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Blogs, notes and general musings.

A note on feeling inadequate and an imposter in academia and the arts. 

23rd April 2024


*NOTE: I wrote this for myself several months ago, with absolutely no intention of sharing it with anyone other than my incredibly supportive PhD supervisors. However, as I'm now considering talking more publicly about my experience as an imposter, I thought it was about time I shared it. If you do read it and maybe even find it interesting, useful, etc. why not email me and let me know your thoughts!?


Here's the original note, which I wrote on 28th November 2023:

'I’ve recently been invited to present at an event at Liverpool University in June next year which ‘aims to increase understanding of creative and artistic methods, by showcasing the uses of collaborative film making practices as an innovative methodological approach for health and well-being research.’

Whilst I’ve enthusiastically accepted the invitation, I’ve once again spotted that rising feeling of, not quite anxiety, but maybe unease at the prospect of presenting my work alongside more experienced and more ‘serious’ people. Normally, this involves my lack of confidence in one of the two main elements of my work; my academic/research work, or my artistic/film/theatre work. However, this event appears to bring both those worlds together at once, which feels a bit like when you invite two groups of friends together at the same party and feel anxious about each group seeing a different side to you and therefore discovering that you’re a fake! (Just me?) Although in this case, they’re not friends, they’re serious (there’s that word again) academics and artists who don’t know me from Adam. Help!

I started to read through the impressing sounding bios of the other contributors, the first was Melanie Manchot, a London based artist with decades of seriously impressive experience as a photographer and filmmaker who has had work exhibited all over the world. I watched one of her films on YouTube, titled ‘A horse wanders a brutalist landscape / Cornered Star’. It’s a beautifully shot piece, with a haunting and unnerving sound design. However, apart from the obvious beauty and finesse on show, I found it a little impenetrable, which I instantly interpreted as meaning I wasn’t film literate enough to ‘get’ the depth of the piece that was clearly so deliberately and carefully crafted. I then started watching an interview with Melanie, that doubled as a tour of her new studio which had been built above her house in London. As Melanie and the interviewer began to explore the photography and film work that Melanie has created over the years, I again felt that familiar unease as they effortlessly and expertly described her work and the depth of themes in terms I barely understood, but seemed obvious and crystal clear to the two of them. I paused the video and decided to explore these feelings by writing this note.


In general, I think I’m fairly happy with who I am and the quality of what I do (both personally and professionally), but this feeling of inadequacy, of being judged by people who take their work more seriously than I do, keeps cropping up. Where does it come from? Is there any truth to it? Is my work substandard compared to more serious people? Am I a chancer? A lazy jack of all trades who’s just about getting away with winging it? Or are we all prone to feeling like this from time to time? I’m also fully aware that as you’re reading this you’re probably thinking… “duh, everyone knows about imposter syndrome and yeah we all have it (Liz Truss excluded perhaps?), get over yourself.” I know that, but I can’t help thinking that whilst imposter syndrome is definitely a thing, that doesn’t necessarily mean that there’s no such thing as an imposter, and I’m probably one of them!


Perhaps surprisingly, I think I feel this most strongly in relation to my artistic practice, maybe because I’ve been doing it for much longer than I’ve been an academic and so I feel as though I have less of an excuse for my lack of rigorous expertise. I keep coming back to the messages we received at drama school, that we need to be obsessed with acting, with theatre, with film, if we have any hope of being successful. I don’t think I’ve ever had that obsession, although the closest I think I came was with acting, at least while I was at drama school and had the opportunity to immerse myself fully for three years. But once I left drama school, I learnt that the reality of the jobbing actor’s life (meat-market castings for adverts, unpaid fringe theatre above a pub, and the distant chance of getting two lines in an episode of Corrie if you were really lucky) was very different to the pure artistry we all dreamed of, and I soon lost interest.


The only thing I found truly satisfying in those early years after graduation was when I had the chance to write, produce and act in my own work. However, although my work was usually well received, I always had this feeling that I was running before I could walk, that I was creating with my gut rather than any kind of carefully honed artistic practice.


