Poet, Writer, Imposter: Learning to Believe in Myself

Leigh Stein
From the May/June 2016 issue of
Poets & Writers Magazine

To begin with, my credentials are worthless. I’m no expert. A better writer should have gotten this assignment. My editor is ignoring my e-mails because my work is unpublishable and she’s just trying to find the nicest way to tell me. I’m not talented; I’ve just been lucky, and what will I do when that luck runs out? 

Does any of this interior monologue sound familiar?

If so, you may be suffering from imposter phenomenon, which is the name for those sneaky feelings of inadequacy, despite actual evidence of professional success. The term was coined by psychologists Suzanne Imes and Pauline Rose Clance in the 1970s, after they studied a number of highly successful women who felt like frauds in spite of all their accomplishments. It’s a phenomenon—or a “syndrome,” as it’s often referred to these days—I’ve experienced firsthand.

To begin again, I could tell you that I’ve published two books, and have a third coming out this summer. I codirect a literary nonprofit organization, and have spoken on panels and given readings at events all over the country. I’ve published articles in magazines—including this one—before. And still I was surprised last winter to receive an e-mail from a painter who admires my poetry, asking if I would be interested in writing about her artwork. The fee she offered was higher than the advance I’d gotten on my first book. The essay could be as long, or as short, as I wanted it to be, and I had six months to write it.

So what was the catch?

The other two writers she’d commissioned to write essays included Staff Writer at Most Prestigious Magazine and Editor in Chief of Famous Art Magazine. I read their names and credentials over and over until I put myself into a sort of trancelike state of paralysis. I somehow forgot my identity as Published Poet and could only think of myself as Managing Editor of There Must Have Been Some Mistake. But what could I do? I needed the money, and I was also becoming more and more friendly with the artist, who was charming and delightful. How could I let down my new e-mail BFF?

For months—the entire spring—I avoided starting the essay. I had a good excuse, too; I was finishing my third book. Once that was complete, I procrastinated under the guise of “research.” I reread the chapters on “Modern Art in Europe and the Americas, 1900–1945” and “Art Between the Wars” in my college art history textbook. I obtained a Whitney Museum library card and spent hours in an excessively air-conditioned room near the Hudson River flipping through monographs and exhibition catalogues. I asked an art therapist friend to coffee so I could run my ideas by her and have her tell me I was an idiot, before I shared them with the artist herself. (Of course my friend didn’t tell me I was an idiot. She said I should just start writing.)

Following the procrastination, there was stalling. In June I e-mailed the artist, asking for additional images. In July I promised that I would send her a rough draft of my idea “soon.” I woke up from a nap and it was August. The deadline was now a month away and I hadn’t written anything. One afternoon, innocently browsing a front table at a bookstore, I saw a newly released paperback by Staff Writer at Most Prestigious Magazine. What the hell was I doing? Maybe it was time to admit I was in over my head. I wrote an e-mail to the artist to say I was not worthy of having my work appear alongside that of the other contributors she’d chosen, and that I would have to ultimately decline her solicitation.

I saved the e-mail as a draft. Then I went to bed.

Imposter syndrome is not an amalgam of feelings I experience every time I sit down to write. Luckily I only have flare-ups when I’m working on the biggest assignments of my career, for significant sums of money. The higher the fee, the more undeserving I feel of earning it. And why is that? Maybe I worry that I’m abandoning my tribe of Serious Literary Writers, those who toil away on passion projects for years, by turning my work into a financial transaction. Or maybe it speaks to a larger societal issue: that writers, and perhaps especially women writers, learn to undervalue their own work. In a recent study at Stanford, an assistant professor of organizational behavior conducted an experiment in which he asked a group of male and female students to write an essay, and then asked the students how much they thought they should be compensated for such an essay. The women paid themselves 18 percent less.  

A few years ago, an editor at a beauty magazine picked up my debut novel from her slush pile and e-mailed my publicist to ask if I’d write a personal essay for her. 

“What could I possibly write on beauty—I don’t even wash my face twice a day,” I complained to my boyfriend.

“Why don’t you write about how you think your ears stick out too much?”

What a hilariously inappropriate idea! I’d never even written a pitch before, so my publicist helped me, and I sent it off gleefully, anticipating a rejection that would absolve me from having to actually complete the assignment. Professional writers wrote for magazines; one of the characters in my novel was a talking baby panda. 

“My boss loves this,” the editor responded, and offered me three dollars a word to complete the essay.

I received the e-mail just minutes before meeting my best friend, a poet, for a drink and when I blurted out the rate, she cried (she was already having a bad day). But she was right, wasn’t she? I didn’t deserve this.