Impostor Syndrome and Art

Like any artistic, counter-culture, bisexual girl that grew up on 90s music, I am a fan of folksinger Ani DiFranco.  I’d even go so far as to call her a role model, so I jumped at the chance to see her in concert with my best friend.

When she strummed the opening chords to the first song on her new album, the crowd roared its approval.  A few people even shouted over the din that it was a great song.  

And Ani spoke back to them right from the stage, incorporating it into her patter.  Yeah, it was a good song, she admitted.  But she wasn’t sure if it should have been the opening song to the album.  After all, it wasn’t that good.  

My friend turned to me after that remark. “Wow,” she said.  “Ani sounds just like you.”  

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Impostor syndrome is a topic that I’ve skirted for a long time because it’s so hard for me to talk about.  It’s basically feeling like a fraud all the time.  No matter how well you do, you don’t internalize that success.   You always find ways to doubt your self-worth: maybe this time you just got lucky.  Maybe this time people didn’t notice you were faking it.  I have those feelings in spades.  

See, I don’t feel like a real model.  I know that modeling is how I pay my bills, and I know that it’s the profession listed on my tax returns.  I know that I’ve created literally thousands of images, and that a lot of people even like some of them.  But I’m constantly looking over my shoulder, waiting for somebody to tell me it was all a mistake.  That I’m too old, curvy, and unattractive to be a real model.  That the images I’m proud of were just luck, and I don’t really know how to pose.  That I’m just not that good.  

I am convinced that somebody is going to find me out someday, but how much I worry about it varies.  Sometimes I laugh at myself for even thinking it, but other times it seems like an inevitability.  

On one of the recent bad days, my boyfriend made a suggestion.  Why didn’t I write a letter to a “real” artist and ask if they felt like one? Chances were they wouldn’t respond.  But it couldn’t hurt, and it might put my own impostor syndrome into perspective.

Ani was the first person I thought of.  I even started drafting the letter to her in my head.  But I quickly realized that I already knew the answer: she’d told me from the stage.  She thought her work—the work that had inspired me, the hundreds in the screaming crowd, and thousands of her other fans—wasn’t that good.  

So I thought about other artists that I admired.  Amanda Palmer, who has such a relationship with impostor syndrome that she’s christened the term The Fraud Police.  Her husband Neil Gaiman, who said in one of his speeches that he was worried a man with a clipboard would come to the door one day and tell him he needed to get a real job.  And of course, there are the countless fellow models I’ve talked to who’ve worried about whether they were actually “making it” or not. 

My boyfriend’s point was made: I was definitely not alone in my impostor syndrome fears.

Knowing that it wasn’t just me really did help.  It didn’t cure me, but it made a compelling case that my fears were unfounded.  When my doubts got particularly bad, it gave me something to fall back on.  And it made me think about other things that have helped as well.

Interestingly, this blog has done more for making me feel competent than any modeling ever has.  I realized that I’d been modeling professionally for six years.  But I’ve felt more like a “real” model by writing essays about it, and I couldn’t figure out why.

When I’m making art, there’s always a gap between what I’ve made and the experience of making it.

I think that it’s because when I'm making art, there’s always a gap between what I’ve made and the experience of making it.  The audience feedback that I receive on my modeling images is always on the final product, and never on the process.  Which is arguably how it should be, but it does leave a space for impostor syndrome to flourish.  It gives me a chance to think too much.  Maybe I’m doing it wrong.  Maybe I just got lucky this time.  

Writing about it directly helped bridge that gap.  Other people related when I talked about the process of modeling, and the behind the scenes of being an artist.  It made what I experienced feel more real.  It turns out that I don’t just need feedback on my art.  I need feedback on how I make my art as well. 

Talking to an editor or a friend about the process helps bridge the gap, too.   So does having fellow artists relate to what I’m going through. Normally I can’t compare processes, only final products. My process often feels forced, and it was refreshing to hear that was true for others as well.

If all else fails, it really helps to know I’m not alone.  I think about that Ani concert a lot now.  I think about it every time I start to believe that maybe my work isn't that good, or that I’m not that good.  And I try not to let that stop me from putting it out there anyway.