I’ve occasionally dipped out of working in film and theatre in the years since, usually because of the lack of funding available and my need to pay the bills with a ‘proper job’. I sometimes use this as an explanation/excuse when I ask myself why I’ve not devoured more films and plays, learnt the craft properly, etc. It’s convenient to say “I’m working class and don’t have the opportunity to indulge in endless study and experimentation, I need to do work that pays me now with the skills I already have, and I’ll hopefully pick up some more skills along the way.” ‘Fake it till you make it’ also feels relevant here.


By creating film and theatre primarily for use in the world of health education (which is where I’ve carved my little niche over the last 15 years or so), there’s a sense of safety that comes from knowing that the people you’re creating work for aren’t (usually) serious art critics, and therefore are potentially easier to please/impress. I then also ask myself why it matters to me that ‘serious artists’ need to value my work if I’m ever going to feel authentic or validated? If my work is doing what I want it to do (moving people in health, improving their understanding of the experiences of people they provide care for, reaching general audiences and advancing debates around mental health, politics, etc.) who gives a shit if the purists see it as mediocre, rough or even ‘low brow’? (No-one has ever called my work low-brow by the way, at least not to my face, that’s just me projecting!) I pride myself that my work is accessible, because for it to have the greatest social impact, it needs to reach and move people who aren’t cinephiles or maybe have never even been to the theatre, so presenting them with a dense, layered, complex masterpiece could present them with unnecessarily impenetrable barriers. But is that again just a convenient excuse because I can only do accessible, whilst pure art remains out of reach for me and my limited skillset?


I find myself getting into imaginary arguments or defences of my work, insisting to the sniffy critics in my head that I just haven’t had time (at 45 years old and counting) to properly study film or theatre, to learn from ‘the masters’ of the artforms. I insist that one day, when I have the time and financial security, I’ll do a masters in creative writing, and another in filmmaking, I’d love that! (I think I genuinely would actually.)


But I think, if I’m completely honest, these are all excuses. I have had time. What I haven’t had, is the obsession. I don’t care enough about the works of Brecht, or Pinter, or Bergman, or Argento, or the influence they had on x, y and z. But that’s not to say I don’t care, or that I’m not passionate about what I do, I care deeply about it, otherwise I wouldn’t still be trying to do it. So what is it I’m passionate about exactly? What is my obsession? The answer I usually come to when I think about this is people. That’s what first drew me to acting when, as a bored 26 year old engineer looking for a new path, I had my very first acting lesson at Oldham College in 2005. The magical way that acting gave me a way in, to understand people from the inside out, it was intoxicating. I then found that writing gave me the same, if not an even better way in, and I’ve been obsessed ever since. I’ve found other ways to feed this need to understand people since then, though talking to experts by experience, sharing my work with them, listening to their feedback, from reading autobiographies, listening to podcasts, etc, all of which has become central to my writing process. And more recently it’s fuelled my newest identity; as a postgraduate researcher, where I’ve found a refreshing appetite amongst other academics to embrace the power of creativity (and more specifically, stories) in that never-ending quest to understand people and the world we live in.


This is why I think my work has value, because it is fed by my obsession with people and their constantly evolving and fascinating stories. That’s not to say that the purists don’t care about people, or stories, but I think (or maybe hope) it’s my own unique flavour of obsession that gives my work, both as an artist and as a researcher, its own identity. I’m getting better at opening up about my insecurities, my lack of experience in certain areas, and this helps when I’m collaborating with other artists, encouraging them to bring their own obsessions to the table to complement the gaps in mine. (I’m a big fan of the Johari Window when thinking about this.)


Writing this down has helped me to feel better about the event in June, although I know there’s more work to do, to properly own what I do, to believe in my practice, even if I’m not going to win a Palm d’Or or an Olivier award. Or at least, not for a while anyway. We need to have dreams don’t we?!'

Pete Carruthers - 23/04/24

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