Fifteen minutes long, because you're in a hurry, and we're not that smart.

11.28: Impostor Syndrome, with Alyssa Wong

Alyssa Wong, Campbell Award nominee and Nebula Award winner, joins us to talk about impostor syndrome. This is the frame of mind that many successful writers suffer from, in which they worry that they’re not really good enough at writing to be enjoying their success. Worse, this mindset can prevent us from continuing to create.

Many of us suffer from this, and we have some strategies to cope with it.

Credits: This episode was recorded by Jeff Cools, and mastered by Alex Jackson. 

Homework: Grow sideways! Write something that you’ve never tried to write, genre-wise.

Thing of the week: “You’ll Surely Drown Here If You Stay,” by Alyssa Wong, which is available to read here.

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As transcribed by Mike Barker

Key points: Imposter syndrome means you think people know or are going to figure out that you are just faking it. Watch out for self-selecting out of opportunities because you think you don’t deserve them! Beware of seeing your audience, and getting stage fright. In the game of life, you never know when you have leveled up. Self-affirmation can help. Don’t judge yourself by your last project, or by the last project that the reader has read — you are as good as what you are writing now. What do you love about it? Get a kick in the butt! Accepting the accolade is part of the writer’s work. Part of imposter syndrome is that we don’t know how to handle being in the spotlight. We aren’t socialized for it, we don’t have a script for dealing with it. It’s like karaoke when you aren’t prepared. When someone levels up, but their friends don’t, it can be rough on both sides. Harassment is not good fannish behavior. Backing people against a wall, asking to lick their face, even telling someone to say something funny just aren’t acceptable.

[Mary] Season 11, Episode 28.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, Imposter Syndrome, with Alyssa Wong.
[Mary] 15 minutes long.
[Howard] Because you’re in a hurry.
[Dan] And we’re not that smart.
[Brandon] I’m Brandon.
[Mary] I’m Mary.
[Howard] I’m Howard.
[Dan] And I’m Dan.
[Brandon] And we have special guest star, Alyssa Wong. Say hello.
[Alyssa] Hello.
[Brandon] Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?
[Alyssa] I am a grad student, studying in Raleigh, North Carolina. I write short fiction, and I just won a Nebula award, apparently.
[Yay! in chorus]
[Mary] And she’s up for a Campbell.
[Howard] Outstanding.
[Howard] Welcome to the happy ride in the tumbling down the waterfall fun box of awards season.
[Alyssa] I’ve picked up a couple of bruises, obviously. Ow. Help!
[Howard] Don’t get out of the box until we’ve cleared the falls.
[Alyssa] Okay. Okay. Don’t people die going over the falls?
[No, no. Don’t think about it. Only if you think about it.]
[Mary] Take foam into the box with you. That’s the secret.
[Alyssa] Okay, okay.
[Mary] Plenty of padding. It makes you more resilient.
[Alyssa] All right. I’m already falling, so it’s a bit late for foam now. Well, maybe we’ll talk about how to brace then for the fall.

[Brandon] Yes. Let’s… Imposter syndrome. What does this mean?
[Mary] So, imposter syndrome is a thing that affects you at pretty much… Or can afflict you at pretty much any stage in your career. It is the sense that people are going to know that you’re faking it.
[Brandon] The sense… You feel that people are going to figure this out.
[Mary] One of the… When I was nominated for a Campbell award, back in the day, I was talking with Nancy Kress. Who had like God knows how many Hugos and Nebulas at that point, and she said, “Oh, yeah, I’m constantly convinced that people are going to figure out that I don’t actually know how to write.” I’m like, “You’re Nancy Kress. How do you…” It was at once very comforting that she still went through it and also deeply depressing that she still went through it. Because it means it’s not something you grow out of.
[Dan] Well, one of the problems with it… I mean, first of all, it just is depressing. First of all, but it can also make you kind of self-select your way out of a lot of opportunities, because you think “Well, I don’t deserve to be a panelist there,” or “I don’t deserve to be a guest at this thing.” Sure you do. Of course you do. You’re awesome.
[Brandon] Alyssa, have you felt this recently?
[Alyssa] Yeah. I mean, a very nice lady came up to me recently and told me, “Oh. You’re the next new hot thing.” I was like, “Oh, God. Send help. I wrote one good story. This means nothing. This means absolutely nothing.” I thought about it and I was like, “Wait. I guess I did win an award.” But that pressure never does go away.
[Brandon] In some ways, the more successful you become, the worse it is. It’s like you’re waiting for the bubble to burst.
[Mary] It’s… The… After I… I see this happen to a lot of new writers. That they will make a sale, they’ll get a personalized rejection, or they’ll win an award, and they will stop writing. Because now they feel like everything that they write has to be as good or better than that last thing. One of the things is that you actually… Like there’s no way to tell which thing is going to be the thing that hits. It sometimes has nothing to do with the quality of the story, it just happens to be your timing.
[Brandon] Right. Well, I mean, you can imagine this. I’ve talked to other writers who have had this hit them. In fact, writers whose names you’d recognize and be like, “What? Really? Them?” Where you write forever, it seems, in obscurity. Right? You’re just writing your stories, your telling these stories, and you dream of going pro and getting published and all of this stuff and winning awards. Then it happens. Suddenly you aren’t just doing it for yourself anymore. Suddenly even everyone telling you that you’re great… They’re not telling you you’re terrible, gives you this huge stage fright. Because now you can see the audience. When before, the audience was something abstract. I’ve known big, big authors that have been paralyzed for years because of this suddenly seeing the audience event.
[Howard] But that’s not going to happen to you, Alyssa.
[Alyssa] Oh good. Oh good.

