March 6, 2009

Letter to a Young Writer: Pam Mordecai

Pamela Mordecai has published four collections of poetry, Journey Poem; De Man, a performance poem; Certifiable; and The True Blue of Islands and, with her husband Martin, a reference work, Culture and Customs of Jamaica.

Her first prose work, Pink Icing: stories, appeared in 2006 from Insomniac Press to enthusiastic reviews. Her children’s poems are well-known internationally and have for many years been used in textbooks and anthologies on all sides of the Atlantic. She has written five books for children as well as numerous textbooks. She blogs at

Dear Young Writer:

I’m using ‘young’ not to signify age, but to refer to how long you’ve been writing, which, I’m assuming, isn’t that long, even if you’re going to be a hundred on your next birthday. If you are looking at your first century, that’s cool, because you have so much more to write about when you put pen to paper. Old bones aren’t great for doing the hundred meter hurdles but they are exactly what writers need to sift around in as they look for a great story! If, however, you are a young-in-age as well as young-in-history writer, give thanks for time — time to do the things all writers must do and keep on doing: dream, research, draft, redraft, and most of all, and above all, read and read and read…All of which has been said before and all of which you have heard before. So this is not so much my advice to you as it is what I would wish for you.

I would wish the following things.

1. A Good Nose. This is necessary so you will not salivate at the enticing smell of every word you put down on a page, and also so that you will not be taken in by the spicy blandishments of words other writers have put down that are by no means a healthy literary meal because someone has decided to publish them. You want to save that mouth-water for the really good repast! A lot of poor entrées find themselves on to the book menu, while some of the healthiest literary consumables remain tucked away on dusty shelves or in bottom drawers, perhaps yours among them. A good writer sniffs out first, things that deserve to be put into the literary pot, and then, snout in the dirt like a pig hunting truffles, the best ways of saying them.

2. Persistence. There was an actor once. He was in his first role. It was a workshop production, in the round, of a play produced by the late Hugh Morrison. The actor had the part of a (Mexican, I think) peasant, and all he had to do was run in, throw himself to his knees, and say, “The rain! The rain!” (This was a not unimportant line, since the time was one of terrible drought.) Again and again he hurled himself upon the floor, and, try as he might, he could not get it right. But he kept going. I won’t tell you who it is, but he is one of the finest actors in the Caribbean, a veteran of stage, TV and the movies! Had he taken his earliest reviews to heart, our loss would have been enormous!

3. Thick Skin. I wish you the covering of the cascadura, since you must endure many disappointments and discouragements. Rejection slips are never welcome, and, unless you are very lucky, you will get many of these. Harder, though, may be the tossing-aside of people who dismiss your work, or folks, some of whom you may count as supporters or friends, who pigeonhole you. “A genre writer! Good at fantasy!” “Not bad at children’s stories.” “Good at travel writing — not much else.” This is where numbers one and two come in handy; married to five, they will take you where you need to go.

4. Pig-in-Mud Experience. Back with the pig again! This is the thing I most wish for you: that you are happy, consumed (ha! you’re the dinner now!) and content when you are engaged in the writing task. And I don’t mean that you are necessarily writing cheerful or funny stuff, or that it’s coming easily — far from it. Funny stuff is often the most heartbreaking, and the greatest exhilaration is to be had from the struggle to get it right. But there is a special high that comes from doing something that you want to do, and working hard at it, and a very special high when that something is writing, for it unites your senses and intellect, memory and imagination, art and craft in a unique way, a way that teaches you about the world, your fellow human beings, and yourself. Not all writers are happy when they are at work: some are anguished putting pen to paper or fingers to the keyboard. I have always been happy when I write, and I wish this for you.

5. Courage. Writing is not for the faint-hearted. Hang around with people who wish you well in the task. Go to places (workshops, readings, courses) that help build a stout heart and join others (writing groups, online or off) who can cheer you on and whose spirits you can help to buoy up.

6. A Solid Bottom Line. You will certainly enjoy this if Oprah buys the movie rights to one of your stories, but it is possible otherwise. You can earn your living from writing. Fame and fortune apart, it is satisfying to know that your writing is a bankable item, so much so that you need rely on nothing else for earning your living.

Blessings, then, on your aspirations, as an early writer named Luke, said, “pressed down, shaken together and running over…” May you ride on into a glorious sunset of many well-wrought books…



the prisoner's wife said...

hey Geoffery,

she had a lot of great advice. i am just now starting to take myself seriously as a writer this bit of advice comes at the perfect time.

hope you are well. bless.

Geoffrey Philp said...

Prisoner's Wife, I am well!
Pam Mordecai, to use a Caribbean colloquialism, is a stalwart and I was so happy when she agreed to write this post.

Give thanks for the comment.


Rethabile said...

I'm a young writer looking at fifty. Advice number one is very important at all stages of the writing process. How easy it is to want to keep 'cute' phrases and turns of phrase: cheap hors-d'oeuvres. And one has to persist. Too easy to want to throw in the towel. Thick skin, Pig-in-mud (love it), Courage and Saleability. Thanks for these Pam. They are true and enlightening.

Geoffrey Philp said...

Yes, Rethabile. Yes.
I could almost say to be a writer is to be a pig in love.

Rethabile said...

A courageous, thick-skinned pig-in-love. Yes, of course.

Anonymous said...

Hello there, 'nother young writer here. I think this is great advice and took the liberty of reposting it on my blog with all the necessary attributions. Will be back soon.