Hi. My name is Lindsey Alexander, and I’m here today to talk about impostor syndrome.
Once the prosecco wore off, I dove into revisions. I reworked, rewrote, and tinkered with poems, based on the suggestions of my editor, Leslie Sainz, who is brilliant and who should also be sainted. (Follow her so you can read her poems first.) The biggest suggestion was to change the title. Leslie sent 10 new potential titles, and then explained several that piqued my interest.
After much fretting, I sent back the manuscript revised, retaining the original title, which included the word “impostor,” and sounded like it belonged in a different genre. I hit send with a smug, comfortable satisfaction.
My publisher responded to (kindly) explain its reasoning for the change, in the way one might try to talk down a hissing cat from a tree, and at that moment I knew I had to kiss it goodbye. I emailed them that I understood and was ready to “come to Jesus.” And then I sent an immediate follow-up email to clarify, the hallmark of true confidence and sanity.
Meanwhile, instead of acknowledging to myself that I’d been wrong in trying to keep the title, I worked at convincing myself I’d been right. (As Kathryn Schulz writes, being wrong feels a lot like being right.) It took a while (and this in the Bible Belt) to find Jesus. I went for a long walk, fuming, certain my dog, who is a food mercenary, was the only one I could trust. It did not initially occur to me that (duh) my publisher wanted my book to sell well (likely sales matter more to them than to me). It did not initially occur to me that a team of smart people who were dedicating hours of their lives to sharing my work and who had read my book could understand its context, especially in the market, better than I did. No. I had selected the hill I was going to die on: Having the word “impostor” by my name on a cover. This is how overidentified I was with seeing myself as a phony. (I swear I must’ve read Catcher in the Rye too early in life.)
After an afternoon sulking, I was assuaged by a well-reasoned email from a friend, pointing out some of these fallacies. Oh, right, I had been granted a wonderful team, publication with a press I admired, and a big opportunity, and I wasn’t letting myself feel the glory of that gift.
I created word lists and theme lists and began creating titles I’m sure a bot could’ve come up with based on keywords from the manuscript. I conducted straw polls. Finally, a friend (fantastic writer Natalie van Hoose) with fresh eyes landed on Rodeo in Reverse. There it was: it had been between the manuscript and the word list and Leslie’s suggestions the whole time. I loved it. My publisher did too.
The only editorial work left was responding to a few new comments on the manuscript in a final round of revisions. A couple weeks later and I was receiving emails—you know the ones: polite, asking how a project was going, the kind from a kind person after you’ve missed or pushed a deadline.
Thing is: I was pretty much finished with revisions on the manuscript and had been for several days. At this point, I had a couple (just two) lingering small edits (whether to cut or retain a line, whether to add or leave out a short stanza), and in both cases I knew what I’d end up doing. I was creating false dilemmas for myself.
Chief among: searching phrases from my book to be sure they weren’t plagiarized. Taking small phrases and whole sentences and running them through Google, with quotes. If it didn’t return results, I’d look it up without quotes. If it did return a result—even a coincidental match on a random blog, I’d spin out, having proven to myself I was a fraud, not a real writer, much less a poet.
Which phrases was I searching? Any phrase I thought was good.
Why did I do this?
I felt uncomfortable. I mistook that discomfort for guilt, for having done something wrong, one of the grave sins of writing being plagiarism.
After some consideration, I recognized it for what it was: impostor syndrome.
I couldn’t be convinced I came up with anything good; therefore, if I like part of the book, it must be from somewhere, and someone, else.
I had insisted (gritting my teeth) on holding onto a title that my publisher felt it would be best to change. It had the word “impostor” in it.
Luckily, I’ve spent the last few months reading all the Brené Brown. (I don’t mean that as Internet speak. I mean I read all of it.) So I knew that “shame thrives in secret.” I needed to name it (impostor syndrome: done) and tell someone.
Being a good Millennial, I chose to share on Instagram Stories (which is private and only my really good friends and the occasional bored scroller would see), then after 24 hours it would disappear. Oddly, this medium mirrored the anxiety I was feeling: once named and shared, my shame (in this instance) no longer made sense.
Many friends reached out with an encouraging word—one even to say she’d had the same issue when she had a story accepted for publication at a Fancy Magazine.
Reading a section from Rising Strong helped me understand why I battle impostor syndrome in the first place: I have trouble accepting gifts—from others, from the universe. Like many women, it’s hard for me to accept even a compliment without reversing it thoughtlessly or mentioning where I got my dress for how cheap. A gift that’s a talent, unearned, an inkling honed into something bigger than the self—which I believe each one of us has—well, that’s nearly impossible to accept.
The thing about gratitude is, it isn’t hard to feel grateful once you allow yourself to feel joy, to accept goodness (including your own). But that means actually that gratitude is tough to access until it isn’t. Denying gifts isn’t a higher plane of maturity or understanding—it’s the road to ruin. Being kind to myself is oddly brave for me.
The title of my debut book, a poetry collection, is Rodeo in Reverse. I get to work with a caring, badass team of women to make it. I’m a writer and no more or less of an impostor than anyone else, which is to say, I’m human.
I wake every morning trying to lean into and learn from joy, to feel my gratitude. This means I am working on things like “being a hugger” and doing things like tearing up when I see my husband reading or thinking of how good my friends are. I say “I love you” to friends and acquaintances who are used to me not saying anything at all, or maybe “yeah, man.” I go to parks and sing with strangers at jams. (Okay, I did this once.) I thank the roof above my head for holding steady. I thank my stars for bringing me here. It’s the hardest and most embarrassing work I’ve done, and I don’t know where it will lead, but I trust it.
Have you ever experienced impostor syndrome? When? How were you able to turn the corner?
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