[Mary] I will just say that one of the reasons that authors will get very cranky with readers when we see you going after someone who has written a novel and is spending a long time until the next novel comes out is because we know that every time you say to them, “Where’s my book?” That you’re just reinforcing the imposter syndrome. It’s debilitating. The analogy that I use a lot is that it’s kind of like life is a videogame and you know when you’re playing the videogame and you get that beautiful loading screen, and then the monsters are harder, the challenges are harder, they’re different, but you’re like, “Okay. This is okay. I got my new tools and I got my new experience points, and all of that.” The thing is, with life, you don’t get the pretty loading screen.
[Brandon] To warn you.
[Mary] Except sometimes… To warn you. Except sometimes, someone says, “Here, have this trophy.” But even there, the nomination comes as a surprise.
[Howard] The whole ceremony was a cut scene?
[Mary] Surprise!
[Alyssa] Surprise!
[Brandon] I just have to say, the Nebula is such a pretty award.
[Mary] It is a pretty award.
[Brandon] Oh man.
[Alyssa] It is really gorgeous. It’s really heavy. I almost dropped it like five times. I was like, “Oh, God. Oh, God.”
[Mary] That’s okay. It’s Lucite, it’s not glass. I know a place you can get things buffed out of it, comes to it.
[Alyssa] Ew… I may take you up on that.

[Howard] How do you, Alyssa… So you said, “Well, I’ve published one story.” What are you working on now? What are your strategies for dealing with imposter syndrome so that you get stuff done?
[Alyssa] I think, honestly… I learned a trick back when I was in college. That trick was to stare at yourself in a mirror and say, “I am very attractive.” The idea was that if you say it long enough, you’ll eventually believe it. So you can substitute “I am very attractive” with pretty much anything. Honestly, when I work on stuff, I just don’t think about the other stuff that I’ve written before. Because if I do, I get stuck in that rut. I can’t… I start to overanalyze. I think, “What was it about this story that made it… That made other people respond to it? What is it about this story that people thought was really interesting, craft wise?” Then I get stuck and I don’t want to write the same story all the time.
[Dan] People make fun of the idea of the daily affirmation, because it sounds so useless to look at yourself and say, “You are attractive. You are successful. You are whatever…” Yet, it is very effective, precisely because most of the negative voices that you’re hearing countering that argument are also coming from your own head. So, I mean, if you just end up arguing with yourself, I guess that’s not going to help.
[Mary] But at least someone is putting up a fight.
[Dan] Yes! Exactly.
[Mary] I mean, we are writers, we understand the power of words and narratives. Duke University has the Center for Advanced Hindsight, which, first of all, is a fantastic…
[Brandon] Wow.
[Mary] The Center for Advanced Hindsight. But one of the things that they talk about is exactly this thing that Alyssa says. I have been trying it. I get up in the morning and I feel a little ridiculous because my husband hears me, but I say it anyway. I’m like, “I feel energized and today is going to be a great day.” It’s terrifying to me that this works. So sometimes with imposter syndrome, sitting down and saying, “I am going to write today. I am going to write right now.” But just actually saying it out loud, beginning the narrative process by telling yourself the story that you are going to succeed, that you are going to move forward rather than the narrative process of what if everyone… What if this story sucks?
[Alyssa] I think with that exercise also, making sure that you’re doing… Instead of saying like, “I’m not this,” it’s important to be positive. So like instead of saying like “I am not a failure” which I think is really a huge part of imposter syndrome…
[Howard] Staring at the mirror and saying, “Those are not gray hairs in my beard. Those are not gray hairs in my beard.” Is not going to help as much as saying…
[Alyssa] Look how many…
[Howard] That beard looks awesome.
[Mary] It really does look awesome.
[Alyssa] Yes. Look at how beautiful my beard is.
[Mary] By the way, I really do like your beard, Alyssa.
[Alyssa] Oh my God, thank you.
[Alyssa] It’s… It’s custom-made.

