When I was 14, I dodged a rail fine for buying a child’s ticket. I told the inspector I was a Jehovah’s Witness, so I didn’t technically have a birthday, let alone the star sign he was so cunningly testing me on. Thirteen years later, and I’m still pretty pleased by the fluency and audacity of that story* [*lie].
It’s a skill that returns at certain advantageous but distinctly unimportant moments – mostly, really, to assist me in low-level crimes like returning worn clothes (“These shoes have clearly been worn”. “I know they have. That’s why I’m returning them. It’s outrageous”). So it’s been a blow to discover that when it comes to telling stories about myself in a professional capacity - in the way that we all must, these days, to attract, and promote, and engage – my words get strangled by the imposter syndrome squatting on my vocal chords.
Which is a problem. Because in today's brand-obsessed culture, even our chicken nuggets need a backstory. Opting out of this daily process of myth-building isn’t an option - especially for those outside the traditional working world. Where friends can say ‘I work for [insert Big Corporate]’ and knock back their drink, safe in the knowledge that this tells its own story - sometimes that story is Being a Corporate Wanker and sometimes it's Mutual Prosperity and Wealth-Based Interests, depending on their audience - freelancers are (mutinously) shackled to The Money by the success of the story they peddle about their own person. Doing it well does matter.
So what story do we tell? What are we left with after clinically incising the facts our lives into a narrative that fits the trajectory we seek? How do we explain our Whys and our Whats and our Hows in three pithy sentences that deftly trace the arc of Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey in sparkling verbal exchanges and yet also imply a competitive copy rate?
For me, this act of self-classification is deeply uncomfortable on the page - and excruciating in the spoken word (so networking’s a dream) - because I don’t really buy the audacity of my own story. Doing so requires a level of belief that feels too much like hubris; and the labels I’ve assigned myself – most problematically, ‘writer’ – remain, in my mind, stubborn aspirations rather than earned titles.
But I really need to get over it. Because if we look to the heroes who hold these titles so convincingly - Kerouac and the Beat poets; Eliot and The Modernists - it’s clear they weren’t too fussed with imposter syndrome or other people’s definitions of success. They were busy making their own - simultaneously emulating the great myths, and (re)making them; rewriting the rules of the story they were starring in as quickly and determinedly as they wrote the stories themselves.
And no: they never had to face the overwhelming sea of self-sustaining one-man-band PR machines clamouring for cut-through. And yes: in their pre-internet age, they had the possibility of the unspoiled Big-Fish mindset, where we are, perpetually, digital minnows. But they knew that, when it comes to telling your own story, you’ve got to do it with gusto. So next time I’m uncertain, and questioning, and fearful of arrogance - next time I’m pinioned by the hideously inevitable and about to furiously deflect - I’m going to pretend to be a Scientologist. They have a celebrity church. Enough said.