I have written 11 books and each time I think, Uh oh, they’re going to find out now. I’ve run a game on everybody, and they’re going to find me out.

. . . Maya Angelou

I had a moment of elation when I got my first ghostwriting job to pen a memoir for chanteuse Diana Ross in 1993. “Amazing,” I practically sang to myself. “I’ve been hired to write a book for a legendary diva.” The elation didn’t last long. “Oh my God,” I muttered under my breath a few minutes later, “I’ve been hired to write a book for a legendary diva.”

Getting the job is one thing but actually doing it is something else altogether. When the Imposter Syndrome hit me, I climbed into bed and assumed the position. Covers over my head. Shallow breathing. Heart pounding. In case you’re fortunate to have never come face to face with this emotional monster, the Imposter Syndrome means that you doubt your ability to do something, anything, no matter how good you are, and you fear being exposed as a fraud.

I lay there in the dark and asked myself, What did I just agreed to? What makes me think I can pull this off? How long will it take them to discover that I have no idea what I’m doing?

I’d had some experience at the time but it was minimal. Six months earlier, I’d gotten a deal from Simon & Schuster for my first book, “Awakening the Healer Within,” about controversial healing practices in the Philippines. It did well and soon after that, I’d helped a renowned motivational speaker finish her book that was wildly successful. Writing for myself and editing seemed to come naturally to me but I’d never ghostwritten an entire memoir. I was told that the singer had fired her first writer. Should I tell her agent right now that they made a mistake with me or should I just wait to get fired, too? The Imposter Syndrome was in full swing.

My dread escalated the next morning when a Fed Ex delivery person dropped off two large boxes filled to the brim with the diva’s newspaper articles, modeling photos, magazine spreads, film reviews, concert souvenir programs, and juicy gossip about the Supremes. I was breathless when I stared at it all. What was I
supposed to do with this? How could I possibly sort it all out? The deadline was terrifyingly short and I was practically in tears when I called my agent. “She wasted two months with her first writer before she fired him. Now there isn’t enough time left to make the deadline, is there?” I said.

“No,” was her answer, “but no one is more capable than you. You write fast when you need to, your brain knows how to organize material and when you get to the deadline, they’ll extend it.” 

“Okay,” I said, hung up the phone and started pulling things out of the boxes and arranging them on my living room floor. “You can’t do this,” my inner critic cajoled me. “You’ve never done it before. What makes you think you can write in Diana Ross’s voice? The diva of the century. How audacious of you. You’re a charlatan and they’re going to find out.”

Audacious? Charlatan? My inner critic had quite the vocabulary but I did my best to ignore it as I arranged the items chronologically. I was overwhelmed with doubt and dread when I started, but I kept going. When I eventually met my client, conducted live interviews and began writing, I stopped thinking about what I couldn’t do and focused on what I was doing in the moment. They extended the deadline two weeks, I finished the book, it became a bestseller and I moved on. But the imposter syndrome didn’t.

This condition isn’t common only among us regular folks. The rich and famous suffer the same malady, no matter how powerful they are. Lady Gaga said she still feels like the loser kid she was in high school and she has to remind herself every morning that she’s a superstar. Supreme Court justice Sonia Sotomayor is always
looking over her shoulder to see if she measures up.  

So when the terror hits, what do you do? You have choices. You can stop in your tracks or you can ignore the destructive messages and get going. I know a woman who taught people how to feel comfortable doing interviews on camera. She had a lot of accomplished clients and in June of 1997, she was in London when she was called to coach Princess Diana. It was a one of a kind opportunity but she was so terrified, she let her fear stop her. She thanked them and told them she’d do it the next time she was in London. Two months later, the Princess died in a car crash.

Renowned artist Georgia O’Keefe said, “I’ve been absolutely terrified every single moment of my life, and I’ve never let it stop me from doing a single thing I wanted to do.” I kept this in mind as I wrote the memoir, reminding myself that if I failed, it would be devastating but not terminal. I dug in and when I was through and the book was successful, publishing editors called on me and I created a thriving career. It was always challenging but I got to sit at the dinner tables of some highly talented people and find out how they had become
so accomplished.

When I think back over my life, I see that the Imposter Syndrome was always there, but each time it loomed over me, I somehow found the courage to move forward. In the late sixties, I was cast as the lead actress in an independent film. I had never acted but I agreed to do it. It was so demanding and I had so much to learn, I was okay for a while, completely distracted. But the first time I
heard a playback of my voice, I was stunned. I had no idea I hated how I sounded and I was certain they’d fire me, but they had no reaction. We just moved on.

Having a track record with my writing gives me some ammunition to manage the negativity but it never disappears. I’d written over a dozen bestsellers and I’d edited a load of manuscripts when I decided to teach writing classes. The doubt rose up. I didn’t trust that I knew enough to be a teacher and I was so overwhelmed, I
asked a close friend to be there for my first class so I could see her and feel safe. I was tentative when I started but as we got further into the class, I was amazed to see that I knew a lot more than I’d suspected. I’d had a long career, I’d come up against countless obstacles and I could easily answer any questions that my students asked.

While no one is immune, it seems that artists often suffer with this syndrome because they are creating something new, something that has never been done before. When Igor Stravinsky composed the ballet, the Rite of Spring, and they performed it for the first time in 1913, the audience exploded into a riot. Between the level of dissonance in the score, the jerky movements of the dancers and the rapidly twittering sounds from the woodwind section, the entire audience got up and left the theater. It’s a good thing that the composer didn’t let that stop him because The Rite of Spring eventually became one of the greatest symphonic and balletic influences in the 20th century.

If you’re paralyzed with fear and think you should stop or you don’t deserve praise for something that you’ve done, remember what Academy Award Winner, Jodie Foster said: “I thought everyone would find out and they’d take my Oscar back. They’d come to my house, knocking on the door, ‘Excuse me, we meant to give that to someone else. That was going to Meryl Streep.’”

The kicker here is that Meryl Streep thinks she doesn’t know how to act.