

In her essay, Stein recounts receiving a writing assignment that seems too good to be true. She reacts, naturally, by putting off the assignment for as long as possible before nearly backing out because she worries she’s a phony. Eventually, she bucks up and not only gets to work, but is praised by the artist who commissioned the piece. She immersed herself in that praise “until the conviction of her validation drowned out my self-sabotaging inner monologue, and I could complete the essay.”

As Stein examined her own reaction to this assignment, she also considers why writers in particular might suffer from imposter syndrome: “For writers, professional value is so tied up in publication: If no one wants to publish that novel or poem you thought was so good when you wrote it, of course you feel stricken.”

Stricken is a good way to describe my reaction after reading that email from my editor. I still remember how I set about penning a response full of apologies, explanations, and even an offer to give up the assignment to another, more experienced writer. But as I sat looking at the email draft, I knew I was being unprofessional and maybe a bit preposterous. So I didn’t get this article right the first time around—that didn’t mean I couldn’t fix it.

“I see what you’re saying,” I replied to my editor. “Let me work on it and get back to you tomorrow.”

I wrote an entirely new opening for the article and spiced up the rest. This time, I let some personality into the piece. This time, because I’d already faced failure once, I wasn’t so afraid of making a mistake. I felt free to be myself on the page.

And my editor loved it. He accepted the revised piece, and within a few weeks, I was cashing the check. That editor went on to assign me several additional stories before referring me to another regional publication, where I would freelance for years. Clips and a reference from that freelance gig were instrumental in my landing a position as a trade magazine editor, and the experience from that position gave me the confidence to pitch and publish articles in national publications. Meanwhile, I continued making strides in fiction, my main love, and saw my work appear in prestigious literary journals.

None of this would have happened if I’d admitted defeat when writing that first freelance article, or if I’d convinced myself, once and for all, that I was a fraud. Because I wasn’t a fraud, or an imposter, or a phony.

I was a writer. No doubt about it.