I wrote my first story in April or May of 1989. It was about a mutant shark that had legs and the ability to breathe on land. I called it PAWS. By the end of the story, people are trying to kill the land shark right? But it survives, of course (I was already planning a sequel) except it ends up with this scarring along the lower edge of its gills that makes it look like it’s got a paw on the side of its neck.
You can probably tell where the initial idea came from, but that whole thing? I was always fucking weird, man.
Anyway, I wrote a lot of other embarrassingly terrible stories after that. Because that’s what you do. You write this awful thing and that awful thing and another awful thing until one day you write something that’s less awful and one day much later than that you write something that’s decent. Maybe even good.
I made my first paid sale in 2009. I’d been writing for twenty years.
Not that that feels like a long time. I mean, in the context of things. I was a kid for most of that. I was learning and practicing but I was also growing up.
In 2013 I quit working and made writing my sole income. Four years after my first sale, I turned it into a living. I could not have done this alone, and it took months before the money coming in was truly enough to call it a living.
It was around that time my friend Dan and I talked, in an email exchange, about how we felt like we were getting away with something. Like we’d been planning this scam all our lives and it was working but we constantly felt like we’d be discovered at any moment. The jig would eventually be up.
Later on tonight I may watch the movie he and another buddy of his wrote. It came out last year and you definitely heard of it.
Impostor syndrome. If you’re a writer, even one who isn’t making one cent out of words, you’ve felt it. It’s why so many younger or inexperienced writers call themselves “aspiring.” There’s this sense that you’re not really fooling anyone, that you’re not at that level yet, that everyone else knows more about this thing than you. You’re just not qualified. If you just call yourself a writer, well shit, someone might call you on it. The jig would be up.
OK, first of all: if that last paragraph sounds like you and nobody’s told you yet: drop the aspirations. You’re a writer when you write. You may be a godawful one, but that really is the only requisite qualification.
Being good at it is another thing. Like I said before, you have to get all the garbage out of you first. And it will be garbage because no one ever cooks a perfect souffle on the first try.
Fun fact: impostor syndrome (which is also, I learned when getting ready to type this up, known as the impostor experience) doesn’t go away. Ever. And it goes hand in hand with this other ancient writer truism: you are your own worst critic.
Some days I sit down to write and I just stare at this open project and think, “what the hell am I trying to pull here?” I’m looking at a project file with about 70,000 words in it and it’s the third book in a series and I think, “shit. I should jerk those other two off the shelves and throw it all in the trash.” Sometimes I think I’ve just been completely clueless and overconfident, the proverbial straight white male bouncing through the world on sheer privileged arrogance. I just haven’t run into the person who’ll tell me “no” yet. No one wants this crap. Certainly they’re not going to pay me for it, oh no. That’s insane.
And look, our rotten excuse for a civilization seriously undervalues creatives and art, except for some rare and possibly random instances where the art ends up ridiculously overvalued. The artist themself tends to remain poor. That’s a wholly separate issue, though.
Truth is, I wrote my first story in 1989. I’ve been doing this for over thirty years. I take the craft seriously, even if many of my stories are completely absurd. Yeah, I write about sharks with legs. Yeah, I write about zombie mummies and terrorist penguins. What of it?
If you’re a writer – a painter, a sculptor, any kind of artist – and you feel like an impostor … remind yourself of all the time you put into learning your art. Remember the lessons you learned from being terrible. Remember that you got better, and you still are, and you always will be unless you stop.
And that’s the thing: don’t stop.
Seven years ago, my friend Dan said he felt like he was pulling one over on people. Last year he got to attend the premiere of a movie he co-wrote.