Everyone who has faltered in their self belief as a writer/actor/artist has considered the words imposter syndrome very carefully. We have all sat and wondered at the sorcery of those whose self confidence is unshakeable. Where does it come from? How do you get it? And more likely, why don’t I have it?
Why don’t I have it? Good question. It’s not as though I haven’t had praise, objective praise at that, from published authors, news & features editors, journalists and colleagues over the years. I even had an out of the blue note from one of the people behind Criminal Minds telling me I was a great writer, he even followed this blog, still does (and thank you so much!).
As a journalist and features writer my whole adult life, I never second guessed my writing. I just wrote, always from the heart, it never failed. I never failed. I never went to my editors saying, sorry I can’t write this or this is the best I could do but it’s garbage. Words are my thing, they do come easy to me. Yet when I try to write novels (aka writing for myself) something stops me.
A week after the death of my mother, a friend gave me an intense Japanese massage and some kind of thick incense stick that you were to light and hold over your body. The heat, she said, was healing. It sounded weird and I didn’t believe in it but I did it anyway and at one point, with grief-stricken anger, I shouted, aloud, “I am not shit.”
And this memory reminded me of the serpent and the firefly story which goes like this: Once there was a beautiful firefly who used to zip about in the trees and grasses and flowers, minding her own business. One day, a serpent saw her and decided to give chase. He hounded the firefly night and day, relentless and cruel. After one particular harrowing chase, the firefly stopped and turned to the serpent and said: I have three questions for you, because I don’t understand why you are doing this to me. The serpent said, well I don’t normally do this, but go on, ask. So the little firefly asked: Am I top of your food chain? And the serpent answered, no. Are you really so hungry you have to eat me? And the serpent again answered, no. Then why, the firefly pleaded, why do you want to hurt me? And the serpent smiled and said, because I can’t stand to see you shine.
In Julia Cameron’s book The Artist’s Way, this subject is covered in great detail, because so many of us have tried to shine and our lights have been dimmed by those who also have not been allowed to shine. Some people might call it jealousy, I guess it is, but if it’s someone who was your parent, or sibling or even a teacher, chances are what you have is what they always wanted and as opposed to could never have, were never allowed to have. My mother was a strange creature. She would build me up you’re so intelligent, so talented, only to pull me down again when I told her something my editor had said about my work, don’t go getting a big head. I was never allowed to shine. Many years later I realize it’s because she never was either.
As a child, she belittled my efforts. When I won a national poetry competition at the age of 14, the bragging rights were hers. A ceremony at the London Hilton, new expensive dresses, my photo in the newspapers. Never once did she tell me she’d read the poem or how proud she was. I moved through the whole thing emotionless because it wasn’t about me or my poetry. I realize now that this is where it started. I wasn’t allowed to believe that you could have a career as a writer, so I chose journalism, the next best thing. But working as a journalist, I wasn’t working for me. Working as an author, it’s all me. Me, me, me. The one thing I could never celebrate, being me, with all the power and the glory that is in me as a writer.
If you feel you’re some kind of fake in the author business, even though people who have years of experience behind them tell you otherwise, perhaps you too have firefly syndrome. Perhaps you were never allowed to shine.
Fireflies are tiny things but just one can create a lot of light. If there’s a spark in you, remember it’s yours. We are not responsible for what other people do or did not do, we can only shine our own light. There is room in the world for everyone’s light. Those of us whose fireflies were hounded by the snakes of our formative years, we need to tell them that this spark, this spark is in us and nothing can take it away from us. But it is up to us to let it shine.
Let’s see if I can take my own advice.