In this series apprentice, Imari Berry selects essays from Jessica Conoley’s archives. Imari shares why the essay resonates with her as a newer creative, & Jessica’s original essay follows.
I chose this essay because: Dude this essay is so real. I felt this essay so deeply, especially about feeling like a fraud. Imposter syndrome sucks! But we will continue to fight through it.
Initial publication date: 02/02/2016
The Parts I Don’t Talk About
Living the life I’ve dreamed of is a fight. I did not expect that. I thought it would be easy. I thought I would seize every opportunity and not waste a moment. I thought I knew where to go next and nothing could distract me. I thought because I finally figured out what I wanted (to be a writer) the hard part was done. I was wrong.
The first trap: I’m a fraud. When people ask me about my work it always feels like I am lying. I know the words coming out of my mouth are true, but deep inside me I don’t believe them. It’s even worse when I talk to my colleagues—their recent cover story, their newest book, the conference where they are presenting. That’s what real writers do. I clearly have not made the cut. It doesn’t matter if I’ve amassed a string of resume building successes or received kind emails telling me my work meant something or people beg me to finish a certain story because they “have to know what happens next.” I am a sham and eventually everyone will know. Imposter syndrome does not go away. Some guy in the New York Times says it’s normal. I say it sucks.
The second: Small decisions don’t matter. It starts with I’ll do the laundry real fast, followed by someone just texted I need to make sure it’s nothing important, compounded by I’ve still got plenty of time tonight. Each day I must choose if the decisions I make support my writing or leave me no closer than I was yesterday. Every decision leads to whether or not I will win today’s battle, and every decision that moves writing farther down on my day’s calendar is me losing precious ground. I’ve learned a few tricks that make it more likely I will make the right choice: turning off my phone and wi-fi while I write, staying inside the house until noon, leaving the television off until the day’s work is done. Sometimes I slip, but when I don’t, I’ve got an 85% chance I will win that day.
The third: I have to suffer. I told myself I need to finish this piece when tension moved into my upper back and decided it wasn’t going to leave. Somewhere in there my neck wouldn’t turn to the left. Then I got headaches that sat behind my left eye. My stomach was a pit of nausea, because I hadn’t eaten since yesterday, but none of it mattered; I wanted to finish the next part. I finished the next part. But it wasn’t good; actually, it was bad—I couldn’t put my name on that. My physical sacrifices made me so uncomfortable the quality of my work declined. My stories are only as good as the quality of my brain. My brain is part of my body—oh yeah I need to take care of that body part too. Now I’m eating breakfast for the first time in my life. I go to Pilates; the endorphins help on the days when the sun doesn’t come out. I set a timer for one-hour on my phone and when it goes off I get up and do some sort of manual labor. I make time to take care of myself.
The fourth: I have plenty of time for that. “I’ll get us tickets.” “Can you help me on Monday? I know you’re not working.” “I want to get you drunk!” “Are you going to visit your grandparents?” “I haven’t talked to you in forever.” “It’s just lunch.” I always said yes before. I hate disappointing people, but that’s the Pavlov engrained guilt kicking in. I still want to say yes, but now I say yes a lot less frequently than I used to. I’ve acquiesced to the requests countless times in the past. When I choose my work instead of what others want me to do, I worry people think I’m being selfish. I am being selfish, but now I know there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that.
The fifth: They’ll just say no. “We’re afraid your project isn’t quite right for our lists at this time.” “Unfortunately, after careful review, I have decided to pass on this submission.” “I wasn’t connecting wholeheartedly with your writing, despite its many charms.” “Lena’s conflicts just did not draw me in.” Forty-six ways to say no for one project alone. Forty-six ways to tell me my work is not good enough. When I get to one-hundred then I give myself permission to be sad and consider if the project really isn’t worth pursuing or decide to pursue another way of releasing the project to the public. This is the job—the unglamorous, hard, tedious part of the job. The part I don’t tell people about because I have to believe somewhere in there will be a YES. If I don’t have faith in my work, how can I expect someone else to?
I’ve learned to look out for these traps, but I know there are more hiding in my tomorrows. Every day there’s a chance I may not win this war. I’ll wake up, pull together all the weapons I’ve cobbled together, and hope in that arsenal there is the magic “thing” I need to make the right decisions that day.
By Jessica Conoley