Am I a real writer?

The ubiquitous struggle of writer imposter syndrome and how to overcome it.

Katie Odom

6/17/20234 min read

I'm a new writer to fiction. I had written personal essays - like for school assignments or applications - letters, and eulogies. But not since I was a child had I engaged in the complex task of building a fictional world and populating it with colorful original characters. I tried my hand at writing fiction as an adult November 2021. I saw a prompt on that gave me a burst of inspiration for a short story called "Minotaur" that after several revisions I renamed "Memories of Mother."

After that, I had the bug to write. It didn't matter so much what I wrote, I had a caught an itch that could only be scratched by putting words on paper. Almost as soon as I felt that fever, a chilling thought would douse my enthusiasm: I'm not a real writer, only pretending, and sooner or later other people would catch on.

I signed up for newsletters from sites that gave tips and prompts for writers, joined the local writing group Women Who Write Louisville, and sporadically wrote. I found that if prompted by an upcoming writing group meeting, or an event like a creative convention, it wasn't too hard to start putting words together on the page. But when life felt too full with its demands - family, work, stressors like wedding planning and starting a new job - it was all too easy to write off writing. I didn't have a regular habit, had never had work published, and never made money from it. I'm an amateur if anything, not a real writer, I told myself.

Women Who Write Louisville, whose motto is "a place, a space, a voice," was a wonderfully supportive group that turned out to be great for someone like me: a woman new to the writing world. If a new person is present in the meeting, they take turns introducing themselves, and I felt intimidated hearing how some of the women had novels and work published in big name publications. When it was my turn I would say, "I like reading science fiction, and I haven't had anything published. I just started writing."

Members started saying things like, "Oh, she's a great writer," or "It's a treat when she reads," that were uplifting. It encouraged me to put my work out there more, and I started submitting stories, for instance on the platform Submittable. As any writer knows, that's an invitation for rejection, and no one gets anything published without a slew of them.

Once, the group was swapping stories about their writing journeys, and I announced I didn't feel like a real writer since I wasn't published. But I had three rejections under my belt, and many more in the offing since I had submitted to several places. To my surprise, there were cheers! I was assured it was great that I was trying, and some said they wished they were submitting as much as that. Rejection never feels good, but it's becoming more of a neutral occurrence. I can proudly say my rejections number in the double digits with more to come.

But the biggest surprise was that every time I mentioned not feeling like a real writer, I heard without exception that no one does starting out, and maybe not even after a few successes. Maybe they've were published, but hadn't been compensated with money. They've written a series of novels, but can't find an agent or publisher after having sent query letters. They're self-published, which isn't the same as being traditionally published. All of these I heard, and I would think I had achieved even less than these people who were discounting their accomplishments.

It was at Imaginarium 2022, at the very first panel I went to at noon Friday, that I heard a phrase I would repeat ad infinitum to myself: all you have to do to be a writer is write. The presenter was Elizabeth Donald in a workshop titled "So You Wanna Be a Writer." That evening the keynote speech given by John DeDakis was "Facing Your Fears," where he expounded on the vulnerabilities of creating, the pitfalls of fear. While writing is a mostly solitary endeavor, there is a lot to be said about plugging into the writing community. I can't say enough about how important it was to hear those messages early on.

It's normal to feel like you aren't living up to your identity as a writer, dismiss your successes, and feel like an imposter. It's all too easy to fall out of the writing habit and say you're not a writer anymore, if you ever were one to begin with. You may judge yourself by hard standards, they might even change the minute you meet them. Worse, you might feel that judgement from other people. But as soon as you write, you're a writer.

I have goals that I think would help move my writing forward: being paid for something I wrote, completing the first draft of a novel, and becoming a published author. The pie in the sky goal is if I ever made as much or more than my current salary from writing. Maybe then I could dismiss all doubt that I really am a writer.

I recently read an essay to my mom about her late mother and asked for feedback. "You captured her so well," my mom gushed. "You should be a writer."

All I could do was laugh, hug her, and say, "I am, Mom! I wrote that. Isn't that what writers do? They write."