And as a cool bonus in addition to the competition announcement ... one of my favourite-of-all-time writers, Maggie Stiefvater (The Scorpio Races, The Raven Cycle and many more...), recently responded to a question on twitter about 'Imposter Syndrome' with a somewhat unexpected but totally genius answer. I've often felt the sting of this syndrome. I've picked myself up from the fraudsters' floor and reminded myself that I have a few clues about how stories work. But I love how Ms Stiefvater embraces the idea as a mechanism of keeping ourselves grounded, and a reminder that many things contribute to any success we might enjoy. You can read it for yourself below and I also recommend you pick up one of her books and give them a go too. She is equally smart (and linguistically lyrical) with fiction. And as always, writing itself, word by word, is what we need to keep doing.
On Twitter, Connor Allen asked: "do you ever deal with imposter syndrome as a writer? If so, how do you get past it and just make yourself write?"
I think everyone does to some degree or another.
Career success and artistic skill are only poorly correlated. What do I mean by this? I mean that you have to get a certain level of skill in order to get published/ put in a gallery/ get musical gigs, but after you get to a certain level of competency, greater or less skill doesn’t seem to have any relationship to how commercially successful you are. Other factors begin to take over in exposing your work to buyers, and moreover, the more rarified your skill becomes, the fewer the punters are who can appreciate it. You can turn a beautiful turn of the phrase while juggling 47 themes and delicately drawing an allegory for the pain of man’s condition? Great. Most people won’t notice. And while that additional skill will get you noticed among peers who are also writing beautiful novels with 47 themes and delicately drawn allegories, it is a bad predictor for commercial success. If you use that skill to delicately render specific lizards, for instance, you still run the risk of only appealing to lizard people.* But mostly it’s just excess — the average person doesn’t care if Coldplay’s Chris Martin can play Bach’s Cello Suite No. 1 in D on his guitar. (I don’t know if he can. But I hope so.)
This is because in the commercial art world, most consumers are not also artists. Other factors are nearly always more important to the non-artist consumer: a strong story, a topical subject matter, a celebrity name, a catchy tune, a wicked hook, a pretty cover, the creator’s funniness on Twitter, the creator’s ability to speak in public, the creator’s actual and literal hotness because wow, relatability of the themes, a movie tie-in, an omnipresent advertising campaign, availability of the work in places that rhyme with BallMart.
It’s why you can be an international bestseller without being the best in your field. It’s why you can be an international bestseller without being remotely the best in your field.
Whenever I say this online, people like to shout “what kind of a self-drag!” I suppose because as an international bestseller, I am supposed to think I am 100% fantastic and have definitely earned my title at the top of the heap by some objective measure of wonderfulness. Also because people are weird and possibly don’t understand how self-awareness, confidence, and humility really ought to play well together if you want to be a happy professional artist. It’s crucial to understand just how big of a role you play in your own success. This is so that you can focus on only the things you can control (you can’t make your subject more topical, you can’t suddenly become a famous rock star with a memoir, you can’t guarantee you have a beautiful, eye-catching cover; you can only work on writing faster, writing more accessibly, writing well), so that you don’t take it too hard when all of your career dreams fail to come true overnight. But it’s also to keep you from being a self-aggrandizing asshole about success. You’ve sold millions of books? Great. Remember, Stiefvater, that your skill is only poorly correlated to that number. You wrote a competent-or-better book at a good time for that genre/ subject/ cover/ something, and it took off. Good job, that was nice. Get back to work.
I don’t generally mind this push-pull, actually. Imposter syndrome whispers that I might be a fraud, a just-okay writer wrapped in accolades I don’t deserve. But mostly I think that’s all right: let the voices whisper. The opposite of the imposter syndrome would be letting myself believe that I am entirely to credit for my success, and that’s just as false. The truth is a middle ground, and this truth is also why imposter syndrome doesn’t get in the way of my work.
Because the truth is this: I’m a writer who works hard, puts down a quarter million words of fiction each year, shows up for work even when life throws health or family or world crises at me, and doesn’t make excuses. Those things aren’t subjective. Those things I can control.
So get to work.