Dear Creatives, If You’re Doing the Thing, You’re Not an Imposter

Bring joy back to your creative process by letting go of perfectionism and imposter syndrome

art by Foxpool via Pixabay

“I’m a writer.” That’s what a voice within me says when I’m prompted about my identity — in bios on dating apps, in long-time-no-see convos with old friends, in the reflection from my mirror.

“Seems sus,” replies another voice from within.

The cynical voice has a compelling argument. I know what the work of real writers looks like, the stuff from literary greats I’ve studied and loved, and the scribbles I produce don’t look like that. Each time I announce to the universe that I’m a writer, I’m implicitly identifying myself as among those people, my work as among theirs. I’m calling my words a real writer’s work, separating it from the words written by everybody else. “Definitely sus,” the voice repeats.

After all, if my drafts read like an amateur’s, sound like an amateur’s, and would probably quack like an amateur’s, doesn’t that say something about me? Aren’t I being dishonest?

No. Definitively, no. And this voice, the more accurate, confident, and affirming one, took a long while to build. My journey went like this.

Stage 1: Wanting it badly

This might sound familiar to you. I spent more than ten years explicitly telling myself and those around me that I wanted to be a writer. In high school, I’d daydream about amazing plot points I wanted to bring to life. I’d world-build while walking to school, imagine tense dialogue instead of paying attention during class, fantasize about character arcs and story climaxes and cliffhangers and magic systems and sequels and…

Years went by and I did everything besides write. This is the only chapter of the story where the sinking feeling that I wasn’t a real writer was true: I wasn’t writing. I was living the life of someone who wanted to be a writer. I’d read books about it, watch YouTube videos on plot structure and craft, surf Reddit for comforting threads about “writer’s block,” create wonderful playlists of inspiring instrumental music meant to set the perfect mood for these mythical writing sessions that never came.

I told myself a lie that took many forms. It was this: I can’t start writing unless everything is perfect. I need the right playlist, the right mood, the right amount of sleep, the right writer’s toolbox. I need to “find time.” I need to have read the right things; I’ve gotta tackle the canon of my genre. Hell, I need to read outside my genre too, so I can add new things to it. I need to work out the plot lines in my head and make sure everything fits — wouldn’t want to put hundreds of pages into something only to find it doesn’t work and have to start over, right? The worst version of this lie was that I needed to be inspired. Work done without the fire of creative passion is doomed to be lifeless, I told myself.

Like a good imposter, I meticulously crafted a disguise. I never left character — a writer who cared so much about his craft that he spent all his time thinking about it, studying it. A writer who, for apparent good reason, never wrote. The disguise was so effective that I had myself fooled.

For more than a decade I stayed in this mental trap of faux productivity. It was creative in its own right. It was comforting. I never had to risk producing anything bad, never had to truly confirm that I wasn’t a real writer. I just avoided the question entirely. I ran from it and convinced myself that the energy I was expending was proof that I was at least working hard and moving in the right direction. In reality, it seemed like I was cartwheeling in circles around my goal because I lacked the courage to tackle it head-on. Deeper reflection showed what I really lacked was compassionate understanding as to why I was afraid in the first place.

And it was in this decade-plus that the subconscious thought that I wasn’t a real writer grew louder. It took hold without me noticing. With every choice I made to do things tangential to writing, I unwittingly reinforced it. By the time I began truly living as a writer, it was too late for it to just vanish. It would remain over my shoulder, casting doubt on every inch of progress.

Stage 2: The discomfort zone

With my 30th birthday looming (a sufficiently round and intimidating milestone), I did some honest reflection. I’d heard many times that your 20s are the decade where you’re supposed to find yourself and discover who you are. So, who the hell was I?

Definitely not a writer. In years I’d only penned short scribbles, a few outlines, handfuls of pages in brief, fickle bursts of that elusive “inspiration” I spent so many nights in search of. I’d probably traversed hundreds of miles pacing around my room thinking about writing, but I’d drafted barely anything.

I stopped looking at my works individually and began seeing the journey as one huge project of practicing, of improving, of growing, of living as a writer.

