Pushing Water Up Hill – One Writer’s Guide to Doing the Impossible

This was originally posted to the Caribbean Literary Salon in 2010 (wow). Caribbean Literary Salon was one of my earliest online communities as a writer. It was started by Dutch writer Anouska Kock. It was a vibrant space for learning from, teaching, and growing with each other as Caribbean writers. It is gone and I am archiving the article here in my space. It received a good amount of engagement when first published; hopefully it still speaks to someone, including me. (Presented as originally posted with the exception of the addition of pictures)

Out and about in Scotland, for the Aye Write! literary festival, in 2014 with Caribbean writers Kei Miller and Ivory Kelly.

The hardest thing I’ve had to do as a writer is not give up. Where I come from, there were no models that I knew of, but I was drawn to storytelling from the first Anansi tale, the first calypso, the first Sesame Street episode, the first Noddy tale. I became adept at letting my imagination fly, at imagining the worlds I read about, at imagining worlds that didn’t exist until I got the gumption to put them down on paper. But I didn’t know people like me who wrote; small island girls with big dreams until I discovered Jamaica Kincaid’s Annie John well into my teens.

I was still in my teens when I stumbled upon what would be the first of many, many rejections. Since then I’ve felt variously blocked, dejected, and rejected in the face of these rejections – sometimes only the reminder that many of the greats have walked this potholed path and the reality that this is what I was meant to do propelling me on.

In 2021, I read (virtually) at Colombia’s Festival Internacional de Poesia de Medellin. View it here.

The thing about the rejections though is they make the breakthroughs that much sweeter. And roughly 20 years on, I’m still writing; and readily assert – stamped on my passport, stamped on my soul – that I am a writer. Rejections may hurt, but they will never take that away.

Undercover Books table at the USVI lit fest at which I was a guest in 2015. Some of my published books are on the table including Musical Youth (which has since had a second edition published and received a starred review from Kirkus Books amidst other critical and fan acclaim; it is on the Antigua and Barbuda schools reading list), Dancing Nude in the Moonlight and Oh Gad! (both of which have since gone out of print though Oh Gad! continues to receive reader and critical interest). I also have a story “Amelia at Devil’s Bridge’ in another book on the table Pepperpot: Best New Stories from the Caribbean (that story has since been taught in the US and Caribbean and added 2x to the Collins CSEC revision guide).

That’s the most important thing, I think in staying the course, being too stubborn, too invested, too damn ignorant – as we’d say in Antigua – to even think about giving up. That process though requires more than a defiant spirit. It requires…

Bookstore fan encounter.

A commitment to self-improvement; opportunities to study craft are never wasted. My fiction writing class at the University of the West Indies led to a recommendation to the Caribbean Fiction Writers Summer Institute at the University of Miami, which – after my original manuscript was crushingly criticized in my workshop – led to the birth of what would become my first book, The Boy from Willow Bend.

The Boy from Willow Bend, launched 2003 with Macmillan, re-issued 2009 with Hansib, has been on the schools’ readling lists in Antigua and Barbuda and Anguilla for a number of years.

A keen eye for the opportunities; not all of them stand up and say ‘look me yah’. Query, query, has been my mantra these seven plus years of freelancing full time, and not always to the obvious places. Scouring the ads and picking up on companies who don’t know yet that they may need to outsource writing and/or editing services, and pitching them accordingly has paid off a time or two. One such agency comes to mind; they advertised for a full time communications person, I pitched my consulting services. They didn’t reply right away but when they needed a pool of writers to brainstorm ideas I was on their speed dial not once but …what, four times now; a recurring gig, a freelancer’s dream. The bonus is that doing a good job, and bringing the project in on time, should net you not only return business but recommendations for other jobs; so querying should not take precedence over doing the job, and doing it, doing it, doing it well.

I am pictured here in 2018 at a Commonwealth Writers fiction workshop (one of several regional and international workshops I’ve participated in – professional development being part of my job). I subsequently sold an article out of the workshop, “What is a Voiceprint?“, to the Commonwealth Writers online platform because feature writing drawing on things reported, observed, and experienced is also part of my job.

A realization that a rejection is not necessarily the definitive word on your work’s worth. True, it could mean that you need to go back to pack. But sometimes it’s just not it’s time, and, with persistence, that time will come. I was in limbo as I strolled the aisles of a local book store, and got to talking with the sales representative who remembered my many times rejected manuscript from a competition a few years earlier. He gave me the contact information for a commissioning editor at one of the publishing houses with which they regularly did business. A contract later, The Boy from Willow Bend was on the shelves. Several years later, it’s in its second printing and on the schools reading list here in Antigua.

A commitment to being your writing’s biggest champion; sometimes you’re all it has. I remember when my book first came out, I naively thought that my job was done. And I’m sufficiently socially awkward that I shied away from self-promotion. In time, I’ve gotten over the trepidation, or, at any rate, gotten better at pushing past my instinct to just let the work speak for itself… after all, first readers have to find it for it to speak to them. The internet has been an invaluable – cost and time efficient – tool. Blogging, networking, even circulating an e-newsletter help get the word out. So, though I’m still working on getting over my discomfort with self-promotion – read: feeling alternatively like a whore or egotist – I continue to drop pebbles in the water, hoping they’ll ripple out.

Promoting my books have also yielded opportunities to share what I have learned; locally, regionally, and internationally – this is a flyer from my 2021 workshop for the Trinidad-based Bocas Literary Festival workshop series.

An enduring love for the written word, the art of the story; holding on to that little girl who read the pictures before she could read the words. Anything will feel like a chore if the love goes out of it. The freelance hustle sometimes drains me, leaving little time for the characters huddled in the dark corners of my mind. But a new Maeve Binchy still has the ability to put a smile of anticipation on my face, and visiting a neighbourhood book store recently I was like a kid in a candy store and that’s before I got into a conversation with the store clerk about our mutual love of Anne Rice novels. Bottom line, I love to read, and I’ve turned that love into an online blog ‘Read Anything Good Lately’ at my MySpace page, http://www.myspace.com/jhohadli (okay, one edit: ‘Read Anything Good Lately’ is now Blogger on Books and can be found right here)

Screen capture of my Bocas 2021 workshop on writing for children.

A willingness to give yourself a break. I mean this literally and figuratively. You push yourself hard, and you need to – as a writer and a freelancer you need to be a self-motivator. Still… Take the time to recharge those batteries as needed, switch up the environment and sometimes just put it down and come back to it when your eyes aren’t blurred and burning. Accept that you’re human and constantly under construction, allow yourself your mistakes, and failures, and learn from them. Needless to say, I’m still struggling with this one, but then I like a good fight.

i was in NY in 2014 for the World Voices festival and photographed by Beowulf Sheehan, one of those pictures ending up in his 2018 book Author.

Post note: For better or worse, this is still more or less true.

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