Impostor syndrome or the obstacle course of the self

Independent researcher and author Helen Kara continues her fortnightly series of blogs on the practice of non-fiction, academic writing by looking at often the biggest challenge in the whole process – the writer themselves… 

Helen KaraThere are lots of potential obstacles to writing: lack of time, motivation, or ability; needing to read all the internet before you start; and so on. Not having time is often cited as a major reason why people don’t write. I have little time for time as an excuse.

There are two reasons for this. The first is that it’s possible to write effectively in short periods of time. It took me around ten minutes to write the first 100 words of this blog post. That’s 100 words I didn’t have before. If I spent ten minutes writing each day for five days, I’d have 500 words, or approximately a typed page of A4.

I went on a fiction writing course, some years ago, with the Arvon Foundation, and one of the tutors was the novelist Andrew Cowan. I remember him telling us how he wrote quite slowly, and not to worry if we did too, because every novel was just a pile of pages, and the thing to do was to carry on putting another page on the pile, and eventually you’d have a whole novel’s worth, and it didn’t matter if that took you years.

an inspirational woman

On that course I also met an inspirational woman who is the other reason I have little time for the ‘I don’t have time’ excuse. This woman cared, single-handed, for three young children and her elderly, infirm father. She had to get them all up in the morning and washed and fed, take them to their various schools or day care, and then go to work to earn her family’s living.

After work she had to collect them all again, bring them home, feed them, do the housework, and put them all to bed. Then she used the next half-hour for writing, while the house was quiet, before she fell into bed herself. She talked about how lucky she felt to have half an hour, every day, for her writing. At that point I made a silent vow that I would never, ever, whinge about not having enough time to write.

hk_19092014maskI’m motivated to write, my ability is proven, and I’m not much of a procrastinator (if you don’t count tweeting, which I don’t – you have to write tweets, right? So it’s practice). But I’m experiencing a whole new obstacle, which has made this week remarkably unproductive. It’s called impostor syndrome. Essentially, I feel like a fraud, and I’m sure I’ll be caught out, because I can’t possibly be allowed to get away with impersonating someone who knows enough to write a book.

I had this with my last book, too, but it didn’t kick in until the writing was done. This time it’s really getting in the way. It’s completely bizarre because I know it’s ridiculous – I can write; I do know about research; and I also know how to spot gaps in my knowledge and how to fill those gaps. Yet there’s this incredible feeling of fraudulence right alongside that knowledge.

“impostor syndrome is a great problem to have, because it’s a problem of success”

In one way, impostor syndrome is a great problem to have, because it’s a problem of success. I’ve experienced other problems of success, such as learning to say ‘no’ (I’m quite good at that these days) and managing a ridiculous email inbox (that too). But I’m really struggling to solve this problem.

Going back to the reviewers’ comments, lovely though they are, doesn’t help. Their criticism could not have been more constructive, yet their gentle and useful pointing out of ways I could strengthen the typescript simply have me convinced that if I wasn’t a fraud I would have thought of them myself. I found out that one of my writerly heroes, Neil Gaiman, has also suffered from impostor syndrome (well worth watching, but skip to 7 mins 25 secs if you want to get straight to the point).

You’d think that would be comforting – but no, it intensified the problem, as in: I must be even more of a fraud if I think I can have a syndrome that Neil Gaiman had. I’ve tried to persuade myself to think differently – ‘come on, Helen, you can do this writing thing, you’ll be fine’. I’ve tried to berate myself out of it – ‘for goodness’ sake, Helen, get a grip and put some words down’. Nothing works.

So I guess I just have to find a way to live with it and write anyway. Oddly enough, I think writing this blog post may have helped. It is well known that writing can be therapeutic, so maybe… I’ll let you know next blog.

Let’s hope the blogging has helped!  Whilst you wait for the next instalment however why not browse some of Helen’s previous blogs below:

Reviewers comments: the good, the bad and the ugly

EXCITING NEWS KLAXON!!!

That difficult second research book

Three compromises you have to make when writing a book

How much pre-writing research do you have to do?

Where does a book begin?

What, another blog on academic writing?!!!

A year in the life of an academic writer: About Helen Kara

And some books by the same author:

Research and evaluation for busy practitioners

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