We Are Not Imposters

(This is an abridged version of a speech I delivered at the Book Passage Mystery Writers Conference in July 2023.)

I know that for both emerging and experienced writers, or any creative for that matter, imposter syndrome is a familiar companion. I recently was on a panel with a young illustrator and she said to the audience, imposter syndrome is real.

I believe her and but you know what? I’ve never really experienced it and I’m here to tell you to not only kill your darlings but also kill the imposter syndrome.

Mrs. Knudsen was my fourth grade teacher. She encouraged me to embrace the fullness of who I was. And by that, I don’t necessarily mean what people see on the outside but my insides as well.

As an only child for eight years, I was obsessed with families with multiple children. I made up stories of large families and would create diaries out of index cards for each child from their POV. And did I mention that these families were usually from the South? I would fill in those index cards with heavy Southern dialect. In my own way I was channeling a different version of the non-standard English language I was hearing at home. Little did I know that I was actually working out how I would handle dialogue in my Mas Arai gardener mysteries decades later.

In that way we need to be constantly excavating methods that we tell stories. Many times our voice is somewhere underneath that concrete of prose that was supposed to impress readers or perhaps be an echo of our literary heroes’ work.

While I didn’t have straight-out imposter syndrome, there would be times I would feel depressed about my writing, feeling like it didn’t quite measure up to the quality of other authors. I’ve come to see that our writing voice can be compared to our children—we may want our children to be doctors or lawyers, when they actually have skills to be an excellent plumber or baker. And you know what, we really need good plumbers.

I’ve found that we can’t look around and seek validation from that one agent, one editor, one publisher, one celebrity blurber, one high-profile book club, one New York Times reviewer or anonymous Amazon commenter. Not any of those people or entities can make or break your author career and certainly can’t extinguish your creative production . . . unless you let it.

And while I’m being so enthusiastic about our work, also be prepared to do some surgery or reconstituting of our manuscripts.

Have come cool distance, like you are that gumshoe detective studying your work from that dark street corner or beat-up car.

Be honest about your weaknesses. For me it’s physical description. I’m not good at lush narratives based on the material world. That’s actually a hallmark of historical mysteries, a world which I’m entering in right now. And yet, those reading CLARK AND DIVISION have said that they feel very present in 1944 Chicago. I’ve found that you can attain those goals without rich descriptive sentences and florid metaphors but through the construction of the stories and development of characters.

Basically, you will not make all readers happy. And if you make all of your readers happy it may mean that you don’t have that many readers.

I tend not to read Amazon or goodreads reviews, but I do read reviews in trades and publications.

I’ve never forget the comment that the late Sally Fellows had of the plot of my second Mas Arai, GASA-GASA GIRL, in which she said that the unraveling of my mystery was like a tangled ball of yarn. I did too much. And I’ve took that to heart and have attempted to simplify my plots.

One bookstore called CLARK AND DIVISION my debut in spite of it being my 13th mystery and 14th novel. In their eyes, they had never heard of me before the publication of CLARK AND DIVISION. The one thing good about not being known is that you have even more people to reach.

Keep your eye on changes in the industry. I listen to many podcasts, including those aimed toward self-publishing. Some authors place a firm line between the writing process and publishing, whereas I think that that line actually bleeds.

I once heard an interview with Christo, the environmental artist who wraps buildings and placed thousands of umbrellas in California and Japan. For him, his art collides with the demands of regulations. And the publishing setbacks or challenges we face, can actually open up new opportunities.

People may have heard me share this before, but my debut novel, SUMMER OF THE BIG BACHI, took 15 years or maybe more from idea to final publication.

I’ve been orphaned six times, which means that I’ve lost my acquiring editor. My fiction has been published by five different imprints.

I’ve gone guru-guru, a Japanese word for going around in circles, my head get banged a bit like a tennis ball in a dryer.

But now as I enter my sixties, I’ve reached a modicum of success, at least for me. That includes a proper hardcover release by Soho and an upcoming book tour for my second Japantown mystery.

For years, my husband would say to me, “Paperback writer,” as all of my Mas Arai, Ellie Rush and Leilani Santiago mysteries were paperback originals—not necessarily a bad thing as I was able to build up my readership with a more affordable option.

But a hard cover release of CLARK AND DIVISION has led to more exposure, essentially making me born again.

This is a very subjective business currently operated—thankfully by humans, not robots—that have bad days, crying children and dying parents, and stacks of papers and many digital files to read.

Some things—maybe most things—will be out of your control. 9-11, the implosion of the stock market, technology affected are just some of the seminal events that have affected book sales of my colleagues and myself.

But the things that we can control: the quality of our writing and the adherence to publishing deadlines—yes, that is important—are within our grasp. Also being smart and creative about the circles of influence you belong to.

This industry will be a disappointment at some point. If not at the beginning, then in the middle or at the end. Sometimes you may never feel any success at any stage, which may mean that you have to adjust your expectations or write something different. (Remember that just completing a novel is an accomplishment.) When I see a debut writer who experiences phenomenal success from the get-go, I almost cringe because I know that it probably will not be that way for the rest of one’s career. You need calluses and a big butt to survive in the business. If you don’t have a big butt then I suggest that you start doing some squats, because there will be some falling and sitting down involved.

My career is like that nonstop, irritating dripping faucet. “Honey, can you stop that sound?” your partner asks. But the water continues to drip, one word after another, one page after another, one book after another.

So I’m back to where I started. You are not an imposter. You may need to improve your craft, expand your imagination, experiment in subgenre, but that’s every writer. Imposters don’t do the work but somehow get through the doors. (And believe me, they won’t be in the room very long, usually due to their own choice.) You, however, have decided time and money in this conference. And I assuming that you will continue to apply the lessons learned in this conference to your work in the future.

Imposter syndrome will stop you in your tracks. There’s nothing redeemable in this mindset. Burn it, throw it away, shed it from your skin. There’s too much to do, there’s no time for second thoughts about whether you are worthy. Get in front of that keyboard and start doing those squats.


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