My Favorite Writing Advice: Feeling In Over Your Head

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Feeling in over your head.

Favorite writing advice:

“A writer should always feel like he’s in over his head. That’s part of what makes good writing compelling.”

Who said it:

Michael Cunningham, Pulitzer Prize winner for The Hours

Why:

Show of hands: How many people when confronted with a task that feels like it’s too much for them end up feeling intimidated? How many people start avoiding said task like the plague? How many people will not admit to themselves or to anyone that the reason they are doing laundry, paying bills, and/or cleaning the toilet instead of writing is because they feel like they’re in over their head? My hand has been up for a while.

How it changed my writing:

A lot of us feel like we’re alone, we’re the only one that every felt this way, no one else gets it. That quote from Cunningham showed up in Oprah magazine on a day when I needed to hear it most. I swear I let out a breath that I felt like I’d been holding for months.

I was working on the book I’m writing now. Most days, still, I feel completely in over my head as I write. Here’s a short list of my current concerns:

  • My novel takes place in the 1940s (many decades before I was even born)
  • The main character is male (& I’m not)
  • The supporting characters are, for the most part, also male (& again, I’m not)
  • The setting is war-torn Germany (I’ve been to Germany but long after the war)
  • It has a lot to do with men in a battle situation (again, not a man & also I’ve never been in a battle)

But Michael Cunningham is a fabulous ~ I mean fabulous ~ writer. He won the Pulitzer Prize, for Pete’s sake. The Hours is a phenomenal book. And yet, here he was, too, feeling like he was in over his head. (The Hours, if you don’t know, is about three women in three vastly different time periods, one of whom is Virginia Woolf).

My point is that I was in good company, that I’m not alone. I saved that article in a folder full of other such articles that I look at when I need to remind myself that I am a normal writer, that we all go through this, no need to call anybody & check my sanity, that I just need to take a deep breath and keep on writing. Feeling in over my head is not only part of the process but it actually means I am writing good, compelling stories. If you feel the same way, it means that you’re writing good, compelling stories, too.

So do you ever feel in over your head? Please feel free to share your thoughts & experiences in the comment box below.

29 Responses to "My Favorite Writing Advice: Feeling In Over Your Head"
  1. Adriana Ryan says:

    Ah, I love this. 🙂 I’m constantly in a state of near-panic because I feel like my writing projects are too much for me to handle. And then, when I actually finish one, I wonder if I’ll ever be able to do another. LOL 😀 Thanks so much for sharing this!

  2. Mysti Parker says:

    I could just say ditto to all the above!! A lot of that feeling, I attribute to self-doubt. Someone recently suggested I might suffer from “impostor syndrome”, which is marked by constantly feeling like a fraud. I couldn’t agree more. The only way I know to get by is to just keep pushing, to keep working and celebrate the small achievements. Setting smaller goals I can accomplish in short periods helps too. But it’s glad to know I’m not alone. 🙂 Thanks for the post.

    • Hi Mysti! *waves* You are definitely not alone. A friend of mine from Twitter wrote an article on “imposter syndrome.” I’ll ask her to give me a link & then I’ll post it. She said that a LOT of people suffer from that, especially when they start having success. I’m so glad to hear you just keep pushing; that’s the only way I’ve found to overcome the feeling like I’m in over my head. 🙂

  3. Deeone Higgs says:

    What great advice, Shelli! 🙂

    I can certainly relate to this post too. I’m getting much better about it, but I still have some ways to go.

    Last week though, I put on my game face and got serious. I pulled myself away from my various social media platforms (which was a chore in itself), and devoted three days to just writing and finishing up my eBook.

    By the second day, I was totally feeling over my head about the whole thing, but I followed some of your previous advice; and just kept at it. And I think that’s all we can do as writers… just keep going and writing.

    I’m also reporting that I think I may have finished it. YAY!! 😀 Now, on to the bigger project, and I’m sure more feelings of “I’m in over my head.”

    But, this time I will be saying, “Bring it on!” 😉

    • Hi Deeone! Thanks for the fab compliment! I’m so proud of you for keeping at it & finishing up your eBook. Rock on, my friend! Congrats!! And you are so right: Bring it on!! 😀

  4. Kenny says:

    I read this while watching tv. I should be putting the finishing touches on a story I want to publish, but I have the, “I’m in way over my head” feeling and I’m putting it off.

    Your blogs always seem to come at the right time for me. They touch on the aspects of writing that most don’t talk about. The fears.

    Thanks again, Shelli.

    • Hi Kenny! Yes, I’ve been there, too, but hey, you know Court TV is on & I need to know what’s going on (lol ~ that’s a joke!). I’m glad this post could help you out. Keep writing! 🙂

  5. Me? In over my head? YES! Today Especially! Hi Shelli Just stopping by to wish you a great week.

    • Hi Karen! You? In over your head? No, I don’t believe it. 🙂 It’s always lovely to see you! Thanks for stopping by. You have a great week, too. Cheers, darlin.

