A book too good for me to handle? Some thoughts on impostor syndrome.

I recently (start of the year) had a bit of a crises of confidence, and I’m still not sure I’ve fully recovered. It was probably a combination of many things, but I think W.G. Sebald’s books (Vertigo and The Emigrants) were a big factor. Not only because they are about memory and perception, but because they are just so indescribably good. They are exactly the sort of subtle, eerie, unsettling, strange, and beautiful writing I want to create myself. And seeing something so finely crafted and, in my eyes, perfect, made me think ‘i’ll never write anything like that.’ It didn’t take much for that to spiral into ‘am I even good at all?’

We all have that voice in our head telling us to improve, that we can be better, or on bad days that we suck, that we’re a joke. But this was the first time I ever wondered if maybe my entire perception of my skill was an illusion. I thought: maybe I am not good, and have never been good, and all my perceived improvements are on the same level as a child learning to put eyes in the correct location on their scribbled smiley face. What if, after nearly ten years of focus and practice and learning, I’m still just a beginner? I had a mini anxiety attack thinking these thoughts. And as of now I haven’t written any fiction for most of the year.

Recently, I’ve finally started to get over it. I am starting to get my inspiration back, starting to find joy in the creation, and reason to create in my self–outside of the approval of others. I’ve started making progress… but then…

I came across Austerlitz in a used bookstore… I bought it…. and it sat on my shelf while I read other things, because I was afraid that it would have the same effect on me. But I could not resist looking at the first pages, and I fell instantly in love. And oh no, I’m reading a Sebald book again.

Will this book be too good for me to handle? Will I fall into a spiral of self doubt and hopelessness, will I start again to worry that I can never achieve something like it?

This time, I don’t think so. I think my experience this year was necessary, and I look at it as an inoculation against future mental crises. Just because there exists art that I don’t have–and will never have–the experiences or skill to create does not mean that I can not create any art. And if something I read is beyond my abilities, I can (and must) learn from it. And while I learn, I can allow myself a pat on the back for even recognizing the subtle intricacies of Sebald’s creations–because that in itself is a skill that not many have (otherwise he’d be a household name!)

Anyway, all that is to say that I’m reading a Sebald novel again, and I don’t think it’s going to be as risky as I feared it would be! That strengthening of my psyche is a kind of learning and improvement, too.


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