Short (Impo)story Syndrome

CW asks: I would be interested to get your perspective on whether you suffer imposter syndrome for fiction writing. I am also a senior academic in STEM, but have serious outside hobbies in art and music. Oddly, I have magnified imposter syndrome for music (believe that I am not a ‘real’ musician) but almost none for art (believe I actually produce works at a ‘professional’ level). Have you found that being more actively engaged in writing has had an effect either way?

This is such a great question, and it tapped into what I’ve been itching to write about! I apologize to the readers who are here solely for the academic fare. Also to readers who are professionals in the language fields, as I might be sullying them (the fields, not the readers!) with my amateur attempts at fiction. (obligatory self-flagellation completed)

* Alert: Circular, stream-of-consciousness writing ahead.*

Do I have impostor syndrome? I might, although I don’t know that it’s the same how I feel about my work (like I am a fraud about to be discovered), but I do feel quite insecure about what the hell I am even doing trying to write.

I definitely don’t think I am awesome, but I also don’t think I totally suck. What really helps is having become an editor at a magazine that requires that personalized feedback be given to all authors, especially for rejections. I can’t emphasize enough how helpful this has been. If I don’t like a story, I have to figure out what doesn’t work and articulate it clearly to the author, as well as suggest how it could be fixed. This is a learning opportunity that really utilizes my science brain, which also means that it makes me feel comfortable.

Navel dive: Fiction tends to go digging in places where you (or at least I) don’t usually go digging (I cite the need to keep going and working and no time to wallow). This type of digging into your psyche can be a very uncomfortable experience. I am much more comfortable dissecting things analytically than feeling all the feels. Writing fiction, especially longer pieces, has been eye opening in terms of how much time in my real life I spend basically keeping a tight lid on anything associated with vulnerability;  how I abhor being feeling dumb, naive, overly trusting. I allow myself anger (as evidenced by 80% of the posts here) but not that often feelings of hurt; how very macho of me! One way to offend me would be to tell me that I am being sentimental, which is about as bad as telling me that I am stupid. My favorite feedback from writing so far is an acceptance that told me that the story was very feel-good-making without ever becoming sentimental. It’s weird to realize these things about myself. 

I like my prose spare. As in, notably more spare than most writing with a literary bend, be it fantasy or literary fiction. In my writing I love to use literary devices such as metaphors, similes, and other aspects of symmetry (e.g., various parallels, ending with how I started, analogies in different settings within the same story, etc.), but I feel, in my own writing and in the writing of others, that a literary device has to be employed really well, otherwise it’s just plain obnoxious. I really don’t have patience for a lot of doom, gloom, moodiness, or thickly layered adjectives of any kind. I wish so much literary fiction weren’t brooding and loss and grief and pain. I feel that we as humans have more complex (and more interesting) emotions, that we can be sad yet strangely amused, that we can hate and be lustful, that we can grieve and also feel free and joyous. I like to look at those, and I am really annoyed by wallowing in the seas of schmaltz, and there is oh my fucking God so much schmaltz. At the same time, I know that people pour their hearts and souls into writing, so I feel bad that I roll my eyes…

Basically, I like and I think I have a fairly restrained writing voice, punctuated by bursts of intense emotion through the use of strong or evocative language, a small number of metaphors, and an overall highly symmetric structure. I love action verbs and verbs that make you see or smell or feel. The fewer, the better.

I think that my natural tendencies are a problem. I fear that I am or will be limited in who is willing to read and publish what I produce. But I can honestly say that I don’t enjoy ornamental prose (I hate that it is called purple prose, because purple is my favorite color); I don’t like reading it and I don’t like writing it.

I also find myself being completely unmoved by many pieces that are hailed as awesome. But then I get really moved by very compact, incisive pieces that haven’t received particular praise. I have found several kindred writerly spirits, in the sense that I really like what they write, but they are not superstars. On the other hand, I find the style of many who are highly acclaimed to not be enjoyable at all. (Yes, I roll my eyes a lot.)

There are definitely superstars. I could name probably a dozen fantasy and a dozen literary writers who focus on short form and who have made it. For a small number, I can tell that they have something that I don’t think I do — not now, and maybe not ever. But for many superstars I read their stuff and I know that I  should be blown away but I’m just not.

I think I have a fairly good feeling for what the hierarchy among the magazines is. The literary magazines generally don’t pay. The speculative fiction magazines have tiers; the ones that pay a professional rate (at least 6 cents per word) generally are the highest, especially if they have been around for a while. I do not yet have a story in a magazine that specializes in speculative fiction, although I got one that has strong speculative elements into a very selective literary journal that likes that brand of surreal/quirky. I wonder if I should have stuck with the speculative markets for that piece; perhaps not.

The quality of my writing has improved between August, when I started writing and submitting, and now. I know, the time is short, but I’ve been quite taken by it all. I have managed to get into a couple of fairly good journals (selective, with a great reputation, with superstars publishing in them).  I am battling the desire to get into some of the top places with the fact that I maybe don’t actually enjoy the writing in most (not all) of them and am thus highly unlikely to produce something they like.

