Much has been written about impostor (also imposter, but Merriam-Webster's first entry is impostor) syndrome and how creatives suffer from it. If this is a delicate topic for you, I suggest skipping this blogpost and coming back later because I have been tasked with writing about my impostor syndrome and, I'm not gonna lie, it gets gnarly in here.
It's been well documented that creatives get impostor syndrome, which is, in short, the idea that one does not belong in the peer group and has only gotten there by mistake. Neil Gaiman has written about it. There are probably a dozen Medium pieces on it right now. Most people talk about what they do to combat it. More on that later.
This is not going to be one those pieces.
My therapist has asked me to write about how impostor syndrome makes me feel when I'm experiencing it. First, if you're a writer, it's a pretty good idea to get a therapist. I don't know what it is about writing that hurts us so, but none of my other creative pursuits are a dagger to the heart the way writing is. I've shed tears over music; I've had impostor syndrome in music too. I mean, try playing in master classes. What are you doing up there? Who the hell knows. (I used to play in a band with an Indigo Girl and her daughter is in my son's class at school, and the only reasons I did not run screaming from that situation are that the other parents in the band were totally cool with it, and I had never really listened to the Indigo Girls. If she ever needs a session musician, you bet I will jump at the chance no matter how much I might fuck it up.)
I've had impostor syndrome in photography, especially when I've gotten praise for a photo that still, after years, does not match the vision I have for it in my brain. Funnily enough, I have not had impostor syndrome in babywearing, probably because I helped write the modern pedagogical method book (figuratively speaking) on it. At any rate, impostor syndrome for music and photography and editing can be acute, and instead of seeing the face of God, you definitely glimpse the face of despair, but I've gotten over it. I am who I am. Whatever. Most of the time.
Writing, though—here, I see the face of the devil.
There is something about the long labor of writing, the devotion required to sustain it, the way we return, over and over, to the tar pit of negative feelings and inadequacy, that makes it the worst for me. Full stop. I mentioned I've shed tears over music. I've cried because I've had streaks of bad lessons and months where nothing I did was correct. I've cried because I've practiced so much and still my body has not internalized what it's needed to, or because I've practiced so much on what my teacher told me to do one week, only to have her reverse course completely the next week, and now I've gone several steps backward in her eyes. I've cried over music and how it sounds and how that reflects on me, but my impostor syndrome in music has not made me question my ear or my artistic gut on what to do.
When I cry over writing, I'm really crying over myself.
I'm aware that impostor syndrome is about lies masquerading as truths. Or, as my friend Erin says, feelings masquerading as facts. Success in writing is no aegis against impostor syndrome. Would that I could cut off the head of Medusa, mount it on my shield, and brandish it against my impostor syndrome (or my Bad Brain) any time it shows up, turning it to stone. My impostor syndrome also has levels to it. At its best, it makes me think I can't hang with other more-famous writers, but if there's anything I can do, it's bullshit, so fake it till you make it, as they say.
At its worst, when it arrives, I feel like the drag of a concrete block against another concrete block, a slow abrading, a hollow growl. I feel like two extra-coarse pieces of sandpaper pushed and scraped against the other, the grit of them specially designed to remove every layer of varnish I've put on my failings. One part of me understands that I have a responsibility to this profession now, that I can't claim I'm not a writer because um? I have this book deal? and what am I doing this second if not writing this blogpost and using figurative language? And the other part of me is extremely afraid of wanting anything, afraid of claiming the title and prioritizing this work, because that's what real writers do and I'm not a real writer. I know that jinxes exist and if I speak my wants aloud, they're vulnerable, scraps of fluttering, gossamer hope that fall easily to predators. Best not to look at them directly or acknowledge them or let them out. You cannot have something taken away if you never have it.
When impostor syndrome collides with my wants, it causes dissonance of such magnificent, disgusting proportions that I spiral into the Bad Brain Place for days, accompanied by depression and anxiety. It upends any trust I have in myself. It turns everyone into a betrayer. It'd be one thing if it were confined just to me, but my impostor syndrome has splash damage. The friendly fire toggle is on. I want to be comforted, but I don't want someone to feel burdened with comfort; if I get validating words, I turn right around and invalidate them so I can keep validating my feelings; I throw a fishing line out and reel in praise that I use to make myself feel worse. It's unfair to everyone around me that I get, in video game terms, an emotional manipulation debuff that has an area of effect. I become an objectively nasty person, devoted to the holy task of ruining myself.
So I do my best to keep things quiet, knowing that this is a me problem and not an anyone else problem. I've learned through repeated touchings of the stove that if I take an invitation to speak more openly about how I feel, I'll be met with hostility or dismissiveness. Eventually it goes away, but impostor syndrome cycles back, so if people don't get a chance to take a whack at it, it'll be right back like one of those shows on cable, all thirteen seasons of it, syndicated forever.
