Impostor syndrome

Some creatives suffer from Impostor Syndrome. It’s a very real problem, and it’s always fascinated me, because I have no trouble with it at all.

Neil Gaiman, in the commencement speech which I reference frequently, said:

The first problem of any kind of even limited success is the unshakable conviction that you are getting away with something, and that any moment now they will discover you. It’s Imposter Syndrome, something my wife Amanda christened the Fraud Police.

In my case, I was convinced that there would be a knock on the door, and a man with a clipboard (I don’t know why he carried a clipboard, in my head, but he did) would be there, to tell me it was all over, and they had caught up with me, and now I would have to go and get a real job, one that didn’t consist of making things up and writing them down, and reading books I wanted to read. And then I would go away quietly and get the kind of job where you don’t have to make things up any more.

It’s different for me. I prefer to act the impostor. If I had taken the “proper” route to becoming an author, I probably wouldn’t be set to publish a book right now, because there are a thousand hoops I would have had to jump through. Instead, I ignored them all.

Act as if is something I learned from my older brother, and there’s comfort in it. When you act the impostor, it doesn’t matter who you are—all that matters is what you do. It’s all an act, it’s all a scam, and the trick is not in deserving it, but in keeping it going for as long as possible. You don’t need to get the credentials to do what you want to love. You just do it.

A world of black and white is scary to me. I’d rather dance in the grays. I’d rather have the flexibility to do what I want to do, rather than jump through hoops to “deserve it”. We’re all getting away with something, no matter what kind of success we have. Shaming ourselves for not deserving it is madness.

If the man with the clipboard ever comes to my door, I’ll flip him the bird, run away, and try again. Because the impostor is never totally beat—there’s only the next game.

Save it for your daydreams

I once was talking to a young writer—I say young, though he was probably around my age—who watched anime, just as I do. We were talking about the stories we were working on, and at one point, he began tell me about his grand designs.

He wanted it to be an anime, done by this studio and with these seiyuu. He could see a live-action movie as well, and described how some of the special effects would look. He thought it could then make the leap to TV, and wondered how the story would have to be changed to fit that medium.

That’s when I stopped him. Okay, that’s a lie—I didn’t stop him at all. I probably changed the subject because I didn’t know how to respond. Allow me to indulge in a little l’esprit de l’escalier, and tell you what I should have told him then.

Whoa. Slow down. You’re getting ahead of yourself. If you’re writing a novel, focus on that. If you’re drawing a webcomic, focus on that. Bend your energy toward making what you’re doing right now a success, rather than expending all your energy looking forward.

And as for the movie or the TV show, save those for your daydreams. Save them for when you’re talking a break after a hard day of work, when you lean back and imagine “what if?” That’s fine. Daydreams can propel us forward, and be a pleasant indulgence after all our effort.

Then get back to work. No amount of looking to the future can make your dreams come true if you don’t do the hard work of taking the first steps right now.

Delusions of importance

“Don’t you think that that’s why we ended up here [on TV]? It takes a slight delusion … to believe that what I have to say is worthy of people sitting there and paying money to listen to.”

“That seems natural to me.”

“It does to me too, but I don’t think it seems natural to everybody else.” -Jason Segel and Stephen Colbert, The Colbert Report, 9-9-14

I’ve always thought it was the height of arrogance to want to write. Who am I to think that what I have to say is so great that people should stop and listen? What gives me the right? Why am I so amazing?

I’m not. I’m nobody. No one gave me the right. It’s ridiculous to expect people to listen to me, and it’s more than a little arrogant. It’s unreasonable.

But it’s the unreasonable man who changes the world.

You’re not good enough

I remember reading an article some time ago about how men and women approach new job positions. It said that while women waited until they were 100% qualified, men would jump at a new position when they were only 60% qualified. Men figured they would learn the rest once they were on the job, the article explained.

I don’t know if that’s true, and it’s a generalization regardless, but if it is I think men have it right this time. If we all waited until we were 100% qualified before jumping in, a lot of great work would never happen—because for many challenges, you’re never ready. Sometimes you just have to leap.

And the truth is, you usually rise to the occasion. That’s how it’s been for me. You jump in, and it’s sink or swim, so you pour everything you have into the challenge … and more often than not, you figure it out. You swim.

My older brother always told me to never apply to a job I’m qualified for. Aim higher. I know that’s worked for him as well. So that’s two data points, at least.

Yes, you’re probably not good enough to do what you truly want to do. Yet.

Do it anyway. Jump in. Leap. You’ll rise to the occasion, or fail attempting the remarkable. Either one is a win in my book.

Flawed genius

I’m always on the lookout for flawed genius. Rather than solid perfection, I prefer the crazy, quirky, and niche every time.

I stole this term from Paul Barnett of Mythic Entertainment, who was discussing his (late) game Warhammer Online, and its rival World of Warcraft:

“I believe WoW is a work of flawed genius. When you dismantle [these works] you can never be sure whether you get genius or flaw.”

