On Imposter Syndrome, Coffee Rocks, And Being a Resident Artist

“I mean, I’m not going to knock on your door and ask you to show me your paintings or stories!”

Across from me, the Most Genial Man in New Mexico laughed. A painter from Memphis sat to my left; both of us wriggled in our seats. I muttered: “Maybe you should…”

We chuckled, nervously.

“No really,” the man continued, explaining how the woman who began the foundation didn’t just want artists to come and create, but also to provide them respite from their normal, urban lives.

“If you want to sleep for three months,” he said, “that’s totally fine.”

I didn’t say: Maybe for you! But I thought it.

The last, and only other time I attended an artists’ residency, I had a concrete goal: to write a new draft of my book manuscript. I had five weeks, and I used every minute (well, every minute that I wasn’t falling in love with N…) to get the thing done.

This time, I have three months, and my objectives are less concrete. When I applied, I assumed I’d be editing that book manuscript, still. I might. But at the moment it’s on pause. And so: I find myself with a cute little casita of my own, a lot of time, no obligations, and, evidently, an expectation no greater than a solid nap.

I am vastly grateful: for the charming space surrounded by tall cottonwoods, for the picnic table outside and the snowy mountains jutting along the horizon and the rock crystals that, for one dollar, a nearby coffee shop suggests you put in your coffee to aid with walking an unknown (presumably internal?) path.

And perhaps most of all, I am grateful to sit across from an exceptionally nice man (no superlative can really suffice) who makes me mint tea, looks me in the eye, and regards me as part of a community of artists–all selected on the basis of their work to come to this beautiful place, and do whatever.

Imposter syndrome. It’s the feeling I never had the words for until graduate school, when my advisor explained it.

“Every writer suffers from it,” he announced, his voice flat. “I still do.”

All artists are are beset with twin compulsions: to relentlessly expose ourselves, our intimate, deeply personal (regardless of subject matter) work to the world; and then, to relentlessly worry that it isn’t good. That we aren’t good.

I am not exaggerating when I tell you that no amount of validation can convince us not only that something we’ve made is decent, but that we, personally, are worthy of acclaim–even that we are worthy of being dubbed an “artist.”

“If any writer is going places, it is Laura Van Den Berg.” That was Publishers Weekly in 2013. When asked by The Rumpus whether she ever felt she’d made it as a writer, she said, first “Not even remotely,” and then, something I’m sure I’ve heard other writers say: “I’m only as good as the next project. I’m only as good as the next book.”

Don’t get me wrong, there are moments: that split second right after someone sends you a nice email, or you get something published, or three hundred people hit “like” on your beloved blog post…oh wait, that never happens.

But anyway, those moments come, and then they go. And that is okay. Many writers say this insecurity is what drives them, that the need to constantly prove ourselves is what compels us to keep going.

But there is the danger that we give up: that those moments come fewer and farther between (as, for periods of time, they inevitably do), that we spend so much time doubting that we let ourselves believe the internal cynic, and we stop.

And so, while I would like to think that I will do more in these next three months than sleep, I appreciate that the value in this experience is so much more than what I might make, and so much more than the inspiration or rest I might get: simply being acknowledged, somewhat formally, by someone who is not my grandmother or my roommate or my grad school peer, that I am, indeed, a writer.

So far I have been passing the days walking around town. Reading books. Doing some yoga. Getting to know the other residents: a varied group of artists that could make the New Jersey turnpike interesting, much less a town where no one blinks at Coffee Rocks and half the (white) population has dreadlocks. And writing: mostly fiction and poetry that I’m pretty sure are unreadable.

At first, I felt something like panic: I have three months to write! I should be drafting another book! Not dabbling in genres in which I am completely worthless!

And who knows what’ll end up happening between now and April, when I go home. It’s a lot of time. But what I’m realizing is that what matters even more than what I do here is what happens when I do get home–rejuvenated, inspired, reeking of patchouli, and, hopefully, resolved to keep writing.