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‘If I am an impostor, what is the worst that might happen?’

Author and MacArthur Fellow Hanif Abdurraqib speaks with Morrill Scholarship Program students

Earlier this week, Columbus-born author Hanif Abdurraqib participated in a virtual Q&A in honor of the Morrill Scholarship Program’s 40th anniversary. The program awards scholarships to academically talented students who are actively engaged in diversity-based leadership, service and social justice activities.  

Abdurraqib spoke with Marcus Jackson, associate professor in the Department of English, read a passage from an upcoming work and answered questions from the audience. 

“I never really thought about writing as a lifestyle,” Abdurraqib said. “I always thought about it as a way to exit the life I had, to be carried away elsewhere.”

This perspective brought questions about his approach to his audience. The author said he hardly thinks of his audience anymore.

“Once you do the work and put it out into the world, you don’t have access to it any longer,” he said. “While I have immense gratitude for folks who spend time with my work, I don’t know if there’s a single thing or even a handful of things that I hope people will gain from my writing – other than, perhaps, a more generous outlook on something that existed in one way for the reader and could now exist in another way.”

It was this notion, of a subject representing multiple things, that Abdurraqib and Jackson discussed most in-depth. The excerpt Abdurraqib shared began with an observation about professional basketball player LeBron James’ graying beard. From there, the passage unspooled into a rumination on age, baldness and mortality.

Sports, he said, offer a narrative framework that is useful for writing.

“I need to have a grounding point. A home base, if you will. If you get too far out, you’re vulnerable. You need to have a home base you can run back to. That’s what I use sports for here,” Abdurraqib said.

Continuing with this line of thought, Jackson offered that familiarity with sports trains the brain to plan for failure, in life and in writing.

“You plan for options in the play,” he said.

It is this flexibility that Abdurraqib said is essential to develop. When asked about advice for fellow writers, he said, “it depends on what that person wants out of that journey. So, the best advice I have is: Define what you want out of this journey. And then make clear to yourself that whatever you want can be malleable.

“Be honest with yourself about not only what you want, but what is acceptable,” he continued. “And then build a plan that can endure disappointments.”

A discussion about impostor syndrome led to a candid reflection from the author. It may have been hard for viewers to believe that a writer as accomplished as Abdurraqib, whose work has been published in Pen American, Vinyl, Pitchfork, The New Yorker and The New York Times, and who has won a Lenore Marshall Prize and a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship, still grapples with impostor syndrome.

“I’m an anxious person, I have an anxiety disorder, so to live a life believing oneself to be an impostor is almost baked into my DNA,” he said. “But the thing I constantly challenge myself on is: If I am an impostor, what is the worst that might happen? What is the worst that might happen in my work?”

Appropriately, the dialogue ended with a question about knowing when a work is finished. Abdurraqib argued that works are never done, and this open-endedness allows for further creative exploration in future endeavors. The works, he said, are never finished with him, either, and he revels in that feeling.

“So instead of asking the question, ‘Have I finished this?’ I return to the idea of: ‘Have I done the best that I can with the tools I have in this moment?’ That’s a way better question for me.”

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