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.

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.

satire, fiction and humor, writing

What It’s REALLY Like To Be A Professional Writer

The number-one question I get asked by people who find out what I do for a living is “What is it like to be a writer?”

And I…I don’t know.




Which is to say, sure, let’s talk about my amazing writer lifestyle.

I Work From Home

This one was a lot more impressive before COVID-19. Now, a bunch of people who did not previously work from home are now working from home. And everyone is realizing that it’s actually not as cool as y’all dreamed back when you were trying to envision yourselves living my unattainably glamorous writer life.

The primary features of working from home for me, A Writer, are:

  • Cats
  • Self-direction, aka “being able to get work done without someone breathing down my neck”
  • Not wearing pants

I’m Kind of My Own Boss, I Guess?

The truth is, no one who sells their labor for a living is their own boss. You may call your boss by a different name than “boss.” I call mine “clients” or “editors.” But I still have people who expect me to deliver certain things by certain deadlines and who are varying levels of helpful to me in that endeavor.

What I don’t have is someone to manage the details of how I deliver those things by those deadlines. I don’t have anyone who expects me to be at my desk at a certain time, or who makes sure I have the tools I need, or who barks at me if I stand at the water cooler too long. I don’t have someone who processes my payroll or deducts my taxes or keeps track of my healthcare spending, either. I have to do all those things myself.

In other words, being a professional writer is having to do all the work of both labor and management without getting any of the benefits of being the latter. But if you are a hermit slash control freak (like me), it’s an ideal setup.

“You Should Be Writing” Memes Can Go to Hell

Judging by how much they post and share “you should be writing” memes, a lot of amateur or aspiring writers seem to find them extremely helpful.

I’m not one of them.

The reason I don’t take “you should be writing” memes seriously is because my writing time is scheduled. Always. I write for about six hours a day – four in the morning and two in the evening.

If it’s writing time, I don’t need to hear that I “should” be writing, because I am writing. If it’s not writing time, I don’t need to hear that I “should” be writing, because I should not be writing – I should be doing whatever that time is for, like running errands or cleaning my house or playing Skyrim or having hot sex with my spouse.

This, by the way, is my number-one piece of advice for aspiring writers who want to be actual writers. Schedule your writing time, and then show up to it like you would to any other obligation.

If you don’t need “you should be at work during your shift” memes, you don’t need “you should be writing” memes, either.

I Eat Food, I Guess?

Food has actually been one of the hardest parts of being a full-time writer for me. I like my zone. I do not like interrupting my zone to tend to the needs of my body, especially when it wants food again, ugh, I just fed you *checks watch* four whole hours ago.

Some of my favorite food hacks:

  • Eat the same things every day, if you want. It significantly reduces the brain power I have to waste on food.
  • Think macros, not meals. As long as I get carbs, fat and protein in every Instance of Putting Food in My Facehole, I’m good.
  • Leftovers are your friend. Eat your friend.

Sometimes I get more creative with the making of food items. Sometimes I blog about them. Blogging about food generally leads to regrets and is not recommended, unless you are not me. Then you do you.

I Mess Around on Twitter Quite a Lot

To the onlooker, I appear to mess around on Twitter too much. Indeed, one may wonder how I get any writing done at all. (This is why people insist on sending me “you should be writing” memes.)

In fact, I do a lot of prewriting and field-testing of ideas on Twitter. I love Twitter because I can brain-dump whatever ideas I’m kicking around into the void, and the void tells me which ones have traction.

I don’t know why you all enjoy 280-character political shitposting so much, but here we are. Also muffin recipes. And that time I broke my own notifications. And making fun of my cats.

I Live in a House and Own a Car

Like a lot of Americans, I too live in a house and own a car.

The car is extremely lonely thanks to the need to quarantine. “Why am I stuck in this garage?” my car asks. “I’m not the one who will get COVID and die if I leave the house.”

If you also live in a house and have a car, congratulations! You are two steps closer to living a glamorous writer lifestyle just like me.

If you don’t live in a house and/or own a car, maybe you are one of those writers who doesn’t live in a house or own a car. Those writers also exist!

Have more questions about what it’s like to be a writer? Drop me a line or maybe a tip. After all, I glamorously require money to buy food in order to survive! Livin’ the dream!