[Howard] I want to bring up a lie that I have just now discovered I’ve been living under my whole life. When I studied audio engineering, one of the instructors said, “Remember. In this business, you’re only as good as your last project.” Okay? To qualify that, in our business of writing, you, to the reader, are only as good as the last thing of yours that the reader has read.
[Mary] Which is not necessarily your last project.
[Howard] Which is not necessarily your last project. You, today, are only as good as you make yourself be by sitting your hands on the keyboard and writing. It has nothing to do with the stuff that is behind you. It’s really crippling, as you said, to look at what you’ve done and think of it as “How can I do better than that, what do I need to do to be better than that?” Rather than focusing on “What is it about this project that I love? Why did I get out of bed today to work on this?”
[Mary] I think, along those lines, that one of the things that happens is… We warn writers about this all the time on the podcast, to not compare your draft with someone else’s finished product. Also, don’t compare your draft with your own finished product.
[Mary] You know the amount of work it took to get to the final stage. It’s okay for the beginning stuff to not be very good.

[Brandon] Let’s go ahead and stop for our story of the week. I’m going to preface this by saying… We are, slowly, you’ll still hear some episodes that were sponsored… That had sponsorships, but we are now transitioning to being listener-supported. This is the first episode that we get to do where we are supported entirely by you. Which frees up… Normally, our book of the week had to be in a specific style of story, it had to be an audiobook, and things like that. We are now free, and we are going to keep doing the books of the week, but we don’t have to pick something that is specifically available on audio any longer. We can pick whatever we want. This week, because of you, dear patrons, we’re going to pick one of Alyssa’s stories. Alyssa, can you tell us about You’ll Surely Drown… If you… What, it’s Drown Here If You Stay?
[Alyssa] Yeah, You’ll Surely Drown Here If You Stay. I can’t even say it myself, so good. You’ll Surely Drown Here If You Stay is a… It’s a Wild West fun pulpy necromantic Cinderella story.
[Brandon] Wow.
[Dan] Oh, another one of those!
[Brandon] Those are some of my favorite words.
[Alyssa] You’ll Surely Drown Here If You Stay is like the ending line of the old [Ashpiddle?] song that I totally ripped off of the original fairytale, but… It’s about a boy whose mother is the desert and his father was a witch who was burned by the town.
[Brandon] Okay. Yeah.
[Alyssa] Mining drama. It’s ghosts.
[Howard] Where can people find this?
[Alyssa] Uncanny Magazine, issue number 10.
[Mary] They are doing a kickstarter.
[Alyssa] For year three!
[Mary] For year three. Which, year three is going to have a story by me, too. So we like Uncanny, they’re good people.
[Howard] Outstanding. Uncanny Magazine, issue 10. You’ll Surely Drown If You Stay Here.
[Alyssa] Close.
[Brandon] You’ll Surely Drown Here If You Stay.
[Howard] Oh, my gosh. I am so… I will make sure to get this right in the liner notes, with a link.
[Brandon] Excellent. Thank you very much, Alyssa.

[Brandon] Let’s go ahead and talk a little bit further about this. I wanted to ask if certain things work for helping with imposter syndrome. Because I actually just kind of have to ask this, I’ve never felt this one, not yet. It can strike at any point in your career. Dan is laughing, because he’s like, “No, Brandon, you are never going to feel…”
[Dan] I’ve known you too long.
[Brandon] This one. We all have certain hangups. This is not one of mine. I’m on the other end, where I assumed I was a pro before I was. But one of the things I’ve noticed about this is, seems like focusing on why you’re writing, meaning the process, the enjoyment of the writing, the “I’m doing this because I tell stories, that’s what I love to do,” might help keeping you from comparing your stories to one another and comparing what you’re doing now to what you have done and things like this. Like I often think like when… I have moments that approach this, I’m like, I’m not writing… I don’t care. Right? I’m writing these stories because I love writing these stories. Does that help? I don’t know. I’m just kind of trying to throw something out there.
[Howard] I was Guest of Honor at the… Oh, gosh, I think it was the 50th Annual Deep South Con. John Picacio was there. I was sitting in the lobby feeling very, very down and very, very frightened. John was like, “Dude, what’s the matter?” I said, “Ah, it’s imposter syndrome.” John doesn’t suffer from this. He’s like, “Dude, that’s a load of crap. Why do you have that?” I’m like, “I look at your art and I look at my art. Why am I the artist Guest of Honor?” He said, “You are the artist Guest of Honor because they looked at your work and that you and they brought you here to be honored. So get off your butt and go be their Guest of Honor.”
[Howard] This is John Picacio hollering at me. I really needed that kick in the butt. I got up, and I just… I made a point of walking the halls and poking my heads into the room parties. I realized that yes, these people were excited to have me there. By doing that piece of my job, which is accepting the accolade if you will, I was honoring their room parties. It just made everyone happier. It happened because someone yelled at me and said, “You just gotta get up and acknowledge that you’re not an imposter.”
[Dan] Other people like you more than you.