And it was at that intersection that I realized more and more years could easily go by without me ever being one. So many people talk about wanting to write a book and never do it. I thought, I bet a lot of them are smart and creative. I bet a lot of those people would have written wonderful books the rest of us would’ve been lucky to read. Yet they didn’t. They weren’t maliciously lying. They’d just never managed to overcome the mental or emotional barriers that would allow them to leap from “wanting” to “doing.” These barriers were not their fault, but all the same, I didn’t want to go down that path. With mortality at the forefront of my mind, I chose to confront my fear. I needed drastic change and a fundamentally different approach.

Stage 3: Forgiveness and the glorious and brutal doing

I shattered the mask I’d been wearing. I faced the simple, harsh truth — a writer writes. But I also didn’t skip this crucial step: I forgave myself for the years of relative inaction. I dove deep into my mind, into my developmental outcomes. I reflected on trauma and societal conditioning. I didn’t blame myself for being a perfectionist or for running from writing the way I had. It sufficed merely to understand my mind so I might better meet my goals. There was no extra unnecessary criticism. I’d been hard enough on myself all these years, hadn’t I? The aim was not to replace an old pressure (what if I’m not good enough?) with a new one (write more, for heaven’s sake!). The aim was to begin living the life I wanted to live. Not just as a writer, but as a joyous one who loved the journey.

So I created a concrete action plan where I did more than simply resolve to write. It would take more than a Nike motto to overcome the mental blockade I’d been suffering. Because my fear of writing was rooted in perfectionism, I thought of the places where my insecurities drove me to action and used them to solve my writing paralysis.

In college, I’d always prioritized my schoolwork over everything else. The pressures of academic deadlines, while not the healthiest motivator, at least got me moving. So I looked up a creative writing course and signed up. I immediately felt anxious about attaching external deadlines and the soulless grading framework to the creative process. I worried it would demean this activity I’d long romanticized as powered by inspiration and love alone. This was the voice that steered me for the last decade trying to stay relevant. But my old method hadn’t worked, and it was past time to try something new.

I wrote. I wrote toward the assigned prompts, things I wasn’t always inspired about. A lot of what I produced was pretty bad, causing the cynical voice to bubble up. But some of it was decent, and a couple pieces were really good. I wrote more in that semester than I had in years prior, and found that the adage about volume over quality was true. The unimpressive things I wrote were important, necessary steps. They were practice. I learned from experience that the good things I wrote couldn’t have existed without the practical knowledge gained from writing the bad things, reviewing what worked and what didn’t. I stopped looking at my works individually and began seeing the journey as one huge project of practicing, of improving, of growing, of living as a writer. This was the new framework: any day spent writing was a day true to my values. “Bad” pieces were no longer to be ashamed of or regretted but were to be celebrated as part of a larger whole. They weren’t just tolerable, they were crucial.

Stage 4: Ejecting the imposter

A short story I’d written for that class became my first published piece of creative writing. I’ve added several bylines to my portfolio and penned some essays that reached a larger audience than I’d ever dreamed of. I launched my own publication.

None of that makes me a real writer.

The main difference between me now and my younger self is that I write. But it’s not just that— writing is simply the end product. The most important change was adopting a mental framework toward the task that is healthy, promotes joy, and sees hardships as both predictable and necessary.

I still like to put together playlists and study craft, but writing comes first. And I accept the entire lifestyle with all its incumbent ups and downs. I set a 50k word count target last month, got nowhere near it, then celebrated what I’d produced. I pace myself and rest with enthusiasm. I have a strange sense of pride in the stack of rejection letters I’ve amassed, and I love even the things I’d be embarrassed to show another human.

I overcame perfectionism by overcoming my fear of writing badly. I silenced the cynical voice of imposter syndrome because I stopped comparing myself to “the greats.” I reframed everything and learned to love the entire brutal, beautiful process, finally seeing that life for a “real writer” doesn’t mean that writing becomes easy. It means accepting the hardship then writing anyway, because that’s who you are.

So go, create something beautiful and embrace the challenges. If you feel fear instilled in you by perfectionism, know that the life you want lies beyond that. You can’t go around it; you can only go through.

i write love letters from the void. editor of The Anticapital, bylines @ LEVEL | P.S. I Love You | The Writing Cooperative

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