There is, as far as I know, no cure for what ails me, no magic bullet, no panacea. I have tried to quit writing and failed at doing that. I have tried to keep my work private, but creativity is, as I have read in a recent newsletter, not done alone. (Additionally, if I share, I'm afraid I won't be able to stop. Is there anything worse than monopolizing someone's time?) I have tried thinking about my accomplishments. A horrible idea; if there's anything I hate, it's being told I have done something special, useful, fresh, "insightful," "dazzling," or any other empty book blurb language that exists, because I am none of those things and have done none of those things. I have tried not comparing myself to others, but I cannot fucking lie to me: I'm an Aries sun with an Aries moon, a wood Rat, a life path 1, an only child, a self-starter who gets what she wants by grace or grit. I'm highly competitive and if I'm not succeeding at the field I've chosen, why even bother?
The only thing that helps, if you can even call it help, is burying my head in work and kicking the can down the road, hoping that Future Me might be able to deal with this horseshit better than Present Me.
I wish there were some way of capping off this blogpost other than resorting to an Anderson Cooper–style "We'll have to leave it there." No pithy ending exists, not when I'm currently in the thick of it. Sometimes, in literature, especially Russian literature, a character's polar wants cause a break or a catastrophic event to happen, and that's what's going on in me right now: a catastrophe in triplicate, a desire to smash myself to pieces so I don't have to feel this anymore. I have writing to do, but more importantly, I have editing to do, a day job to do, a family to take care of, and no time to indulge myself in the selfish, frivolous, soul-devouring agony of writing even if I've considered quitting everything and letting my husband take on the financial burden of rent for the studio and writing full-time. I considered shaving my head and running away to the circus too, when I was sixteen. Guess what I haven't done.
The title of this is rather apt, seeing as I am sitting in the studio with a severe thunderstorm pouring Nature's wrath upon the Atlanta area. It's a Friday afternoon, which means I've had my advanced improvisation class for the day, and my brain is full of bits and pieces of music from the stuff I prepared as homework. Modulation is one of those things that is both simple and incredibly complicated at the same time, and when you ask someone to modulate into a new key instantly, but tell them they can't look at their hands or the keyboard and they have to play with beauty and nuance and also watch the class at the same time . . .
Anyway, I digress. Today's post has been brewing for a while, and it's on the topic of pantsing, or discovery writing, as some people call it. Writers are loosely broken into two categories, pantsing (writing by the seat of one's pants) or plotting, and writerly opinions litter the landscape between these two ends of the spectrum. It's not a binary, folks! Is anything really a binary?
As a longtime denizen of online writing spaces, I've seen many people extol the virtues of plotting. After all, when we intend to go somewhere, we do map our route. Plotting has plenty of benefits, but it's only one method to get where you're going. Pantsing, discovery writing, or, as I'm going to call it here, improvisation, is sometimes seen as sloppy and unorganized and a deeply flawed way to write a book. I've seen it referred to in a dismissive manner, as if a person can't conjure a good book out of thin air. But that's not true.
Let me back up a bit.
I think that for many non-musicians out there, and quite a few classically trained musicians, improvisation is one of those things that's miraculous. How else but through sheer genius and talent can one sit at the piano, or take up the instrument, and have something cohesive and amazing come out? But that's not how it works for many, many people. Improvisation is something we have to practice. Yeah, I said it, and this is not new to those who are already in jazz. Improv takes practice.
To improvise, you have to understand your boundaries. Let's say you're playing a standard tune with your combo. You've run through the first iteration of the tune, and now it's time for the band to improvise. If you've ever gone to a jazz club, you understand: Every song has structure, and every person who improvises within that song follows that structure. The lead is going to go first; they're gonna get, oh, sixteen bars to improvise. Then the next instrument takes it up. So, for example, the trumpet improvises first, then the sax, then the piano, then the bassist, and finally, the drummer.
Within that improvisation, each instrumentalist has an understanding of the harmonic structure of the tune, as well as all the notes that mesh with the harmonies. Already the instrumentalist has a limited number of notes to pick from. And then the instrumentalist relies on the technical exercises—scales, arpeggios, etc.—as foundations on which to create the improvisation. We go from practiced pattern to practiced pattern, filling in the connective parts. In other words, we have a bunch of Lego blocks at our disposal and we stack them on each other in a certain amount of time, and ta-da! That's our improv. And we hand off the baton.
How does this tie into pantsing? Pantsing is never done by pulling something out of thin air. Pantsers build upon those story elements they already know: character, setting, conflict, plot. Maybe the characters aren't all the way fleshed out. Maybe the setting given is only a single room in a house. Maybe there is no conflict and no plot. But there is always a seed, a starting point that we, as consumers of stories, have within us. And pantsers want to know what happens next, so they start exploring in those directions with the tacit understanding that there will be conflict, there will be plot, and maybe, when they get stuck, they'll take the Jason Mendoza method and throw a Molotov cocktail, thus creating a wholly different problem.
