The Atlantic vs. My Impostor Syndrome

The day my recent article in The Atlantic ran, one of my fellow writers congratulated me “on landing that pitch.”

“They asked me,” I admitted at once. “My impostor syndrome would never.” I said it jokingly, but it wasn’t a joke.

I’ve tweeted before about how the biggest misconception people tend to have of me is that I’m fearless, when I’m actually afraid of just about everything. If I were a pony, I’d be Fluttershy.

One of the biggest things I feared, before the Atlantic piece, was putting myself in positions where I might get shot down. I feared querying publications in case my best understanding of the things they published was somehow not even in the same universe. I feared editorial feedback because it would surely reveal that I am a fraud who doesn’t understand the basics of the English language. I feared extending myself in any way lest the entire world find out I’m a fraud and kick me out of the Adults Allowed to Do Things Club.

None of these fears, of course, is remotely rational. But it didn’t stop them from lighting up my lizard hindbrain like a pile of old tires doused in gasoline. And that tire fire has burned uninterrupted for my entire writing career.

At least until last week. Publishing in The Atlantic had some interesting effects – including cracks in what I once thought was an impenetrable fortress of my impostor syndrome.

Writing That Atlantic Piece Was Literally Just My Job

I’ve been writing since I was 7 and publishing since I was 17. I co-founded a publishing company. I’ve been an editor in some capacity for at least four publications I can recall, plus probably dozens more I’ve worked for on a freelance basis. I haven’t even tried to count the number of outlets I’ve published in or the number of pieces I have out there (with or without my name attached).

And yet, for some reason, I was convinced writing something for The Atlantic was an achievement I could never hope to attain. Writing this article disabused me of that notion completely.

Writing this piece for The Atlantic turned out to be a surprisingly familiar process. I wrote a draft. The editor sent back notes. I did whatever the notes said and sent the draft back. The editor sent back more notes. After a few rounds, there were no more notes. The piece got sent to someone who wasn’t me, and I turned my attention to making a coherent article out of the next pile of undifferentiated idea-slush on my desk.

This is literally just my job.

This is exactly the same process that my freelance work goes through every week. It’s exactly the same process I go through with my editor on each book. It’s a process I’ve been involved in as an editor and a publisher, so I know what it’s like to be the person sending notes back, as well as the person who gets the piece after there are no more notes.

My impostor syndrome had convinced me that The Atlantic and similar publications occupied some rarefied land beyond the mundane daily tasks of writing, one that would be forever beyond my plebian reach.

It doesn’t. It’s just writing.

I’m Wrong About Everything – Or At Least About Myself

One of the most nerve-wracking things I did post-Atlantic publication was to respond to email and LinkedIn messages from people responding to the Atlantic piece.

These weren’t nerve-wracking because the feedback was bad. On the contrary, the feedback was overwhelmingly positive.

Rather, they were nerve-wracking to read and respond to because the feedback was positive. Because these were people who actually wanted to talk to me. Some of them even wanted to ask if I’d write stuff, for pay, for their outlets or businesses.


(Thank you to everyone in elementary school who pretended to be my friend for laughs. You trained the troll well.)

What the hell am I thinking, answering these emails? I asked myself yesterday, while procrastinating on the task of answering those emails. These people are just going to find out I’m not really as cool and competent as they think!

Then it hit me: Maybe I’m the one who’s wrong about how cool and competent I am. Maybe everyone else is right.

Because it’s not just people who read the Atlantic piece who think I’m cool and competent enough to want to work with. It’s a wide range of people, from folks who know me not at all except what they learned from reading that piece, to the people who know me better than anyone else in the world, like my spouse. Lots of people, with varying degrees of familiarity with me, think I am cooler and more competent than I imagine myself to be.

Maybe it’s time for me to stop arguing with them.

I Still Hate Networking But Now I Understand It Better

The vast majority of the messages I’ve received in response to the article have been pretty standardized. Any of them could have been a template in a book about networking. Hello, here is my name and what I do. I read your article and enjoyed it. Would you perhaps like to discuss this topic of mutual interest?

I’ve never sent these types of messages myself. The impostor syndrome wouldn’t let me. After all, who the hell was I to think anyone would want to hear that I enjoyed their work – much less discuss with me a topic of mutual interest?

Being on the receiving end of these messages, however, taught me a few things about them.

First, they’re not the presumptuously intrusive nonsense I assumed they’d be if I sent them. In fact, they’re pretty easy to ignore if one has the desire to do so. Their impact on my mental health, once I got past the reptile hindbrain response of MY FACE IS MELTING, was actually neutral to slightly positive. I wrote a thing other people enjoyed! Enough to send me an email about it! That’s pretty cool.

Second, they are 100 percent about relationship-building, which means sometimes they go nowhere, and that’s okay. They’re the digital text equivalent of a handshake and a “So what do you do for a living?” Sometimes they pan out and sometimes they don’t, and either way they aren’t really causing harm. They’re also far less likely to transmit COVID.

Now that I see these types of emails as non-scary, I’m also able to see other types of emails as less threatening. Like the “Would you like me to write a piece about this topic?” email, or the “Here’s a story I wrote, publish it maybe?” email.

I Didn’t Know What I Didn’t Know

One of the main reasons I rarely submit short stories to publications, and almost never without an invitation, is because my impostor syndrome took that advice about “knowing your publication” a little too seriously.

You probably know the advice: Before you submit, read a few issues to get a feel for the kind of work they publish. Apparently, my impostor syndrome thought “a few issues” meant “entire back catalogs,” because I rarely felt like I knew a publication well enough to submit to it.

When it comes to writing sci fi and speculative fiction, my particular hobbies, I felt especially lost. What kinds of things do sci-fi and spec fic magazines accept? What are they looking for? Whoever shall solve this, the greatest mystery of our age?

(The fact that I co-founded a press that specializes in spec fic and edited a volume of its flagship spec fic series is not lost on me. Nor is the irony. Behold the awesome power of impostor syndrome to obscure even the most obvious facts from rational consideration.)

Since deciding that queries and submissions were probably just as not-scary as networking emails, I’ve looked up a few publications that might be a good fit for the kind of writing I enjoy. And I discovered something:

I could tell what kind of work a publication did by looking at the lists of authors it published.

That’s what years of making friends with people whose writing interests are similar to mine has done for me. That’s the result of heading up Spoon Knife 2 and getting to know the authors who go through AutPress. That’s how much I actually understand about this business.

I still read the stories, because I loves me some spec fic. But I found that I could predict pretty accurately what the oeuvre would be before I even opened the (digital) covers, because I already knew many of the authors.

As it turns out, I know quite a bit more than I thought I did. I certainly don’t know it all – the day I do is the day I need to quit writing – but I’m not the pathetic, ignorant sad sack my impostor syndrome convinced me I was for so long.

If I had my way, I wouldn’t need food to live – but alas, I am a meat being. Please help me eat food and keep writing: Share this post or buy me a coffee.


1 Comment

  1. William says:

    I came across your piece randomly online (The Life in The Simpsons Is No Longer Attainable). I felt I had to find a way of contacting you to tell you how great this article was. I am 29 years old from Glasgow, UK and loved the Simpsons growing up. Using Homers paycheck and other snipets from the show to compare to life now was genius as much as it was depressing.

    Kindest Regards


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