Dear David

An Advice Column by Yael Van Der Wouden

In which Sir David Attenborough speaks of rejection, finding one’s voice, and the importance of fighting to be seen.

Dear David,


Though I have only been faced with four rejections and know I have plenty more to come, I sometimes find doubt in my poetry. Perhaps my words are not melancholic enough, or tender enough, for reviewers, and this saddens me. How, in your experience, do you deal with rejection? I have come across Ray Bradbury’s quote: ‘You have to know how to accept rejection and reject acceptance’, but that is easier said than done. Where do you think I can possibly begin to accept the many rejections I know I have to face? And how and when did you realize that you were a worthy writer?


Yours sincerely,




Dear Jess,


I will tell you as I tell myself: consider the river otter. The river otter, despite its darling appearance, lives a tough life. A life of constant survival, defending its territory against both underwater and land-bound predators. Through this all, each otter carries with it a little pebble. They pick it themselves, store it in a pocket of fat and fur. Some otters carry the same pebble with them for the duration of their lives.


And what does the roughened river otter do with its treasured rock? Play, dear Jess. It tosses it about. It puts it on its belly and its cheeks. It throws it up in the air, catches it again. The purpose? Nothing more or less complicated than comfort. Joy.


Carry a handful of good words with you as you would pebbles, dear Jess. Write down a kind comment, a compliment, an encouragement you have received. Fold them and keep them in your pocket; bring them with you on adventures.


To start off your collection: you are magnificent, and your words are exactly right. They are yours.



– David


Dear David


For the bulk of my life I’ve struggled to communicate with others about personal issues and emotions. I always feel as though everyone else’s emotions matter but mine should be repressed. I feel like I’m turning myself into a doormat. I’m so passive, I let other people walk all over me. Recently, it’s caused some problems with my boyfriend, who desperately wants to help but doesn’t know how. I don’t know how to make myself start speaking up, and I’m worried it could affect this very promising relationship with the most sweet and supportive person I know. How can I learn to speak my mind and become more assertive?






Dear Meridyth,


I was once told a story of a woman who found herself quite infatuated with a gorilla at a zoo. When she looked into his eyes, he stared deeply into hers. When she smiled, he smiled back. The woman’s understanding of the gorilla’s communication was entirely based on her own language, and so she could not read the signs for what they were: steady eye contact meaning a challenge, the baring of teeth meaning aggression. The story did not end very happily. One day the gorilla escaped from its keep and attacked the woman, and though she is in good health now, she came away injured and frightened.


We are odd creatures, are we not? Masters of communication, humans are able to read emotion from a single breath, a sigh or a gasp. Such masters, indeed, that at times we forget to consider all that we do not understand, all that gets lost in translation.


Dear Meridyth, if you will allow, I daresay that in your own way, you speak up daily. By writing this very letter, you have spoken up. By laughing, or remaining quiet, you speak up. The solution lies not only in the words you say, dear one, but in helping those who want to better understand you learn your language. Does your boyfriend know what you mean when you catch his eye, when you maintain a steady gaze? When you smile, or when you don’t?


Here, I will start you off: when doing the dishes I might, on occasion, stare into the sink for a long stretch of time. I am not upset, merely thoughtful. Water makes me thoughtful.


Hope this helps, good luck, keep in touch,

– David


Dear David,


I’m in a bit of a pickle. About a year ago I met a boy who right off the bat seemed to like me – not because of who I am (my personality, my wit, etc), but because of who he thinks I am. In other words: he doesn’t know me, but seems to have fallen for an imaginary version of me.


What do I do? How do I make clear that it’s not his intention that I dislike, but the fact that I don’t facture into it? Is there a way of putting this into words without losing a potential connection with a good person?



– Vera



Dear Vera,


Several years ago I had the privilege of participating in a fascinating excavation project. With a team of experts, we researched a fossilised dinosaur path. One of the footprints that we found was of a dinosaur so massive in size that with each step it took it created a quicksand mud pool. What we discovered upon excavating them was the following: within each footprint were preserved the skeletons of smaller dinosaurs. One footprint in particular housed the remnants of thirty different specimens! Amongst which was an early ancestor of the crocodile, a stranded pterodactyl, and a turtle.


Yes! A turtle!


Remember your size, dear Vera. Remember not to disappear in the quicksand of someone else’s tracks, no matter how curious their path may seem, or how grand their journey might appear from a distance.



– David

Have your own questions for Sir David Attenborough? Submit them here.