[Mary] I think that that is one of the things that makes imposter syndrome so uncomfortable, is we are so socialized. I have to say that this is actually one of the places that I think that it often hits harder for women. That we are so socialized to be humble and unobtrusive. That suddenly being put into the spotlight… There’s not a script for that. Like when someone compliments you on something normally, you’re supposed to compliment them back. When they have read a thing of yours, and you have no idea who they are, you can’t compliment them back. That is part of what leads you to this “What am I doing? It must be… This feels wrong. This feels really uncomfortable and wrong.”
[Brandon] I wonder if it has something to do with… Like, our specific culture, as well. That we are socialized among. I mean, I remember last year, I was in England on a panel. A lot of the UK authors said, “How do you Americans do it? How do you talk about your writing and make people want to read it?”
[Brandon] “Because we just can’t do that. It feels so weird…”
[Brandon] “To actually suggest that people read our writing. We’ll sit on panels and we will tell everyone to read everyone else’s writing.” But the Americans are like, “Yeah, my book’s great. You should read my book.” That’s not how I necessarily perceive it. But I do think that there is a difference in our socialization for these things.
[Mary] That’s a really good point. That different cultures have really different markers for this. So a lot of people are going to have different triggers for what sets off their imposter syndrome. It is a thing. One of the things that I wanted to also talk about, when we’re talking about this, is… Because there isn’t a script for this. As I think we’ve said, everyone, except Brandon, will experience…
[Dan] It’ll come.
[Brandon] Someday.
[Dan] You’ll get your comeuppance.
[Mary] But I think that everyone will experience some form of imposter syndrome, just not necessarily about writing. If we ask you to sing karaoke…
[Brandon] Yup. Yeah. They made me do that at a con. It was not a very comfortable situation.
[Mary] That’s what imposter syndrome often feels like, karaoke when you’re not prepared.
[Alyssa] [Wheeze] Oh, God.
[Howard] Which is… Karaoke.

[Mary] Well, okay. That’s fair. Except for some people, who are just… But, anyway. So one of the things that I want to talk about are some of the unexpected side effects. We know about the difficulty of writing, and trying to figure out how to go through that. But also, how to navigate suddenly being in the spotlight. I want to talk about this for two reasons. One is to help people, because this can hit after you’ve made your first sale or whatever. Your family is like, “Oh, you’ve sold a short story. When’s your movie deal happening?” I’ve seen this happen to people. But also, so that listeners will know not to unintentionally apply pressure. If you know what is going on with someone. One of the things that Alyssa and I were talking about at breakfast this morning is that when you level up, and you level up before your friends do, that often there can be a sense of distance between yourself and your friends. How to navigate that without alienating people and also making sure that… Because it feels like you’re bragging if you talk about your problems. They’re still legit problems.
[Brandon] Yes. No. I’ve totally been there. Dan and I have been there, where we kind of leveled up.
[Dan] We used to be… We were jockeying for position back and forth. I made my sale to Germany of Serial Killer, which was, at the time, the biggest contract either of us had ever had. I thought I finally beat him. Then like two weeks later, you got Wheel of Time and…
[Dan] Joined an entirely different league.
[Brandon] It was not two weeks later. You reigned on that one for like a year or two. But, yes. But I was more talking about our friends. Like you and I, we’ve kind of leveled up in our careers concurrently, I would say, but we left behind kind of a group that just took other directions. It was weird for a while. How do you deal with this?
[Dan] Well, I’m going through this right now…
[Howard] The Nebula award winner in the room… How do you… Has that changed your relationship with the other writers you know?
[Alyssa] Well, I mean, it’s been a very long two weeks.

