On Art, Imposter Syndrome, and Epistemic Trespassing

Ada Limón’s “The Raincoat” ripped through me as I read the poem; it begins:

When the doctor suggested surgery
and a brace for all my youngest years,
my parents scrambled to take me
to massage therapy, deep tissue work,
osteopathy, and soon my crooked spine
unspooled a bit, I could breathe again,
and move more in a body unclouded
by pain. 

I was diagnosed with scoliosis in the summer of 1975 as I was about to enter ninth grade. My entire high school experience was shaped (literally) by wearing a full upper-torso brace.

This was deeply traumatizing for an anxious, skinny, and deeply self-conscious teenager, but it was also unimaginably moving—especially in hindsight—because my working-class parents never hesitated to seek out, pay for, and support anything I needed medically or emotionally to straighten my spine and live somewhat normally once it was removed.

My scoliosis years are also my introduction to reading, collecting, and drawing from Marvel comic books.

Recently, I have come back to creating art although I abandoned my aspirations to be a comic book artist somewhere in my early 20s.

I started out simply tracing from comic books in 1975, but soon began drawing freehand from my favorite artists working at Marvel. By my senior year and into early college, I was drawing more realistic pencil work usually from photographs.

I was entirely self-taught because my high school in the late 1970s had no art courses (until my senior year when the only art class offered was during a required class), just as it had no Advanced Placement courses.

Early in life, I was engaged in self-education in a way that seems logical as I remained in formal schooling until I was 37, when I finished my doctorate.

Yes, I have degrees in education, but my real expertise is learning.

I also spent decades learning to be a serious cyclist and my own bicycle mechanic. And my life as a creative writer, now mostly poetry, is very much self-taught (although I did enroll in one graduate creative writing course during my EdD).

However, all of this sparks a real tension for me that can be captured well in two concepts—imposter syndrome and epistemic trespassing.

While I have returned to art, prompted by my partner exploring art for the first time in her life through Procreate, I have had to revisit what it means to do any sort of work from a naive and inexperienced position while there are people doing that same work from a position of expertise and many years of purposeful pursuit of that work.

My nephew is a professional photographer, yet, much as my partner expressed, he recently worried over texting about his submitting an art display on school shootings. He and my partner are very aware of both imposter syndrome and epistemic trespassing (although the latter, more so as a concept and not necessarily the term).

The conversations with both of them while I have committed anew to being a visual artist myself (which has not progressed as I anticipated; see here and here) have allowed me to think carefully and deeply about how to justify being self-taught, how to navigate imposter syndrome, and how to avoid epistemic trespassing.

First, as I explained to my nephew, to do any creative work, art for public consumption, takes a degree of arrogance—the assumption that your expression matters in some way and that others should or need to experience it.

As a writer, I have the fortunate “gift” that despite my trepidations and insecurities, once I feel the urge to write something, I do it, I do it with zeal, and then I share it. (Yes, later I suffer the terror of having done all that, but the terror never impedes my doing it, fortunately.)

But as we in the literary world know, arrogance is a dangerous thing; arrogance is so dangerous, much of literature bangs the warning drum repeatedly: “My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;/Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!/Nothing beside remains” (“Ozymandias,” Percy Bysshe Shelley).

Next, then, since creative acts take at least a modicum of arrogance, the key is the most important lesson I learned over three decades as a dedicated student: The moment you have a “great idea” you must understand that there are many people who have already had that idea and spent years upon years purposefully exploring that idea (or behavior).

Your creative arrogance must be tempered by humility, a healthy alternative to both imposter syndrome and epistemic trespassing.

A doctorate (not exclusively of course) like any advanced formal schooling or training provides skills in that humility—such as first knowing there are experts that have come before you (and concurrent with you), researching who those people and their work are, and then assessing how to navigate their expertise in ways that inform your coming to know and to do.

My scrawny ass, fully braced, standing at the bar of my parents’ house knew that I deeply wanted to draw something as wonderful as Gil Kane, something as stunning as Jim Steranko, something as beautiful as Frank Frazetta.

During that same time I was falling in love with writers—reading, reading, and mimicking.

Being creative requires that balance between arrogance and humility; however, I also think one other reality is very important to confront.

American culture tends to suggest that many human behaviors are for gifted people only—especially visual arts and poetry, for example.

So, most of us pause when we have creative urges—”Who am I …?”—although, and I cannot emphasize this enough, to be human is to be creative.

Creativity is not for the gifted only. Or better yet, we are all potentially gifted, and thus, potentially creative.

My new life of visual art isn’t what I planned or expected. It involves the wonders of technology (iPad and Procreate) that allow me to blend my very naive attempts at photographs, my latent and self-taught abilities as a visual artist, and my many decades as a purposeful and serious writer.

For me, then, I move forward arrogantly with the humility of “Who am I …?” as my background music while I work.