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


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.

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