  6. Sandy Westendorf Coelho says:

    Shelli,
    Your serendipitous post spoke VOLUMES to me! I have struggled to finish polishing a novel I have worked on for 20 months. I felt that I might be ‘falling out of love’ with it, when in fact, it was the daunting task of revisiting (yet again) the entire MMS, in an attempt to satisfy my perfectionism. Logically, I know there is no such a thing, as a perfect — anything! It was this realization which overwhelmed me, placing personal concerns on what kind of reception my MMS will receive, which had put an unnecessary burden on the project. Thanks again, for such a timely post!
    p.s. BTW… your recipe post (the lattes) came at the perfect time. Our weekend guests loved it – the beverage was a huge hit! xo
    A forever fan~

    • Hi Sandy! I’m so glad this post spoke to you. I wrote it because I needed to hear it. Sometimes I think the same thing about my current WIP, that I’m just falling out of love with it. Reality is that I’m just sometimes intimidated by it & unsure of my ability to write it. Good news is I keep plugging away. 🙂 It’s true too that perfectionism will put a huge burden on any project. I’m so glad you & your guests liked the lattes. Makes me happy to hear that. Cheers!

  7. Shawn Chesser says:

    I really needed to read this today. I’m finishing my third book and I have been feeling overwhelmed trying to make it perfect. I’m also glad to finally have my feelings diagnosed. I have the “imposter syndrome” and it’s comforting to know that I am not the only one that has felt this way! I think I’ll look at things a little differently for awhile-at least for today! Thank you very much.

    • Hi Shawn! Congrats on finishing up your third book! I’m glad this post could help you. No, you are not alone; in fact, you’re in really good company. 🙂

  8. That’s awesome, Shelli. Thanks for sharing. See, these are the things that do the most good in the blogosphere: helping to build one another up. I’m currently writing something that is (so far) proving very easy to write. In fact, it seems to be writing itself. However, the day will come when I’m not, and I will remember…
    Have a great week.

    -Jimmy

    • Hi Jimmy! Yes, I wish more people would choose to build others up ~ better way to go, IMO. I LOVE when that happens, when stories write themselves. That’s happened to me before and is fabulous. Usually it requires me getting out of the way, which is another blog post. 🙂 You have a great week, too. Cheers!

  9. Oh, yes. Let’s see… my first 2 novels are set in 15th century France, about a peasant girl who falls in love with a Prince. I’ve never lived in France, or in 15th century. Never been a peasant nor experience life of Royalty.
    My four-part novel after that deals with kids from prestigious high school in Boston and who then continue on to NYU. Again, never lived anywhere in US vicinity, though I did visit New York for 3 weeks in the name of research. The next novel deals with a girl who changes her career into a CIA agent.
    What is it they say? “Google” is my friend…. 🙂

    • Hi Maria! Wow, congrats on all your novels! Your comment “in the name of research” made me laugh only because I went to Europe & told my husband that I was going “to research.” (That was true, yes, but so was the fact that I needed a vacation.) 🙂 I must say that I LOVE Google. Cheers, darlin.

  10. Ileandra Young says:

    I spend most of my writing life feeling like I’m ‘faking it’ and that sooner or later someone will catch me out; I’m not a real writer, just someone who thinks they can.
    Then I read articles like this and start to feel better. It’s a long way to go before I’m comfortable, but knowing I’m not alone makes a hell of a lot of difference. 🙂

    • Hi Ileandra! *waves* Well, if it makes you feel any better, several people on this blog have commented about having “imposter syndrome” where one feels like they’re a fraud and pulling the wool over everybody’s eyes. So, no, you are not alone and, yes, you are in some fine company with those of us who struggle. 🙂

  11. Tari says:

    Oh yes, yes, yes *hands waving wildly in the air* Definitely feeling like I’m in over my head, but I’m not going to get out of the water. I’m determined to swim. Thank you for letting me know that I’m not alone in this!!

    • Hi Tari! *waves wildly back* I love this: “I’m determined to swim.” You are not alone; in fact, you are in some fantastic company with the rest of us. 🙂

  12. Angie Schaffer-von Scheffelheim says:

    Oy. Yesterday I wanted to ram my head through a brick wall while trying to organise and make sense out of notes for a 3 hour long film. I wanted to run away screaming. And now I have the daunting task ahead of trying to tell the story of a real-life black man here in Missouri who fought or Civil Rights in the 1930s.

    I do this to myself on purpose, it seems. I choose the things that are the most difficult and time-consuming and literally spend hours condensing it into something that can be read in a few minutes on a blog. And this month I am doing this to myself every day!

    I have to like it otherwise I wouldn’t do it. I think I might be a touch masochist. lol

    • Hi Angie!

      Been there (& sometimes still am there), done that … wanting to ram my head through a brick wall because I keep picking subjects that require LOTS of research. But at least it’s something you have an interest in. And I have an interest in, too ~ I’m looking forward to reading his story as I’m also a Civil War buff. 🙂

      Cheers, darlin & lots of good thoughts sent your way.

  13. Pamela says:

    Great quote. Ohhh, yes, I almost always feel like I’m in over my head when I’m writing. And you know what? I feel the same way after I’ve published and then am marketing my books. Too overwhelming! But thanks for sharing the Cunningham quote. Will keep me going for another day… 🙂

    • Hi Pamela! *waves*

      I love that quote. It always helps me keep it in perspective that I must be doing good work & that I’m not alone (& neither are you!). Glad that quote spurred you forward. Write on, darlin.

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