I am a protagonist in a world of unending dilemmas which contain hidden meaning that it is up to me to discover. I am the artist of my life. […] I am on my own side, rooting for myself.
~ Tristine Rainer, Your Life as Story
I am writing a novel. There. I’ve said it. While friends and colleagues closest to me are aware of this and ask me frequently how the book’s coming along and when will I be finished and do I have an agent and what house is going to publish it and where can they pick up a copy, I don’t often share the fact that my creative ambitions are that lofty.
First, it’s somewhat embarrassing. I mean, really, most people have at one time or another thought of writing a book and, well, haven’t. To date, I am still in that camp. It seems a childish fancy, like becoming a ballerina or professional baseball player. It’s far less brazen to tout my mere nonfiction career as a guest newspaper columnist and blogger. Secondly, the immediate question (“So, what’s it about?”) is unvarying and my convoluted answer to it just as predictable. By the time I’ve babbled on about the Bildungsroman form and my quirky, self-destructive, train-wreck-of-a-protagonist who is both the hero and antihero of her own life and how elusive close third person narration is and my unresolved conflict about the manuscript’s classification as literary fiction, memoir, or autobiographical fiction and whether it’s best aligned with the nuances of Young Adult, New Adult, or Christian or some combination of commercial genres, both the polite conversationalist and I are sorry he asked.
In my defense, there’s not an easy response or requisite two-sentence elevator pitch to that inquiry—at least not yet. Any novel is a massive undertaking, and mine, which spans the life of a woman from middle school to middle age and is currently only a scant two hundred pages, aspires to Lambesque extensiveness. My inability to encapsulate the tale’s plot or “aboutness” in fifteen seconds notwithstanding, I have been seeped in its storylines and characters for decades. It is undoubtedly for this reason and not some authorial vagary that I struggle to distill it to two or three lines à la a book-jacket blurb.
Time of Death’s essential premise of an extraordinary yet subtle, otherworldly battle for one ordinary soul; its probing of universal questions and ambiguities about predeterminism, free will, and divine intervention; and the implied distinctions between physical death and spiritual death swirl unreconciled in my mind, and I have pursued an understanding of these obscurities both consciously and subconsciously since childhood. Still, now that the themes have shown up in the pages of what I hope and must presume each time I sit down to write (lest the last eight years of effort be for naught) will amount to a bestselling memoir or, better yet, “a brilliant debut literary behemoth,” not having a simple response to this simple question feels uncomfortably spurious.
As if I needed yet another reason to feel like a writer fraud.
Most of us who write describe ourselves in the action tense: “I write.” More often than not, it comes out as “I, um, well, I sort of…write.” The effect is far less pretentious than proclaiming, “I’m a writer,” especially when the admission is mumbled sheepishly with the accompanying shrug, as, of course, it always is, like an involuntary tic. It must be a common affliction among writers—established, emerging, and wannabe. Books have been written about it—You Are a Writer by Jeff Goins is one of the more insistently assuring—and, apparently, conference directors plan for it.
It’s not often that the Association of Writers and Writing Programs hosts its annual conference and bookfair in Southern California. During the last four years, the event was held in Minneapolis, Boston, Seattle, and Chicago, making attendance inconvenient and costly for those of us living in the Southwest. So when I learned that the 2016 “Big Literary Conversation” would be held in Los Angeles and that the likes of Jonathan Franzen, Joyce Carol Oates, and Cheryl Strayed would be hobnobable, I registered immediately.
The week before the event, I sat at my local Starbucks and perused the workshop and reading schedule, planning my days. There were the usual panels on creative nonfiction and memoir writing, the socially conscious essay, market demystification, and the benefits and pitfalls of the humanities Ph.D., which I highlighted and asterisked in anticipation. But the panel that caught my eye and captured my curiosity most was among the first day offerings: “In Case You Think You Don’t Belong Here: Imposter Syndrome and AWP.” Imposter Syndrome? The paragraph about the session described it as a frequent phenomenon that must be managed and overcome to have a successful writer’s conference experience.
Truthfully, it seemed silly to me. After all, attendees had ostensibly registered; they had paid for the right to feel comfortable, no matter their “place in the literary landscape.” My own place is admittedly tiny—miniscule, really, but I wasn’t remotely worried and thought any anxiety of others was unwarranted. Besides, these conferences are enormous and attended by hundreds. One could be a complete charlatan, a tax accountant or lawyer or, say, property manager in writer disguise for all anyone would know.
The first morning, I hung my identification lanyard around my neck and strode boldly into the heart of the conference: the bookfair. The rows of tables and exhibits of publishers, presses, journals, authors, and schools were endless. I recognized most of the names and titles and was already a subscriber to many of the publications. I even bumped into Mary Norris, the Comma Queen herself, and bought a second copy of her Confessions just so she could sign it. I was on sure footing. These were my peeps. I was, as my farm-raised mother used to say, like a pig in mud, in my element and enjoying myself thoroughly.
But as the day wore on, the exhibits began to reflect all I hadn’t accomplished. While I was familiar with Ploughshares and Tin House and subscribed to The Paris Review and Poets & Writers, my work had never appeared in any of their pages. Incrementally, my ventured status as a bona fide writer (ahem, one who writes) diminished to apprentice to aspirant to avid reader. By the middle of the second day, I had begun to work in “I have an MFA” into almost every conversation with exhibitors and other attendees. I knew why I did it; it was my subconscious way of establishing my credentials and legitimizing my presence. I recognized it almost immediately. It was the Syndrome.
Goins has plenty to say about this condition and knows what it takes to conquer it. Before he became a bestselling author and writing coach, he questioned his own authenticity: “Who was I, pretending to be a writer […] when I hadn’t been published or paid for my work?” While it would seem the antidote to Imposter Syndrome is landing an agent, signing a book deal, or cashing the advance, it’s actually much simpler (or much harder, depending on your perspective). “Embracing your identity as a writer,” according to Goins, “is mostly a mind game.” In other words, you’re a writer when you believe and say you are. Getting published and being paid may be the ultimate goal, but it’s not what catapults you to writerdom. Sitting down each day and doing the work does. Because you do have to actually, um, write.
Back home at my desk, I realized that I had experienced numerous bouts of Imposter Syndrome throughout my life and that they had always occurred when I was attempting something new and hard and risky. Each time I sat for the first time in an MBA or MFA classroom or the conference room of an esteemed company with people far smarter than I or stood shivering at dawn in a marathon corral waiting for the gun to fire, I had felt the presence of its collective symptoms and heard its mocking accusations. You don’t belong here. Who do you think you are? You think you can actually do this? You are so audacious!
Why, yes. As a matter of fact, I am.
Aspiring to do more and be more doesn’t make one a fraud when the desire and ambition are supported by genuine effort. Some things, too, are simply harder and riskier than expected and require immense perseverance. So, I’ll keep nourishing my grand impulses and pushing for remarkable outcomes. I will embrace my dreams in all their glorious audaciousness while recognizing they may not be realized overnight. And as both the author and heroine of the novel I know I will someday finish, I am rooting for my protagonist Fawn in each passage and, in doing so, am rooting for myself.