Miriam Callahan lives in Washington, D.C.
This is how I found myself sharing space on a Wikipedia page with Sylvia Plath: each year, Mount Holyoke College invites five different Northeastern schools to send an undergraduate poet to the Glascock Poetry Contest. The year they invited American University, I happened to be one of just six students in the fall semester poetry workshop. For reasons known only to him, my professor nominated me. It was flattering and bewildering—I was an International Relations major, not a poet—but of course I accepted.
I took a train to Massachusetts, I ate lots of fruit and cheese and drank too much white wine, I had a nice chat with one of the poets (Erica Dawson, who was, to my surprise, not some kind of elevated being, but rather a normal person who happened to write really good poems). On the first night, they held a welcome dinner for us contestants: me plus 4 girls from leafy New England liberal arts schools, and one girl from the University of Pittsburgh who had written a chapbook about shipwrecks. At least 12 different people were wearing tweed jackets with elbow patches. And on the last night we gave a reading.
The reading hung over my head all weekend. At the welcome dinner, I sat between a friendly medievalist and a Best American Poet. While I was eating eggplant parmesan and listening to the eminences grises reminisce about Bread Loaf (which I at first thought was a nonprofit of the end-world-hunger variety), I was freaking out about having to get up and read my poems in front of a crowd of these people—literature professors and published poets—people who, when it came to poetry, really knew their stuff.
I don’t get stage fright, really—I can give PowerPoint presentations with the best of them—but I was convinced that my reading would be a disaster. I mean, some of the other poets had won school-wide contests to be nominated. My chances had been one in six, like Russian roulette. The odds were good that I was an empty chamber. I anticipated watching the audience avert their eyes, shift in their chairs, whisper to their neighbors: What is she doing here?
I was the first to read. This was a good thing—nobody really good to compare myself to, less time to sit around being nervous. I gripped my poems and read them, staring at my aunt Jean in the sixth row and tuning everyone else out. Then I relaxed enough to enjoy the other contestants’ readings. Imagine what it might feel like to commit a crime and get away with it—that’s the way I felt.
I didn’t win, of course. They didn’t rank the contestants beyond Prize winner and honorable mention, so I don’t even know how I did. Even a year and a half later, I still have trouble squaring the prestige of this contest (Sylvia Plath and Katha Pollitt both won the prize, Alice Sebold was an honorable mention) with the fact that I was invited to attend. I still feel like I got away with something, and that anyone there, if they had bothered, might have exposed me as poorly-read, a terrible writer, a spy in the house of Literature, a poet-fraud.
I suppose a lot of poets and writers must feel this way—there’s no objective way to judge literature, so who’s to say that winning a prize/getting admitted to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop/being a New York Times Critics’ Pick isn’t a fluke? It turns out, though, that this feeling has a name and a passel of clinical studies behind it. The phenomenon is called Impostor Syndrome, and it’s apparently prevalent among women who are distinguished in their fields: Michelle Pfeiffer, the Chief of the World Health Organization, the highest-ranked female Scrabble player in the world.
Impostor Syndrome has to do with setting high expectations for yourself, then being surprised when nobody else holds you to them. Or else it has to do with setting low expectations for yourself, then being surprised when you actually succeed. I could get into the science behind Impostor Syndrome, but I’ll leave that to Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes, the psychotherapists who first documented and named the concept.
I personally do not go in for Gestalt psychology, but I am both heartened and disheartened to know that the idea of Impostor Syndrome has been well-supported by the evidence. Heartened because hey, I’m not alone in thinking I’m not as good as people seem to think I am—maybe some of the other poetry contestants, or even the judges, felt the same way. Disheartened because it means that the accomplished women I respect and hope to emulate probably also feel like they aren’t good enough and don’t belong.