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.

the creative process, writing

Best of the Blog: My Top 10 Most-Viewed Posts of 2020

Insert “hindsight is 2020” pun here to launch this list of the top-viewed posts on this blog in 2020.

As it turned out, some of my most popular posts in 2020 weren’t actually written during the past year. For the sake of completeness, I’ve included these in the list – they were quite popular this year – but I’ve also marked them with an asterisk (*) to indicate they were written at some time prior to 2020.

I’ve also left off pages, like the “About” page, because they are…not blog posts.


*10: If You Like It Then You Shoulda Put a Paycheck On It: My Real Problem With The Mighty

Written for the #CrippingTheMighty hashtag campaign in the mid-2010s, this post hits right at the intersection of two topics that are near to my heart (and life): Paying creatives, and recognizing disabled people’s work has value.

I don’t mean some intangible “all human lives have value” value. I mean recognizing disabled people’s lives have value in the only real language of value the capitalist world has: Cold hard cash.

You can read about my issues with the fact that “disabled voices” website The Mighty decided to invite disabled people to contribute to its site but not to pay them here.

*#9: Top Five Books for Figure Skaters

This post will be ten years old in June 2021, which means it’s due for an update. And by “update,” I mean I’ll be adding more books to it, because I still believe that the five listed here stand the test of time.

This post gets pushed into the top-searched posts by the advent of the winter gifting holiday season every year. I guess there just aren’t that many gift guides for figure skaters who also read.

Check out my top five recommendations for figure skaters here.

*#8: “Happy Birthday” Is the Worst Song Ever Written

I wrote this in 2019 because I hate the song “Happy Birthday.” You know the one. The one we all sing off-key at people when it is their birthday, not because we are all horrible singers (I am, but not everyone is), but because a song specifically written to be sung by anyone, anywhere, several times a year, is such a hot mess that it is practically unsingable.

I hate it. I hate it with the fiery passion of a thousand suns. Here’s why.

#7: The “Tea Party” Is Back, But It’s Not on the Side You Think

During the Black Lives Matter protests of the summer of 2020, I got so heck-dang-frack annoyed with people comparing the protests unfavorably to the Boston Tea Party that I did a little research on the Tea Party.

Turns out that if you’re rooting for the Sons of Liberty on that one, you’re…er…on the wrong side of history.

Angryclick my controversial opinions on the topic here.

*#6: How Much Is My Girl Scout Handbook Worth, Part One

I wrote this post about a decade ago, when collecting Girl Scout handbooks was my Thing.

And, in true ADHD fashion, I then promptly forgot about the entire series. I didn’t write Part Two until 2018.

The Internet has not, however, forgotten that at one time I tried to help folks navigate the collecting of Girl Scout handbooks. This post and a couple other posts in the Girl Scout handbooks series regularly show up in my “most-viewed” stats, and there’s always at least one search term related to Girl Scout handbooks in the mix every month.

You can read Part One here and Part Two here. Check out the posts on 1912 to 1947 and 1950 to 1977 too, if you’re into that sort of thing.

*#5: Using Brodart Book Covers: Or, How to Protect Your Investment in 6 Easy Steps

Another post from the early days, in which this blog spent far more time thinking about book collecting and less time on freelance writing, fiction, writer lifestyles and silly AI antics.

This one is pretty much exactly what it says on the tin: I walk you through how to put Brodart dust jacket covers on your dust jackets. Check it out here.

*#4: Keeping the Pace: Legal Writing Versus Academic Writing

I wrote this post during graduate school, exploring the differences between the legal writing I had been doing as an insurance defense lawyer and the academic writing I was being asked to do as an English literature MA candidate.

It’s also one of the most consistently-viewed posts on this blog. It’s also one of the posts that most often leads people here via search engine: “differences between legal and academic writing” and variations thereon appear in my top search terms nearly every month.

You can read what I was thinking about legal versus academic writing half a decade ago here.

*#3: Five Reasons I Hate Les Miserables (The Show, Not the Book)

I wrote this piece in a fit of pique nearly ten years ago, and it’s been one of the most enduring pieces on this blog. For some reason, hatred of Les Mis strikes a chord with viewers across time and space.

You can check out the five reasons I hate Les Mis (the show, not the book) here.

#2: How to Practice Social Distancing Without Losing Your Mind

I’m something of an old hand at social distancing, having grown up on a farm with parents even more introverted than I was and gone on to have a loner’s dream job of working from home on my laptop and (almost) never speaking to other humans.

When the pandemic began, I shared my tips on how to live this life. They’re still being passed around various social media sites, and you can read them here.


Before we get to the top blog post of the year, here are a few that didn’t make the top ten but that I’m particularly proud of or otherwise love:

  • How to Ruin Perfectly Good Books: If you don’t want to ruin them, do the opposite of this.
  • So You Want to Write a Book About Autism: I co-founded Autonomous Press, which handles books about neurodivergence, including autism. Here’s my advice from the perspective of someone who used to approve (or, often, reject) manuscripts about autism.
  • Notes From My Upcoming AWP Recording Session: This post hasn’t had a chance to make it into the top most-viewed posts, since it’s only been up for about two weeks. I recently recorded a panel discussion on “Neurodivergence in Literature” with several colleagues. Here’s what else I would have said if we’d had several more hours.

And, finally, the most-viewed post on this blog in 2020:

#1: What It’s Like to Have Auditory Processing Disorder, as Demonstrated By Auto-Generated YouTube Captions

This post was my most-viewed of the year not only here, but also on Medium, where it was shared in at least one publication.

