Photo by John-Mark Smith on Unsplash
Last year was a pretty big one for me. I had a book that was published and translated into five foreign languages. I spoke at the Sydney Opera House and shared stages with the likes of Jamaica Kincaid and Meg Wolitzer. I traveled to multiple countries and continents for both work and pleasure. Looking in on my life, it appears that I am living the dream.
I have all the markers of success, yet there is a nagging fear that follows me no matter where I go: I feel like a failure waiting to be exposed.
When I first got my book deal, I thought that I had “made it,” that my life from there on out would be easy, and my confidence in my work would be unshakeable. The hard work of writing a whole book (in six months, no less) would make me immune to the critics who berate because they cannot do. Each next step would bolster my sense of security that I was doing the right thing. I would feel the satisfaction of a job well done and a career well earned.
Instead, I have found the exact opposite to be true. I feel like I have been given too much, and that to hold onto this level of success is untenable. I feel the pressure to keep up with the galloping pace that this book has brought into my life, convinced that anything less is failure. Yet the horse of the publishing world can only take me so far, and then I’m left on my own frail human legs.
“What’s next?” people ask me, and my mind swaths itself in the word like a security blanket: failure, failure, failure.
The highs of big events are often mired by a deep dive into self-doubt. Surely this will be the last time they let me sneak into the circle of cool kids. Surely they’ll realize I don’t belong. Surely someone will figure me out for the fraud I truly am.
The strange thing is, I never grappled with imposter syndrome before writing a book. Not even when I first began freelancing and, let’s face it, had no idea what I was doing. Not even when I was writing for financial websites or doing journalistic work that was a bit out of my league. I knew I could string words together with relatively good grammar. I knew what I was putting out there was on par with other writers at the sites I was pitching. I knew I was good enough, and if I wasn’t, I’d learn to be.
When I wrote in relative obscurity, I would strike the occasional viral note in an essay that would bring out the trolls and sanctimonious keyboard warriors in full force. The article would be shared far and wide, but undoubtedly, it would be buried by the news cycle within the week, usually within the next couple of days. I was good about not reading the comments (my husband would sometimes read me the highlight reel to satiate my curiosity). My confidence was never truly shaken. I deserved the space I had carved out for my voice.
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Then I wrote the viral article that led to my book deal, and everything changed. The shift was significant, sudden, and, in my mind, unearned. I often call that moment the perfect storm of hard work, luck, and privilege. Dumb luck. Unearned privilege. A victory won more by the weather than my might.
Still, I thought I would earn my keep in the writing of the book. It was among the hardest things I have ever done, on par with childbirth, which I’ve endured three times. Yet the fact that I had skipped the line haunted me. And of course, the world would never let me forget it. One of my very first freelance editors reviewed my book for her followers, saying, “no need for the entire book. In fact, it's beginning to irritate me that the publishing world feels all viral essays somehow need to be made into books when the essay itself suffices.”
On the surface, I was hurt and angry and betrayed. On the inside, her words branded me with self-doubt. She’s just telling it like it is. You’re an essayist, not an author. You don’t deserve this. You never will.
Her words weren’t the only ones with staying power.
It feels like all the criticisms that used to roll off me are now tattooed beneath my skin. Every negative review cataloged in my mind, organized like a Rolodex for easy recollection. I do not pull them up every day, but I do it far more often than I ought. It’s achingly satisfying, like picking at a scab, but I have to stop before it scars me permanently.
Because the truth, when I look at it objectively, is that there is no failure here unless I allow those voices to guide me into silence and despair. There are the haters I knew there would be. There is the mess that comes with learning. There is growth that does not follow a straight and upward trajectory. There is self-doubt, yes, but also perseverance and a desire to keep showing up despite the discomfort.
I have to believe that perhaps this is how all success feels at some level—unearned but worth working for, uncertain but still right. I’m new but not an imposter. I'm not confident in this role yet, but I’ll learn to be.