“Wondering how you (Mike and/or others) have managed feeling like an imposter when sharing work? I’ve been out of the game for a while and never truly got IN the game and sometimes it feels like I’m sort of a wannabe. It doesn’t help that I did a deep dive into the all-consuming parenthood adventure and it’s so much harder to find even basic words some days. Not necessarily looking for validation, but definitely some advice on navigating the ebb and flow of creativity.” —J
I have been thinking a lot about this subject lately. Over the last decade, I have spoken with very dear friends of mine who have accomplished a variety of successes in terms of their art and/or their careers, and all of them have confided in some way that they still struggle with bouts of imposter syndrome. Most of them find that no matter how “successful” they might be in one aspect of their field, from time to time, they still feel as though it’s unearned, ill-gotten, or fraudulent. I feel it as a “comedian in poet’s clothing,” especially as a spoken word artist/slam poet approaching the worlds of publishing and academia. I’ve never fully felt as though I was universally accepted as a good poet by everyone who has heard me, but that’s life. Not everyone ever will. It’s good to have some folks who are critical of your work, because it forces you to take a third look at what you are creating. To ask yourself why you created it in the first place. To ask yourself about its place in the world. But that imposter feeling is critique on our character and the artist in us. It probably stems from our own self-image and a large part of our identity. So much of it probably comes from guilt and a need to have a simplified self-representation; ‘I am [insert role/artistic identity here]. I am wholly THAT and I must eat, breathe and sleep THAT, because it is what people expect of me. It is what people need from me.’
Guilt may be one of the most destructive forces against even the inception of art. How many folks have given up being an artist because their parents wanted them to be a doctor? How much art never had a chance to exist in the world because being a lawyer pays so much better? I believe that our perception of being unworthy of utilizing the time necessary to create art is influenced by the guilt we may feel because that time must be borrowed from our responsibilities. On top of that, when we do finally borrow time from our commitments to others, we then judge our art to an unfair higher standard. ‘I used this time to make this, but was it a wise use? Will my commitments suffer because of this piece of art? If it is seen by others as poorly made art, then I have wasted my time, and I have now less time for my commitments.’ This is a fallacy. If the desire to create exists, it is imperative to your mental health—and the health of those you are committed to—to create. To be an artist. To identify with art and generate it at a rate that fits your desires. It is also imperative to study the difference between what is good art and what is bad art, and in my convoluted opinion, more importantly, what mediocre art looks like. The world can handle good and bad art. One we hang on the wall, the other ends up at thrift stores. Mediocre art gets saved in garages and attics because, you know, so-and-so made it and they put a lot of time into it and… I don’t know what to do with it.
It comes down to time management. I always have to ask myself: Do I have the time to do both things AND can I negotiate the values between responsibility and desire? How do I destroy the guilt I feel when my desire to create is as strong or stronger than my commitments to others? Can I make a commitment of my desires and create a balance between them and my responsibilities?
I am a funny person. I am a serious writer. I love to cook. But really, deep down inside, there is a huge part of me that wants to dance. If in ten years folks were to say, ‘yeah, you know Mighty Mike McGee, the funny, dancing poet,’ it’s because I managed my time and did what I NEEDED to do. In my 20s, no part of me was prepared to let that become part of my identity. There was no way anyone was ever going to see the dancer waiting to be born. Because I was stuck on this notion that I had established everything I was going to be. I was a stand-up poet. A funny performance poet who only did just THAT. I could dip into just stand-up comedy, or I could slide over into straightforward poetry, but I should not delve into anything else, because. Because? Because what? Because I might jar someone else’s perception of my identity? Because I might have to explain my newly restructured time management to folks?
So if you’re a mother, that becomes a major role for you and those around you. If you were writing before you became a mother, you may find yourself at a crossroads and find it difficult to maintain the practices of writing while also keeping up with the responsibilities of motherhood. If you are a firefighter and you decide to venture into theatre, it pits your identity as first responder, maybe even a selfless hero, against your desire to express yourself and to be seen doing it. Nothing of who we are now should be a hindrance to the fact that our identities are far more fluid than we tend to recognize and that our future selves should only be dictated by responsibility and time management.
It’s becoming more and more unusual and even uncomfortable to me that the things we DO must become the thing we ARE. I “am” a poet, but it really isn’t my identity. I am a primate called Mike who writes all sorts of things (including very long responses to FB posts.) I like words and I play a mean game of Scrabble. I can live without poetry, I don’t want to, but I could stop writing. Over time I do believe it would have a negative impact on my life. As a baby poet in my 20s, I wrote A LOT of poetry. I was hooked. From 1998 to 2003, I wrote about 300 “poems.” Now, I write maybe a tenth of what I did back then. I was confused by this. I recently took a long foraging look into those old poetry files to see what I was writing. I wanted to figure out how in the hell I wrote so much, but just couldn’t be bothered to spend that much time on it now. What I realized was that 90% of those poems were mediocre at best. I was still learning. I was exploring and experimenting. I was falling in love with words and letting them fall in love with me. I was having fun and letting it all out to see what would stick. I discovered that I have 20 more years of experience at not just writing, but at being a better judge of my own work. Twenty more years of being constructively critical of what I can make. In 2001, I would write something, share it with friends and read it at open mics and wonder if it was any good. I don’t wonder 90% of the time now. I am confident that I have developed the skills needed to be a good writer. There is and will always be room for improvement and change. Much like my identity, there will always be shifts in what I need to develop further as an artist. But what there isn’t room for any longer is guilt because I just don’t have time for it. There is writing to be done. Between laundry and gigs and bathing and Scrabble and feeding my cat and visiting loved ones, there is so much writing to be done. As long as I am honest with myself and my work, I cannot be a fraud, because no one else is me.
I highly recommend that you gift yourself whatever amount of time you can every day in doing something with words. You know what inspires you so immerse yourself in those things regularly. Make it inclusive! Bring your family with you if you can. “Fam, I love words and I want to fall in love with them again. Will you join me on this romantic journey?” Re-evaluate your desire to create and explore the idea that the time you spend on your expression is just as valuable as the time you spend with your commitments. You getting better at your craft is a boon to those around you as well. No one else is you, so how can you be a fraud?
Mighty Mike McGee