[Alyssa] But I mean it has made an impact on my relationships. It’s… If anything, it’s made me more fearful of losing the people I care about. Because I can sense those changes happening. I can feel them happening. I don’t know what to do. I don’t know how to stop it. Like… I mean, all I can do is try to be the best and most supportive friend that I can be. In all areas. Because I care about my friends and don’t want to lose them. But it does feel weird. I was recently harassed at a con by a fan. It feels weird to even say that I have a fan, at all. So there’s that tiny voice in the back of my head that’s going, “But shouldn’t you be flattered?” I’m like, “No!” I was still harassed, and it was still awful. But at the same time, it feels weird to talk about that with my friends and be like, “Oh, I was harassed by someone who wanted me to sign their book.” Like, they’re like, “Well, no one asks us to sign anything.” I’m like, “Yeah, but also no one…” I don’t know how to explain that.
[Mary] That’s one thing that you listeners, and we, can do for our friends. Like when our friends level up, one of the things that we can do is to make sure that we are still there and really supportive for them. Like John Scalzi and I are old friends. When we started, we were roughly… He was a little bit farther along, career track, then I am… Was. Where we are now, it’s like… Multiple movie deals and television deals. But…
[Howard] But what’s John have?
[Mary] Multiple movie deals and television deals. I have some puppets.
[Brandon] You have us.
[Mary] I do have you guys.
[Brandon] And he does not.
[Howard] That’s some puppets.
[Dan] We all did die in that plane crash.
[Mary] I have so many books to write. But the point is that one of the things that I tried to make sure that idea that was to continue to give him a safe space to vent and to never let… To never be like, “Well, I wish I had that problem.” Because that is a really unhelpful statement.
[Howard] Wait a minute. Alyssa, in this particular situation where a friend says, “Well, wow, you should be grateful that you have a fan, not be upset that someone harasses you.” If I work in the pharmacy, and someone harasses me when I’m filling their prescription, I’m doing my job for them which is filling a prescription and I’m being harassed. As a writer, part of your job is signing books for people.
[Mary] I’m sorry, you should be grateful that you have a customer.
[Howard] I should be grateful that doctors send customers my way. I mean, we could continue down this path. It is critical to realize that your job requires you to sign things for people. It’s not a status thing, it’s a thing that you do.
[Mary] Also that there is… That the aspect of… Sorry, that the aspect of harassment is… It’s tricky. It is. It’s also because when you do that leveling up, and you’re wrestling with the imposter syndrome already, that… When someone approaches you, you literally don’t know how to deal with it. Like it’s how do I respond to them? Should I… Should I be flattered? Or have they backed me against a wall? Literally. Which I have…
[Chorus yeah, yup, yep]
[Alyssa] Is that something that… Actually, is that something that happens to you guys? Do you get backed against walls?
[Brandon] I am generally… No. I mean, I am generally bigger, and both in presence and in physical size, than anyone who would be crowding around me. That intimidates people. It is the natural… Like, it’s not something that I have to deal with basically ever. I have been chased to my car by a fan asking questions.
[Alyssa] Oh. No!
[Brandon] That’s… Like they asked… There was a very awkward fan asking very like detailed questions all the way to the car. But… That’s the closest it ever came to harassment with me. But it’s like… I had a person there with me, and I was never worried, it was more like this annoyance, like, “Come on, you are…” I’ve never had this sort of thing.
[Dan] I had a fan in Argentina ask if she could lick my face once, but that’s…
[Alyssa] Wow. That’s really…
[Mary] There’s a line that was like way behind that. Wow.
[Howard] People will come up to my booth and tell me to say something funny.
[Dan] Like we did earlier?
[Howard] Exactly like you did earlier.
[Mary] Say something funny.
[Howard] But it’s okay.
[Mary] Say something funny.
[Howard] But it’s okay, because you guys are friends.
[Mary] Say something funny.
[Howard] And I can just tell you no.
[Mary] Say something funny.

[Brandon] We need to wrap up this podcast. It’s been wonderful having you, Alyssa. Congratulations on your award.
[Alyssa] Thank you.
[Brandon] Looking forward to seeing what you do next.
[Alyssa] Thank you so much.
[Mary] But no pressure.
[Brandon] No pressure.
[Alyssa] Thank you for having me.
[Dan] No pressure, but… Make sure it’s awesome.
[Brandon] No pressure, but we would like a writing prompt.
[Alyssa] Okay. So I think part of dealing with imposter syndrome is feeling like you have to constantly be growing and growing linearly upwards. But I think it’s important to be able to switch directions and proceed any direction along any axis you want. So my writing prompt for this week is try something that you’ve always wanted to try, genre -wise, but you’ve never done. If you always wanted to write a romance story, or if you’ve always wanted to write a happy ending but you didn’t think you could, give that a shot.
[Brandon] All right. Thank you again. This has been Writing Excuses. You’re out of excuses, now go write.