An American Editor

November 18, 2019

Are Authors and Editors “Imposters”?

Filed under: Editorial Matters — An American Editor @ 10:25 am

By Carolyn Haley

The term “imposter syndrome” came to my attention when it began popping up in editorial and writing forums I follow. Since I didn’t understand what people were talking about, I looked up the definition. What I learned made me really wonder what people were talking about, because the “syndrome” struck me as much ado about nothing. Definitions of imposter syndrome range from simplistic to scientific, but all seem to amount to this: You feel like a fraud when you’ve accomplished something. It’s an emotional paradox that boils down to one word: insecurity.

This is nothing new in the arts. Insecurity, self-doubt, underconfidence, disconnect between inner and outer life, between expectations and results . . . who in the creative world has not experienced those feelings? They’ve simply acquired a new name — imposter syndrome — because today, so many more people than in decades past are trying to make a living, or achieve a goal, in realms that have no concrete definition of validity and success.

Doctors and lawyers and plumbers and pilots, along with many other professionals in diverse fields, must get certified or licensed before they can practice those trades, and they go through long, intense, and expensive training to earn their qualifications. As well, if they don’t maintain prescribed qualifications for their entire career, they can be barred from practice by an official body.

Artists, however — writers, painters, sculptors, musicians, dancers, actors, filmmakers, and the people who support them (such as editors on the literary side) — have no such criteria to meet. They may improve their opportunities through educational degrees and training, but such credentials are not required for them to be employed or successful in their fields. Compared to the licensed folks, artists just hurl themselves out into the world and strive for the best outcome, meanwhile being judged subjectively from every direction.

It’s enough to make anyone’s knees knock together. The artistic pathway is not mapped, or else has so many trails off into uncertainty that it’s nigh impossible to choose the right path to follow. There’s no official definition of capability or success. The rules of engagement with other parties are amorphous. Awards and honors come from other unlicensed people. The arts in general, and publishing in particular, lack an identifiable, reliable lodestar.

It’s enough to make anyone feel insecure!

How circumstances contribute

Insecurity tends to be worse if the circumstances of one’s life failed to lay a solid ego foundation. This can occur because of family, school, or workplace, or some combination of these. Children, then adults, with creative urges and vision, who mean well and try hard, might suffer negative consequences no matter what they do, getting pulled down regardless of their brains or talents or performance. When they persevere, or get lucky, and achieve recognition or monetary success, it’s hard for them to believe they did all the right things to deserve it. Instead of basking in the glow of achievement, they might sit around waiting for the other shoe to drop, feeling like an imposter.

I’ve never suffered this, because to me things are simple and obvious. If you write, you are a writer. If you edit, you are an editor. If you perform any kind of art or craft sincerely, you are an artist or a craftsperson. That’s all the validation required to be the real deal. No need to explain or apologize to anyone.

The important distinction — and this is what makes people feel wobbly — occurs at the next level. What makes a professional or successful artist or craftsperson instead of a hobbyist?

That, too, is simple: Somebody pays you for something you created, and/or is happy to have experienced your work. You meet their subjective standard successfully.

Of course, it doesn’t end there. To be an acknowledged professional over the long term, you have to attain a level of competence that’s recognized in your industry. This is a more-objective, but still nebulous, technical standard. In publishing, writers must achieve a certain writerly competence — on top of their great ideas — that makes their stories or premises compelling and coherent enough for other people to want to buy them, read them, and appreciate them. Editors have to attain a certain level of editorial competence so they can help the writers they work with move forward, rather than alienating them by demolishing their work or leaving them flapping in the breeze.

In either case, who decides what “competence” means?

Answer: a disparate group of people who do not have to be certified or licensed, either.

Succeeding through the paradoxes

This does not mean uncertified or unlicensed people don’t have skill and wisdom. In actuality, the more-experienced and more-knowledgeable people in publishing are well equipped to judge the competence of other authors and editors operating in the arena, and do a great job of cultivating them. The point is, editors, agents, publishers, and readers are no more required to have uniform, formal, technical qualifications for their roles than writers are. And now that we have the self-publishing option, some of these folks may get removed from the equation, making qualification as a writer or editor even fuzzier.

I’ve lived through these paradoxes and still managed to succeed as both a writer and an editor. My writings have been lauded and debased, through books published by three different tiers of publisher as well as self-published; and my articles and reviews have been placed anywhere from no-pay blogs to top-dollar national magazines. As an editor, I’ve worked with people at the bottom of the “slush pile,” authors cranking out popular novel after popular novel for Big 5 traditional publishers, and everything in between. My credentials for both channels fit different molds, and people evaluating them disagree on their merit. Yet I don’t consider myself an imposter; I’m a real editor, a real writer, getting stronger and better every day.

My self-image results from the fact my profession does not have licensure requirements. That frees me to measure by my own or others’ individual yardsticks, and opens the door to unlimited possibilities. I am constrained only by intangibles — luck, timing, effort, savviness, people’s tastes and educated (or not) opinions, marketplace demand, and the like. Although all these influence me, they do not define me as a person or limit my potential. Same is true for every indie editor and author today. We are only fakes if we try to fake-out others.

A pathway to confidence

The way out of feeling like an imposter is to find and believe in the pathway followed by successful authors and editors. The three steps are general, but I daresay they are followed by successful people in all unregulated occupations.

1) Action. The people who get anywhere go beyond the motions and don’t give up.

2) Belief in oneself. The people who succeed know that they have what it takes to eventually get where they want to go, and recognize that the outer world is not necessarily receptive to that fact. They assume they must overcome obstacles and set about doing so, perceiving obstacles as impersonal things and owning the responsibility for tackling them. They consider failure to be part of a process, not an absolute condition that reflects back on their worth.

3) Intellectual evaluation. The people who get where they want to go spend a lot of time thinking about it and informing themselves, looking for and asking for help, rather than wallowing in self-pity or pointing fingers. They also define what success means to them, not others, and keep perspective about where they are versus where they desire to be.

Nothing imposter-ish about that approach. Rather, it makes them human and authentic. “Real” writers and editors (or whatever occupation) can never be imposters as long as they pursue what they want, keep seeking education and mentoring, and focus on the most-realistic avenue for their personal growth. They are artists or craftspeople at different points on a long journey, where sometimes they get lucky, and sometimes their most excruciating effort gains nothing. Most of their experience falls between those extremes, and they go forward, sideways, backward, and forward again. Fall down, get back up, and carry on.

That’s life. That’s especially the arts, and double-especially the professional areas where licensure and certification don’t exist.

In sum, just because you don’t feel you deserve success doesn’t mean you’re an imposter. It only means that you haven’t found your way through a gnarly jungle of blurry definitions and subjective responses, and haven’t quite grasped what you’re doing in a relative realm.

Carolyn Haley is an award-winning novelist who lives and breathes novels. Although specializing in fiction, she edits across the publishing spectrum — fiction and nonfiction, corporate and indie — and is the author of two novels and a nonfiction book. She has been editing professionally since 197, and has had her own editorial services company, DocuMania, since 2005. She can be reached at dcma@vermontel.com or through her websites, DocuMania and New Ways to See the World. Carolyn also blogs at Adventures in Zone 3 and reviews at the New York Journal of Books, and has presented on editing fiction at the Communication Central conference.

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