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Feeling Like a Fraud
by Moira Allen
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Do you ever have thoughts like these? Do you, in the dark of night, whisper them to your pillow, or scrawl them in a locked journal? Do you occasionally confide them to other writers? Have you, perhaps, even whispered them (if e-mail can be said to whisper) to me?
If so, you're probably assuming that the opening lines of this editorial came from a writer much like yourself. Probably, you're thinking, some other reader has written to Your Intrepid Editor with a question much like that which haunts your own thoughts: "Why do I feel like such a fraud? When will I feel like a 'real' writer?" And, indeed, Your Intrepid Editor has read similar statements in other writers' newsletters, blogs, and, yes, personal e-mails.
But I did not stumble across those lines in the newsletter or blog of a writer "much like myself" or, perhaps, "much like yourself." (OK, I'm making an assumption about you - I can only say with confidence that this writer is, statistically speaking, not so much like me.) They did not arrive in a heartfelt e-mail from a struggling writer seeking to affirm his or her identity.
OK, enough suspense. The person who wrote those lines was none other than Terry Pratchett (A Slip of the Keyboard). Now, if you already know the name, little more need be said. If you do not - Terry Pratchett is "currently the second most-read writer in the UK, and seventh most-read non-US author in the US" (Wikipedia). He's actually Sir Terry Pratchett, having been knighted in 2009 for "services to literature." He has sold over 85 million books worldwide.
Well, all right - even someone who goes on to sell 85 million books and receive a knighthood for literature probably had doubts early on, right? Um, probably. But Pratchett didn't write those lines back in the early 1980's, when he might indeed have wondered whether Discworld would "catch on." He wrote them in 2004, when, by his own estimation, he'd sold 45 to 50 million books (and was already an OBE, if not yet a knight). Yet he could still say, with complete sincerity, that he felt like a fraud.
My first thought was that if, after 50 million books, Terry Pratchett could feel like a fraud, what hope was there for the rest of us? For I do, indeed, hear many writers say the same thing - including writers whose productivity makes me feel as if I must be spending most of my days in a hammock sipping daiquiris. So why do we (and I do mean "we") feel this way?
I'm sure therapists could have a field day with the question. For myself, however, I believe the feeling stems from two inter-related causes that are common to nearly all serious writers.
The first is an inborn love of books. Chances are, you're a writer because, first and foremost, you are, and have always been, a reader. You may not even remember a time when you didn't love books. Perhaps you can remember not only the books that meant the most to you, but even where you were when you read them for the first time! I can still remember the first time I read Mary Stewart's The Hollow Hills, or E. Nesbit's The Railway Children, or Tolkien's The Hobbit, or the way my sister and I practically fought over the right to be the first to read the latest James Herriott. More importantly, I can still remember the feelings of wonder and amazement and - for lack of a better word - expansion - that these books evoked. Reading was sheer magic. If you know what I'm talking about, I don't need to explain it; if you don't, there's no way that I can explain it.
The authors of such books seemed to me, and I suspect to many of us, to be scarcely less than gods. How could mere mortals create such worlds, such magic, such wonder? Books took us by the hand and led us places we had never gone or even imagined, opened our minds to ideas that we could never have conceived alone. They didn't simply change our lives; they molded our lives.
As we took our own first fledgling steps as "writers," that view of "authors" as distant, godlike beings with amazing powers never left us. We might, if we were lucky, meet the "greats," and perhaps gain an autograph - but live and walk amongst them? Hardly! "Real" writers, "real" authors existed in some distant galaxy. They were not common clay like us.
Herein lies the first problem. Think for a moment about the book that meant the most to you at some point in your life, a book that you'll always keep on your shelf - perhaps a book you don't even need to read anymore because you have it stored in your heart. Think for a moment what it meant to you and why. Now... Imagine yourself being the author of that book. Imagine that it was you who created those words, those worlds - you who made such a difference in the lives of your readers.
Not so easy to do, is it?
Now for the second root. Because we admire "real" authors so much, most of us have sought avidly for any bits of advice, nuggets of information, or pearls of wisdom that such authors might cast in the paths of humble would-be writers like ourselves. And many authors do like to dispense advice. This one write out scenes on 3x5 cards. That one gets up at 5 a.m. every morning and writes 500 words before breakfast. Another has a rule of writing a certain number of words every day, no matter what. One keeps a dream journal; another carries a tape recorder everywhere. Over time, we build up a mental picture of what "real" writers do - and what, perhaps, we don't.
Meanwhile, we go through life acting like everyday humans - scratching, sneezing, scooping the cat litter, and, quite often, writing stuff that makes us think perhaps we would have been better suited for a high-tech career in ditch-digging. Whatever we do, we know we're nothing like the idols who shaped our lives through the books we adored. And if we're nothing like them, how can we be "real" writers?
Of course, there are plenty of would-be writers who don't share these feelings of angst in the least. There are those who have scarcely read a book, and pay little heed to the advice offered by "experts." They are also, quite often, those who pay little heed to such trivial matters as grammar, punctuation, spelling or plot - but as they often point out, that's what editors are for! Based on some of the e-mails I receive, however, such writers have no difficulty convincing themselves that they are "real" writers (their main complaint generally being that they haven't, thus far, been able to convince anyone else).
If my theory is correct, then, what gets in the way of "feeling" like a "real writer" is a lifetime of being a "real reader." It's the avid, "don't stand between me and a book" reader who harbors these impressions of authors as being larger than life, impossibly greater than thee and me. But notice that I used the word "feeling" in that opening sentence. Being a "real reader" may, indeed, help keep one from "feeling" like a "real writer." It doesn't prevent one from actually being one.
If Terry Pratchett can sell 85 million books and get knighted without feeling like a "real" writer, then it seems to me that perhaps I don't have much to worry about. "Just get on with it," I suspect he'd say. In fact, it's rather liberating to realize that, at the end of the day, I don't actually have to "feel" like a "real writer" at all. It doesn't matter. Because Pratchett has taught me one more thing about "real" writers:
Real writers, quite often, feel like frauds!
Moira Allen is the editor of Writing-World.com, and has written nearly 400 articles, serving as a columnist and regular contributor for such publications as The Writer, Entrepreneur, Writer's Digest, and Byline. An award-winning writer, Allen is the author of eight books, including Starting Your Career as a Freelance Writer, The Writer's Guide to Queries, Pitches and Proposals, and Writing to Win: The Colossal Guide to Writing Contests. In addition to Writing-World.com, Allen hosts VictorianVoices.net, a growing archive of articles from Victorian periodicals, and The Pet Loss Support Page, a resource for grieving pet owners. She lives in Maryland with her husband and the obligatory writer's cat. She can be contacted at editors "at" writing-world.com.