Guest Aimie K. Runyan: The Author’s Curse: Imposter Syndrome

“So what do you do?”  A well-meaning grey haired gentleman asked me at my husband’s office holiday party. I took a moment to become very interested in my glass of mediocre Prosecco.

I loathe the question. It’s a loaded one, and even when given with the best of intentions. People ask what you do with your waking hours in order to pass a value judgment. I am often tempted to give a smartass answer. I mean, I do a great many things; I look after my kids, I bake a mean focaccia, and, not to brag or anything, I do a better than fair job of converting oxygen into carbon dioxide.

For a long time, my knee jerk was to tell people about my day job teaching French. People understand it, and I’m a fan of a tidy answer. Then I transitioned to writing full time, and the simple question “what do you do?” caused me to sweat in my palms. In truth, I spend more time stopping my children from sticking pebbles in their noses and running out the door without clothes than I do writing on any given day, but as an honest answer to the question, housewifery is not ‘what I do’.

So why was it hard for me to answer the question honestly and say “I am an author”? It’s called Imposter Syndrome. Though I was a paid author with an actual book deal, I had a hard time owning it. In part, it’s because I have spent three decades venerating writers and what they do, and never thought I could join their ranks. I hadn’t planned on writing as a career, I dreamed about it. I took a few creative writing courses in grad school and wrote the occasional short story, but I never sent my work out. I loved the idea of writing, but I wasn’t a writer.

But then one day, when my daughter was four months old and finally getting longish stretches of sleep, I pulled out the best short story I’d written from my grad school program ten years before. I knew this was only the first chapter of what could be a great book. So I sat, every day from two to five in the afternoon while the kiddos napped, and wrote. I brought my Canadian mail order brides to life three hours a day, five days a week. More, when I could manage it. And after five months or so, I had a draft. A really awful one. But I started a big project and finished it. Then I edited it. Then I edited some more.

At that point I had to decide of this was a hobby or career, so I invested some money and attended a certain writing conference (*cough cough* RMFW) and set out to learn more about the industry. I took a terrifying step and let my little book out into the world so it could meet some agents. I became very good friends with the word no. And guess what? I became a writer.

But because I felt unworthy, because I wasn’t Jane Austen, Margaret Atwood, Philippa Gregory, or even the chick who wrote the Sweet Valley High Books, I always told people I taught French. This is crap. I had bled on the page and was willing to work to make my book better. I opened myself up to criticism and listened—taking advice when it was warranted. Most importantly, I sat my butt in the chair every damn day and got in my words. I was a writer.

If you’re wondering when the magic moment is when you can claim the title “author”, that’s it. The day you commit to finishing a project, polishing it, sending it out, and accepting the results that follow is the day you can call yourself a writer. You don’t need an agent, a fancy New York publishing contract, or even a paycheck, (though these are all very, very nice things to have).

I was a victim of imposter syndrome, and was selling myself short. By not shouting my passion for writing from the rooftops, I was silencing potential dialogues with potential future readers. I was shooting my own career in the foot, and I came to realize what I was doing. To mitigate the issue, I step out of my introverted shell and talk about my work. I got business cards with my social media information and pass them out when people express interest—even waiting for the curtain at a Broadway show in New York. My bank teller now knows way more about 17th century Canada than she ever wanted to know.

I urge you to the same. Get people enthusiastic about your work—it tends to be contagious. No one is going to knock on your door with a gold star badge engraved with the word “author”, cool as that might be. You have to bestow the title upon yourself and wear it with pride.

So, that night, despite the sweaty palms and feelings of inadequacy, I looked up from my Prosecco, looked the nice gentleman in the eye and I said “I’m a writer.”

And you better believe that’s what I am.


aimieAimie K. Runyan is an author of Historical fiction whose purpose is to celebrate history’s unsung heroines. Her debut novel, PROMISED TO THE CROWN, the story of three women sent by Louis XIV to help colonize his Quebec colony, releases in April, 2016 from Kensington Books. She has also published a short work of science fiction in the BRAVE NEW GIRLS anthology (all proceeds go to the Women in Engineering Scholarship Fund). She lives outside Denver with her loving husband, adorable children, and cowardly sheepdog.

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11 thoughts on “Guest Aimie K. Runyan: The Author’s Curse: Imposter Syndrome

  1. It is much easier to call yourself a writer once you have a publishing contract, though. Otherwise people assume it’s a hobby. Also, people who aren’t writers don’t understand how slow this business is. I wish I hadn’t told my coworkers I was looking for an agent because after I sent out a couple queries, they asked three days later if I’d landed an agent yet. Really? (It took two and a half months to land my first agent). This is a funny and true article, however!

  2. So true, Theresa. For those outside the industry, the process can be baffling. Worse is that most people only attribute value to financial gain, and won’t take you seriously until they see the cash. BUT the first step is taking YOURSELF seriously. Everyone else will fall in line later. If they don’t? They’re not someone you need to confide in about your writing.

  3. People make snap value judgements. If you say you own a fruitstand, you drop several notches in their esteem compared to their reaction if you owned a well-known grocery store. So, we answer that we’re writers, and they ask “what do you write?” and we say novels, and they say, “oh, I love novels” and want to know the names of several. When we tell them, we drop several notches in their esteem because they’ve never heard of them. It’s easy to let their reaction define us.

  4. This is a universal truth. Saying “I’m a writer” sometimes feels like bragging, but it’s just a statement of fact, and we need to think of it that way. Thank you for putting this out there, Aimie.

  5. I always back-pedal. “I’ve written a book. Yes I have a contract – but it’s not a living wage.” OR. “It won’t win a literary award, but, you know, it was really fun to write.” OR: “Here’s my card. That’s the cover. But you don’t have to keep it.” And I tuck the card back into my purse.

    And I can’t tell you how many people think my debut, the book I told them would actually hit the shelves, has come and gone. The timeline from sale to shelf – a year and a half in my case – is hard to explain. They just figure it was a flop.

    Great post, Aimie!

    • The lead time is completely baffling to a lot of people. My husband included. I tend to just explain how many books are in line and how it all works. It’s a complicated business, but a great one!!!

  6. Boy does this resonate. Despite having 11 books published, two more coming out by September and a contract for two more I still tell people I’m a marketing communications manager (my day job.) My husband is the one who brings up my books while I cringe in embarrassment. I’m going to practice saying “I’m an author!”

  7. A beautifully written post, Aimie! I’ve been in the business for a long time and am on the downside of my writing career, so I’ve been through all of this insecurity stuff. And of course it’s still going on. At this end, I feel I have to apologize for not being as prolific as so many of my friends, which bothers me much more than not being as successful as some of them.

    There is one response to the, I am a writer, admission that I do enjoy. It’s the look of admiration that comes with the comment, “Oh, I could never do that.!” I never know how to respond, but the feeling that someone thinks you’re special is comforting.

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