Finding the Sweet Spot: Avoiding Impostor Syndrome

I have never been good at self-promotion. It goes against everything I was taught as a child about being humble. Often at readings, I am happy if the host mentions that I have books available, or I would probably never sell one. And now, in the wake of exploding social media groups like Binders Full of Women Writers, I have been suffering from a bit of impostor syndrome.

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As I read through the posts and consider commenting, I think, “Why the hell would a group of successful writers who make a living with their words, writers like Cheryl Strayed, for God’s sake, give a thought to anything a suburb-dwelling, middle-school teacher has to say?” I also have the good pleasure to know many talented young female writers who have accomplished so much in their twenties and thirties that I wonder sometimes why I bother to do this in my fifties. When people throw around terms like spondee or trochee, I feel dumb, second-guessing my self-obtained knowledge, running to Wikipedia to double-check definitions and questioning whether I should have gotten that MFA degree after all.

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And the worst part of all of this? If I share these doubts publicly, these cracks in my machinery, it can sound like I am fishing for compliments or, at the very least, seeking validation. And if I go the other way, sharing all of my successes and good news? I run the risk of becoming an annoying braggart, or even worse, a humble bragger. So how does a person find the sweet spot between feeling like a fraud and being confident?

In sports, the term sweet spot refers to a place where a combination of factors results in a maximum response for a given amount of effort, i.e., the sweet spot on a tennis racket. In acoustics, it is the focal point between two speakers where an individual is fully capable of hearing the stereo audio mix the way it was intended to be heard by the mixer. It implies a perfection in balance.

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So I considered of one of my creative heroes, Michael Palin, who seems to balance so many talents perfectly: comedian, actor, screenwriter, novelist, adventurer, and travel documentarian. His career has been extraordinarily diverse and its longevity surpasses that of most creative people who have specialized in only one endeavor. Imagine my surprise when, researching, I found this Palin quote:

I look at everything I’ve done and wonder, “Why wasn’t that better?” Part of my motivation is from crippling self-doubt – I have to prove myself wrong.

“Crippling self-doubt?” From this man who is so accomplished? If he feels that way, how am I ever to find this balance?

As writers, we often get down on ourselves. After all, we work in a field where rejection is a daily part of the landscape. We all need to break out of this cycle of “crippling self-doubt” and prove ourselves wrong. I have come up with a list of things I have done (or should do more often) to remind myself that I have a voice in the world of writers, even if it is not a loud one, that what I write is important, at least to me.

1. Make a List Make a list of your accomplishments – publications, prizes, nominations, or even personal roadblocks you have conquered (i.e., reading your work in public, sending out submissions). Don’t be shy. Include them all. I’ll bet your list is rather long. Post it somewhere you can see it regularly.

2. Calculate Your Batting Average If you keep records of your acceptances and rejections, calculate your batting average for a “season” – determine a set amount of time (6 months, a year) and I would bet that your acceptance average is at least as good as Major League Baseball Players who were collectively averaging .248 at the end of April. In writing terms, that would be a 25% acceptance rate. High for many writers? Yes. But you also don’t get paid several million dollars to strike out. Consider anything near 10% an extremely successful average.

3. Cultivate Relationships Yes, social media can feed your feelings of fraud. But it has also opened up the world in a way that makes it possible to communicate with a large group of people that you may never have contacted otherwise. After striking up Twitter and Facebook “friendships” with poets whose work I admire, I have been happy and even comfortable meeting them in person and viewing myself as a peer. Start the conversation. Join social media groups of like-minded writers. Promote the work of others, not only your own. Make an effort to attend readings and literary events in your community. When you are a part of a larger community, confidence becomes easier to access.

4. Believe What You Read If you have never had anyone review your work, please do so. Reading reviews of my books helped me believe in myself more than anything else ever has. The analyses and opinions of readers and writers I respect helped me to believe that my work had value in the world and not just in my head. Even when the reviews weren’t completely positive, they still showed that my work moved readers in some way. And that’s what all writers are trying to do, whether we are NEA fellows publishing in The New Yorker or suburban middle school teachers, scribbling in their journals during twenty minute lunch breaks and saying, “Why not me?”

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Sylvia Plath famously said, “The worst enemy to creativity is self-doubt.” Defeat the enemy within the external obstacles are plentiful enough out there.

Donna Vorreyer is the author of three chapbooks: Womb/Seed/Fruit (Finishing Line Press), Come Out, Virginia (Naked Mannekin Press), and Ordering the Hours (Maverick Duck Press). She is a poetry editor for Mixed Fruit, and her work has appeared in many journals, recently in Sweet, Linebreak, Rhino, Cider Press Review, Stirring, and Wicked Alice. Donna lives in the Chicago area where she teaches middle school and therefore often acts like she is twelve years old. Her first full-length collection, A House of Many Windows was published by Sundress Publications in 2013. Her second collection will be released from Sundress Publications in 2016.

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