You've probably read the Hans Christian Anderson story, The Emperor's New Clothes. The one about the vain, foppish king who is tricked into believing he's wearing a fine suit of clothes, when he's actually naked (or in his underwear, depending on the version), a fact which everyone can plainly see.
Throughout my working life, which at some point became a bonafide career, I felt like the emperor, with one important distinction. I knew I was naked and was pretty sure everyone else knew it too. It was just a matter of time before someone blurted out the truth and I was revealed to be a fraud.
I wasn't entirely delusional in feeling like an imposter. As is true for many, my career was accidental, rather than dictated by choice, experience or education.
"It's so great they've created these 'bridging classes' so that women like you can move out of the clerical ranks," a woman once said to me, when I earned my first promotion into a so-called 'professional' classification after years of secretarial jobs. As if hard work or ability couldn't possibly have had anything to do with it.
When I worked for the California legislature, drafting and analyzing hazardous waste legislation, I was often asked for proof of my credentials. "Are you a lawyer? An engineer? Did you study political science? Work campaigns?" My response, that my one undergraduate degree was in Spanish literature and that I'd never been interested in politics, occasioned plenty of side eye.
After each promotion, I could expect to be asked, "So, how did you manage to get this job?" A question that was often accompanied by a salacious smirk. I'm ashamed to admit it, but I used to wish sex had something to do with it. Being a single mom in a demanding, male-dominated field, I was pretty lonely much of the time. But there were no office dalliances. Like so much in life, my career was primarily the result of happenstance. A combination of timing, place, and luck. Greased with long hours and adhering to few simple rules. Be respectful, of everyone, regardless of rank. If asked whether you can take on a new task, say yes, even, or perhaps especially, if it's above your pay grade. When people treat you like shit, respond with kindness; it drives them nuts.
I retired eight years ago to pursue a lifelong dream of being a writer. It's no easier than any of the other jobs I've spent time at. In some ways, it's harder, perhaps because it matters more to me. But one thing I never feel is that I am an imposter, a poser or a fake, that I'll be called out or asked a question I can't answer or that embarrasses me.
Most days my work attire is a ratty robe and slippers. I'm finally wearing the right suit and showing up at the right job.
Don't get me wrong. All those years in suits with shoulder pads, and high heels that ruined my feet, didn't only pay the rent and put two kids through college, they are part of who I am. It's all grist for the page. And without the pension those years earned me, I might never have figured out who I really am, a writer.
Dorothy, author of GRAY IS THE NEW BLACK, blogs about the challenges and opportunities of being a woman and a writer of a certain age in a youth-centric universe.