I like what I like and perhaps what I like and what I write is fundamentally incompatible with top-flight markets.

But there are plenty of places that like what I write. I have published or had accepted for publication 15 stories thus far (8 micros and 7 long ones); I’m not counting two others that were entered in a competition that posts every story (waiting to hear about the outcome of one of them still). In addition, I have two short ones in review, a long one, and another humorous long one I am thinking where to send next.

Of the accepted/published ones, I think all the long ones are quite good, the newer ones definitely better than the older ones. Some of the micros are also kickass. The first long one I wrote had a dozen rejections before an enthusiastic acceptance, and it was changed considerably between the initial version, which I thought was the bee’s knees, and the version that was perfectly smooth and accepted in a nice market.

Navel dive: I have noticed that I like to leave in one or two really rough tiny bits, almost as if to poke you in the eye. It’s very hard for me to part with them, yet it seems that part I must. But it’s weird to realize that I purposefully leave in these irritants, as if I’m allergic to smoothness. Maybe as a schmaltz-prevention measure? People don’t expect or appreciate irritants; I cling to them, I feel that’s what makes these pieces real. I understand this will be an issue going forward. 

I have also inexplicably started having problems coming up with titles. I have never had that issue with naming blog posts, but with stories the stakes are much higher. I might suffer from title block.

Let me circle back to the original question.

Do I feel like an impostor? It’s different than in the professional sphere. With writing, I think I am a newbie, and I don’t hide it. I have much to learn, although I sometimes think that maybe I don’t (burst of megalomania, I am sure), and that I know what I like and what I want, but that I just don’t give myself the permission to like what I like and to boldly seek the places where I really truly enjoy the writing, to heck with how cool or not those magazines are. Navel dive: It’s a weird battle between my mature self knowing what I want and the little girl inside feeling like she needs to still drink up the wisdom of her elders before she’s allowed to voice an opinion. 

I have encountered a really nice community of flash fiction writers on Twitter (under my fiction name), and that has been a great addition to the whole experience. It’s been a good way to get some props for the stories accepted, to support others, read new interesting pieces, and to hear about magazines that are newer but that have a strong web presence so they are widely read. I really like the chance to prop up other people. I feel real joy when I hear other people in the community have stories accepted! I sorely miss that in academia.

As I said, there are superstars and I’m definitely not one (yet, or in principle). I think that’s OK. There are people who come in, their first story is immediately published in a professional/paying magazine, and they just go up from there. It’s amazing. And they are also miraculously young, pretty, and really photogenic.  I don’t really feel the sting of envy; perhaps I’m too old or too removed. After all, I have a career in which I see superstars of which I am not one, and I think I made my peace with that to the extent possible. Writing fiction is new to me, or maybe I recognize the intrinsic limitations of my abilities. It also feels weird and greedy to even think about success in a sphere in which I am an amateur. Like I would be stealing from someone? Like that without the formal credentials (MFA) I am not allowed to have ambitions? Maybe that’s the impostor syndrome? That as an amateur I’m OK to play in the kiddie pool, perhaps even bat in the Little League, but that I am not allowed to even dream of the big ones. (<– cliche pile-on; sorry!)

I like the pieces I write. I have been able to publish them, which means they are not awful but, to be honest, it also means that there are many markets available. Between reasonable quality and a pretty good understanding of the market land, I think that getting published somewhere is not the issue…

The questions are:

a) Do I want to go for the status of a serious writer? I need to be hitting, and successfully, some higher-profile markets. But which ones and do I even like them? Or at least some of them? I need to explore where I would fit if I could have all that I wanted. There are a few magazines I really like, not sure that they are the tippity top, but most of the tippity top ones aren’t my cuppity cup of tea. Maybe I am an impostor. Maybe I am just an outsider. Not sure if this is a permanent issue or a transient affliction. But I feel like a foot in an ill-fitting shoe when I read pieces in top-flight markets. A foot that can roll its eyes.

b) Do I want to work on my craft? I do. I really do. But there is also resistance, because I want to write what I want to write, and maybe I am just really boring and don’t have exciting stories to tell. But it feels that there is a performance I’m supposed to put on and I really don’t want to.
I  need to figure out how to get better (other than writing non-stop). Or maybe I need to figure out how to write differently. Yet I’m not sure I want the latter.

I have been writing shorter pieces for small competitions with prompts, and those have been really fun. But I feel the pressure to put them somewhere so they don’t go to waste, whereas I would rather they did go to waste, not because there’s anything wrong with them, on the contrary, they are really cool, but because it’s overwhelming to put every nugget out there.

Navel dive: Not belonging is almost comfortable. That’s my modus operandi; that’s how my lot in real life is, so it would be weird if it didn’t translate into fiction writing. I do see slivers of ambition and want to squash them, mostly because I don’t need more chances for disappointment, partly because I feel like I really owe all of my ambition to my work, and partly because I feel I am not qualified to have ambition in fiction writing. 

