I’m a Fraud

Far and away, the most important thing I learned in law school had very little to do with law. In a career-development seminar, my then-professor said:

“You must come to terms with feeling like a fraud. Every lawyer is a fraud.”

He wasn’t casting aspersions on the practice of law; he was talking about how no single person can ever hope to know everything about the law. It’s too voluminous, too complicated. And it’s always changing. Obviously, this advice doesn’t just apply to lawyers. In life, there’s so much you don’t know, and can’t know. This holds true for any given profession or any undertaking you might pursue.

Let me tell you, nothing makes you feel more fraudulent than being a self-employed writer. You might be thinking, “What am I doing? I don’t deserve this! I don’t even have a job description! Where’s my cubicle, anyway. . .?”

Cocktail parties become more difficult. Casual conversations become interrogations. My friends from law school, distant relatives – they all want to know: “how’s business?” It can be hard to stand tall in that environment, to resist the urge to make excuses or minimize what you do. It’s tempting to just crawl under the table with a bowl of pretzels and admit defeat. There’s a lot of pressure to perform, and if you’re self-employed, there’s a lot of pressure (mostly internal) to explain yourself. What makes you so different? Why do you deserve this? What do you know that I don’t?

There’s a cult of secrecy around this: Don’t let anyone in on the fact that you don’t know what you’re doing. They’ll expose you. They will let everyone in on the fact that you don’t deserve your success. They’ll tell everyone the truth: it was just a fluke. You just got lucky. Fortunately, it’s not true.

As with many things, you’ll find that there are less people out to get you than you think. I’m not saying they don’t exist- but usually we’re our own worst enemy. Instead of everyone thinking about what a phony you are, they are inside their own minds hoping that you aren’t noticing how fake they are.

You don’t need to fake it.
Embrace the fraud in you. Own what you don’t know. Take responsibility for it; it’s okay if you don’t know everything. Start being honest with yourself first. Life itself is uncertainty, and there’s no shame in that.

Note that this doesn’t translate to “have low self-esteem.” You can still have self-confidence, even when you don’t know what you’re doing! (And if you’re an existentialist, how does anyone really know anything, anyway?) Instead of focusing on proving to others you aren’t a fraud, practice self-awareness. Embrace what you don’t know, embrace the uncertainty in life, embrace the fact that we all only get one chance at life and one go-round will not make you an expert. Once you start to honestly examine your feelings of insecurity—once you recognize those things about you that are fraudulent—I guarantee you will find something genuine beneath it.

This is your core. This is you. It is the realest, most authentic thing there is.

Inspiration: Writing as a Spiritual Practice

What inspires you to write? Why do you do it? Finding and tapping into your larger purpose can be extraordinarily motivating. Many great writers have spoken about the writer’s responsibility to ease suffering and not contribute to it. That’s a powerful directive. 

A good story shows us that we can overcome our suffering, transcend it, and maybe even turn it into something meaningful. This explains my penchant as a kid for female protagonists who used their imagination to overcome their demons and find the latent power within themselves. In literary fiction maybe the overcoming takes on a more metaphorical dimension, but I think it’s still true. 

Another related point is about faith. Writers need to cultivate faith: in themselves and in the writing process. Especially with a difficult or long story, like a novel, it’s often hard to see the way forward, at least in the beginning. It’s a vast undertaking. It feels like a stab in the dark. Still, you sit down to write with the blind hope that at some point it’ll take shape. If the going gets rough, you might blame writer’s block, the writing gods, your muse. There’s this persistent notion of the fickled muse, the idea that writers can get lucky or that their genius is somehow fleeting. Maybe that’s a nice thought because then you aren’t really responsible for what you do or don’t accomplish.

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 I don’t mean to diminish the role of mystery in writing. I think it is very mysterious. I also think that good writing taps into something beyond yourself. Beyond, but not outside. And, if you look at writing as a practice–maybe even an act of devotion– I think that gets closer to the truth. The practice of writing is an act of faith. The words on the page are your offering.

I Celebrate myself, and sing myself,

And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.

I loafe and invite my soul,
I lean and loafe at my ease observing a spear of summer grass.

My tongue, every atom of my blood, form’d from this soil, this air,
Born here of parents born here from parents the same, and their parents the same,
I, now thirty-seven years old in perfect health begin,
Hoping to cease not till death.

Creeds and schools in abeyance,
Retiring back a while sufficed at what they are, but never forgotten,
I harbor for good or bad, I permit to speak at every hazard,
Nature without check with original energy.

-Walt Whitman, “Song of Myself”