What I'm saying is that pantsers are improvisers who have at their disposal a wealth of information they can use at any time to help construct the story. We've all been exposed to stories, even the ones that continue building on themselves (think about oral storytelling methods, where the storyteller takes suggestions from those around the fire). Think about how TV shows and movies are put into strong three-act structures. Think about the conflict created between people who want each other, but whose overall goal is to be somewhere that doesn't involve that person (high school sweethearts who want to get married, but whose jobs are on the opposite sides of the country). Pantsers have these Lego blocks available and select the ones they feel will be best. It's not as frenzied as it seems, even if it might feel that way when the writing is flowing.
I'm a pantser, actually—I like to through-compose my drafts, to pull in some more musical terminology. Through-composing means (as simply as I can define it) to write new music for each section and structure things in a way that makes it impossible to exchange those sections. But I never start writing without knowing my ending. And that's something a successful pantser will work with: boundaries. My boundaries are the opening image and the closing image, and I fill in everything in between with the understanding that there will be a set piece, there will be rising action, there will be a climax, and so on so forth. What I don't know is how they'll fit together, or if a character will grab the reins and run off and make the story about them.
But part of pantsing for me, too, is sitting on that story egg and incubating it. I'm a slow-cooker writer. I get an idea and I let it percolate for years. I have to know these characters and how they interact and how they're going to make each other miserable or happy. BITTER MEDICINE took over four years to come to fruition. My next project, called Key and Vale for now, has been in development for over three years. This year's NaNoWriMo zero draft project is named Syren and has been baking for several years as well. And next year's Real Draft is RED ENVELOPE HUSBAND, the zero draft of which I wrote during NaNoWriMo 2019.
I often pants these zero drafts . . . and then do not use the material when I write the first draft. This happened with Key and Vale (NaNoWriMo 2018) and the BITTER MEDICINE zero draft (2015-2016?). And I will pants that first draft, too, all because the preparatory work has been done by writing the zero draft. Each successive draft gets tighter because I don't pants my edit process, and there does come a time where you have to stop pantsing and nail down your story elements, but even when I'm in edits, I write with a goal abstract enough ("make the reader feel sorry for this character") to give me enough room to improvise. Because that's just how I function.
So, pantsers, embrace it: you are improvisers, you are miracle workers, you are repositories of information. You are everything you learned and everything you love and your writing process is a wonderful chaos crucible, a cauldron of delight, the product of which you're excited to read.
What comes next?
Welcome to No Wrong Notes, a blog about the weird confluence of classical music and writing craft, and a grab bag of everything else besides. I'm Mia, author of BITTER MEDICINE, a forthcoming contemporary fantasy novel from Tachyon Publications, and I am a musician, writer, editor, sometime photographer, and absolute nerd.
More specifically, this blog will serve as a repository for those craft posts that are too long or too detailed for a Twitter thread and too short for a book on craft (which I will never write! Such conceit!). It'll be a place for me to drop musings on writing and music, and occasionally I will delve fairly deep into music geekery. I have a synthesis-type way of thinking, which means I like to draw connections between disparate subjects—and classical music and writing are less disparate than they seem—and engage in collaborative discovery. It won't just be my solo voice on this blog! I welcome comments. I find my best idea sparks are struck when I have dialogue from others. Out of many, one, and all that. (As it so happens, my undergraduate degree is a combinatorial degree in humanities and arts, so I've been at this a long time).
Why is this introductory post titled "Exposition"? A friend suggested it as a blog title; I thought it was apt for a first post. The exposition, after all, is to introduce. In the first movement of the sonata-allegro form, the exposition is used to introduce themes A and B, introduce rhythmic and melodic motifs, and to set the foundation for our musical journey. Thus do we come to this: a statement of theme.
Above all, I value process over product, and I value the joy inherent in satisfying one's curiosity. So much of what we do and what's expected of us is product on top of product. I'm in the publishing industry, which is relentless in its demand of product although it is supposed to champion process. I want us to slow down, to learn patience, to value failure and struggle, and to be unashamed of making mistakes. There are no mistakes, as Bob Ross said, only happy accidents. Or I could lean on Miles Davis, who said there are no wrong notes, only notes in the wrong places. Or Art Tatum, who said there is no such thing as a wrong note. Or even Jacob Collier, whose theory of harmony disposes with the concept of wrong notes altogether, because everything harmonizes with everything.
All we can do is make choices and keep making choices in hopes that we go somewhere, and do our best to enjoy the trip we take, even if you are in Seoul International at three a.m. with a sick child who has just puked everywhere and you don't speak a word of Korean (I mean, why would you, your final destination isn't Seoul, it's Taipei) and can't get help and there's no one around except other passengers who are giving you the hairiest, most judgmental eyeballs--
No, wait, that's me.
I'll leave you all with some advice from a beloved teacher of mine, whose words never fail to make me cry, whose radical kindness pierces through the worst of my emotions and shines a beam of sunlight on my very hurt and sensitive core:
"You must allow yourself to make mistakes."
And then once you do, maybe you'll find there are no mistakes and no wrong notes, only choices to be made.
Mia is a musician, teacher, writer, editor, and occasional photographer whose formal education is in music, psychology, and pedagogy. She enjoys reading a lot, thinking while on long drives, finding songs for each moment, and snoozing with her cat.