It’s the common combo of thinking the writing is good and that it sucks. The question can I get good enough—what does that even mean and do I even want to write like that?—to be published in the markets that everyone considers the cream of the crop. And where are my objective limits, because I really fear that I am intrinsically severely limited by being all sorts of nonwriterly things: not a native speaker; not a lover of layered metaphors, moody references to cloudy skies or troubled waters; opponent of adjective abuse; generally a pain in the butt. I want to get better, and I’d like it to be on my terms. I guess I need to write and perhaps find a writers’ group. Maybe bother the little Twitter community. Maybe I will inflict some of the unpublished stuff upon my poor unsuspecting readers here? Mwahahaha! (Don’t worry, I wouldn’t do that to you.)

Oh yeah, it’s awards season. Small presses are nominating their best for the Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net. Serious fantasy and SF writers are getting nominated for Hugos and Nebulas. Lots of well-deserved bragging on the web!

I guess I need to keep at it, keep reading, keep writing, and keep recalibrating accordingly. Maybe I decide that I suck. Maybe I decide the Little League is where I am meant to remain. Maybe I magically get awesome (unlikely; there’s no magic).

So I dunno, does this sound like the impostor syndrome? Or just garden-variety insecurity?

Blogosphere, do you have advice for CW? Do you have a serious hobby where you think you can give the pros a run for the money?

4 comments

  1. Thanks for picking up on my comment, and how you have run with it. Your experience with writing seems to align more to mine with art; that you know you can improve, but think you have some decent skills – at least comparable to some who consider this their main profession (though few can make a decent living from it) – but sometimes think it is hubris to put yourself in that category. As a scientist you like to test the hypothesis ‘am I reaching that level?’ by entering serious competitions etc. (I’ve started to do the same with my painting). And moreover, you have confidence in your own tastes and don’t necessarily like some of the stuff that is considered ‘top-flight’ (e.g. what wins the competitions). With music, on the other hand, although there is clearly lots of scope for personal taste regarding musical styles, there seems to me less flexibility on the criteria for ‘professional’ (although if ‘professional’ means ‘being paid to perform’ then technically I meet it). I’ll try sum this up for music as being capable of fluid technical performance as well as communication to an audience. Here, I recognise your experience that an aversion to ‘vulnerability’ or willingness to dig into and expose my emotions might be one of the things holding me back in this sphere.

    I should also add that you should certainly not fear you might have ‘severe limits’ to express yourself in English – your writing in this blog really is awesome! And bringing it back to science, I have no doubt that this ability to express yourself clearly and interestingly has been a key skill in getting to where you are in the day-job.

  2. I also have some non-science creative/artistic tendencies. They keep me balanced and sane.

    The biggest issue for me, I think, is that I just cannot enjoy this activity merely for the fun of it – I naturally just always push myself to learn more and to become better. This has brought me into the realm of the semi-pros and real pros, where obviously keeping up with high standards/high quality is strenuous and challenging: I have often times found myself in the company of people who ‘do this for a living’ and it has taken me years to admit to myself that I will never be able to put in the time and effort they put in if I also want to do science and run a lab. As a result, I will never become top of the bill and I have had to come to terms with that.

    In the end though, I guess I feel more like an eager student than as an imposter:
    1. I think the imposter syndrome comes from thinking that you have reached (or should have reached) the end/top of the growth curve. In that sense, I suffer much more from imposter syndrome in in science, where I’m now supposed to know and be on top of everything. I’m always afraid that I will be found out or run out of scientific ideas, etc. In my creative/artistic endeavours? Not so much.
    2. Deep down I suspect that I am naturally much more talented in that creative/artistic realm than I am as a grand-breakthrough-massive-discovery-making scientist. As such it feels much more like a natural release of my true self than something I am fighting/struggling to become good at. I gain much more energy from this activity than it costs and I fear I have a much better artistic gut feeling than a scientific one.

    When I first got started, I did find it difficult to express vulnerability. But at some point I trusted some experts to push the right buttons and those walls have begun to crumble somewhat. My logical brain will always prevent them from being torn down completely and I may never have access to my innermost emotions in a way that grand artists do, but I am OK with that (great artists also don’t always end up living happily ever after…). Plus, I also find that as a scientist/rational/STEM person I bring a way of thinking that is frequently welcomed with open arms by the (semi-)pros who are wired differently.

  3. My only comment is that I think you should continue to “write what you want” even if it’s not what everybody wants. Of course, you need to have some maturity in accepting criticism if in fact this criticism will objectively make you better (and maybe the inclusion of “rough” bits is one of these things???), but I would think that you are mature enough to do this. But writing is fundamentally subjective, and to some extent, I think it can be much BETTER if not everybody likes something. It’s much better to speak powerfully to some people than to be liked by everybody, though I do appreciate the concern if “the superstars” thought what you did was just total garbage. That’s different than it just being not of their taste. I think that what is different about you is that you are coming at this with a LOT of experience under your belt, so even though you’re new (sort of) to the fiction writing game, you are not new to writing and you are not new to life in general, so you are not like a stubborn naive college kid who thinks they are right and cannot appreciate the wisdom and advice of others. Mostly, I would urge you to not sacrifice your style.

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