Last time: Stumbling Towards Beauty (or: A Love Letter to George Saunders)
“What's talent but the ability to get away with something?” -Tennessee Williams
One of my biggest fears, my reoccurring nightmare, is that a person who I haven’t seen in decades will show up at the college where I work. Maybe it’s someone I waited tables with or someone who knew me when I sold greeting cards at the mall. Whoever it is, this unnamed imagined person knew a different version of me.
They knew me as a college dropout (maybe taking the occasional night class at the community college as she struggled to pay rent) and a ship without a rudder (another way of saying that I was aimless, that I stayed out too late and woke up on random couches). The old Penny: messy, silly, and shallow. Not smart enough to hack it in college.
Either way, in my dark fantasy, an unnamed person shows up in my office building and all my current coworkers are there, too. My present self—me as a writer, a college professor, a wife, and mother—suddenly collides with my past. (Don’t ask how all these people ended up together in the same space; anxiety doesn’t need logic to grow.)
The person who used to know me yells, “Penny? A professor?” They laugh in disbelief. “No way. You must be joking,” they say. “Let me tell you about the Penny I know…”
From there, the story could twist a few different ways. Mostly, I picture how my colleagues who know me as Business Casual Penny/ Anxious To-Do List Penny suddenly realize the one thing I’ve been trying to hide all along: that I don’t belong here. I don’t fit in. I’m not qualified and I’m certainly not smart enough. I should never have been let in the door. Me teaching college students? Me in academia? No.
You must be joking.
If this is what Imposter Syndrome looks like for everyone, well, thanks for welcoming me to the club. I remember one of my teachers warning me that this might happen before I went to grad school. It happens more to women, I think she said.
I mention all of this now because the academic program I help direct is closing. I’m still employed at the college where I work, but the other role I’ve taken on (along with the oversized office and Big Important Title) is coming to an end. To call it a mess is an understatement. It’s also another level of loss I didn’t see coming. The short version: budget issues. And even though I know the closure of this program isn’t my fault, I can’t help but blame myself. Talk about Imposter Syndrome at its finest.
Recently, at the Unforgettable Characters and Incredible Journeys (UCIJ) Virtual Writing Retreat hosted by author Ralph Walker, the writers in attendance discussed Imposter Syndrome. Most of us at the retreat had experienced this feeling before, that sense of not being good enough or smart enough or talented enough. I’ve been thinking about it ever since.
I’ve especially thought about how Maya Angelou (!) once said, “I have written eleven books, but each time I think, ‘Uh oh, they’re going to find out now. I’ve run a game on everybody and they’re going to find me out.”
Let me say this: if so many of us are hanging out here feeling like we don’t belong, no wonder we’re all so tired. It’s exhausting wearing “work clothes” that feel like a costume and a smile behind the mask (the figurative mask not the literal mask we’ve been wearing the last two years).
Note: the entire UCIJ Retreat was amazing and I’ll write more about it soon, once I get through final exams. In the meantime, follow Ralph Walker on Twitter to learn more.
And because I’m still processing my workplace grief, I don’t have any answers or smart lessons about Imposter Syndrome to share. Mostly, I wanted to share my newest flavor of academia-related despair and invite others to chime in. There are stories all over the country about low enrollment, budget cuts, and worse.
I hesitate to say more about my current experience for many reasons, so I will settle with a gentle reminder to myself (and whoever else needs to hear it) that it’s okay—even healthy—to acknowledge every kind of loss.
This is where my Teacher and Bookworm selves come out to play. At the bottom of (almost) every new post, I’ll share what I’m currently reading and offer up a writing prompt if you feel so inclined.
Note: I’m an affiliate of Bookshop.org and earn a commission if you click through and make a purchase.
Writing Prompt": Rewrite the Ending
Remember a time when your Imposter Syndrome flared so badly it hindered you from doing something you wanted—entering a contest, creating something new, applying for a job, etc.
Now, after you sit with those memories for a bit, retell the story of what happened. This time, though, change the ending. What if you hadn’t let self-doubt stop you? What if you tried and succeeded? What if you failed? What would that look like?
Don’t just think about it. Write it down.
I know this can have the effect of feeling like one of those hollow self-help, motivational exercises but it’s an exercise in writing, too. Experiment with point of view, for instance, especially if you want more distance between you and the memory. Try to write about yourself in third person (Penny went to the store. She forgot her wallet. Again).
You might also try writing in a different form—a poem, a short story, a song, etc. This kind of writing prompt doesn’t have to feel like a diary entry unless you want it to.
Penny will be writing her version over here, too.
Every role you have played has been important… even the one you think was a bit of a slouch. All of them have converged into who you are today, and they are helping you to help others belong. It’s your super power, and you don’t need a big office or title to use it.
Glad I stumbled upon your substack. I've been reading a lot of people just sort of "bleed on the page" lately, and I continue to feel like it's the true art form of writing. You seem to do it well!