Jessica Williams, Impostor Syndrome, and Me


So the latest kerfuffle on the interwebs: Jessica Williams, correspondent for “The Daily Show,” was put forward by fans as a possible replacement for departing host Jon Stewart.  Williams told fans via Twitter that she would not be hosting, partially because she was “under-qualified.”  A writer for the Billfold then accused Williams of being a victim of “Impostor Syndrome.”  I’m not going to get into the whole thing, but this Salon article spells out what happened pretty well, and it has links back to the original Billfold article and Williams’ Twitter responses.

Upon reading this, my thoughts were:

1) HOLY SHIT, JESSICA WILLIAMS IS ONLY 25?!?!?  She just seems so incredibly mature and self-possessed during her segments on “The Daily Show” that I never would have guessed.  Many of the 25 year olds I know can barely use a microwave without supervision.

2) I don’t blame her for being pissed.  The Billfold article is very condescending, and it puts the onus on Williams to ensure that “The Daily Show” breaks the white male monopoly over late night–rather than putting the onus on Comedy Central to look beyond white male comedians for Stewart’s replacement.  Basically, it implies that Williams is not intelligent or self-aware enough to know what’s good for her, and good for her career.  All she needs is a pep talk?  Yikes.  In fairness, the author has since conversed with Williams on Twitter and apologized for the article, and she now seems to get why it garnered the reaction it did.

3) What exactly is Impostor Syndrome (which I keep wanting to spell as “Imposture Syndrome”)?  Let me read about it.  And read some more on Wikipedia, the source for all things everything.  Do I have that?  Do I feel like my success has more to do with luck than professional competence?  Was I just in the right place in the right time?  Do I feel like I might be exposed as a fraud?  Do I demean or belittle my successes?  Do I stop myself from going for things because I think I’m not accomplished enough or skilled enough to get them?  No, I never do that!

Except…when I do.

I’ve gotten to the point in my day job where I feel confident and secure in my abilities.  When I change jobs, I always have this moment of anxiety where I worry that I might not be able to pull it off, but I’ve always been of the “fake it ’til you make it” mentality.  But when it comes to my writing, I’m not there.  At all.

I have been writing fiction since I was six years old.  I have literally been writing stories since I had the ability to string sentences together.  Now here I am, on the verge of achieving one of my biggest dreams–becoming a professionally published author–and my mind is swirling with doubts that I don’t deserve to be at the grownups’ table.

I was speaking to Robert Peterson, my editor over at California Coldblood, yesterday.  I made a self-deprecating comment about how I needed to “make my case that I deserved to be here.”  Bob responded with, “Beth, of course you deserve to be here!”  He seemed aghast that I would even think otherwise.

Except that I can’t help but think about how long these rewrites are taking me.  A real writer should have been done a long time ago.  And how many times I have hated this book, and wanted to throw my computer out the window.  How much I’ve wondered whether I even could finish the rewrites.  How much I have wondered whether I have the capability of building an audience, in this social mediated landscape where authors are expected to really connect with their readers.  Whether anyone is even going to like the book once it’s out there.

Long before this publication deal materialized, long before I even wrote The Demon Within, I often held myself back from submitting manuscripts to publishers and agents.  I often tried to push myself to do it, with a little success–but not as much as I would have liked.  I just couldn’t do it.  My mom could never understand it, kept pushing me to do more, but it came down to a few things: I didn’t think I was good enough, and I feared rejection.

I didn’t get my publishing contract at California Coldblood because I spent months or years in the slush pile.  I knew Bob professionally long before any of this came up.  I was the Book Editor for CC2Konline–a pop culture website Bob founded–for five years.  Bob and I talked a lot about our own fiction writing, and Bob gave me a beta read of The Demon Within about three years ago.  After Bob founded California Coldblood, and it became an imprint of Rare Bird Books, he contacted me and asked me if I would be interested in publishing The Demon Within with them.

I know, logically, Bob didn’t reach out to me just because he thought I was a cool person; he reached out to me because he had read my writing, and he felt it would be a good fit for his company.  He believes I have a good story that will sell well.  I can also attest that he has not gone any easier on me because he knows me.  He can be a tough editor.  He’s pushed me hard, and the rewrite process has been harrowing at times.  But he’s also helped me make the story better and stronger than it ever was before, and for that I will be forever grateful.

Logically, rationally, intellectually, I know all this.    I’m not “lucky” to know Bob, to have a contact in the publishing world; I know Bob because I took a professional opportunity years ago that I thought could be good for my career–and it was.  I didn’t do anything that anyone else isn’t capable of doing.  And yet, there’s this part of me that feels undeserving because I didn’t go through a process that every writer hates, that many of them would give up their firstborn child to avoid.

I think this is probably a common phenomenon among creative types, and I think (and my reading has confirmed) that it’s more common among women.  As women, society teaches us to minimize our talents and skills, that guys won’t like us if we outshine them, that our accomplishments aren’t really worth as much as our ability to look pretty and attract a high-status mate.

I’ve been very lucky in that I never got this message directly from my parents.  In fact, I think they both would have been horrified to know how much I still denigrate myself.  “You can be anything you want to be,” they always told me.  They allowed me to dream, and in doing so, enabled me to become the person–and the writer–I am today.  But the world, society, exists, and it has affected my outlook whether I want it to or not.  (And certainly, there were plenty of other people along the way who basically told me that I should give up such childish dreams, as if I wanted to be a fairy princess or a unicorn.)

I don’t know that there’s a solution, and I’m not looking for sympathy.  It is what it is, and I’m speaking about it because I know I’m not the only person affected by this.

Jessica Williams may not have Impostor Syndrome, but I do, but the hell with it.  The hell with all those timid voices in my head and belittling thoughts.  I have Impostor Syndrome, but I’m following my dreams, anyway.

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