Haunted by Imposter Syndrome? How Riding Horses Helped Me Overcome Self-Doubt.
Given that it’s now October and we've entered the spooky season, I’m writing about the ghost-like feeling that plagues writers: imposter syndrome. Putting ideas onto the page and then releasing them to the world for critical feedback is a risk. The most successful writers, including Sandra Brown, have revealed doubts about their writing talent.
As parents or psychologists will tell you, external praise won’t change a person’s self-esteem. For writers, who experience constant rejection, not to mention harsh online reviews, releasing prose to readers is a thrill—and also a complicated process.
My theory is imposter syndrome—self-doubt—is rooted in fear. In other words, writers feel like imposters because they fear their work isn’t good enough. Or edited enough. Or trendy enough.
I grew up riding horses. There was plenty to fear while steering a 1,200-pound animal over the hills of southwest Wisconsin. I fell off a lot, and I learned plenty while getting tossed into the bushes. But, taking the risk was the only way to learn to ride. I started riding dressage in my twenties. One of the basic maneuvers of the discipline is trotting a 20-meter circle.
You and the horse work together to make every stride perfect. Eventually, you learn something: There is no perfect 20-meter circle. You and the animal may come close, but too many external impacts affect the journey. The weather, the arena footing, the wind, the horse’s mood (or its soreness), and the rider’s mood (or her soreness) affect the process.
After a long time, I embraced the idea—finally. I accepted that it’s the journey that counts. What matters, what’s real, is riding the horse and enjoying the connection with the animal. For me, it was appreciating time spent outdoors, the view from horseback, and the effort that goes into skillful riding.
Focus on the Process
Similarly, to overcome imposter syndrome as a writer, to overcome the fear that one isn’t good enough, embrace the journey. Focus on the process. Accept that mistakes will happen along the way. You’ll be tossed into the proverbial bushes now and then, but that shouldn’t discourage you from writing.
Further, consider ways of overcoming insecurities. Writing time is equivalent to “time in the saddle” on a horse. Like taking riding lessons, writing is exercise. Over time, being diligent about writing and getting words to the page improves your craft.
I recommend other strategies to overcome self-doubt. First, take a writing class from an expert. Second, talk about your fear. Externalize it to get rid of it, or manage it, at least.
Take a Class or Submit Work for Feedback
Whether online or in-person, writing classes provide feedback a writer needs to improve. Even experts take classes. Or, you attend a virtual writing event such as The Writing Day Workshops and submit pages for critique. Enjoy the process, even if your pages get marked and flagged like they’re a road under construction. (Remember, it’s about the journey.) Study the feedback and use it. Classes provide writing discipline, too. Once you get in the habit of writing consistently, your work becomes concise. Bad habits reveal themselves. Thus, you can eliminate them.
Talk About It
Robert Frost wrote, “The best way out is always through.” Rather than internalize self-doubt about your work, talk about it. It’s the “lean in” concept as applied to writing. While you’re among trusted writer-friends, vocalize your misgivings. You may be surprised by the responses. Many writers feel similarly, and they’re waiting for someone else to mention it. Sharing fear about what you’re doing is a way to connect with others and feel less stressed.
Embrace the Journey
Will you write a perfect book? No, probably not. The quicker you accept that the better writer you’ll be. If you’re feeling like an imposter, I recommend taking a class, submitting work for critique, and discussing imposter syndrome with other writers. After that, you may have a new appreciation for the frustrating process that can be novel writing.
Living in the moment, appreciating your book and its characters, living in their world, is like riding a 20-meter circle. Whatever the result, the time doing it is the reward.
Happy October, writers. Here’s hoping you scare away imposters! ~ T.K. Sheffield, MA