I keep a magic wand on my desk. It’s a simple, unassuming implement made of basswood. I picked it up at a Renaissance Faire a couple of years ago because I liked the feel of the smooth wood and the look of the ash-gray striations that run along its slender length. Also, I didn’t have a magic wand.
I use my wand all the time. I have yet to see it display any overt magical properties, but it is a comforting talisman when I find myself confronted with a writing task that feels beyond my ability. This happens almost every single time I sit down at the keyboard.
I had an honest conversation with some writer friends about this recurring and paralyzing lack of confidence. It was immediately clear that this condition is common among writers. Each of us could relate. Each of us had her own methods for getting past the fear. Whether we chipped away at our anxiety word-by-word, or tried to slingshot past it, each of us knew this chronic ailment intimately.
To be clear, our commiseration was not about suffering from a lack of creativity or battling that shape-shifting foe known most commonly as writer’s block. This was a little different. This was more about feeling like a fraud. More specifically, this was about feeling like a fraud who was about to screw up big time and expose herself as a fraud. This feeling of despair and dread is sometimes called The Impostor Syndrome, and it’s not pretty.
Very often (almost always) when I sit down to write something (an essay, a column, a page of website copy, a case study, a blog post … pretty much anything), I am immobilized by the certainty that I have no idea what I’m doing. Despite the fact that I have been making my living as a writer for nearly seven years, I am sure that the entire experience has been a fluke.
There is a (not so) helpful soundtrack that plays in my head as I sit, staring at the blank page on my screen. It whispers in my ear that the jig is up. It tells me what I think I already know – that there’s no way I can pull off this heist again. The whispering voice marvels at how lucky I’ve been so far, at how gullible my clients have been to accept my work as The Real Thing.
I sit and I stare. The voice rattles on, subduing me with its hypnotic babble. I am sure that the voice is right. After all, here I am – sitting and staring and not writing. Clearly, I have no idea what I’m doing. Clearly I have just been faking it all this time, but my luck was bound to run out and today is the day and oh-my-gods-what-will-I-do-now?!? I type a few words and delete them. Type. Delete. Type. Delete. Type. Delete. Everything sounds staid, crass, cliched. The whisper is getting louder and louder and …
Cue the sound of a needle scratching across a record that has suddenly stopped spinning.
Know that this is completely normal.
You are not a fraud. You are a writer. And this is part of the writing process. At least, it’s part of the writing process for most of the writers I know.
Sure, there are those glorious and golden moments of pure inspiration when the words fly from your fingers as though coursing through you from some alternate universe where writing is as easy as eating pie. But most of the time, writing is hard. Most of the time, each assignment feels like a new territory and you feel like a lone explorer who is venturing forth without a map or proper supplies or any idea of how to get from point A to point B. You feel like you faked your way here based on false bravado, but now as you stand on the edge of the jungle you’re finally realizing what you’ve promised to deliver and you’re scared.
It’s all going to be okay. Remember – you’ve stood here before and you’ve made it through to the other side. You will do it again.
Each of us has her favorite tricks for hacking past the fear and doubt and paralyzing lack of confidence. Some of us start in the middle. Some of us go for a walk. Some of us set up our page with placeholder headlines and subheads. Some of us read the praise of past clients and editors. I’ve used all these tricks and then some, but the thing that ultimately gets me through a rough start is invoking the thing that scares me most – being an impostor.
Instead of cowering before this supposed flaw, I embrace it. After all, what is a writer if not a person who makes things up? A writer conjures places, characters, and ideas with words. Why shouldn’t we use this same skill to our own advantage? When I am most stuck, I take “fake it ’til you make it” to a new level. I fabricate a story for myself and I step into it with all the conviction of a method actor. I transform myself into the writer who knows exactly how to tackle the project at hand. I inhabit my role so completely, that pretty soon I have forgotten about the ruse and am thinking only of the words that are flying from my fingers like sparks from the tip of a wand.
That’s when I pause for just a moment and smile to myself. The trick, you see, is not about fooling anyone else into believing I’m a writer. The trick is about fooling myself just long enough to figure out that this writer identity I’ve created for myself is the reality, not the role. I am the writer who knows exactly how to tackle the project at hand. I’d just forgotten my own magic.