by Aaron Hamburger
These feelings have become only more acute, not less, as I’ve racked up credentials to prove I’m a “real” writer. My CV is dotted with publications and prizes. I faithfully show up to my laptop or notebook six days a week. Most importantly, the translation of my experience into language is the fundamental way I relate to the world. And yet, in my darker moments, I am still convinced that at any minute I’m about to be found out for the writing humbug I really am.
This anxiety about being real has bled over into the other work that I do. Besides being a fake writer, I’m also a fake teacher of writing. Remember that noxious cliché, “Those that can’t do, teach?” So, despite years in the classroom, when I’m at my most anxious, all it takes is one blank or quizzical look from a skeptical undergraduate to convince me that I’ve been seen through. Right then, it seems entirely logical to me that this one person (who may be shy, sleep-deprived, or suppressing a fart—in the moment I’ll never know) can discern what armies of colleagues and department chairs and appreciative former students have not: which is that I’m a clueless and incompetent charlatan.
Not only am I a fake teacher of writing, I’m a fake teacher of everything else too. I have over a decade of experience teaching English as a foreign language in both the U. S. and abroad, but because I have no formal TESOL certification, I’m not really an English teacher. And though I taught several sold-out cooking classes at Whole Foods for three years, because I have no culinary degree, I was a fraud there as well.
Interestingly, the fact that I do have a master’s degree in creative writing is one of the reasons I believe I’m a fake writer. Great writers are born, not taught, right?
I also worry that I’m a fake in my private life. I belong to a number of online tennis lists that require me to self-rate my skill level, which I do as honestly as possible. And yet, whenever I step onto the court with a new player, I think, “Can they tell I don’t really know how to play?”
Sometimes I even feel like a fake husband, especially when I forget to check in with my spouse when he’s feeling sick, or last year when I mixed up the date of his birthday. I suppose it doesn’t help that our marriage isn’t legal in 37 states.
So is my anxiety just a bad habit, or are my doubts justified? In other words, am I really a fake?
For the sake of argument, let’s say I really am this Zelig-like chameleon, a master of disguise. So who then is this real person that I’ve worked so hard to keep hidden from the world?
The answer that comes out of my imagination is a scared child hiding in the corner with a book or stuffed animals, acting out a game of make-believe where no one can see—even though I’m 40 years old.
In other words, the “real” me is a fake too.
Once while interviewing the quite definitively not-fake author Mary Gordon, I asked her, “You know that feeling that you’re an imposter? Does it ever go away?”
“I feel it every day,” she told me. Her solution? Humility. Put your head down, turn your computer on, and get to work, without comparing or thinking, but just working.
Maybe being a fake isn’t so terrible. Every new endeavor necessarily begins with an act of imagination, pretending you’re something you’re not. You can call that fakery, or you can call it aspiration. The difference between the two: self-awareness.
A little self-doubt can be healthy. I remember hearing a creative writing professor say the surest sign of a lack of talent was a budding author who shoved a manuscript in his face and gushed, “You just have to read my new novel. I know it’s a work of genius!”
At the same time, too much inner questioning has the potential to become a comfortable addiction, a strategy of avoidance that holds us back from striving for greatness. So when we ask ourselves, “Am I really a [fill in the blank here],” habitual doubters like me ought to remind ourselves to be at least as open to the possibility of “yes” as we are eager to embrace the “no.”
Aaron Hamburger is the author of The View from Stalin’s Head, winner of the Rome Prize in Literature, and Faith for Beginners. His writing has appeared in The Village Voice, Tin House, Michigan Quarterly Review, Boulevard, Poets and Writers, Out, Nerve, Time Out, Details, and The Forward. He has taught creative writing at Columbia University, New York University, and the Stonecoast MFA Program.
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