I wrote it after trying to watch old reruns of BraveStarr (I wanted to see whether it was a real cartoon, or just a fever dream I had during the chicken pox) with YouTube’s auto-generated captions running. I needed the captions because, having central auditory processing disorder, I struggled to understand what several of the characters were saying.

YouTube, as it turned out, struggled as well.

The result was a sample of what listening is like for me on a daily basis. You can read this blog’s top post of the year here.

Help me bring you even better content in 2021! Leave a comment, share this post, or buy me a coffee.

satire, fiction and humor, writing

How to Be an Aspiring Writer

There are I-don’t-know-how-many books, blogs and other resources for people who want to know how to become a writer. This blog even has a post or two on the subject.

What’s sorely missing, however, are any guides on how to become an aspiring writer.

Works on writing are for people who are already aspiring to become writers. They’re not much use for those who are aspiring to aspire to become writers. One has to walk before they can run, of course.

The demand for guides on “how to become an aspiring writer” is surprisingly high. I see two or three versions of that question cross my Quora feed in an average week. Yet these valiant souls, who aspire one day to aspire to write, get completely overlooked by an industry that’s, apparently, only interested in reaching those who have already begun the aspiration process.

So: If you’re dreaming of someday being the kind of person who dreams about writing a novel, a screenplay, a memoir or a collection of poems, here’s the guide for you.

Acquire the Necessary Aesthetic

Most of the energy cost of being an aspiring writer is spent on maintaining a “writer aesthetic.” This makes sense; after all, the most important part of being an aspiring writer is to look like one.

One’s aesthetic is about more than looks. It’s an entire lifestyle approach that communicates to the world, “I have Lofty Thoughts, which I might someday Write Down in the form of a Book.”

As a newcomer to the adventure of writer aspirations, do spend most of your time cultivating your personal aesthetic to live like you imagine a writer having deep thoughts about nature and the human condition would live.

Here are a few places to start:

  • Clothing. Dress the way you imagine a writer dressing when that writer is the kind of writer you want to be. If nothing comes to mind, opt for dark/muted colors, turtlenecks, and berets. Avoid jeans unless you have no choice or you’re going for a “working stiff by day, poetic genius by night” vibe.
  • Diet. To be an aspiring writer, it is of course absolutely essential to consume only the food, drink and substances that the writer in your imagination would consume. Be realistic: You can’t actually live on coffee, cigarettes and hard liquor, but you can certainly incorporate them into your public consumption and/or find convincing alternatives. Attention to consumables is essential to properly fuel the aspiring writer within.
  • Haunts. I’m going to guess that the writer in your imagination doesn’t do anything so mundane as work in an office or pick up the dry cleaning. You may still need to make money and buy groceries while you aspire to write your bestseller, but that doesn’t mean you need to be seen in those places any longer than necessary. Work on spending your free time in places you imagine writers would frequent, like coffee shops. Just remember that these places need to be public. After all, the point of being an aspiring writer is to be seen aspiring.
  • Interests. As an aspiring writer, your primary interest should be, of course, writing. But every writer needs something to write about. Cultivate an appropriately aspirational hobby, like collecting Victorian hair jewelry. If you’re short on funds, “observing the human condition” is a classic aspiring-writer hobby that costs nothing.

Need a shortcut to a full-on writer aesthetic? Look up “dark academia” on Pinterest. What you’ll see is pretty much just my life, but better, for the kids have made it an Aesthetic.

Read Book(s) on Writing

As the huge selection of books, blogs and articles on How to Write makes clear, there’s a huge market for writing advice. Who consumes this advice? Aspiring writers, of course!

To make the transition to a full-fledged aspiring writer, then, you’ll need to read at least one book on writing. It’s best to make this book a fairly recent classic that other people have actually heard of, and that has no unseemly words or phrases in its title, no matter how good the content it. (Sorry, Chuck Wendig.)

When in doubt, reach for a book like Stephen King’s On Writing or Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird. Neither book will help you be a better writer unless you actually write, but that’s not your goal. Your goal is to be able to quote the book you choose as if it is the Scripture of your new religion: the Church of Aspiring to Write.

(You will meet members of rival churches. Be patient with them. Their benighted ignorance is not their fault. Lead by example, so that others may aspire to write as fervently as you do.)

Start a Piece (But Don’t Actually Work On It)

Finally, aspiring writers always have a piece in the works – but they don’t actually work on it. Or if they do, the work consists of anything except actually putting words on paper/screen.

Here’s the great secret of writing: Everything ever written got that way by someone putting down words, one after the other, until the piece was finished (or abandoned). But you don’t want to be a writer; you want to be an aspiring writer. And aspiring writers don’t write; they dream of having written.

To convince skeptical audiences, however, you’ll need to at least start a piece. Decide what you’re going to write, then create a title page. You don’t have to love the title. You don’t even have to have a title; you can call it “My Novel” or “My Screenplay.”

Write this down on a piece of paper, then put that piece of paper away somewhere and forget about it. Like a law degree, it’s only there so that you can inject it into conversations in order to score points: “I’m writing a screenplay.

You should, of course, strenuously avoid actually writing the screenplay. Go read another book on writing, or refresh Twitter, or Observe the Human Condition. Really, anything except putting words down on paper/screen.

Because if you start putting down words, you might become an actual writer – and nothing ruins a career as an aspiring writer faster than becoming a real one.

What’s your advice for becoming an aspiring writer? Leave a comment, share this post, or buy me a coffee.