Tuesday, September 04, 2012

The Fraud Phenomenon

I had a very, uh, "interesting" time (as we like to say here in Minnesota) at WorldCON this year. I spent a lot of the con feeling like a complete fraud, partly because of the nature of being a writer and because of the star-power that WorldCON attracts.

Many years ago, I was on a panel at a different convention, WisCON, about the phenomenon of "feeling like a fraud" that a surprising number of writers experience at all levels in their careers.

Of course, there's the "I haven't published anything yet, I feel like a fraud" problem, which I was reminded at this convention because my friends, and fellow Wyrdsmiths, Naomi Kritzer, Harry LeBlanc, and I had a terrible Baltimore WorldCON when we were in that position. It involved always feeling one step behind all the cool kids, and a crazy story in which we were escorted out of the Hugo Losers' Party feeling like the biggest losers on the entire planet (we weren't trying to crash the party, honest! We were locked in the stair well.)

Then, there's the next step on the fraud ladder: "I've ONLY published [one short story, one small press novel, etc.], I feel like a fraud." This is also kind of just a stage in your career, but a lot of people have a harder time here than in almost any other. There's a lot of judging by others at this stage. You're active enough in the business to get ON panels, but then you have to sit there will people who rattle off a list of accomplishments a mile long and, with each one, you feel smaller and smaller and smaller. This can actually happen at any stage. When I'd had my first book out, I had the pleasure/misfortune of being on a panel at CONvergence with Neil Gaiman. It's difficult not to feel like a turd at the foot of a giant in a situation like that. He, of course (like many other super-pros), was massively gracious. But, sometimes you run across those who sneer, "Oh, I see, small press..." etc.

Fraudness continues as you move up, no matter how much you publish or how many awards you win....

In fact, what's tough about the "feeling like a fraud" phenomenon is that Neil Gaiman probably feels it, too, sometimes. I know that, after fifteen published novels, I really should have no cause to feel like a fraud, but I still do. This has a lot to do with the nature of our business. As soon as the contract ends (and often long before the book hits the shelf) a person can feel like an out-of-work layabout. If, god forbid, the next contract isn't instantly forthcoming it's VERY EASY to imagine that your career is over, if only because there's always someone you know in this business for whom that happened. Hence, there's this sense that when I'm not actively writing on a project, I'm some how no longer a "real" writer.

The feeling of not being a "real" writer was intensified for me at WorldCON because all the luminaries of science fiction/fantasy are there (or at least a whole boatlaod of them, at one point, literally--as I was on a boat with a bunch of much more famous writers.) Plus, it's *just* outside of my Fandom (in the captail "F" sense for you kids out there, which means the fannish community to which I belong regardless of small-f fandoms). Enough of the Chicago concom folks intermingle with the Minnesota concom types that I got on panels, but most of the people I ran into at WorldCON not only didn't know me from Adam (hello, Mr. Stemple!), but also didn't know how to pronounce my name (not Tate, the other one.)

That just left me feeling like a complete dope.

HOWEVER, I did manage to have a good time. And, there's a weird thing about me, which is, the more under pressure I feel, the more I perform. So, feeling like a nobody has actually inspired me to get cracking again.


Irfon-Kim Ahmad said...

I think that's common to people in all fields, although certainly some are more susceptible than others. (I think I attended the WisCon panel to which you refer, actually, because I get impostor syndrome hugely, and I'm in IT.) In any case, I also write music and I remember reading a great interview about impostor syndrome in Keyboard Magazine. It wasn't explicitly about that, but wound up being. It was an interview with one of the guys from The Prodigy, who, if you're not familiar with them, are a HUGELY successful band. Aside from their albums and singles having done very well, almost everyone knows at least some of their songs as being "that song from that movie". He described how after their previous album, they'd all been feeling a bit of it, so they distracted themselves by building a new studio out in the country, a project which kept getting extended and distracting them more and more. But eventually it did finish and he went out there for a month to knock out some tracks for the next album, feeling the impostor syndrome creeping up on him the whole time. Even after all the success they'd had, he kept asking himself, what if it was all a fluke, what if he can't pull it off again, what if that was all he had in him, etc.? He wound up spending six months and getting nothing, spiraling further into depression and convincing himself more and more that it was over. Finally, he returned to the bedroom studio in his home, where they'd made all their previous albums, and somehow being in those familiar surroundings, it all came together for him and they knocked the next one out. But he described really well how terrifying that uncertainty was, and how it happens to him every single time, and probably always will, no matter what they accomplish or what recognition they garner. Whenever I'm facing it myself, I try to remind myself of that article, and somehow it serves as some kind of touchstone.

Jon said...

I didn't go to a Con, but I've been feeling the same way lately, like the universe is rubbing my nose in it. I think we all have our ups and downs, but you keep at it, right? After all, what's the other option? A permanent day job? Screw that.

tate hallaway said...

Yes, to both of you. Irfon-Kim, I'm absolutely any professional artist (as defined broadly) feels imposter/fraud syndrome from time to time. And, yeah, Jon, there really ain't nothing for it, but picking yourself up and going at it again and again.

(Incidentally, Jon, do you read Manga? A weirdly inspirational one for writers is BAKUMAN, which is essentially about how hard it is to be a writer with all the Japanese enthusiasm of "DO YOUR BEST!!")

Juli Hoffman said...

Thanks for sharing this. I passed this link on to some of my other writer buddies. You are not alone. Everyone feels this way from time to time. Everyone.

If it means anything, I enjoy your writing. You write with humor and do it in a way that's both entertaining and realistic. That's not easy when your playing with witches, and vampires, and the boogie-man... Oh my! :) Writing books that entertain is nothing to sneeze at. If everyone could do it, they would. Not every book HAS to be an epic saga and not every writer knows how to wield humor effectively. I've recommended your books to some of my friends. I don't think you're a fraud. :)

Take care!

Jon said...

I have, but not a lot. I'll have to check it out. Thanks.

tate hallaway said...

Well, thanks, Juli. I do appreciate knowing people like my work, but, what's weird about the fraud phenomenon is that even hearing that doesn't always help... it's kind of one of those weird emotional rollercoasters that, as you say, most writers experience from time to time, not unlike the I'm a genuis/I suck phenomenon of sending out stories and getting rejections.

I'm over my fraud stuff, btw, since part of my feeling like a fraud stuff had to do with being AT WorldCON.