I have a note hanging above my desk, one that I wrote a while back to remind me to write. Dear Heidi, it begins, because I like to talk to myself gently, as though I am a good person, deserving of tender treatment, as though my feelings about how I’m spoken to matter. I can edit any of the words you write, it continues, even the awful ones.
But I can’t edit any of the words you don’t write, it concludes, a stern-enough nudge to put pen to paper. The note ends with a soft closure, as if it were a hinge that had a brake on it to keep from slamming, I love you, Heidi. Some days when I read the note, I wonder if the last line is written to me or from me, not that it matters.
My friend Mike Allen gave a talk on writing, and one of the things he mentioned in his talk, a wonderful practical and practicable List Of Things I Would Tell My Younger Self About Writing is something I repeat often: “you can add three sentences to any work in progress.” I wrote that down. I underlined it.
You can add three sentences to anything. This is true. I’ve used this approach to get through everything from last-minute cover letters and applications to a whole master’s thesis.
You can add three sentences to anything. This isn’t just good advice about writing, although it certainly is that. This line alone was worth the time and price of admission, a simple reminder that is spot-on advice for everything. It speaks to my kind of procrastination; it looks me in the eye and doesn’t let me get away with anything. Did you add three sentences? it asks in its dispassionate voice. Did you try? I fear facing this cold internal assessment more than any review board, judge, jury, or interview panel. My ability to diminish the value of both my efforts and my results is without peer.
There is not an iota of space in my identity that has not been convinced that it was not only weighed and measured but found wanting. This is crushing, but it has an unintended side effect: it’s absolutely liberating. I don’t fear failure; I understand that it is a forgone conclusion. Therefore, since everything I do misses the mark, I’m free to fail in whatever particular fashion suits me at the moment, from ballroom dancing to making noodles from scratch to writing.
Within this libertine exploration of failure, though, I found a shyness, a reluctance to put my failure on display, fearing that if I don’t have everything polished up and gleaming that I can’t let anyone see my efforts. This is rooted, I’m told, in imposter syndrome, the belief that I’m not as good as I’m putting forth, that I’m not qualified to do anything as sophisticated as, say, breathing and that if anyone knew how incompetent I am, they would make me stop immediately, shoo me out of the building, revoke my access and slam the door behind me.
What’s funny is that my imposter syndrome isn’t really about being competent; all the degrees and certifications in the world don’t put a dent in my behind-the-curtain belief that I don’t belong. My fear is that I am unlovable. Actually, I’m not afraid that I’m unlovable; fear requires the possibility that it might not be true. I’m aware of my unlovability as a stone-cold fact.
What I’m afraid of is that you will discover that I’m unloveable, and this is why I have imposter syndrome, because I’m posing as a person who is real, who is whole, who is worth love, who deserves compassion and friendship and trust. Competence is the screen I hide behind, hoping that if I do things well enough, do enough things well enough, that you won’t look at how I fail to measure up as a person. I hang degrees over the cracked plaster of my self-esteem.
I hide my imperfect offerings and attempts, fail to turn in less-than work, knowing that the real sin in imperfect work is worse than wasting your time; it is that I am a waste of space. I am bargaining with you, you see; I want to offer you my so-called perfection as compensation. It’s a bargain you didn’t ask for and one I can’t fulfill – there is no such thing as perfection.
But then I remember, mostly because I have it hanging on a note on the window that I like to look out of when I get that uncomfortable feeling inside, fearing that I don’t really have anything to say, and that, even if I did, it wouldn’t be worth reading, and that, even if it were, no one would want to read it, and, even if they did, then they wouldn’t like me, or, worse that what I wrote would be evidence of what a horribly and thoroughly unlovable person I am.
In moments like that, I look out the window.
I breathe into my failures: past, present, and future.
And then I write.