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“I AM NOT HIP ENOUGH FOR THIS” And Other Imposter Syndrome Thoughts

Imposter Syndrome apparently often strikes grad students. The dominant symptom is the overwhelming notion that you’re a fraud and that your merits are worth less than the merits of others. As a brand-new grad student, this is a syndrome that I battle against.

One of the reasons for my struggle with this symptom is somewhat obvious: I attend an art school, and the truth of the matter is that my poetry is neither trendy, controversial, or experimental, and neither is my fashion sense, for the most part. Columbia College Chicago has often prided itself on a well-rounded cohort—and it’s true that we have a depth and breadth of styles represented by the lot of us—but I often can’t get rid of the lingering feeling that there are a litany of things that separate me from everyone else, that force me to not belong, like we’re in middle school and I just hit my gangly-kneed growth spurt. Again.

For instance, during class the other day, one kid sat around and trashed blogger as a powering site for blogs. I wasn’t sure whether to stand up and admit to blogger use, which anyone could see if they ever saw my blog, or to switch sides and blithely begin naming all the glitches I’ve noticed. In the end, I settled for changing the subject.

It’s little situationDSCN1535_2s like this that I constantly negotiate. There are a billion little things about myself that I am terrified will be discovered. For instance, I love country music. It reminds me of where I am from; it makes me feel comforted when I listen to it. I like pop music (I’m listening to the latest T-Swift song right now, and I’m okay with it). I listen to hip-hop and rap, and I don’t listen to St. Vincent. I have multiple pen pals. I’m religious (and it’s so hip to be atheist and institution-hating these days). I like light beer, and not even PBR (I champion Bud Light). I enthusiastically use the phrase “y’all”. I have a weird interest in social justice and sunglasses, but not necessarily together. I like frozen burritos; sometimes I eat only candy for dinner; I have things like carrot tattoos and a fear of the dark and lots of robes and scarves and I probably call my sister entirely too much. This is the truth of the matter behind whatever façade that I am currently cultivating, and these are the reasons why I feel so much like a fraud in my poetry program. Like, perhaps I should be smoking cloves (oh yeah, I also really don’t smoke) and wearing artsy tasseled shoes instead of the beat-up Converses I put on day after day, start drinking coconut water, begin referencing obscure writing theory texts, work up a natural fascination for Foucault. I keep asking this question: what is a poet besides their writing? And does it matter?

One of the biggest things is the simple fact that I don’t always know what is going on with contemporary poets (my undergrad studies were very much focused on the medieval). Sometimes, when people name-drop the big-deal poets they studied with or the books they just finished reading, I just nod with this extremely impressed expression on my face, even though I really have no idea what is going on. I have perfected this face: chin turned slightly to the left, my eyebrows raised just a little, accompanied by that slow nod that says, why yes, your name-dropping was entirely successful right here.

It is easy to do the pretend nod, but otherwise, the point of grad school is not to be inauthentic in the hopes of fitting in. Fraud-self, nerd-self, Gillian-self, word-self—they are all selves that would prefer I be uncool rather than untrue. Because isn’t this experience about diving right in, about getting as much as I can from the program? I like to comfort myself with this Steven Furtick quote:  “The reason we struggle with insecurity is because we compare our behind-the-scenes with everyone else’s highlight reel.”

FullSizeRenderIt is true that I am different from my classmates at this point, possibly because I am too mainstream, or possibly because I’m just weird. And then I remind myself that it’s okay to be who I am, because it has to be, because writing doesn’t have to be about controversy and it definitely does not have to be about trends, because when I wake up at 5 AM with a poem beating through my subconscious, it’s real, and it doesn’t have to be what anyone else wants it to be; it is me and my words and the page, something that has been a constant in my life, and that is why I am here in graduate school. It does not matter that that boy with the stylishly too-short pants (“That Guy in your MFA”) insists that my poem is broken. The things that I have done, the places that I have been, and the words I have written are all something that is part of this swirling vortex of Gillian. My poetry is not broken, and my words aren’t, either.

There are days when I return from the book and paper-making studio—where I am learning to print my own broadside—when I am genuinely excited by the opportunities I have now. In my craft seminar, I am supported and encouraged to write as much as possible. I can carve out my own group of people that still challenge me, force me to grow, to keep writing. There will always be “That Guy in your MFA” throughout life. There will always be those damn haters. It’s just a matter of clinging to your own truths. Or at least, I tell myself this, especially on the days when my optimism looks frayed and battered and I wonder if my writing really is enough.


  1. For what it’s worth, I was the only poetry student in my entire MFA program. And not only that, my “contemporaries” are all dead guys from other centuries. It’s not that my work was dogged on in critiques; it’s that a lot of folks just didn’t wanna contribute much.

    I also finished my thesis without an advisor. He just skipped out on me; I simply could not contact him.

    I still kicked ass in my program. I did it by getting seriously into myself, what I wanted and what I was trying to do with my writing. By being honest with myself and wanting above all else to learn. And oh boy, does that mentality still come in handy every single day.

    Keep on keepin’ on. 🙂

  2. the name fellow colleagues name dropping in conversation is something I can relate to so painfully. I definitely feel like the only person in the my lit class who hasn’t read the Tempest a million times (twas my first time) and hasn’t read any Keats since the 7th grade (I hate poetry!). Far too much ego posturing in that class. Don’t let it get you down, it comes with the territory as they say 😀

  3. Phillip says

    “One of the biggest things is the simple fact that I don’t always know what is going on with contemporary poets. Sometimes, when people name-drop the big-deal poets they studied with or the books they just finished reading, I just nod with this extremely impressed expression on my face, even though I really have no idea what is going on.”

    That is not a name drop. That is the opportunity for you to take full advantage of an immensely useful resource of any MFA program: your peers. Whenever you hear the name of any author with whom you are unfamiliar it will do you no harm to take notes and research said authors. It is incredibly important that you read everything (fiction, non-fiction, drama, theory, and criticism) and be more than familiar with contemporary poets from all styles. You learn by reading and having those conversations with people about poetry will expand your poem’s possibilities.

    The truth as shared by a writing mentor of mine: you are becoming a Master of Fine Arts in writing, not merely a person who transcribes expression. Please take advantage of your cohorts’ knowledge. Ask for the author, title, and press of books you are unfamiliar with then read them. Then read all the other books by that author. This is not the time for self-pity or for criticizing the knowledge (and personal style/interest) of your cohort. That is a distraction from what really matters.

    And if you are at Columbia College then that means one of your professors is CM Burroughs, a friend of mine and amazing poet. She would be more than honored if you asked her for a reading list and reported back to her what you discovered.

    Best of luck,

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