Writers, Artists, Creators: Feeling Like a Fraud?

struggling author girl-1064659_960_720About a month ago I attended a lecture by the world-famous architect, Dr. Siamak Hariri. A much shorter version of his speech is available here as a Ted Talk.

He spoke about the creative process, the moments of inspiration that seemed to come when least expected and when most needed. He said that all arts, all creative actions and products, follow a similar path and can be found in most professions, even those not normally thought of as artistic or creative.

One statement in particular resonated so deeply with me it has remained in the back of my mind ever since. “All artists feel like frauds.” He included himself, of course. And that’s why it affected me so deeply. Here was this accomplished, brilliant creator of the most astounding, beautiful buildings telling us he feels like a fraud. How could this be possible?

He went on to tell us that it doesn’t matter how often, or by how many people, we are told that we are brilliant, and that our work is exceptional. We don’t really believe it. It can even make us uncomfortable.

So many times, we have been told, “I could never do that”, or “that’s amazing”, or “you’re so creative”. These comments are often followed by, “where do your ideas come from”, or “where do you get your inspiration?” I know I am not alone when this leaves me at a loss for words because I have no idea.

Of course we know that writing is hard work, that it requires a good deal of knowledge about how to write, about grammar, story line, or character development. Perhaps we stammer a bit and then mention these. But these are not the real answer, are they? These are skills, studied, learned, honed as we keep writing – but they are not the essence of our creativity.  They fall far short.

Perhaps they don’t even touch on what we really want to know. I say “we” because I include us, the writers, the creators, the artists. We are unable to give a good answer because we truly don’t have one. It’s there, somewhere in the ether, but we simply can’t grasp it and put it into words. It eludes us.

Why? Because, right or wrong, we all feel like frauds.

If nothing else, hearing someone so successful, so brilliant say it helps me feel less alone. I think we belong to an infinitely large club.

Think back on conversations you’ve had with other writers, or, for that matter any artist or creative person. Have you ever had any say they knew exactly what they were doing and how they got there? I haven’t had even one. What I have heard, almost like a constant echo is, “I don’t feel like I really know what I’m doing.” “I feel like nothing I do is really good.” “I feel like a failure.” It runs like a common theme that plays constantly in the background, a refrain, if you like, that is never silent, that we all are doomed to listen to. These are the demons we must do battle with.

And some even use the very words Dr. Hariri did. “I feel like a fraud.”

Does this resonate with you, too? Do you feel like a fraud? I know I do.

Author: Yvonne Hertzberger

Yvonne Hertzberger is a native of the Netherlands who immigrated to Canada in 1950. She is an alumna of The University of Waterloo, with degrees in psychology and Sociology. Her Fantasy trilogy, ‘Earth’s Pendulum’ has been well received. Learn more about Yvonne at her blog and her Amazon author page.

29 thoughts on “Writers, Artists, Creators: Feeling Like a Fraud?”

  1. I never have felt like a fraud. I feel my work is good. Sure, sometimes I have to learn more about writing and what to write, but that didn’t make me feel like a fraud. It made me feel like a student for a short time. Right now, I’m struggling with a novel, my second. I’m learning how to write good, active sentences and great dialog. Do I feel like a fraud because I’m learning? Hell no. I feel thrilled to be learning and stretching my abilities.

  2. No, honestly. I feel like more of a fraud as, I don’t know, a Christian or a decent human being or a mother than I do as a writer. When it comes to writing I mostly just feel badly for not working harder and producing more. Maybe it’s because I’m a journalist’s daughter. Maybe it’s because I worked in publishing and saw the sausage being made. Even though writing — like everything humans do — has moments of flow or possibly even communion with something greater than our individual selves, fundamentally I don’t see anything mystical about it. It’s work people choose to do or not. Then again, if I couldn’t find any readers at all I suppose I might decide it was a waste of my time. I’m thankful to Amazon for allowing this to become less of a private hobby and more of a serious undertaking.

      1. No, I do see fiction as primarily an art. Maybe I just suffer from an excess of confidence in it. (I have been accused of that!) Maybe I’ve just been lucky to receive decent reviews on it over many years and can’t quite remember that terror of the earliest publications. I suppose I might feel like a fraud if I tried to publish any of my poetry, which is probably why I haven’t. Even with that confidence in my fiction — and, to a lesser extent, my playwriting — I would never publish without seeking feedback first. I’m way more terrified that nobody will laugh at the one act that’s being performed in January than that nobody will like my next book. But that still wouldn’t make me feel like a fraud. It would just make me feel that I wrote a bad play. My last book isn’t performing nearly as well as my first two, and I can see why. But that still doesn’t make me feel like a fraud. It makes me feel like someone who probably shouldn’t have tried to cram two big themes into one novel. Lesson learned, and on we go.

          1. Because I genuinely have no idea if it’s any good, I suppose. Or because I genuinely suspect it isn’t. Maybe because I haven’t read and studied poetry to the extent I have fiction. Maybe because of that one poem a professor I respected totally dissed. If I published enough and got good reviews, I’d probably get over it, but that’s a big IF, and hardly seems worth the effort for the reward involved.

            My son asked me to cut his hair with the clippers today. Since I do that about once every six months when he’s finally heard that he needs a haircut enough and because I have no idea what I’m doing, I don’t even feel like a fraud doing that. Just an idiot. First I reviewed the YouTube videos. I was telling him this while I did it, too, and he said, “This is the least confident haircut I’ve ever had!” Sometimes I guess it’s better to actually BE a fraud and fake it well. I tell my students who are nervous about giving presentations that faking confidence is just as good as having it, and that this is actually one of the big secrets of adulthood. I really believe that. In fact, there’s research that if you fake acting loving with someone you will genuinely begin to feel more love for them. Isn’t that crazy? I guess the lesson is: Act like a confident author and someday you’ll actually be one.

