Degas and the Impostor Syndrome That Effects Us All
Updated: Feb 21
Written by Elias McClellan
I have not only suffered from this at some point in my writing career, but sometimes, my battle with self-doubt is a daily struggle. I hope McClellan's post resonates with you as it did me.
The Missus and I had the good fortune to take in the MFAH 2017 Edgar Degas exhibit. An extensive survey curated from multiple museums, galleries, and private collections the show spanned the artist’s life; formative years to successes, change of mediums and ultimate decline.
Overwhelmed is an understatement. Yet what struck me most was the vivid lack of confidence overriding his work, across all mediums, at every period of Degas’ life.
That lack of confidence is apparent in blotted faces in purportedly finished work—from a man capable of acute portraiture. Other times found him ignoring art dealer friend’s pleas for pieces to exhibit and sell.
There are theories, (promoted by true scholars with degrees and everything) rooted in Degas chronic vision problems. Indeed, it is now believed that Estelle’s ability to adjust to her own blindness is what engendered Degas’ obsession with his most famous subject.
But no, Degas’ shift from near-photo realistic detail to abstract features—if features were rendered at all—screams of chronic self-doubt. He sat out shows, at times entire seasons. He bought other artists' paintings but rarely showed his own, even to friends. At the time of his death, Degas’ family found a warehouse of work he had never discussed.
As writers, we walk a similar tight wire. If we send our darlings out too soon—un-tempered and unpolished—the agents and publishers will ignore them. Degas’ “Wartime in the Middle Ages,” was dismissed as a juvenile effort. But if we sit on our stories rather than risk rejection, then life slips away from our work and our skills wither.
Writers, even more than painters, toil in solitude, often for years to build skills and discipline, to hammer and hone stories. Some of us find our way to crit-groups, writing conferences, and/or coaches. Some of us find community and support. Others find harsh critiques and cliquish exclusion. Sadly, the first misstep is often the last and those writers never put an imaginative word to medium again.
Even the successful among us slog away under the weight of doubt. Success doesn’t mitigate imposter syndrome. Degas was among the few painters who sold and sold well in his lifetime. We all know a Thomas Harris, a Harper Lee, or a Dorothy West—successful writers, stilled not by a lack of imagination but by a crippling self-doubt that is the kiln for every “block” that writers experience.
Degas sought out the works of others and surrounded himself with art and innovation. He experimented with printing presses and cameras. He bought, conserved, and promoted other artists. In those associations, he found confidence, if fleeting, to produce work. We must do the same.
Look for new writers, seek their company (social media is more than gossip and cats) and read, read, read. More than anything else, write. Set loose your imagination. If you can’t paint (novel), then draw, if you can’t draw (novella), then sketch, and if you cannot sketch (short story), then buy a pack of crayons and just experiment (scene/free write), but do something.
Elias McClellan is an accountant for a state agency never to be named but aspires to commi—write, write crime. You can find him on Twitter at @TuttleNTexas. But why would you want to do that?