My friends and acquaintances are very helpful in keeping my ego in check. They are ever ready to assure me, especially recently, that I am no good at false modesty. As someone who strives to excel in every endeavor he undertakes, it is understandably greatly disappointing that my self-deprecations are so unsuccessful. For some reason, friends and family do not accept my frank admission that I am a dilettante and poseur. It is a puzzlement. I ponder wearily how to remedy the situation, but inspiration fails me. I confess that I do not know what to do.
When did this all begin? I am not certain. Perhaps the most recent spate of failures began when I told some friends I had stumbled into writing a novel. It was a purgative event, rendering the pent-up demons of old family feuds into a fictional form, exorcising ancient controversies by reducing them to narrative form. Much-told tales had been written down where others could see them and smile. Tragedy had been tamed into a tragi-comic story, which I shared with several friends.
So I learned to fly an airplane.
I explained to people that I wasn't “really” a novelist—just someone who had written a novel-length manuscript. After all, I'm just a math teacher and not a littérateur. People scoffed. One particularly sly friend pointed out that using a word like “littérateur” was a dead giveaway. Clearly I fancied myself an author. In response, I confessed that I was an author: an author in the field of expository mathematics, with contributions enshrined in a number of texts and supplements and magazines—and a couple of writing awards to my credit—but not really a fiction writer.
“A fraud is flying an airplane.”
This was deemed evasive. Did I not intend to seek a publisher for my quasi-memoir? I confessed that I was interested in shopping it around. The first readers had been extravagant in their praise (of course, they were friends), raising my expectations and causing me to dare to think the story had commercial prospects. I had even sought an agent. This was, clearly, proof positive that I was now a fiction writer—and my biggest fiction was my pose that I was not.
I docked at Cherbourg and thought: “A fraud has crossed the Atlantic in a rowboat.”
I failed at finding an agent interested in my manuscript, but instead I found a university press that was eager to look at it. Several months passed while their reviewers read it, but eventually my novel was accepted for publication. When I met the professor who was the editor-in-chief, I ever-so-modestly mentioned that it was an extraordinary stroke of good fortune for a non-novelist—a math-teaching non-writer—like me to get his manuscript accepted. The good professor scoffed at my characterization: “You wrote a novel. It's being published. You are, by definition, a novelist. In fact, you should be thinking about future writing projects.”
On the trip home I thought: “A fraud has circled the moon.”
I had to grin. A professor of foreign languages was lecturing a professor of mathematics about what is true “by definition.” He had me there.
One of my colleagues dimpled when I recounted my recent failures at modesty. “Oh, Zee,” she said. “Don't you know about ‘fishing for compliments’? You're just trying to get people to tell you how wonderful you are.” I would, of course, have denounced this vile calumny, but it seemed to hit pretty close to home. Yes, perhaps I protest just a little too much. If I'm really anxious about being a dilettante in foreign fields of endeavor (and risking embarrassing pratfalls), wouldn't it make more sense to stop drawing attention to it? If only I were a naturally taciturn person—
During the late seventies, I had a Jules Feiffer cartoon posted in my graduate student office. The “impostor fantasy” amused me greatly, as well as speaking to deep-seated fears. Naturally I was reminded of it and was pleasantly surprised to discover it still resided in my decades-old files. It gave me renewed inspiration:
I felt like a fraud, so I wrote a blog post...