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“And I felt a bit better. Because if Neil Armstrong felt like an imposter, maybe everyone did. Maybe there weren’t any grown-ups, only people who had worked hard and also got lucky and were slightly out of their depth, all of us doing the best job we could, which is all we can really hope for.”
― Neil Gaiman
As creatives, many of us struggle with the feeling of being an impostor. We might think our work is just not good enough to share. We might compare ourselves to our heroes and despair at how far we fall short. Or we might struggle just to start for fear of facing our own shortcomings. We might ask ourselves, “Who are we to take up space in the universe when there are so many more eloquent, more skilled, more talented people out there?”
The dancer and choreographer Martha Graham has some great things to say on this subject:
“There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all of time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and it will be lost. The world will not have it.”
It’s a great quote, eloquent and inspiring. The problem though is that if we’re not careful, we can misinterpret those words in a kind of self important or entitled way. We might think, “If my unique expression in the world is imporant, all it takes is putting myself out there and I’ll see results!”
The problem is, chances of success in the most visible and obvious external ways is very low for artists. When we start to put our work out in the world, we are inevitably met with indifference. No one sees our work but a handful of friends and family. The evidence we see easily overshadows our intial inspiration and we stop creating, unmotivated to keep going because we feel as if there is no point.
And that’s where the second part of the quote comes in. It’s the part that doesn’t get quoted as often, but I think it completely transforms its meaning:
“It is not your business to determine how good it is nor how valuable nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open. You do not even have to believe in yourself or your work. You have to keep yourself open and aware to the urges that motivate you. Keep the channel open. … No artist is pleased. There is no satisfaction whatever at any time. There is only a queer divine dissatisfaction, a blessed unrest that keeps us marching and makes us more alive than the others.”
The second half of this quote informs us that our expectations about becoming famous or even making a living at what we do are misguided. The world does not “need” our work in the sense that it will no doubt continue as it has always done without us. It may well never be important to anyone else that we’ve shown up and spent all of the hours practicing our craft, searching our soul for that particular turn of phrase or stroke of the paintbrush.
It doesn’t matter. She tells us that it is not our business, it is not our job to decide whether or not it’s good enough. What is our job is to be true to ourselves, to speak clearly and learn to articulate that which is unique within us, and whether or not the world gives a damn is not our problem.
To be an impostor is to be a fake. To try to meet some standard that someone else has set. If however, we take Graham’s advice seriously, we can shift our focus from external forms of success to keeping “the channel open”.
If we can learn to focus on pursuing our own authentic voice as our primary concern, then thinking of ourselves as impostors no longer makes any sense.
Cool and useful things by other people
Here is Neil Gaiman’s post from 2017 where I pulled the quote up top from. He has this lovely little anecdote which many of you may already know, but it’s such a helpful thing to remember that even highly successful people feel the same things we all do. Maybe even moreso!
Julian Shapiro’s “Guide to Writing Well”is a short, free, and a very clear headed guide to structuring the writing process. Julian has a great frame for non-fiction writing as a kind of therapy. The idea is that you start with something that is a problem you want to solve. You then use the task of writing to work that problem out and then share what you’ve learned. This makes it less a vanity project and puts it more into the realm of personal exploration, which I always find to be much more rewarding because no matter how the written piece performs in the world, you will at the very least grow as you write it.