The Great Imposter Complex

My favourite Facebook comment thread in the whole world by far is a conversation I stumbled upon about three months which was happening between a bunch of highly respected, serious South African journalists about how many times in their lives they have known absolutely fuckall about the topic they were supposed to be writing about and had to totally bluff their way through it. And it was amazing for me to hear because I feel that about 70% of the time – that I have no idea what I’m doing, that it’s by some bizarre fluke that I’m actually paid to write, and that it’s only a matter of time before somebody finds out the truth – that I’m a total fraud and will definitely be stripped of my title soon because what the hell do I know about anything?

The stories they told were funny – one had to interview this young scientist who had come up with a theory which disproved Steven Hawking (really), and she had to nod knowingly and pretend to understand what the poor man was saying when he might as well have been speaking Khazakstanian in dialect through a hosepipe on the moon. Another who is such an astonishingly gifted writer her words regularly stun me talked about how she’ll be in an interview with someone who is just about to deliver the one pearl of truth she’s been waiting for for the past hour and which, like Lebowski says, will hold the entire interview together, she interrupts and starts talking about herself and the moment is lost, never to be retrieved.

I do that regularly, and then get home with my little dictaphone and want to slap myself with my plakkie as I play it back again and again trying to guess what the top chef in the whole wide world was just about to say when I stopped him to tell him my very important story about gathering mushrooms in a forest in Sweden. My worst interview ever in my life was also my first, and it was with Alanis Morissette at the height of her crossness and fame, and instead of spending the night before doing proper research I went for a braai with my new boyfriend thinking that I’m great with people, I’ll just improvise and wing it, except by the time we got to the Bellville Velodrome on Saturday afternoon I was in such a state of terror and anxiety I started crying and begging to be taken home.

And worst-case scenario in the world (I think this was pre that India song where she thanks all the poor people for giving her an enlightenment poes klap and endeavours to be nicer), she sat so far away from me I had to squint to see her and shout my crappy questions in a half-hysterical falsetto, hoping my voice would travel far enough, and she answered every single thing with a monosyllable. Every single thing, friends. At one point (she was just starting her covers phase) I sang – I actually sang – Sting’s King of Pain to her. To Alanis Morissette. To this day I have no idea what possessed me. I think I was trying to break the ice or something. She just took another sip of her lukewarm chamoMEEL tea and stared at me with big eyes. The horror.

Anyhoo. I’ve become better at interviews, but not better at feeling like I really am a writer just because I write. I’m finishing off my second book which is about the Banhoek Valley and historic Cape Dutch homes, and for the past year and a half my photographer has been introducing me as the ‘author’. And every time, without fail, my head whips around to see Margaret Atwood walk into the room because I’m not an author, silly. Ja, I write stuff, but ‘authors’ – well, they’ve clever and everything. And I think it’s something a lot of us suffer from, whether we admit to it or not. I used to have a conversation with a surgeon friend about whether he was a surgeon yet. And while he was performing operations all day long, it took him a while before he became a surgeon to himself. At what moment (if ever) do you become the thing other people think you are, and how much fakery do you have to put in to get there?

I once read an amazing thing JM Coetzee said – that with every book he submits he’s terrified they’re going to find out the truth – that he’s been a fraud all along and his books are rubbish. Those words really hit home for me – that such a brilliant, talented individual who has proven himself time and time again can actually doubt himself is astonishing, and makes me feel less ridiculous when I have these insecure thoughts. I wonder why it’s so hard to give ourselves credit where credit is due, and find it almost impossible to say, ‘hey – I did that well. I must be pretty good.’ Maybe part of getting there is having more conversations like that one on Facebook where people admit to feeling the same way, and we all stop pretending to be on top of things when we aren’t and just go, fuck it, I am clueless right now, buddy. It would certainly make the world a friendlier place.