Around the Writers’ Table

Imposter syndrome: Are we faking it until we make it?

—Illustration by Kate Feiffer

“How to Overcome Imposter Syndrome.” That’s the cover story of the most recent Harvard Business Review. The picture on the cover is a photograph of those goofy big-nose, bushy-eyebrow Groucho Marx glasses.

As explained in Psychology Today, “People who struggle with imposter syndrome believe that they are undeserving of their achievements and the high esteem in which they are, in fact, generally held. They feel that they aren’t as competent or intelligent as others might think — and that soon enough, people will discover the truth about them.”

Imposter syndrome has been on my mind and in the news a lot lately. I recently asked a group of women writers if any of them would be interested in leading a workshop focused on imposter syndrome at Islanders Write, and they all replied — and yes, the irony was noted — that they didn’t think they were qualified. In February, the New Yorker ran an article with the headline “Why Everyone Feels LIke They’re Faking It.” And in May, Forbes published an article headlined “What to Know About Imposter Syndrome: The Psychological Phenomenon Making People Doubt Their Success.”

It appears that imposter syndrome isn’t confined to the arts, or to the business world, or to people’s personal lives. While research shows that successful women and people of color tend to feel more like frauds than, say, white men, it’s quite possible that the person standing in front of you in the checkout line at Cronig’s may be as worried that they are somehow getting away with it (whatever it may be for them) as you are.

Since this column is about writing and writers, and since I’m trying to decide whether it would be better to hold a workshop at Islanders Write focused on helping people overcome their imposter syndrome, or if would be more helpful to have a session where people can share their own experiences with imposter syndrome, I am going to stay focused on the author as imposter.

One of the problems with imposter syndrome that I’ve recently encountered is that upon finding out that it impacts even globally famous best-selling writers like Neil Gaiman — who once admitted, “Some years ago, I was lucky enough to be invited to a gathering of great and good people: artists and scientists, writers and discoverers of things. And I felt that at any moment they would realize that I didn’t qualify to be there, among these people who had really done things” — it becomes difficult for those of us surfing the mid-list to feel worthy of having imposter syndrome. If the Harvard Business Review is running with it, is imposter syndrome even still available for the rest of us?

But before I dig too far down that rabbit hole of self-doubt, I’d like to share some thoughts on imposter syndrome from a few writer friends I’ve recently been talking about this topic with.

Brenda Horrigan: I thought I’d be a real writer when I signed with an agent. Then I found the agent, but the definition changed to signing a publishing contract. What will it take to feel “real”? A thousand books sold, or 10,000, or 20,000? A movie deal or some award? Sure, I tell myself to stop, because there will always be some new achievement that feels out of reach. But apparently I’m a poor listener.

Elizabeth Bell: I’m not a writer. Writers “always knew they wanted to be a writer.” They kept a journal from age 5, wrote their first short story in elementary school, their first novella when they were 17, majored in creative writing at college, and landed their first job in publishing. Writers live a literary life, surrounded by other writers, going to dinner parties with Pulitzer prizewinners — you get the picture. I did none of those things. I’ve always been a voracious reader, and one day I sat down … and started to write. A novel, as it turns out. Then another. I’m an author — that’s a fact — but a writer? Not me.

Peter Kramer: Writing, you’re like Sisyphus. With each new project you’re at the bottom of the hill, faced with a rock too heavy to be moved. Why would you believe that you can do it?

“Around the Writers’ Table” is a column about writers and writing on the Vineyard. Please email with your writing-related news. 



  1. You nailed, it, Kate. Thanks for making us all feel a little less like the big fakers we are. Thanks to you, I got to live on the front lines of Imposter Syndrome when I shared a platform with a Pulitzer Prize winner at Islanders Write last summer. My Mom said she was impressed—but not surprised. The best antidote I could have wished for. And Geraldine Brooks couldn’t have been more gracious, of course. 😊

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