There comes a point in every writer’s life where we find ourselves questioning everything: our ability to write, our odds of getting published, our sanity at having dared to venture down this path in the first place.
Why have I chosen this life of misery?” we cry. And for those of you who have yet to reach this ugly threshold, I regret to report that this is not a softly mumbled cry into one of those lovely old-fashioned handkerchiefs. It’s a crumpled-on-the-ground, raging-at-the-injustice-of-it-all, this-was-not-how-this-was-supposed-to-go, Nancy Kerrigan–style plea: “Why?”
Yes, the moment will come, and with any luck it will pass just as quickly. It’s perhaps best, however, if this particular moment does not arrive for you while you are also the editor at the helm of a leading international publication for writers.
Imposter syndrome, in the omniscient words of Wikipedia, is “a concept describing high-achieving individuals who are marked by an inability to internalize their accomplishments and a persistent fear of being exposed as a fraud.”
During the two and a half years I was querying agents with my first novel, and the five years I would ultimately spend rewriting and rewriting (and rewriting) that same manuscript, and perhaps especially the year that the agent I did eventually sign with all but stopped responding to my emails, I don’t think high-achieving applied. So maybe I wasn’t truly suffering from imposter syndrome, but it sure as hell felt like it.
“This is what makes you great,” my boss at Writer’s Digest would tell me when I dared say this out loud. He was a kind, supportive publisher, largely because he, too, was a writer in his off-hours. “You know just what our readers are facing. Who better equipped to guide them on this journey?”
It still didn’t feel great. I’ve been a writer all my life, and I’d always brought a writer-to-writer perspective to my editing work. But I knew I was good at editing. I’d once beaten out 170 applicants for an editorial job just a few years out of journalism school.
Fiction writing, though, was a leap into the unknown. I practiced it in the closet—figuratively and eventually even literally, when I had to move my desk inside my walk-in after my daughter was born. I was used to having articles and essays rejected, but those were fleeting setbacks, and there were successes in between. With fiction, this kind of repeated and persistent failure, which I recognized on an intellectual level as necessary and even healthy, was new to me.
Writing conferences, which I’ve always loved, started to test my convictions. “You know we’re all crazy, right?” I wanted to yell from the podium. “We spend hours, days, years working on things that quite possibly no one will ever read!”
In our cluttered staff in-box at Writer’s Digest, the mail for which I’d once had patient, sleek responses now churned within me a deep sympathy. “How is ‘no response means no’ an acceptable literary agency policy?” our readers would demand. Whereas I typically would have delivered calm reassurance that there are many fish in the sea and we simply need to play by the rules, I found myself biting my tongue against a less professional response, something along the lines of: “I know, right? Want to meet for drinks at five?”
But still, at a conference, I’d find myself tearing up at the keynote speaker whose work I’d been admiring all my adult life. In the in-box, I’d find thank-yous, success stories, humor, signs of hope. Again and again I’d read, in the very pages I was editing, that quality work will find a way to rise to the top. I still believed this to be true, and so there came a time where I had to admit that maybe mine wasn’t good enough. Yet.
For the better part of a decade, I’d been encouraging people to persevere in this unpredictable, subjective, sometimes nonsensical but often wonderful world of publishing. To keep at it, to have the courage to keep trying, to have the stomach to put a tired project aside and start something new, to practice even when they didn’t feel like it—sometimes especially when they didn’t feel like it. When it was hardest to take my own advice, I took a deep breath and did it anyway. And what do you know? It really does work.
Jessica Strawser is the editorial director of Writer’s Digest and the author of the novel Almost Missed You (St. Martin’s. Mar.).