This morning, I woke up to an email from the amazing author, Maureen O’Leary, asking me if I would consider blurbing her soon-to-be-released novel, The Ghost Daughter. If you don’t know what blurbing is, I’ll tell you. (I didn’t know what it was either until Simon and Schuster asked me if I had any ideas for people who might want to blurb the cover of my novel, Beauty of the Broken, and I wondered if they wanted people to burp on it.) Blurbs are those endorsements you see on the fronts of novels. Example: “The best novel ever. I’d gouge my eyes out with a spork before I’d forego reading it a second time.”—Earnest Hemingway.
Blurbs are supposed to be written by highly-regarded authors and are intended to help sell the books on which they appear. This was my first time being asked to blurb anything, and I was ecstatic because it meant that I was generally looked upon as a well-respected author whose sanction had the potential to sell books. I wrote Maureen back instantly and enthusiastically, and Maureen seemed not only delighted that would blurb her book, but stunned that I’d be excited about it.
That’s when it occurred to me that we are both very likely laboring under severe cases of Imposter’s Syndrome. If you don’t know what that is, it’s a mental malady from which successful people often suffer. No matter how much they accomplish, they secretly feel like frauds, like they got where they are by luck or chance or trickery. They live in terror that someday, everyone will discover that they aren’t nearly as brilliant as they look, that they’ve been faking it all along. I told Maureen I thought I had Imposter’s Syndrome, and she said, “If you have Imposter’s Syndrome, we are all lost.” I guess that means we are all lost, because I definitely, definitely have Imposter’s Syndrome.
I met Maureen about six months ago at a gala event called Authors on the Move hosted by the Sacramento Library Association. Daniel Handler (a.k.a. Lemony Snicket of A Series of Unfortunate Events fame) was the keynote speaker. It was a formal, all-day-long affair that took place at the Hyatt Regency, and guests paid $200 a head to share portions of their dining experience with authors. I was one of the authors people paid a bunch of money to talk to. So was Maureen. Maureen and I loved one another instantly. I was impressed by her brilliance and kindness and general shininess and knew instantly she was one of my tribe.
(Maureen’s beautiful books:)
She felt the same way about me.
We and other authors rotated tables three times during the course of the day, sharing time, mouthwatering victuals, and copious quantities of champagne (if you were me and scared out of your mind) with eager readers. Every time I sat down at a new table, I wanted to apologize to the people gathered there. “I’m sorry you paid so much money to talk to a successful author, and then you got me instead,” I wanted to say. But to my shock, they all seemed to think I was wicked awesome. They drank in details of my life, asked questions about my books, wanted to know what my tattoos meant. I could not get over thinking they were just being nice. But $200 is a lot of money to pay just to be nice to someone you don’t know.
I’ve had the same sensation at every event that featured me since my books came out at the end of last year. Even when (especially when) I won the International Literary Association Award for Young Adult Literature and was ushered by a man in a tux to sit at a table with Meg Cabott, author of Princess Diaries and keynote speaker at my award luncheon, I was waiting for Ashton Kutcher to jump out from under the table and scream, “YOU GOT PUNKED!” Really, me? I won this? You’ve got to be kidding. If only they knew what a loser I was.
Yesterday, I spoke to another dear friend, Daniel Wallace, who also apparently suffers from Imposter’s Syndrome. Unbeknownst to him, Daniel is one of the people who induces my Imposter’s Syndrome, mostly because he’s so damned smart, accomplished, and eloquent. He’s just finishing his PhD in creative writing, and I’m fairly certain he has read (and contemplated at length) every book written in the English language. If you have drinks with him, you will very likely feel like an idiot in seconds. It’s not that he’s showing off. He’s one of the most genuine, least pretentious human beings I’ve ever known. He truly believes that everyone in the world is as well-read as he is. “Remember on page 133 of Ulysses, James Joyce said that thing about ________________?” he will ask excitedly, the way some people would say, “Did you see the latest episode of The Walking Dead?” You will have to admit that you read 15 pages of Ulysses in college and then gave up because it bored the hell out of you.
Daniel writes an incredible blog called The Incompetent Writer, drawing on his enormous background and education to give truly sage writing advice. He has over 4,000 followers. Since he spends countless unpaid hours on the blog, he decided that he wanted to set up an account where people could, if they wanted, donate $1 a month to him to support his work. He was so nervous. He thought everyone would hate him for asking for $1, that they would think he was a joke unworthy of their 100 pennies. If he’s a joke, he’s the smartest joke I’ve ever known. Give him a freaking dollar people, the kid needs to eat. Man cannot live on Cormac McCarthy novels alone.
I wonder if everyone has Imposter’s Syndrome. While I have been lucky enough to know many talented people who have achieved various levels of artistic success in their lives, the person I have known most intimately who has achieved mind-boggling, international success is the author, Jennifer Steil. Her first book, The Woman who Fell from the Sky, has been published in a bazillion languages and received all kinds of awards. The protagonist of Jennifer’s latest book, The Ambassador’s Wife (Jennifer is a real-life ambassador’s wife), is going to be played in a movie by Anne Hathaway, who read the book and fell instantly in love with it. And yet, I have received tortured emails from Jennifer—the most brilliant, successful woman I have ever known—questioning the quality of her masterful work.
I’m not sure what to say about all of this. I’d like to say something about eradicating Imposter’s Syndrome and believing in ourselves and our accomplishments. But today, that’s not what I’m feeling when I think about this. I’m thinking that this proves that underneath all of our various educations, accomplishments, accolades, and social statuses, we are all pretty much just little scared boys and girls, trying to make our way in a daunting, unpredictable world full of people we perceive to have it together way more than we do. Maybe nobody really has it together. Maybe this messy, sordid, screwed up thing called life is better because it can’t be managed and controlled and predicted. Maybe these beautiful disasters we call human beings are more exquisite for their frailty. You know, I have to say, I loved Maureen and Daniel and Jennifer most when they were expressing their vulnerabilities and weaknesses. There is something genuinely breathtaking about seeing someone’s broken, true self, rather than the shellacked shell he or she feels obligated to present to the world.
As I write this, I remember words spoken to me years ago by one of the people I love most in the world. He said, “Tawni, someday, you’re going to find out I’m just a big, fucking fraud, and you’re going to be so relieved you didn’t end up with me.” But he was wrong, because the more of his ugly, broken parts I saw, the more I loved him. I’ve never been anything but crushed that I didn’t end up with him. I would have been honored to spend a lifetime seeing and kissing every dark corner in his soul.
Maybe, my loves, we all have Imposter’s Syndrome because we are all imposters. Maybe Maureen was right. Maybe we all really are lost. And maybe that’s ok, because the real, broken, uncertain things hiding at our cores are way more beautiful than our facades are, any day of the week. Maybe we should stop trying to trick one another. Maybe we should just be what we are and let the chips fall where they may. Maybe we should treat life like one big AA meeting.
“Hi, I’m Tawni Waters, and I’m wearing the same sweatpants I wore yesterday. I just ate half a bowl of cake batter. I drink too much, eat too much, and fall in love with all the wrong people. I have cellulite.”
The end. Or maybe the beginning. I don’t know.
P.S. For today’s song, I give you “Secrets” by Mary Lambert, because she’s gorgeous.