How One Writer Wrestled With Imposter Syndrome Until She Got Published

"The negative chatter in my head said that I wasn’t really a writer — that my publications and my signing with an agent were mere flukes."

I arrived at my very first writers' conference and workshop, nauseated at the thought that the whole trip might be a huge waste of money and effort. After years of struggle, I had a few good short-story publications to my name, but so far, I'd failed to achieve my biggest goal: selling a novel. I had signed with a literary agent—a major accomplishment—but she hadn't been able to sell my book.

I had worked on a new novel over the past year, and my agent was about to send it on to editors for the first time. If that book didn't sell… well, maybe that was my sign to give up.

I knew there was a name for how I felt: imposter syndrome. The negative chatter in my head said that I wasn't really a writer—that my publications and my signing with an agent were mere flukes. Indicators of dumb luck, not skill, certainly nothing I had earned. So far, I'd continued to write and revise my work, but as my novel's submission time approached, the voice of my imposter syndrome had become awfully loud.

I checked into the conference hotel and then made myself leave the shelter of my room. As I waited for the elevator, battling my self-consciousness, I reminded myself that I was there to make connections and become a better writer. That wouldn't happen if I hid in my room. I didn't want to squander the money I'd spent on airfare and registration, either.

Workshop staff members were setting up a conference room. Taking a deep breath, I introduced myself. "Can I help?" I asked.

They were happy to put me to work putting paperwork in binders. I began to relax; no one had outed me as a fraud yet. More attendees began to show up, including some writers I knew from groups online. Soon enough, I had an invitation to eat supper with some new friends.

The next day kicked off the full conference. One of the speakers talked about how his first book was rejected by every publishing house, but his next book sold—and he was then able to go back and sell his first book, too. I felt a strange surge of hope.

I sidled up to him during the next break and explained my own predicament. "What do you do when your book won't sell?" I asked. "What if the next one doesn't sell either?"

He looked me in the eye and offered me an understanding smile. "You do the only thing you can do: keep writing."

I walked away, mulling that answer. That was the crux of the matter. If I wasn't writing, I didn't know what I'd do with myself.

But if my new book didn't sell…

My imposter syndrome wouldn't shut up.

That afternoon, attendees split into groups for the workshop portion. We had exchanged stories online several weeks before and already typed up critiques of each story.

Though I had given and received critiques through Internet writing workshops, I had never done anything of the sort in person. Another woman's story was up first, and we each took turns sharing our brutally honest assessments of it. Soon enough, it was time for my story to be eviscerated.

One of the men in the group passed me his notes on how he felt I could improve my story—and they were two times the length of my actual story! He then elaborated on his criticism in passionate tones. I shrank into my chair and nodded at his points. Inside, I was mortified. The other people in my group provided much milder feedback, but the conclusion was the same: My story was broken.

I returned to my room, numb.

I had submitted that story to the workshop because I knew it needed a little work; it had already had a few nice personal rejections from magazines. But now I knew the story's problems couldn't be fixed. It was junk.

Maybe that same word could describe my entire writing career. If I could even call it a career.

My old novel was unsalable.

My new novel might be a total failure, too.

Why was I even here at this workshop? Getting rejections by e-mail was bad enough. Getting them in person was physically painful, even though the feedback wasn't intended to be cruel. Maybe I was just too thin-skinned to make it as a writer.

I glared at the dog-eared stack of story critiques. I couldn't help but start flipping through the sheets again. A lot of the advice made sense. I could change the starting point. Deepen the relationship between the mother and daughter. Do more research into post-apocalyptic survival.

I started laughing out loud. The story was broken, yes, but I'd fixed broken stories before. I was a writer. I couldn't help but keep on writing. I jotted down notes as I looked for common ground in the feedback.

Satisfied with my sketchy revision plan, I ventured out to join my fellow writers for the evening. They were likewise shell-shocked from the critique sessions, but we soon relaxed as we shared stories about rejections, acceptances, and our everyday lives. My lingering self-consciousness about my flawed story soon dissipated, replaced by a desperate desire to get home and get to work. I had a story to fix.

My need to revise wasn't just about making the work presentable enough to submit to magazines. No, it was about proving that my imposter syndrome was wrong. The writing workshop had affirmed that there was only one way I could do that: by writing.

I returned home, and over the next few weeks I rewrote the story almost entirely from scratch. Only a few sentences remained untouched. While the basic premise had remained the same, the story developed new, raw levels of emotion. I had raised the stakes for my characters, and for myself as well.

Meanwhile, my agent submitted my novel to publishing houses in New York City. Now, all I could do was wait as the manuscript made the rounds. I tried not to think about it, and I let my short-story work absorb my time and energy instead.

When my imposter syndrome flared up, as it inevitably did, I fought back by continuing to write.

After months of revision, more critiques, and more revision, I sent the newly drafted story to a magazine. It was rejected. I gritted my teeth and sent it out again, to gain another rejection. Again. Rejection.

On the fourth try: an acceptance! And to one of my dream publications! I cried as I read the e-mail. This was vindication, proof that all of the work was worthwhile. I was a real writer.

That wasn't the only good news to come my way.

That new book I feared would never sell? It sold, and to one of the biggest publishers in the world.

Even with those successes, I still struggle through awful rough drafts and long strings of rejections and bad reviews. I continue to battle imposter syndrome. But through it all, I keep writing. I'm a writer, and that's what I do.

Story by Beth Cato, Chicken Soup for the Soul: The Power of Yes!© 2018 Chicken Soup for the Soul, LLC. All rights reserved. 

Cover image via  Who is Danny I Shutterstock

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