Kevin MacNeil: The Writing Life

Internationally renowned poet and novelist Kevin MacNeil answers a series of questions about the writing life. Includes more tips than a snooker cue warehouse.

Dear Kevin, I really, really want to be a creative writer. Can I? - Anon Buttnotforlong, Arbroath

Guess what! Good news! Yes! You certainly can. Everyone has the potential to be a writer, just as everyone has the potential to be, say, a joiner, or a mechanic, or a chef.

The resources you need are already housed within you; that's one of the beauties of being a writer. Everyone has an imagination. The proof of this is that everyone dreams. I see this as incontrovertible evidence that human beings are innately creative. Not only that, but since everyone is physically and mentally unique, everyone is therefore uniquely creative.

Here's the thing, though. Most people will only succeed in writing if they have determination. And lots of it. Without perseverance your writing will never achieve its real potential. In any case, if writing were easy it wouldn't be worth doing. It's a challenge - and a very rewarding one.

I disagree with those writers who privately insist that good writing is only possible to a select few (these pessimists are usually quite happy to take the money and teach writing workshops anyhow - how ridiculous is that!) Elitist nonsense! I also disagree with the poet who said, as we were discussing writing workshops a few years ago, 'We should start teaching workshops in getting people not to write. These days everyone is a poet!' What a pathetic attitude! (If only everyone were a poet - the world would be a safer and more interesting place!)

So, Anon (haven't you written quite a few poems already?), my answer is: Go for it! And don't worry if you have a demanding job and/or family as many writers I know hold down busy jobs and raise families. Again, determination will see you through.

Dear Mr MacNeil, I have been writing for some time and I am finding it a terribly solitary business. I've heard that a writers' group is about to start up in my area. Should I join? - Violet Snifflebatter, postmark illegible

Well, Violet, you have nothing to lose in going along to check it out. The best Writing Groups provide a warm, helpful yet non-judgemental environment in which you can meet up with like-minded people and share ideas, knowledge and constructive criticism of each other's work. You can take real delight in each other's growing talents and increasing publishing successes, while feeling a sense of camaraderie that can enrich your life generally as well as your writing techniques specifically.

However. It would be naïve to think that Writing Groups suit all personality types, and it would be equally wrong for me to pretend that all Writers' Groups are what they could be. There is often a danger that one or two outspoken individuals dominate the group and the quieter ones feel too intimidated to share their own painfully-wrought words. (And, rather like war heroes and Zen Buddhists, it is often the ones who say the least who would really have the most to shout about.) That said, a good co-ordinator should make sure everyone has their say and that the atmosphere is open and conducive to honest, but respectful, discussion.

I always encourage individuals not to think along the lines of either 'Oh, everyone else's writing is so much better than mine,' or 'Their work's crap! I'm the greatest writer who ever lived, bar none.' In fact, I quietly despise rivalry and competitivity in writing, as the only person you should be competing against is yourself. There are already more than enough petty jealousies in literature. I even coined a cheesy phrase to encourage respectful and non-judgemental listening while each person reads out their work to a group: Sharing, not comparing. (What can I say? It's cheesy but it works!)

Remember, there are other ways to share your work with writers. If you are lucky enough to have a Writer in Residence in your area then you should make the most of him/her. There are many online communities, too, where you can share your work and 'meet' other people. And remember, too, that there are great resources in Scotland such as Moniack Mhor which provide residential writing courses for all kinds of writers (beginners, crime novelists, dramatists, etc). If you have a library nearby, then you have a phenomenal teaching resource at your fingertips. I've always said that one of the best ways to write is to read.

Dude! I've just had, like, my first book published and I gotta say my ego is expanding faster than the universe. I don't know if I really wanna become, like, the person I'm becoming. Help! - Hieronymous A.C. Faltermeier III, a scuzzy bar in NYC, 4 a.m.

Ah, yes! That first book feeling. There are few, if any, experiences like it. Better, to many determined writers, than the birth of their first child. Better than the artificial highs of drink or drugs. Better than getting drunk with a dozen supermodels while your team wins the league.

