Writing Wednesday: Writing Over Your Head

Today, I saw this quote from John Updike on Caroline Leavitt‘s Facebook page:

“If you don’t feel you are possibly on the edge of humiliating yourself, of losing control of the whole thing, then what you’re doing probably isn’t very vital. If you don’t feel that you are writing somewhat over your head, why do it? If you don’t have some doubt of your authority to tell this story, then you’re not trying to tell enough.”

I really needed to hear this today.

I have been largely absent from the blog because I am writing. When I write, I am not too good at blogging. Generally, these posts don’t take me just a few minutes (though it might seem that way, after I re-read them). So I tend to focus on the fiction.

Right now, I’m working on a story about Tomoe Gozen, a Japanese samurai woman (correct term is onnamusha, because a samurai can’t be a woman, but most people are confused by that, so I call her a samurai woman to keep it simple). Tomoe was associated with the Minamoto clan, who overthrew the Taira in the late 12th century. She was the concubine of a general, Yoshinaka. Actually, what she was and what she did, indeed whether she even existed, is subject to debate.

I was looking up my mom’s family tree last summer, and it says that her family came out of the Minamoto family in the 15th century. Thus, theoretically, Tomoe could be in my family tree someplace. How cool is that? Tomoe sounds sort of like a Batman-type superhero. She doesn’t have supernatural powers, but she is nearly unbeatable in combat and totally kick-ass.

After I found that out, every time I got discouraged, I’d remind myself, “You’re from freaking samurai stock! You can do it!” You know. “Don’t cross me or my inner Tomoe’s going to come out and get you!”

When I talked about Tomoe, my agent, Dan Lazar, encouraged me to write her story. I did, mind you, have several other story ideas, all of which would have been way, way easier. But Tomoe’s was the most important and the most difficult.

The novel is about two contemporary sisters whose Japanese mother has passed away. The sisters, close as children, are now distant, and each is struggling with her own issues. While going through their mother’s things, they find a Japanese story and some prints of a warrior woman, Tomoe Gozen. Wondering what on earth their meek mother found in Tomoe, they get the story translated and find inspiration in the story.

But I was scared.

The story seemed like it’d be too hard for me to whip into shape.

I have been freaked out and anxious the whole time I’ve been working on this, since last fall, when I thought of it. Could I actually write some historical fiction? How was I going to research Tomoe? (I don’t read Japanese, and there’s not too much available in English). How would I get all the minor details right? How was I going to work the historical story in with my contemporary story? How was I going to write about a woman who could behead people and was a concubine, and make her sympathetic to contemporary female readers who would likely find both kind of abhorrent? What if the samurai story was more intriguing than the contemporary? How could a contemporary story compete emotionally with a life-and-death almost Shakespearean epic war tale complete with familial betrayals, political double-crossings, and old Japan? How was I going to manage my main plot threads and all my subplots and make them all relevant to each other?

I remember thinking some of this when I started writing ROSES. I didn’t know anything about rose breeding or science; was it going to sound stupid? Would I get the kidney stuff right? Would the character be likable enough?

And before that, with HOUSEWIFE. How was I going to depict Japan when I hadn’t visited there since I was three? Would I get the mother’s voice right? How was the story structure going to work?

But this one is harder.

I guess every book should be a little bit more challenging in some way. I would hope I get better as I continue.

Anyway, I finally have a full first draft and this is my week to re-read it, full of dread. Were all these disparate elements going to hang together?

And, to my surprise (I’m always surprised), it is not sucking. I have let it sit for a couple of weeks, enough time to say,”Hmm, I wonder what happens next? I totally forgot.” And yeah, there are some scenes I need to fix, some I need to throw out, but so far (halfway through the read) I am kind of pleased. Relieved, would be more correct.

So I think Updike is right. You need to write over your head. You need to feel nervous and overwhelmed when you write.

It’s really the only way to do it.

Published by Margaret Dilloway

Middle grade and women's fiction novelist. FIVE THINGS ABOUT AVA ANDREWS, (Balzer + Bray 2020); SUMMER OF A THOUSAND PIES. MOMOTARO: Xander and the Lost Island of Monsters (Disney Hyperion); TALE OF THE WARRIOR GEISHA and SISTERS OF HEART AND SNOW, out now from Putnam Books. HOW TO BE AN AMERICAN HOUSEWIFE was a finalist for the John Gardner fiction award. THE CARE AND HANDLING OF ROSES WITH THORNS is the 2013 Literary Tastes Best Women's Fiction Pick for the American Library Association. Mother of three children, wife to one, slave to a cat, and caretaker of the best overgrown teddy bear on Earth, Gatsby the Goldendoodle.

4 thoughts on “Writing Wednesday: Writing Over Your Head

  1. Every time I write a story of any kind I feel as though someone threw me off a bridge. What am I do and who am I to think I can even write? Much less write something I’ve not personally experiences. But you know what, it’s good to be thrown off a bridge occasionally. It gets the blood moving, the heart kicking into high gear, the adrenalin sp? pumping. And when it’s all said and done you look back and say did I really write that? It’s not half bad. As someone who loves your work, I know you can pull this one off. So go for the gold. Blessings, Barb
    I love Updike.

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