I once evoked this in the finale post of Sakurasou na Pet no Kanojo, and though my prose is awfully unpolished, the sentiment stands.

What flawed genius is, to me, is a work with all the quirks left in. There’s a tendency—especially among business types—to sand down all the edges, in the hopes of broadening the story’s appeal and making it accessible to as many people as possible.

That’s the absolute worst thing you can do. There’s a word for something palatable to everyone, and it’s average—and average slides into mediocrity awfully fast. A work of flawed genius is one that dares to push away some so it can delight others. It’s a particular taste, even an acquired taste, but when you’ve got it, it engenders nothing but love. It’s a story all the greater for its flaws, because those are what make it feel real.

Characters are like this too. Flawed characters are more compelling than perfect characters, because we can relate to them. It makes them feel real, to know that they too have their imperfections, just like us. So it is with stories—the flawed ones are all the more compelling, because they echo our own flawed lives.

Technically perfect but artistically void KyoAni quasi-originals. Paint-by-the-numbers gunmetal gray and military brown AAA video games. Blockbuster movies focus-grouped into mediocrity. These have no soul, so even when they’re enjoyable, they dribble out of the mind and melt away. They’re pleasant pastimes at best, but they have trouble being more.

But flawed genius stays with you. They’re usually the work of one passionate individual, who channeled the unique them into a work only they could create. They are the stories that, when they strike a chord, change the way you view the world.

Striving for perfection isn’t a bad instinct. Every artist should try to produce the best work they can. But it should be their best work, not the Frankenstein’s monster of other works they’ve seen sell before.

Artists steal, but they shouldn’t steal something because it’s worked before. They should steal because they love it, because it calls out to them, and because incorporating it into their own work will improve it for the better.

Tell your own story. Leave the eccentricities in. Remember that true geniuses are always flawed. But most of all, don’t sand down all the corners. To some people, those corners will be the most interesting part.

Steal like an artist

Among certain circles, I think there’s too much focus on the unique. It’s nearly a fetish. “I’ve seen it all before” or “This is just like ______” are not the dirty words some imagine them to be. They’re the result of a creative truth you may not be aware of.

Artists steal. Artists steal all the time. Any artist who tells you she doesn’t is lying. There’s nothing new under the sun, but there are new combinations of what’s been seen before. And often, what you think is original isn’t; nine times out of ten, you just don’t know the references involved.

If you’re an artist, or would like to be an artist, or would like to understand artists, read Austin Kleon’s Steal Like an Artist: 10 Things Nobody Told You About Being Creative. Check it out at your local library—hopefully it’s there.

Real artists steal. We take ideas from anyone who has ideas worth stealing, and we weave them together into something totally our own. Go watch any Quentin Tarantino movie; you may notice that all the elements he uses have been used before. But what he does is combine them in a way that only Quentin Tarantino can. That’s what makes something unique—it’s not the ideas, but the execution. It’s in the combination that something new is born.

This isn’t an excuse to phone it in. The obvious aping of something successful in order to cash in on what’s worked before is poison to good storytelling. But you don’t have to be utterly unique to tell a good story, nor should you look for it in the works you enjoy. To do so is to reject the wealth of ideas lying around us, and the wonderful stories that can be woven from their cloth.

Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different. The good poet welds his theft into a whole of feeling which is unique, utterly different from that from which it was torn.” -T.S. Eliot

Unique is overrated. Look for good instead. Not everyone can make that distinction, but it’s an important one.

Disorganized ≠ creative

Recently, one of my bosses referred to one of my colleagues, a salesmen, as creative, in comparison to me.


This happened last week, and I’ve barely stopped drinking whiskey and slamming my head on every available surface since then.

I don’t talk about my writing or blogging at work often, because frankly, I don’t care for most of my coworkers. The ones I like know about both, because I’m not ashamed of the things I love. But to be called less creative than this salesman, who rarely thinks more than one sale ahead…

In truth, I understand why my boss said what she said. There are many kinds of creativity, and this salesman is creative in a highly specialized (and highly profitable) way. That’s where she could have been right.

But that’s not why she said it. She called my colleague creative because he’s disorganized, whereas I am not, and excuse me while I get the whiskey I need to drink this crippling misunderstanding away.

Listen carefully, my friends: disorganization does not equal creativity. Do you know what disorganization equals? Disorganization. Not very helpful, but true. It’s not a sign of anything but itself, and even if creatives are more likely to be disorganized—which I don’t buy, at least among the successful ones—correlation not implying causation.

Being organized, like being creative and most other skills, is a choice. It’s a choice my colleague has never made, whereas I have. In my pursuit of writing fiction, I had to—otherwise I would never get anything done. But because my colleague is talented, he never had to make that choice.

Disorganization does not equal creativity. If you think it does, you’re wrong. Both are choices, and what choices you make will determine how successful you will be in your chosen endeavors, creative or not.