We writers love when a reader gives us positive feedback on something we’ve written. We eat it up. Since we usually spend our writing time in isolation, in an empty house or undercover in a cafe or behind an office door, we delight in knowing that our words recorded in solitude have made it out into the world and touched another heart. (Conversely, the sting of one negative comment left anonymously online can cancel out the balm of a dozen positive ones. We like to think we have grown thick hides, but sometimes, poison darts get through to the quick.)
Recently, though, some glowing praise from a fellow parishioner gave me pause. Catching me after Mass and thanking me for a recent faith-based essay, he said, “You know, I think of you as my spiritual director.”
I thanked him, but I went away chastened. These were big words, weighty words. I know they were meant to compliment me, but they actually crushed me by adding heft to my Imposter Syndrome. You know about Imposter Syndrome? It’s when a person of any given profession—writer, professor, preacher, parent—secretly suspects that, in spite of his or her accolades and achievements and high standing and seeming expertise in the field, the jig will be up as soon as someone figures out that he or she is full of it. The emperor has no clothes. Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain. Someone is going to realize that I am no expert, that my credentials mean nothing, that I actually have no idea what I’m doing, and I will have to cop to it. Because in my heart, I know that I really am full of it.
I admit it. I may write well about faith, but I am no good at it. I may sound like I am all about God’s will, but I spend a lot of time ducking it. I would be a wretched spiritual director, because I can’t even direct my own affairs of the Spirit. I don’t pray enough. I don’t volunteer enough. I don’t donate enough. I don’t even write enough. Anyone can tell you that I am a half-assed Catholic. I take it all in, but I don’t give nearly enough back. If I even try to think of myself as worthy of offering spiritual direction, my Imposter Syndrome shouts this fraudulent thought down immediately. I don’t know why anyone ever publishes anything I have to say about heaven and earth.
Then again, maybe it is actually wise for a spiritual writer to have Imposter Syndrome. We who presume to write about the things of God are probably least helpful when we think we are most profound. As St. Augustine said, “If you do understand, then it is not God.” We can only write as the Spirit moves us, spill our guts, edit, rewrite, edit again, rewrite again, say a little prayer and submit. We are both gratified and humbled if our words speak to another’s soul, because we understand deep down that anything that works was God’s idea, not ours.
Valerie Schultz is a freelance writer, a columnist for The Bakersfield Californian and the author of Closer: Musings on Intimacy, Marriage, and God. She and her husband Randy have four daughters.