The Arrogant Imposter

We writers, though, are complex creatures. We grapple with Imposter Syndrome, but we also harbor a unique brand of arrogance…

Coe/Jackson BookshelfLast night, for reasons surpassing understanding, I started reading through one of my old books. I know. What was I thinking, right?

I’m not going to tell you which book. Suffice it to say that I love all my babies, and they’re all perfect and beautiful.

Except obviously they’re not.

Weak phrasing, passive constructions, lack of concision and power when the passages in question called desperately for both.

This is a published book, one that garnered strong reviews when it was released, and I did all these things wrong without realizing it. Just last week, I took students at the Antioch Writers’ Workshop to task for the very sins I committed myself years before.

So what am I to make of this?

Because I’m a writer, and because, like so many of my writerly brothers and sisters, I suffer from recurring Imposter Syndrome, the first place my mind went was also the most obvious: “I suck. I’ve always sucked. My newest work sucks. And this book that I was foolish enough to pull off the shelf and crack open sucks.”

We writers, though, are complex creatures. We grapple with Imposter Syndrome, but we also harbor a unique brand of arrogance. “I’ve written this story,” we say. “And it is so important, so good, so compelling, that you ought to read it. In fact, you should pay for it and read it.” I’m not saying necessarily that the arrogance is misplaced. After all, it is, and has always been, the foundation of commercial literature. But that doesn’t make it any less arrogant.

And so that part of me, the arrogant-writer-me, read this old, flawed work of my own creation, and landed in a different place than did imposter-syndrome-me. Arrogant me said, “Sure, it has its warts. But at the time I wrote it, it was the best book I was capable of writing. And given that it was published, and well-reviewed, and well-received by my fans, I think it must be pretty good.”

Arrogance. Confidence. It isn’t always easy to discern the line between the two.

Ultimately, of course, I need to find some middle ground between these two extremes. If I am going to wake up each morning and write — which I intend to do for another, oh, thirty years or so — I can’t allow myself to believe that I suck. For one thing, I don’t. More important, internalizing that sort of self-denigration can’t help but undermine my craft and story telling.

At the same time, though, the self-satisfaction of arrogant-writer-me can be equally destructive. I might not suck, but I’m also not yet as good as I want to be, nor will I ever be. I hope never to grow complacent with my art. I want to strive for improvement with each new book or story.

Which brings us back to my ill-considered decision to open up that old novel. It is flawed. It’s also a good read. It was the best book I could write at the time. I worked hard to make it so. But it’s also not nearly as good as my more recent work. As I continue to create new worlds, new characters, new narratives, I further hone my skill as a writer. I cling to my arrogance: You really should buy and read my next book. And I grapple with my imposter syndrome: The only way I am going to survive in this business is if I make myself a better writer than I am today.

Put another way, imposter-syndrome-me and arrogant-writer-me don’t have to be extremes that I avoid and deny. They can be sources of motivation, tools (perhaps cudgels) I use to make myself a better artist.

And I offer this because, as I have already pointed out, nearly all of us who write harbor within us both of these archetypes. We are, in the end, arrogant imposters, deeply conscious of the flaws in our work, but justifiably proud of our literary accomplishments, striving always to improve and at the same time convinced that we have something important to say.

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