In defence of taking yourself seriously
Why imposter syndrome is passé.
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When you study creative writing, one of the first things that teachers do is to inform you that you’re a writer, and that you can call yourself a writer. Often we feel foolish defining ourselves in that way, especially if we’re just starting out, or if we haven’t told many people what we’re doing. I vividly remember the first time I tried to write fiction as an adult, feeling utterly ridiculous, like a child: OK, so I’m just making up a story, here on my own in my bedroom? But taking on the label works wonders: suddenly you’re allowed to take your work seriously, and that’s when progress can really begin.
If you’ve spent any time on dating apps in the UK, which unfortunately I have, you’ll know that lots of people are apparently looking for someone who ‘doesn’t take themselves too seriously’. I find this completely baffling. Of course you don’t want to be with someone who’s self-important, pretentious or lacking a sense of humour; maybe that’s what they mean. But taking yourself seriously is not any of those things. It’s just understanding the value of your one precious life, and using it properly.
I take myself seriously; I take my friends, my sister, my boyfriend, my niece and nephew seriously; I take all of you who subscribe to this newsletter seriously. If I didn’t, that would be a bad sign.
Anyway. Taking yourself seriously as a writer is a good thing, so long as you’re not a pompous arse about it, and it’s a tiny mind-shift that can be instrumental in your work. I made a further mind-shift a few weeks ago, and I’ve already noticed that it’s had a positive effect; that’s what I want to talk about today.
I launched the In Writing podcast almost three years ago, and although I worked hard on it and took it seriously from the outset, I know I downplayed it in conversation. I hardly told anyone that I was working on it until right before it launched, and the night before it did, I dreamt that I was trying to eat a meal while surrounded by a firing squad (my subconscious loves a paper-thin metaphor).
I loved the podcast and the process of making it, but I didn’t know if others would find anything valuable in it. I worried it would look like I’d done something a little embarrassing, taking myself a bit too seriously – like trying to persuade people to call you by a cool nickname that you’ve invented yourself.
Even though the podcast has thrived, and found a wonderful audience, and led to this newsletter, which I feel is building a fantastic community – despite all of that, I realised about a month ago that I still carry a bit of that pre-launch sheepishness, especially when I talk to friends and colleagues about what I do. I’ve been thinking of myself as a journalist first and foremost, with this hobby that is In Writing. But that’s not who I am any more.
In Writing is very central to my life now, and it’s something I love and get deep satisfaction from, and it’s not a solo project any more. It’s grown beyond me into something that feels warm, expansive and meaningful and involves lots of other people – lots of you. The podcast has clocked up 265,000 listens since the beginning of 2021. That’s serious. I’m still a journalist, but actually that’s emotionally secondary to In Writing, for me, and so I’m going to talk about this thing with the respect that it deserves.
I have a feeling that this shift will help In Writing to grow. I’m making a new series of the podcast at the moment, and it’s wonderful already: I can’t wait to share those conversations (although I will have to wait a bit longer, because there’s still a lot of work to do). Now my MA is finished, I hope listeners won’t have to wait as long between the season I’m making at the moment and the next one. Maybe In Writing may also expand into further writing and author events, online or even in person. These things feel possible now in a way that they didn’t before I made this mental adjustment. (If you have ideas, by the way, I’d love to hear them in the comments.)
My dad has a catchphrase that he delivers when my sister or I need a pep talk: ‘It’s a mind game.’ You can change a lot in your life – and in your work – by changing the way you think of things, and by changing the way you think about yourself.
Relatedly, I loved Oliver Burkeman’s newsletter a couple of weeks ago, Everyone is (still) winging it. The title refers to a piece he wrote for The Guardian in 2014: Everyone is totally just winging it, all the time. He thinks it’s probably his most-read article ever, and he still hears about it from readers, eight years later.
Its argument is pretty obvious from the title: we go through our lives assuming that other people know better than us, but they don’t. Burkeman writes:
That's why I don't much like the term "imposter syndrome" to describe what's going on here. It makes it sound like an acute and debilitating psychological disorder, and maybe sometimes it is. But far more widespread, I think, is a sort of barely conscious background assumption that other people must have a better idea of what they're doing than we do. This sort of assumption isn't debilitating. But it does make life subtly worse. It leads to the belief that you need to go especially hard on yourself, in order to hold your own among your peers; and it makes you hold back from doing things that might add meaning to your life, on the grounds that you're still waiting for a feeling of full authority to arrive.
I strongly relate to this, but I feel I’m getting too old for it. I don’t want to assume any more that everyone knows better than I do; I’ve wasted a bit too much time on that. It’s a mind game, as my wise dad says.
What about you? Are there practical things you’ve done that have allowed you to take your writing more seriously? Telling people you write; buying yourself a good chair; going part-time at work; blocking out time when everyone knows to leave you alone? I’d love to hear all about it, however big or small.
Thank you to all those who joined the Creative Hour on Sunday. The next one will be on Sunday 27 November at 10am GMT – if you’re new here, this is an online get-together for paying subscribers where we chat a bit about our own experiences of the writing process, and then write together in companionable silence.
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I’ll be back with another newsletter next Thursday. Good luck with your writing this week!