I was already crying when I walked into my capstone professor’s office. An outline of a senior research paper was due that day, and I had nothing to show for it. I was ashamed. Years of simmering anxiety, of turning in every paper convinced it was the worst thing I’d ever written, had morphed into a paralysis I didn’t yet understand but believed was caused by my own incompetence.
Inner monologue, today. Why are you writing about this? You’re barely being coherent.
My professor was gracious and willing to extend the deadline. “Do you at least have a topic picked out?” she asked. I mumbled that I was interested in researching imposter syndrome—when people feel like they don’t belong in their academic or work environments, are certain of their inadequacy.
She raised an eyebrow, reading between the lines about why I picked the topic. “That’s pretty meta,” she said with the perfect blend of compassion and humor, and I laughed for the first time in a while.
You just picked this topic because you couldn’t think of anything better to talk about. This won’t be nearly as good as the last thing you wrote.
I didn’t write on imposter syndrome in the end. I couldn’t bring myself to read any more about an experience I was already living. Eventually the depression cloud lifted and I was able to turn in a decent paper. But despite my improved mental health today, I still feel that profound self-doubt when it comes to writing.
It’s strange because I have confidence everywhere else. I finish a painting and know it looks great. I finish a job interview certain that I nailed it. But every time I submit a piece of writing I’m sure it’s dull, cliché, a waste of space.
People who read this are going to think you’re fishing for compliments, like that teenager in Mean Girls who says she wants to lose five pounds and then waits for all her friends to say “No, you’re perfect!”
I find myself erasing paragraphs from my drafts in which I apologize for writing it at all. “I’m sure I’m not the first person to say this, but…” I think of every other person who’s probably made the same point ten times more eloquently. No matter what good feedback I received on my last piece of writing, I’m sure that this next one will expose me as a fraud.
Now you’re just humble-bragging, pretending you don’t think you’re talented so you look even better.
Creating is always personal (what an astute observation!) but sharing my writing feels like the ultimate risk. If I finish a painting that doesn’t look great, then my acrylic blending skills just need work. If my singing goes off key, I just need more training. If I write a bad personal essay, though, I must not be an interesting person. I have no compelling observations. My self is not worth sharing.
How many articles are already on the post calvin about this same thing? We’re all nervous about our writing; everyone else just deals with it.
To cope, sometimes I self-destruct by procrastinating so that if my writing turns out badly, it’s because I ran out of time, not because I’m not good enough. Or I’ll brainstorm and revise so obsessively that I become preoccupied by everything I should have done. I should have made this edit, addressed that idea, acknowledged a different perspective, fleshed out this character.
You’re using vulnerability to mask the pointlessness of this essay.
I read an article once about a concept called the coastline paradox. That is, because of the fractal, meandering nature of a coastline, it’s impossible to accurately measure its length. It gets more complex the more you zoom in, which led to one federal source measuring the United States coastline as 19,000 miles and another to measure the same land as 30,000 miles. And in fact, if you use a small enough measuring stick, technically a coastline can be infinitely long.
Sounding smart can’t save you from being a hack.
Writing makes me think of the coastline paradox. I have an essay I’ve been working on for hours, days, weeks. The changes and revisions can go on infinitely, but at some point I have to decide that it’s close enough to what it needs to be. If I think too much about the inches of coastline I’m missing, I’ll forget the miles I’ve already covered.
Hack, hack, hack.
Listening to my inner critic can drive me to do better quality work, but I’m learning to tune it out when it makes me afraid to create anything in the first place. Clicking that button and submitting something I’ve created for others to see is an act of bravery—even if I am a hack.
This is the worst thing you’ve ever written.
I’m pressing Send.
Laura graduated from Calvin in 2015 with a degree in art and writing. She currently lives in Madison, WI, sharing a house with two other Calvin grads. She works as a software support analyst for the State of Wisconsin court system and enjoys painting, rock climbing, biking downtown, and walking her dog.