In June 2019 I had a poem published in a neat little online poetry mag that specializes in women’s poetry. It is the first poem I wrote as an adult, and getting it published was a real treat—but also a total fluke. See, I’m not a poet. I’m not even a writer. I’m an editor, born and raised, and that’s that.
At least, that’s what I have been telling myself.
As an editor, I have worked with great writers and terrible writers. Based on that, I thought I knew what it took to be a writer. I also knew I didn’t have it. When I put pen to paper, everything I did seemed to fall just short of making me a full-fledged writer. And the closer I got to meeting my perception of a writer, the higher my expectations became.
For example, I began keeping a journal at age 17 and haven’t stopped. But I rarely revise, and it has never been published, so in my mind, that doesn’t make me a writer. Anyone can keep a journal.
In my twenties, I had some personal essays published on a friend’s ezine. Yes, I wrote and refined the essays, and they were published, but it wasn’t like my friend was not going to publish them. She said so herself. Again, not a writer.
In 2010, the now-acclaimed Lowestoft Chronicle accepted my humorous essay “Dented”—another fluke!—and then selected it for its anthology. I was thrilled. Maybe I was a writer after all.
But no. That was the first year of publication for Lowestoft, so I could be pretty sure they threw me in because they needed material.
Then December 2012 rolled around. I had been freelance editing for about 8 years by then, and my work had been steady for most of that time. But wouldn’t you know it, two big editing projects were postponed for December and January. At the same time, I had been tossing around the idea of writing a book (still not a writer!) based on the workshops I had been leading. I thought it would be a good business move. Now that I had the time, why not see what I could do?
Twenty months later, I self-published a two-time book-of-the-year award winner. I knew in my heart I still wasn’t a writer, however, because I had published it myself. Real writers are published by strangers. But I felt I was getting closer. (To celebrate the book launch, my husband gave me an engraved business card case. It reads: “Katherine Pickett, Editor and Author.” He said he ordered it that way because he knew I identified as an editor first.)
For several months surrounding the release of my book, I pitched
about a dozen articles that were published across the internet and in print. This time strangers were publishing my work, and not first-year publications like I was used to. Some were blogs I had read and admired for a while.
Hey, I may be on to something, I thought. My confidence was building.
I went on to do some journalistic writing—I was assigned a topic, interviewed some folks, wrote it up. This time I was being paid to write. That makes me a professional writer, doesn’t it? But here I stumbled again. Ask anybody: You’re not a real writer if it isn’t a creative work.
Notice how I keep moving the goal posts?
But now—now I have this poem, a lyrical creative work published by strangers. It fits. I fit! So this is it. I’m officially an editor and a writer. And it only took 20 publications for me to get here.
Of course, I’m not alone in my angst. Psychology Today defines imposter syndrome as “a pattern of behavior where people doubt their accomplishments and have a persistent, often internalized fear of being exposed as a fraud.”1
Although imposter syndrome is not considered a real illness, it does affect our lives and our livelihoods. Because of the multitude of job descriptions for “writer,” I think writers may be particularly susceptible to it. It is precisely what I experienced over the course of my writing life.
In fact, you can find evidence of my insecurity in the first sentence of this essay.
Did you notice the way I diminished the significance of the magazine that published my poem, calling it “little” and “neat”? Apparently it doesn’t even deserve the full name of “magazine.” It’s an “online mag.” I don’t want anyone to think I am taking myself too seriously. It takes much more than one publication to make a person a writer.
Or does it? Does it require publication at all?
Looking back at my struggle, I believe I have been missing a larger point about who gets to call themselves a writer. I’m not a writer just because I finally reached the highest bar I set for myself. I have always had the drive to write down my thoughts and share them with the people around me, and to me, that drive to write is the definition of a writer.
So, no, publication is not required. The writing—that’s what makes a person a writer. If you also have a drive to write, I invite you to claim the title. It is yours for the taking.
1 Megan Dalla-Camina, “The Reality of Imposter Syndrome,” Psychology Today, September 3, 2018, https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/real-women/201809/the-reality-imposter-syndrome (accessed August 21, 2020).
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