Cursive Letters: Imposter Syndrome


This might be a bit beyond your reach as I suspect this is a deeper self-esteem issue, but anyway…

I have such a case of ‘Imposter Syndrome’. I find it really hard to believe that my work is any good at all. I thought that it would go away once I was published, but I can always seem to explain that away (got lucky; they didn’t have anyone better; they took pity on me as a friend/emerging writer, etc). I find myself not applying for prizes or submitting to publications because I’m so intimidated by the competition.

You’d think this would be enough to give up completely, but writing is a compulsion and a really important part of my identity. Without it, I lose who I am, in the midst of parenting and housework and budgeting, and the mundanity of the daily grind.

Will I just have to close my eyes, grit my teeth, and press ‘send’, while trying to ignore the (very loud) voice telling me I’m a fraud? Or can you advise on a way to get over this, so I can enjoy the small successes I’ve had?

Many thanks,
Despondent Writer


Dear DW,

Have you ever shoplifted something? The trick of it is to convince yourself that you truly deserve the item you’ve just slipped down your pants (or so I’ve heard). That way, you can walk out of the store with untouchable confidence. People use all kinds of intellectual processes to get there, from the personal (‘I have had a shit life and the world owes me’) to the political (‘this corporate megastore is fucking everybody over; property is theft’).

There was a movement for radical subjectivity in the late 1960s, aligned in some ways with liberationist struggles, and a result in other ways of Romanticism, which posited individual self-expression as inherently radical and a source of great revolutionary strength. Unfortunately this tendency was slowly absorbed into a neoliberal narcissism, with the individual posited as inherently selfish. The energy of self-expression feeds the market, and the self is both consumer and product, endlessly being renovated to nobody’s satisfaction. People who don’t like this tend to respond either by diversifying identity categories faster than they can be absorbed, or by attempting to check that rampant individualism with personal ethics. I think as artists it’s worth circling back and restoring the creative power of the individual to its radical status, but incorporating the things we learned on the way about the intersections of privilege and oppression that make that individual possible and/or meaningful in various contexts.

What I’m saying is: identity is complicated and self-belief is not just your responsibility. Like other resources, it’s distributed socially, and unevenly along race/gender/class/sexuality/body type/citizenship (etc) lines. Which is not to say that every cis white male automatically has an excess of it, just that the social context we live in offers that subgroup of humanity way more opportunities to express their self-belief without punishment or interruption. A simple analogy might be that society brings the sun and water and increasing supplies of carbon dioxide, and we bring the plant. There are some people who are more likely to need to learn how to believe in themselves later in life in order to thrive; I propose that a study would reveal this coincides quite neatly with those who will need to learn how to shoplift at some point.

I’m not inciting you to a life of crime here, but inviting you to look at your experience of self-doubt as the result of broader social tendencies. Unlike the Violet Crumble nestled in the lining of your jacket sleeve, what you perceive as a crime – the fraud or identity theft you feel you are committing – can easily be turned into a non-crime, simply because the opposite of what you believe is already true. Your identity as a writer already belongs to you. You have as much right to be here, and as much right to a voice, as anybody else. We live in a society where that’s not something that’s said to everybody. So I’m saying it to you now.

Once you recognise the problem as systemic, the solution also stops being only about you. When you use some of your energy to encourage other people to participate in their own creative expression, you’ll stop seeing other writers as competition and start seeing yourself as part of a movement towards expanding the abundance and diversity of human expression. You enjoy success by using it for good. And that’s much bigger and more important than some pesky little voice in your head.

PS Nothing is beyond my reach.



Dear Cursive Letters,

Of late I have become despondent about the growing trend that sees literary journals not sending rejection letters to authors whose work is unwanted for publication. As a former literary journal editor I took pride in making sure every contributor received a response to their submission, even going so far as to deliberately send out rejections before acceptances in order not to delay the bad news any longer than necessary for those who were unsuccessful.

On a couple of occasions I have submitted work for consideration and then contacted editors after the designated period after which it is suggested that it be assumed that the contribution is unwanted, in order to elicit a direct response in the negative. I gave this up after a couple of goes, realising that it just made me seem kind of crazy and pushy.

In the face of this apparent disregard for the disrespect inherent in demurring from contacting unsuccessful contributors, which seems to be saying ‘we only want to talk to the people whose writing we like’, it is difficult to then contact said journals and put forward suggestions for ways that they might respond to rejected contributors with more tact and sensitivity without coming across as even more of a nutter. Adding a few lines about ‘when I used to edit journals …’ is clearly no help in these situations.

That said, I am still dismayed by this lack of professionalism and sensitivity to the plight of authors waiting for affirmation of their talents. I know that Overland is diligent and efficient in its responses to contributors, both positive and negative, but I wondered whether you had ever encountered a journal that only sent out acceptance letters, or whether you had any thoughts of your own on the matter.

Yours sincerely,


Dear AF,

You’ve almost answered your own question here. Yes, you’re right, it is annoying, and it happens now and then, even to someone as obviously talented as me. Thanks to more journals using online submissions processes it is physically harder to not send rejections now because you can’t lose manuscripts as often. But it’s still easy for journal eds to look like snobby gatekeepers who don’t want to talk to you, when they are in fact under-resourced enthusiasts who maybe just haven’t got around to sending the endless list of rejections they were supposed to send last week because their cat has a cold, their six-year-old laptop just shat itself, and they arrived to find the cafe corner where they co-work covered in baby vomit.

Writing rejections is almost as dispiriting as receiving them, so it’s understandable that people don’t want to do it. Aside from a professional responsibility, I see it as a moral duty for editors to suffer some of the despondence along with the people whose hard work we’re sending back to the drawing board, but I was raised Catholic.

The tendency not to say no is part of a bigger flaw in publishing: the tyranny of awkwardness. Because everyone in publishing spends more time with books than people, we are mostly badly socialised nerds. Even many normal people prefer silence to having to say no, especially if they never have to see the other person’s face, and this is true of many cultures. It’s the same trend which sometimes results in writers absentmindedly agreeing to do things they assumed they would be paid for, and then discovering they wouldn’t be when it’s too late to ask. It’s really up to the editor or commissioner to be honest about it from the first email.

I think it’s very rude to offer editors unsolicited professional advice – it can come across as mansplaining, and that is a great way to get yourself written off as a crank. But it’s certainly worth politely asking an editor or a journal for a clear yes-no answer or when you might expect one when they’ve been dragging their feet on a response. The key word in that sentence is politely – there’s a difference between asking and pushing. And do take into account Mills’ Law of Publishing Time:

t(AR) ≈ 2t(DR) + 2w

To estimate the actual response time, take the declared response time, double it, and add two weeks.

The worst thing that can happen is they will keep ignoring you.


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Jennifer Mills

Jennifer Mills was Overland fiction editor between 2012 and 2018. Her latest novel, The Airways, is out through Picador.

More by Jennifer Mills ›

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