Before I was a writer, I told myself stories largely because I was lonely. It was right around the time I failed my first big test, for my elementary school's gifted track. There's a part of me that never quite moved beyond that chubby, fuzzy-haired kid, scratching at her eczema and peering warily through greasy lenses at the adults talking at her. I was an easy toss: messy, bad with numbers, spottily attentive. At the heat of appraisal, my brain would — unsolicited — begin doing the dreamy, yet active, work of taking me out of the way of threat and placing me elsewhere. I recall feeling myself already sliding during the verbal section, an adult voice delivering a firm, gentle "No."
Later, when I began putting my brain's work to paper, it remained a calling, a private, beloved thing. The antithesis of the tests I learned to take and the grades I learned to make in high school in an effort to redeem my sense of value, an ugly, scrabbling hustle for something that felt, troublingly, like love.
Achievement, then, always felt a bit fraudulent, though no fraud, of course, was involved. The efforts were, for better or worse, all mine.
Fast-forward twenty years, to when I applied for MFA programs with the short stories I wrote at night after my office job. I forced myself to expect nothing and got into a grad program in New York that I was surprised accepted me. It was, I was convinced, absolutely stupid luck. I was thrown into classes with people who'd gone to amazing schools — Ivy League, private, rarified.
I was absolutely numb with intimidation. "They belong here," I thought. I did not.
It took seven years of work to finish my novel. I worked days at an office, awaiting the five o'clock punch-out for the time when I could finally write. I was at my desk when my dream agent called me. About a year after, she sold my book. I marveled: more good luck.
Two years later, the book was released. I could hold it in my hand and look at my author photo and see the back, where important people said a bunch of nice stuff about me, in a row. Lovely, surreal.
And it was perhaps here that I felt that first cool, confusing twinge of — something. All those good things said about my writing and, by extension, me. On the surface, the months to come looked thrilling: reviews, interviews. Authorship. A dream realized. It felt a little too good. It felt troublingly good. It's OK, I thought, trying to shake the weird sense that I was doing something I wasn't supposed to be doing. It's not a sin if I don't actually believe any of the things they're saying about me.
I put my own book on my bookshelf, for the first time, and tried to forget about it.
I begin to have some repetitive thoughts. At first, I brush them off as markers of standard-issue anxiety, a consequence of the nonstop work, the lack of sleep. But the itch deepens with the passing weeks. The impression solidifies, eventually, into a cogent argument: This whole thing is a goddamned fluke.
I did not deserve to get a book published. This is all happening to the wrong person. At some point, the bottom will fall out. Maybe I bungled a detail about hemorrhagic strokes, or animation production, or any other manner of things I wrote about, and it will ruin everything. There will come that definitive review that uncovers my writing as vapid, trite — the review that will convince everyone of what I secretly suspect is true about myself. I will no longer be believable, marketable, and my agent, editor, publishing team — brilliant people I still cannot quite believe agreed to work with me — will discover that I am not, in fact, creative or competent. For their kindness, I will let them down.