Fighting Self-Rejection and Imposter Syndrome
Even Neil Gaiman feels like an imposter sometimes
The hardest part about submitting your writing is battling imposter syndrome and self-rejection. It doesn’t matter how you track your submissions or how many submissions you make in a year. Every writer has a different process that works for them. But it does matter if you never try — and these two things can make you freeze up when it comes time to hit send on a submission.
I recently returned from a professional conference where I workshopped my novel with agents and editors, so this topic feels terribly close at heart right now. When I go to those types of events, I go through a series of highs and lows. I start out feeling out of place and like I don’t belong. I am naturally shy, and I’m good at putting my foot in my mouth.
But by the end of the weekend, I’ve found my comfort zone and I begin to feel a little bit more like I belong.
Neil Gaiman tells a story about his early career that I like, and it goes like this:
Gaiman was at a fancy event full of celebrities, artists, scientists, and writers. He felt that at any moment they would realize that he didn’t qualify to be there, among these people who had really done things. He met a man also named Neil, and they had a nice conversation.
At one point, the man pointed to the crowd and said, “I just look at all these people and I think, what the heck am I doing here? They’ve made amazing things. I just went where I was sent.”
That man was Neil Armstrong, the astronaut who walked on the moon.
I love this story because firstly, I love that even Neil Armstrong and Neil Gaiman have dealt with imposter syndrome, but also because it can be easy to think about writing as simply going where we are sent.
This is because very often the creative impulse comes from a place deep inside us which we do not fully understand — the Imagination.
Ursula K. Le Guin says in her essay “The Operating Instructions,” that:
“The Imagination is not a means of making money. It has no place in the vocabulary of profit-making. It is not a weapon, though all weapons originate from it…The Imagination is an essential tool of the mind, a fundamental way of thinking, an indispensable means of becoming and remaining human.” — Ursula K. Le Guin
When your imagination is in control, it can feel like you are Neil Armstrong — riding a rocket someone else built, on your way to a star no one has ever visited, about to drop a flag like you have any ownership of that journey — like you have any right to be called a representative of the race of humanity.
The reality is that Neil Armstrong trained for thousands of hours, went to school for years, and worked terribly hard to get where he went. He didn’t care about becoming a world-renowned astronaut.
And while our own training as writers is mostly in our minds and not in neutral buoyancy laboratories, that doesn’t diminish the fact that writing is hard work.
I just look at all these people and I think, what the heck am I doing here? They’ve made amazing things. I just went where I was sent.
Self-rejection is the act of saying, “I’m not good enough.”
It’s not sending a story out to a theme issue, because you think it won’t be “enough,” even when the call fits the story. It’s seeing others succeed and feeling deflated or jealous, so you stop sending your own work out. It’s worrying an editor won’t value your work or will ask you to change it, so you don’t send it. It’s not believing your critique group, beta readers, or fellow writers when they tell you that your work is good.
The discussion around self-rejection has, for the most part, focused on marginalized writers. The world has taught marginalized people their voices don’t matter, and that is devastating. There is no easy solution to the paradigm we live in where the most vulnerable voices are not heard. Many editors in the writing community are trying very hard to reach those writers and change this. I recommend reading speculative author and poet Rose Lemberg’s stellar essay about this topic on Patreon.
I also see new writers struggling a great deal with self-rejection. Many writers start out writing for themselves. After a while, they begin to feel they can share their work with others, and they get involved in workshops or critique groups.
Forming a community can be a fantastic way to battle self-rejection. When you hear a fellow author say, “I was afraid to send this story out,” or “I didn’t know how it would be received,” you realize every writer struggles in some way with these worries. You also realize that every writer is different. How one writer defines success will be different than the writer sitting next to them. There are no rules.
I suggest two methods for fighting imposter syndrome and self-rejection, and they may feel counterintuitive
Firstly, think of your writing as work. You’ve all heard the phrase “If I did what I loved for a living, I’d no longer love it.” In my experience, this phrase is rooted in fear. What if by looking at my writing as a career, I will stop loving it as a passion? It’s when you begin to think of writing as something you have control of, something that is deliberate and meaningful, something that is work, then you can begin to believe in yourself.
This may mean committing to attending a workshop, deciding to create a schedule for your writing, or simply being willing to fight imposter syndrome and allow yourself to submit your work to the very best of publications — the top tier markets.
There’s a certain amount of acceptance that writing is a thing which has highs and lows. But being willing to take writing seriously is one way to grow in your craft.
The second way to fight imposter syndrome and self-rejection is by being passionate about your writing career and what you write. For some writers, this means choosing to write something no one else is willing to write — because they love it and want to see it published. For some writers, this means throwing out worries about making money and earning a living.
Remember: You can’t put a price on the imagination.
Essentially, being passionate about your writing means writing what you love. Publishing, the writing life, finding an agent, submitting your work, making money: None of this matters if you don’t care about the thing you are writing.
There is an even more important reason to write what you love. If you’ll allow me to quote Neil Gaiman once more, in his collection of essays, The View from the Cheap Seats, Gaiman says:
“We who make stories know that we tell lies for a living. But they are good lies that say true things, and we owe it to our readers to build them as best we can. Because somewhere out there is someone who needs that story. Someone who will grow up with a different landscape, who without that story will be a different person. And who with that story may have hope, wisdom, kindness, or comfort. That is why we write.” — Neil Gaiman
I am going to tell you something important now.
Your voice matters. Your story matters. You matter. You are literally made up of matter — the stuff that drives the universe. So if you for a second think you’re not worthy, know that you are not alone and that your story matters.
Every writer starts out with a story they want to tell. That story is shaped by who we are as people, what we care about, the people in our lives, our own histories and myths, all wrapped up in this strange skinsuit we call human.
When we write, we transmit a universe of ideas to other humans. And sometimes, they really really need them. Like in a life or death way. Have you ever read something that changed your life? Or made you see the world in a new way? That’s why what we do as writers matters. We’re a lifeline for seekers and dreamers. When you self-reject, you break that tether.
I cannot tell you whether a story will get accepted. I cannot tell you whether you’ll reach success, that ambiguous, flighty dream. But I can tell you, you are not alone.
Holly Lyn Walrath is a freelance editor based out of Houston, Texas. She holds a B.A. in English from The University of Texas and a Master’s in Creative Writing from the University of Denver. She provides editing services for writers and organizations of all genres, experiences, and backgrounds, but enjoys working with new writers best. Find her on Twitter or visit her website.