Jackie Kay on being a writer

Jackie Kay on being a writer

By Nione Meakin 11/04/14

Jackie Kay MBE is a multi award-winning Scottish novelist and poet, currently Professor of Creative Writing at Newcastle University. She talks to Nione Meakin about finding your voice, being loyal to your writing and the importance of being able to edit your own work...

Coming out as a writer is as hard as coming out as a lesbian. It’s a huge thing just to think of yourself that way, let alone tell other people. For me it was a process of years – having books published, people recognising my work, readers responding to my work. It’s really important to find a trusted circle of friends to read your work, or a writers’ group – you need people who will be honest but encouraging. 

Writing a novel and writing poetry are very different processes. It’s almost like the difference between the left and right side of the brain. They might both come under the umbrella of writing but they couldn’t be more different. Writing a novel is like having a long illness – it’s something you have to recover from. Your sense of purpose and self-belief can get attacked. With a poem it’s easier to sustain your self-belief until the end.

Identity will always be something I’m interested in and want to write about in different ways. Most writers have a patch of land they circle and plant things in. Different flowers and veg will grow but they will come from the same soil. I don’t think you necessarily need to seek out these subjects – they come to you. It’s a bit like being haunted.  

I don’t think it’s important that writers are versatile. Some poets never write novels and some novelists never write poetry and I wouldn’t think any less of anyone for it.  But to find what you want to do, it’s often good to experiment with different forms. For me, the thrill is in trying and failing – there’s a thrill to be found in failing. 

You have to turn up at your desk to write as if you were meeting someone else. You wouldn’t leave someone waiting or not show up without an explanation. You should almost find a way of separating your writing as something you have to be loyal and dependable and trustworthy to. Don’t leave your writing standing waiting for you on the street corner. 

Sometimes it’s just not practical to write every day. You have to find a pattern and a routine that’s comfortable for you. For me, it helps if I’m not travelling. I find it better to be in one place and then I’ll get up and start writing at the same time each day and try to do at least four hours.  But it can be hard juggling teaching, travelling, writing and gigs. I feel constantly frustrated that I can’t get at what I want to do most – which is write. 

The mistakes young writers make are the same as any writer might make – mainly being inauthentic. The writing and poetry that moves us always has something authentic about it, a feeling of being in safe hands. It should never feel contrived. I remember Ian Jack, a former editor of Granta, agreeing to publish a story of mine but there were a couple of sentences he wanted to take out and in the margins he wrote, “Danger! Imagination at work!” It was such a good criticism and one I think of whenever I write something that sounds too try-hard. 

If you don’t have the talent for sniffing out your own false notes you can’t really be a writer. One of the first things you need is an ability to edit yourself. It’s almost more important than the writing itself. I think you know instinctively when something doesn’t ring true but it also comes with practice. You certainly know when you read something out loud. 

There are more opportunities for writers and poets now than there were when I was starting out. Winning or being shortlisted for something like the Arvon or Bridport prizes, or the Bruntwood playwriting competition is a huge boost for a young writer and can help when it comes to trying to get a book published. There are a huge number of well-respected poetry magazines too and a proliferation of poetry pamphlets. There’s even a prize for pamphlets – The Michael Marks Award. If I was a young writer now, that’s probably the route I’d go down to get my work out there. 

I find writing novels incredibly debilitating but part of me likes the challenge. Also, novels sell more than poetry or short stories. I’ve been paid for the new novel I’m writing already and so I have to deliver it. If I won a load of money tomorrow would I finish it? Probably. But I’d be less motivated to write another one.


Jackie Kay is one of the guest speakers at this weekend’s First Fictions literary festival, which champions new writing and innovation in fiction. 

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Image by The Queen's Hall, on a Creative Commons license.

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