Mordecai Martin is an Ashkenazi Jewish writer working between Philadelphia, New York City, and Mexico City. He is pursuing an MFA in Creative Writing at Randolph College, and his work has appeared in Catapult, Peach Magazine, X-Ray, TIMBER Journal, and other literary magazines. He blogs at MordecaiMartin.net and tweets and instagrams @mordecaipmartin. If you’d like to send a tip or monetary appreciation for this piece, he can be Venmo’d @mo-martin-1.
Click here to read Mordecai’s epistolary essay “Two Letters To My Uncle, c/o Willowbrook State School” from our summer 2022 issue!
Tell us a little about your path to becoming a writer.
Steinbeck has a line in East of Eden, in the parts about his mother’s expansive Irish Catholic family, where he talks about his uncle Joe. He says, “His mother and father thought him a poet because he wasn’t any good at anything else.” Sometimes I identify with that line, over identify with it. I always wrote, always took pride in my writing. In school I’d win a prize here and there. But I didn’t really seriously consider myself “a writer” until it felt like everything else was impossible. The obstacles I’ve met in writing have been blissfully few compared to the obstacles I met in, say, office work.
Just as there’s no one way to be a writer, there’s no one way to define success — it’s personal and ever-changing. What does it mean to you?
I think when it comes to writing, there are the successes that we have minimum to no control over, and the success that is entirely within our hands. The success we have no control over is what looks like success to the outside world: being published in such and such a journal, reaching so many thousands of readers, getting a contract of such and such a size, etc. Maybe even larger stuff like “Being taught in English classes” or “winning distinguished literary prizes” “Being positively reviewed and selling best.” All of those successes involve surrendering our work to the vicissitudes of the public. But I think more interesting to me are the goals we have control over, which are things like, “Did I push the psychological boundaries of myself and this character?” “Did I coin an expression that makes sense?” “Did I put words together in a manner that both pleases and surprises?” “Did I take a risk?” I’m very interested in those successes.
Writing is most often a labor of love, where gratification is self-defined and can sometimes be delayed or subdued. What motivates you to keep coming back to the page?
I find I start on the page because I have this pressure inside my chest. When I’m inspired, there gets to be a hot feeling behind my eyes, and I need to get it out. Then the question is, what gets me to come back to the page when the inspiration is spent, when there’s just the work to do? And for that I’ve been turning a lot to my translation practice these days, to learn how to work with a story that’s already written and done in your head, but needs to get out on the page in some form. I translate, mostly for my own interest, partially as a deep reading project, from Yiddish to English. Sometimes from Spanish to English, but much more often from Yiddish. In translation, you are problem solving. You are slotting in different constructions and roughly synonymous words, hoping they’ll fit the structure you’re trying to convey. It’s a slow, deliberate process, and I have to say, for some reason, I love it, though mostly in my life I detest jigsaw puzzles and other slow deliberate processes. So I’m trying to inform my writing from my translation work, I’m trying to sit and just rotate parts of the story until they make sense.
Does your writing ever surprise you? In what ways?
Often. When I’m writing at a good clip, in a real flow state, I tend to call it “following the words.” That is, I put down each word as it makes sense with the last word, the last sentence. And so I am often surprised and taken aback at which words seem to follow what.
Imagine your ideal writing retreat: Where would you go? What would you work on? Alone, or with others? And most importantly, what snacks would you bring?
I think for me, the best writing retreat would be in a city I’d never been to, or maybe a part of a city that I haven’t explored, with other artists, not necessarily writers, from all over the world. I like exploring city streets and then sitting down to write, I like having interesting conversations and then dramatizing or extrapolating from them. I’m a terrible thief, really. I need interesting things and people around me, or else I won’t have anything to say. So I think something urban and social would work best for me.
Which writer or book do you find yourself returning to, either to study craft or simply for pleasure?
I listen to the audiobook of Moby Dick every night. It helps me get to sleep. At this point, I have vast swathes of the book memorized or nearly memorized. It is my comfort book, and I get lost in it, and hope to be lost in it for the rest of my life. Other than that, I learn a lot from the stories of Isaac Babel in translation by Peter Constantine and the works of Grace Paley.
What words of kindness, support, or advice can you offer to writers who are just starting out or seeking their stride?
Please just get your writing down and get it out into the world, in whatever way you find most gratifying and successful. We need your voice. We need all the voices.
What are three things you’ve lost that you wish you could find?
It’s more than three, and it’s all books that I used to own. I suspect I left them at my mother’s and she threw them out or gave them away. But I can’t be positive, and it tortures me.