  3. Yes, of course, constantly. 🙂 i Abby closing in on finishing my fifth full length book this year. At this point on every one of them, I’ve thought each was the worst thing I’ve ever written.

    And then, I finish them, and they are not. In fact, they are fine, each one tracing an arc as I become a better writer. In retrospect, I can see that, enjoy that. During creation? Not at all.

    Glad you chose to write about this. It’s an important message.

    1. Thanks Shawn. That’s mostly how it works for me, too. When I look at the finished product there is some pride and satisfaction, though even the, I look at the accomplishments of others and feel I fall short.

  4. I don’t feel like a fraud, but I often feel like my work isn’t really mine, because I don’t know where it comes from. I think I’ve been lucky in that I seem to have been born with a natural talent for writing, and it comes easily to me, but I often re-read my own work and think, “Wow, that’s good; how did I ever think of that?” Most often I feel like a channel, and the ideas and inspiration just flow through me, down my arm and out my pen. It seems to me with this discussion that many of us have no idea how our creativity works, or where it comes from. That’s amazing and wonderful and scary at the same time. If we don’t know where it comes from, how can we control it? I guess the answer is, we can’t. Thanks, Yvonne, for bringing up a thought-provoking discussion. I’ll look forward to the rest of the comments.

    1. Melissa, that feeling you describe, of not thinking it’s really yours, is a huge part of what I think of as that ‘fraud’ feeling. Thanks for articulating it in a new way. That’s exactly how Dr. Hariri described it. Somehow I didn’t communicate that as well as I ought. 🙂

  5. I don’t feel a fraud exactly, but while I was content to receive payment – and in fact earn a living and support a family – for all the writing for radio, TV, publications etc etc – but then I was writing what they wanted me to write. Today, I am still in awe that people would pay their hard earned money to read the books I’ve written that were birthed in my imagination or about my real life experiences. That makes me feel a bit of a fraud.

  6. I’m not sure “fraud” is the right word for me, but I certainly understand the essence of it. Half the time I get started with an idea and my characters end up writing the story…my job seems to be just reigning them in when they run amok. Maybe that makes me a fraud; I don’t know. But it certainly makes me feel like I’m not the one in complete control, if that makes any sense.

  7. I just edited a book, the theme of which was harnessing the power of the subconscious. In my writer’s opinion, our subconscious mind is far more powerful and able to solve problems than our conscious mind.
    As an artist, I translate that into our intuitive writing as opposed to our conscious writing. Our “seat of the pants” creativity. If you are not aware of that incredible power in your brain, you may get the idea that “I didn’t really write that,” and feel like a fraud, perhaps. If you accept that the ability is there, within you, the challenge becomes to access it, to make it work for you; a struggle that artists have been fighting for centuries: automatic writing, stream-of-consciousness, all those techniques that produce so much weird stuff and the odd masterpiece when someone actually gets it right.
    If you accept the fact that somewhere inside your brain there is a real genius striving to get out and help you with your writing, you won’t be so upset when the smarter you succeeds once in a while 🙂

  8. Very thought provoking post, Yvonne. I always thought I was too logical, too pragmatic to ever be ‘creative’. And yet, the ideas did come, from somewhere. Enough for two worlds and five books.
    I can control my ideas to some extent, but every time I finish a story, my biggest fear is that there won’t be another.
    We sometimes joke about how we all suffer from self-doubt, but it goes deeper than a slight lack of confidence, so yes, I feel like a fraud too. 🙁

    1. It certainly is not the same as lack of confidence is it? I have that fear of running dry, too. And, I am often surprised when Others, and even I, myself, like the finished product. The mind is unfathomable, still a mystery.

  9. Yvonne,

    Feeling like a “fraud” is something I can look forward to once I sell a few million books and make lots of money. Right now, I don’t have the luxury of feeling like a fraud. I’m still trying to get over the ‘feeling like a failure’ phase because I haven’t sold enough books to make a living as a writer. LOL!

    1. I understand that “failure” feeling. I never sold enough of my books to make a living, although the thousand or so a month is nice.

      I’ve had to become a freelance writer and ghostwriter to earn a decent living while learning how to promote and market my books.

    2. Perhaps, if you look at success differently, you might feel differently. I know I’ll never make money from my writing. I barely break even after costs. Yet, people do read my books and leave positive reviews. That’s where I get my satisfaction from – and my sense of wonder at my, ahem, success.

      That said, there are many financially successful authors I don’t care to read because they are formula writers with dubious skill. They are not artists. IMHO

  10. Doubt is natural enough. Feeling like a fraud, well, that’s not something we all do. Some might, I suppose. But whenever someone says, “We all do X,” it’s hyperbole. Aside from basic things like breathing, there is very little that we all do.

    It’s common for writers (and probably other artists, too), to feel like their work hasn’t fulfilled their initial vision. It’s common to want to endlessly tweak a work. But when people tell you they enjoy your writing and really mean it, why would you feel like a fraud, even if think you could have done better? Fraud is deception. You didn’t make them think they enjoyed your story when they didn’t; they actually did enjoy it! You did your job well enough to make someone happy, to make someone identify, to make someone say, “Hey, this is good!” And that’s ultimately writing is about, isn’t it?

  11. Oh, thank you for this, Yvonne. I’m having a terrible time finishing my novel or completing short stories because I feel I’m a fraud! I call myself an author yet have this nag-nagging fear that my writing is useless , that I am conning everyone by calling myself a writer, and my work will never be good enough!

    It’s a vicious circle isn’t it?

    1. You’re welcome. I assure you you are not alone. Just remember – your vision of perfect is likely far above everyone else’s vision of more than good enough. Perfection is out of reach for all of us.

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