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.

On Feeling Utterly Lost for No Particular Reason

So, I’ve been racking my brain to come up with a blog idea for today, but nothing wants to ‘stick’ because all I can think of is how utterly lost and miserable I feel for no particular reason. Then late last night I got a message from my friend in Sweden saying how much she loves the ‘real’ pieces, and how they resonate for her, so maybe this blog needs to be about that. I’ll run with it see where it takes me. If nowhere, at least I’ll get a good cry out of trying.

The thing is, in this linear, scientific, cause-and-effect world we’ve created for ourselves, things need to have reasons, and that’s why times like these – when you want to crawl in a ball and have everything go away but you can’t say why, exactly – are so bewildering. You can’t ‘just’ feel stuff. You must be able to explain it. And I guess there are reasons – there are usually lots of them, but they’re not always as obvious as we’d like them to be. For me, one is definitely about not having a place to go to in the morning for the first time in quite a few years. And while I have no doubt in my mind that I needed to leave where I was and spread my wings and do something new, the reality of an empty day alone at home scares the living daylights out of me.

It’s fun to stay home when you’re supposed to be at work, but we under-emphasize how reassuring the structure of a day in the office is. I like people, and the nonsense (and sometimes serious) talk you have with colleagues – those individuals you find yourself spending many hours a day with and get to know and love. I liked making them laugh and being used as an agony aunt, and the little office rituals related to birthdays, new babies and resignations. It’s not really me to spend this amount of time alone. And, while I am working harder probably than I ever have, I’m not getting paid for much of it, which totally confuses my brain. Does it still qualify as work? By what rights do I get to sit here and talk about libraries when I should only be doing stuff that pays?

So, it’s that plus coming down from the high of starting the blog and having people read it and like it and the unmitigated affirmation that gave me, but then realizing that the gazillions of work opportunities I’d hoped would magically open up, didn’t, and then even more of a sense of what the hell am I doing? What is my next career move? Surely I need to have some sort of plan for myself; some ‘direction’ if I’m to be allowed to exist on this planet. We human beings have a really hard time just being. So, I need to try and change the focus from what the blog will do for me to the real reason I started it – for the simple, unabashed love of stringing words together.

Yesterday one of my closest girlfriends sat next to me on my couch and held my hand while I blubbered and said to me, ‘you are doing this for you. And yes, you are reaching people and making them think, but you are doing this for YOU.’ And she is right, of course. It’s a solitary pursuit and it can be lonely as hell but there is nothing else I really want to do. So, I’m going to try to remove (or at least acknowledge) the pressure I’m placing on myself, and let this process take its course.

And, maybe hardest of all, is giving myself permission to feel lost and lonely and scared without a ‘good’ reason. No, nobody in my life has died; yes, I have people who love me; no, I am not homeless; yes, I have everything I need. But I still feel fucking horrible and I can’t explain why. Maybe I’ll feel better tomorrow, and maybe I won’t. Maybe this funk will take a while to lift, and maybe that’s okay, too. Perhaps we don’t have to feel happy and together all the time and put up a façade that everything in our lives is fabulous when actually we feel seven years old and want our moms. My name is Susan and I feel sad, and there’s no ‘because.’ That’s all.

The most surprising thing about starting a blog

I kind of knew I was going to love blogging. After decades of writing for very specific markets and always having to ask myself whether a Cosmo girl would identify with what I wanted to say, or if I was being too ‘out there’ for the Clicks Club subscribers, or if a word I wanted to use would be understood by a younger audience, the sheer, unfettered joy of sitting down at my keyboard and thrashing out whatever thoughts I care to share using whatever words I choose to share them in is one of the most liberating things I’ve ever experienced. Creating without constraint is a heady feeling indeed.

But it also scared me, the notion of putting myself and my life out there in the no-holds-barred way I’m partial to. What would people say? What would they think? What if they hated my writing and told me so? Because, while I have a pretty big mouth I have a dangerously thin skin. Not an ideal combination. But for some reason I was compelled to head off into this very unknown terrain where anybody who cares enough can read your innermost thoughts, and enter the most private of private spheres – your head.

And I’m not brave. I might sound confident and courageous when I publish a post which is either deeply personal or a bit controversial (I mean, what white South African has the audacity to call themselves black?), but in reality I’m shitting myself and my stomach churns with every new comment I see awaiting approval. Because, maybe even more than other people, I’m terrified of not being liked.

And then an interesting thing happened which kind of changed the way I view the world. Everybody has been nice. Okay, not everybody. Of the nearly 10 000 individuals who have visited and viewed my blog since its launch three weeks ago, one person wrote me a cross letter. Which I pretty much deserved since I kind of tore their blog to pieces (it was my ‘Letter to a Hipster Blogger’. We live and learn). But that girl aside (and you know, dude, I’m sorry. I was totally showing off) everybody has been so freaking amazing. And supportive, and encouraging and share-y.

The love has poured out from all corners of the globe. I had a woman in Texas tell me her story about mothering; a few guys thanking me profusely for the piece about marriage (‘How Marriage Sometimes Feels Really, Really Crap‘); a French chef start a conversation about food . I’ve had a really insightful chat about flaming with a Huffington Post blogger (who is actually following my blog – how cool?); letters from people in China and Holland and Moscow and Tanzania. And the theme is always the same – of our sameness and shared experience of the world.

And it’s gone both ways – through blogging I’ve found blogs which I’ve come to know and love. At the moment I’m following the heart-wrenching day-to-day experience of a 26-year-old woman in the UK whose husband has just left her for another woman. Her writing is raw, gutsy and painful and, by virtue of being almost 20 years her senior and having learnt some stuff along the way, I’m able to see her situation in perspective and offer her the kind of loving, supportive advice older friends gave me when I was her age and equally lost.

It’s been an extraordinary experience this, and it’s revived my faith in humanity. Even when I knew a segment of people would disagree strongly with something I wrote or be offended by my penchant for colourful language, they allowed me the space to state my case in the way I saw fit, and I’m humbled and amazed. Loving what you’re doing and waking up to 50 e-mails from people telling you they’re also loving what you’re doing is the coolest thing I’ve ever known. To everyone reading this, thank you.