Monday, 20 May 2019

"Dear Artist/Writer: You’re a Fake, and Everybody Knows This"

~~~Imposter syndrome, and how it often feels we’re the only ones with it.~~~

Firstly, no I don't actually believe you're a fake. Rather, I recently had another intense encounter with a long-time adversary of mine, and it's one I've heard others cite as giving them misery equally much.

Imposter syndrome.

Many of us have at least heard of it, and if you're an artist or author, you may well know it as one of the things you struggle with frequently.
A quick and dirty definition for imposter syndrome syphoned off wikipedia is as follows:

“Impostor syndrome (also known as impostor phenomenon, impostorism, fraud syndrome or the impostor experience) is a psychological pattern in which an individual doubts his or her accomplishments and has a persistent internalized fear of being exposed as a "fraud".”

This Merriam-Webster article further defines it as:
“…commonly understood as a false and sometimes crippling belief that one's successes are the product of luck or fraud rather than skill.”
(By the way, this last one's a pretty interesting article on the subject in general.)

I personally first learned of this term from—and have since heard it most often among—artists and writers. And this isn't just relegated to the 'beginners' or the unpublished: even people one would call 'established' or 'real' (authors/artists) sometimes feel this.
For me, learning this term finally gave a name to one of my greatest demons. One that rears its ugly head in just this kind of a statement:

"You are a fake. You're pretending. You're not a real (artist/writer) and all the professionals know it. The only reason you're still here is because everyone's too polite to point it out."

The irony of the situation is, if I heard anyone else express this sentiment, either as internal monologue or as 'helpful advice' given by some close associate, I could confidently tell them that it's not true. Depending on their skill level, I could either say that they have the skill to stand on their own and they need no one's approval, or that every professional began from humbler ground—no one is born a published, prize-winning genius.

And yet if I try and turn this logic around and apply it to myself, suddenly I can't accept it. Like it magically stops being true once I'm the subject.

This tweet from the amazing @ValenciaRStokes really resonated with me on this.
"It's crazy how you can have all the answers when giving others advice, but you never take your own. It's like a switch comes on and you're reduced to little more than a sentient potato. And not even a delicious baked potato for goodness' sake..."

Now this could have referred to anything, honestly, but it really hit home.

I feel the heaviest weight of imposter syndrome most commonly while comparing my work to that of people that I idolize. I've heard the advice before that 'don't compare yourself to others, ever.' But the catch here is that I'm a self-taught artist and writer. In order to keep improving and learning, I rely very heavily on comparing my work to other art and texts in order to find where I need to improve. Yet it's here that the 'pony gets loose' so to speak: it's here where I trip up and go from 'this is how I can improve' to 'I'm not here yet, ergo I never will be and am, therefore, a lost cause.'

For example, take the divinely skilled @Orsob_ (who's work I greatly admire):

I took one look at their undeniably breathtaking work, and did the one thing which, in this case, I definitely shouldn't have done. I compared it to my own.

And instantly it was back again—the thought.

“Oh god. I’m pathetic.”

I can safely say that @Orsob_ is a representation of everything I aspire to be as an artist. To me, they represent at once my greatest hope and my deepest fear—the hope that one day my work might compare; as well as the terror that I never will and that I was a fool to even hope.

But! (Here comes the big but.)
Does failure have to be the inevitable conclusion? How can you be sure you're really even 'failing' and not just on the path toward growth?

We are so entrenched in our own lives that it's really easy to forget the bigger picture. Sometimes the point that we are really at on the path to success invisible to us—really only observable by other people who are oblivious to our personal doubts. Take for example anyone you consider successful, any famous person who is (or was) a name in their field. Now do a little research on them, on their past. What do you find? Most likely a childhood fairly comparable to anyone else's, perhaps an extensive education—or perhaps not. But most importantly, you will no doubt find a stretch of time before their fame, their breakthrough, their best-seller, or their gallery-quality artistic career where…they were not quite there yet. Where they too were learning the ropes, honing their craft, possibly soul-searching and wondering quietly to themselves whether this field and this route was really for them. Wondering if they were just wasting their time: trying to succeed when they were destined to fail.

The problem is that this portion is often never publicised. We don't see the artworks that embarrass even the artist himself, but rather the pieces that are most representative of his best achievements. We aren't presented with the ghastly first drafts of stories that eventually wind up as best-selling novels, nor are we regaled by recounts of the innumerable revisions, edits, and rewrites that had to happen first. We often outright forget the years of work, education, and practice that took place before these people got to the point of being able to produce something magnificent.
We only see the finished product: the beautiful, polished, final work that is meant to be enjoyed by all. And…that's the industry.

It's not really a flaw in my opinion, just the nature of the beast. Yet it's an unfortunate side effect that can really exacerbate that feeling of inadequacy. For me, it's been a personal betterment goal for many years to truly believe and remember these points when it come to other people's art:

  1. They weren't always this good. There are years of practice, struggle, and work that happened to achieve what I'm looking at now.
  2. If we're talking generally, art is art. We're all different, and different styles don't dictate whether someone is 'better' or 'worse.'
  3. Technical skills can be learned and improved. Just because you're not the most skilled now, doesn't mean you never will be. And it certainly doesn't make your current art invalid.
  4. They may well be feeling the same stresses and fears as you.

Image courtesy of
Jack Moreh
So this is my argument for anyone who, like me, sometimes suffers from horribly strong pangs of imposter syndrome or just plain fear of failure: how do you know you're at the end? If you could take a snapshot from the past of anyone who you admire, you would find that they were less skilled then than they are now. You wouldn't walk into a car factory, point an a half-finished vehicle on the line and say, "well, clearly this would be a terrible car on the road in its current state, therefore this company can't produce anything roadworthy and is worthless." So why are we doing this to ourselves?

I say now (hoping that I, too, might finally take some of this advice to heart), you are not a fake. You are not a fraud. Just because you haven't seen the struggles of the people you look up to, doesn't mean they were automatic successes.
And furthermore, we are all different. Our styles, our selves, are unique to each of us. So 'success' may not look the same for you than it does to me.

I may never be able to make art like @Orsob_'s. But then…do I even want to? I am not @Orsob_. I’m me. My past and my preferences influence what is my style. And the funny thing is, sometimes when I try to mimic some admirable person's writing or drawing style I find…that I'm not happy. I'm not happy because what I'm making isn't me. I won't ever stop admiring @Orsob_ and I'll probably never be like them, but that's okay.

Now I pass on to you some great advice I've heard before:
Don't create like somebody else, they're already taken. There's only one you, you are unique, and it's you who I came to see.

So please don't give up, and don't be hard on yourself. You're doing fine, and you're not alone.

Image courtesy of
Jack Moreh