Do you know that point in your life, where you’ve been going along and suddenly find you’re not you at all?
No, I’m not talking about possession, mind swapping or even multiple personality disorder. (It has another name, mind – one my son keeps insisting I use, but bah. He’s asleep. Besides, they’re all coming up with new fangled names for the same madness.) I’ve written that type of thing excessively, mind, and in all genres which betrays perhaps a morbid fear or perhaps my subconscious screaming in your ears.
What I’m talking about, though, is something different. One of the heartbreaking segments of Dandellion Wine is about the old lady who keeps everything from her childhood, so she can remember it, until the kids taunt her, and tell her she stole it from some little girl. At one point she describes the experience as having got into a train, and then gets out on the other side and there are none of the people who knew her before, and she’s someone quite different, and she can’t prove she was the person who got on the train.
It’s something like that, only not.
To an extent we expect to get old, and few of us really get that much of a shock at it. Well, perhaps me. Because so much of my twenties was consumed with trying to have kids, and I finally had them late, and that brings with it its own variety of time warping, I find myself in my late forties going “waitaminute. I was young just a minute ago.”
On the other hand, because – like Miss Marple – I grew up in a village where “sixty” was old, I’m aware of having both more vitality, more options and probably greater life expectancy than anyone I knew growing up had at fifty. Or, for that matter, at forty. And heck, I’m only eight short years from Shakespeare’s death age, and look what he accomplished. Or flip it the other way, I’m twenty some years than Marlowe when we died, and though you can see the lack of maturity in some of his work, we sure know his name. (No, I don’t want to hear about population densities and incidence of talent. Shud up, you.)
Though I was pretty at one time, I never knew I was, so I haven’t put my “me” in my looks, so aging matters perhaps less to me than to most women.
At any rate, gradual decline is something that’s built into us. We’re dying the minute we’re born and all that Jazz. (A platitude as obvious as being naked under one’s clothes, but less chortle worthy.)
What I’m talking about is something different. In one of those moments you sometimes have while reading books, I remember coming across Terry Pratchett’s reference to Vimes’ youth as “miles and miles of twerpitude” which you have to cross to become the person you’re supposed to be.
Unlike the faux revelation of us all being naked under our clothes, Pratchett’s line is a revolutionary insight in a society where we’re all obsessed with youth. (I think this is a left over reflex from when they expected each generation to be larger: blend in, so they accept you.) And frankly, I think the only reason I accepted it is that I first read it in my thirties. (Maybe not. Older son loved it.)
What I mean is, whatever your job is or your profession, particularly in writing for the last twenty years (and maybe longer) where establishing yourself to where more than a handful of people know you (unless the publisher pushed like mad and sometimes even then) would take most of your actual writing life, you start out as an apprentice, with idols and people who are like living gods to you. And then you end, at the end of that train ride, if you’re prolific and hard working and somewhat lucky, as someone’s living god.
Does one ever adjust to that?
I’ll admit my bar for living idols is low. When I was little, growing up in the village, far from the US, where the future – and therefore science fiction – comes from, all writers were gods in the Roman sense – mythical creatures, more than humans.
So for the longest time, I coped with being published by telling myself I wasn’t really a writer. After my very first story got published and I had a panic attack over it, I started making excuses “I’m only published in short stories. I’m not a real writer. I’m only published in short stories.” Getting over the novel was more difficult, but hey, it tanked, so… I wasn’t a real writer. Then the other novels, well, I was a midlister. Hack, not real writer.
Conventions could throw me into a complete panic attack. I was an impostor. What if they found out I wasn’t a real writer?
I don’t know when that changed. I realized talking to a friend the other day that it had, that I have accepted I am a writer and a semi-competent one. Perhaps accepting it is essential to getting your voice right, since so much of the voice seems to hang on self-confidence.
My friend is just starting to publish, and she’s going through the panics I had “These people treat me as a real writer and I’m not. I feel like such an impostor.” She’s not, of course. She is a beginning writer and – I have it on the opinion of another friend who read her (I haven’t got around to it, yet, being the world’s worst mentor) a damn fine one.
It’s just that her mental perception of herself hasn’t caught up with her yet.
I’m starting to suspect mine hasn’t either. This is not a humble brag. I’m not Heinlein, or Pratchett. In skill I’m definitely not Dave Freer. And in popularity, at some cons, I’m not even Kate Paulk. (Several people at a local con were heartbroken she was not there to sign the stories we wrote together. Apparently a rumor had gone around. It left me feeling like chopped liver.)
But I’m starting to run into fans I not only don’t know but “fans in weird places” – like my plumber. or my neighbor. People who didn’t know I was “that Sarah Hoyt” and whose day is made when they find out.
I’m not anyone’s living idol (I hope. Man, that would be weird.) I don’t think anyone would wait in the rain for me to sign their book. But for some people I’m “more than usually good writer” and someone to look up to. And that’s weird.
I wonder – not that I’m ever likely to know – should I ever scale the heights others have, should luck smile on me, should skill align, should I write a few books that deserve to be classics in the field, if I’ll find myself at eighty like the engineer character on Galaxy Quest, mumbling distractedly at an adoring fan “I’m not that guy.” (Well, in my case, girl.)
It’s already weird to find that when I critique someone, or hug an online friend at a con, this is accorded way more importance because I’m a semi-known author.
I imagine being on the other side – being “famous so and so we invited to draw guests” – would be even more so. Weird, isolating and startling. Like finding yourself in someone else’s skin.
We used to have protocols to deal with all this stuff. Now we don’t. What is it like? What does it feel like? My mom says I never knew how to act like I was important. Which I think just makes me American. But it might be disconcerting to people, should I ever find myself famous/admired. Again, that’s not likely to happen, but I’m sure it’s happened to people with my makeup before. (Well, a lipstick has gone missing.)
I remember that people like Heinlein, Asimov, Pournelle, were once people like me. Starting out. Diffident. (Well, maybe not Asimov.) Heinlein’s bio captures Bradbury as a raw beginner. What was it like, then, when at the end of his life – ten? Years ago – he had a line for his signing going back eight LA blocks. (I gave up and went home. At any rate we have two signed Bradbury’s, which we traded for some furniture.)
I suspect there are equivalents in other professions.
To my friend, as well as to everyone else, who finds him/herself thrust into a public (however small the circle) position where they’re supposed to be the admired/in charge/knowledgeable ones, I give this advice: Keep public and private strictly separate. Even if you have a blog, show only what you want to show. Remember a blog is your public face. You can joke about your kids or mention them, but don’t violate their privacy with anything you wouldn’t tell at a party. Ditto your other relatives. And then be very careful who you let into the inner circle. You’ll make mistakes at first. We all do. Hopefully no fatal ones.
Establish that habit when you’re just breaking in, even if the precautions seem exaggerated and the whole thing blown out of proportion. That will stand you in good stead when “well knowningness” creeps up on you. I have this theory you won’t know you’ve hit actual fame until you have done it some time ago. You don’t see yourself from the outside.
As for the feeling of being an impostor – chances are you’re not. Yes, some poseurs make it into the various fields, but look, that’s more work than breaking in normally. You’re not an impostor. You’re not THAT good. You’d know if you were.
You are that guy/gal. Accept it graciously and study your betters to know how to act when you are in their position.
Keep your protest to yourself, and BE that guy.