I think that many writers and musicians struggle with something called imposter syndrome. It’s an actual thing coined by psychologists in the ‘70s: an inability to internalize accomplishments. Basically, it feels like you aren’t really that great and that you haven’t done anything of noteworthy praise even if you have. All the hard work you’ve done is just the hard work you’ve done–you feel you should have worked harder.
I haven’t won any medals for my art, nor published in any famous literary magazines. I haven’t made a complete record or been signed to a label. Many of us haven’t. But I have made tiny accomplishments, and like many, I continue to practice most every day on making my writing and/or music more palatable to me and other people. I continue to send work out, getting published or being asked to play sets here and there, chipping away, realizing full well that a lot of times I’m published or asked to play out because of who I know or being in the right place at the right time. It’s a small world.
Regardless, there’s this deep seated fear when I’m around other people who are also artists. What if they find out about me? What if they find out I’m not really real? That I’m a fraud or a fake and that I can’t really write and I suck at music and I’m just pretending I know what I’m doing? What if they listen to my songs and cringe? What if they read my non-fiction stories and go, “Poor thing, deluding herself that she can write.”
Every time I start talking with a new musician or writer and we get to the point where we want to collaborate or exchange work, I run through my list of creations and start backpedaling in my head. Maybe next time, I think. When I’m better. I can send them something then.
Practice has taught me to share anyways, to keep creating and honing and articulating in spite of the very real sensation that I’m not really real and any moment the art police are going to come in and arrest me for taking up space inside their museum of only the best and most pertinent creations. It’s an uphill battle fought with a too-flimsy stick on terrain that is slightly moist and covered with slippery rocks. Below me, at the bottom of the hill I climb every day I hone my craft are the creations I’ve sacrificed along the way.
Like a collection of disabled dolls with their limbs sewn on wrong, my prior creations make up a landfill of misfits. Each time I’ve finished something, I move on to the next thing, try to make the next thing better than the previous thing in an endless process of replacing an older creation with an upgraded version and discarding the previous experiment after seeing its glitches.
Above me is the holy beacon of recognition, thought to be obtained through self-awareness. It is tinged with the chance of social status, validation, an endlessly tantalizing carrot on the stick pulling me forward in spite of the years of hard work ahead (most of the people I know who are finally getting published to accolades are now in their forties).
Sucking at your art is relative. It depends on who you talk to, who you compare yourself to. If I say I suck because I only lifted 42 times on one arm with a 16kg bell and one of my readers says he can’t even lift one of those bells a portion of that number of times (which happened the other day, thanks Mike!) I pause for a second and go wow, my reality is entirely based on proximity and perception.
Of course, the whole thing unravels and I’m sloshing down a slippery slope straight into my pile of misfit creations just as soon as someone near me does better or ignores me or gives me some harsh and needed feedback. Then everything I’ve done up until that point simply doesn’t count.
It’s so easy to forget what I’ve done, to wish for more. To be impatient with myself. To feel like a camper in my own body. Sometimes I read my writing and wonder who wrote it. Sometimes I wonder if writing being a reward in itself is enough, if making music for music’s sake is going to continue to fulfill me the rest of my life, if it’s OK if I never “make it.“
It is and it isn’t. Like Pinocchio, I want to be real; like Christopher McCandless, I find that happiness is often only real when shared.