You carry the book around with you, checking every few minutes to see that the print hasn't faded away into nothingness. You place it casually beside your cappuccino in the smart coffee bars in case someone accidentally sees it, asks what you're reading and you can say, 'What? Oh no, that's just a book I wrote.' You wander round bookshops just gazing at that perfect beauty on the shelf, yearning to be recognised. And then there are the literary awards (practically everyone who's published work sooner or later is award-winning), the invitations to read at huge literary events, the free flights and stays at swanky hotels, the book-signings and so on. Yes, it can certainly go to your head. Especially if success comes to you at a reasonably young age. (Inexplicably (or patronisingly), in literature you are a 'young writer' until you are well into your 40s).

The time will come, however, when you have to make a choice. Do you want to be a self-destructive/self-obsessed/alcohol-or-drug-addicted narcissist or do you want to be a real person? Are you living in order that your (posthumous) biographies will turn you into a legend or do you want your writing to be more important than your lifestyle excesses?

At a large reading in South America a few years ago, a famous (or infamous) American poet squared up to a less well-known poet after that latter had read, glared at him and, with a measured snarl, said, 'You. Are. The. Worst. Poet. I. Have. Ever. Heard. In. The. English. Language.' The American then turned on his heels and stormed off, having, he supposed, destroyed a poet's reputation and created an exciting scene for his biographers. Actually, everyone just thought the American poet was an immature and egotistical twat.

I'm not denying that many writers have led wild and crazy lives. I read and enjoy lots of biographies. But it's important to differentiate between 'acting like a writer' (see Kerouac, Burroughs and thousands of others) and being yourself. Remember and try to be who you ideally want to be, the you that is you to your best potential of you-ness. Then you'll feel fulfilled. And the effect on your writing will be beneficial indeed.

Dear Caoimhin, I want to be a writer and I've just remembered I'm bilingual. Should I write in Gaelic or English? Le dùrachdan, Murchadh Iain Mhurchaidh, Na Hearadh

There are advantages and disadvantages to writing in Gaelic, the Language of Eden and of infighting. Firstly, the disadvantages. Your audience is going to be limited. There are fewer than 59,000 Gaelic speakers left in Scotland and the percentage of those who read and enjoy contemporary Gaelic creative writing is not, I suppose, huge. There's also a curious danger that some editors will publish Gaelic for no more than tokenistic reasons and will, therefore, publish literally anything! (I've seen editors who have no knowledge of Gaelic publish Gaelic 'poems' without even seeing a translation!) This kind of occurrence is, thankfully, rare, as it would ultimately devalue our literature.

Now, the advantages. Gaelic is such a beautifully melodious language, resonant with lilting cadences and long, sing-song vowels, that you could write a shopping list in Gaelic and it will sound like a poem. It is inherently musical, and is therefore eminently suitable for creative writing. Another major advantage is that people in other countries have a great interest in, and respect for, the Gaelic language and culture. (More so, sadly, than some Scots do). Gaelic readings always attract a fascinated crowd overseas (I always insist on reading some Gaelic at literary performances, even if there are no other Gaelic speakers present). In my experience, they can't get enough of it! Of course, if you want a wider audience you will also have to translate your work into English and/or other languages, which is, of course, an art in itself.

As for whether you should write in English or Gaelic, that is, naturally, your decision. I often find that what I write dictates what language it is in. A poem will nudge at my mind in Gaelic and practically write itself. Or a story will come to mind with a variety of English phrases jostling for opening sentence slot. Thus, the choice is often made for you. One caveat, however. Be careful when translating English into Gaelic (should you choose to do so), that the Gaelic doesn't have an offputting English blas.

Hey, Kevin! Do you have any favourite writers' quotations on the art of writing? Selina M. Babblegasket, Croydon

Actually my favourite quotations which I apply to writing are Zen-inspired and do not concern themselves with writing per se, but here anyway are some writing quotations which will, I hope, inspire you.

'In all narration, there is only one way to be clever. And that is to be exact.' Robert Louis Stevenson

'No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader. No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader. For me the initial delight is in the surprise of remembering something I didn't know I knew.' Robert Frost

'Use no superfluous word, no adjective which does not reveal something.' Ezra Pound

'Like a piece of ice on a hot stove the poem must ride on its own melting.' Robert Frost

'Art gratifies a perceptual impulse and exhibits the mimimum of reason.' John Crowe Ransom

'Everywhere tints childrening, innocent spontaneous, true.' e.e. cummings

'Consider: I. That the whole world is material for poetry; II. That there is not a specifically poetic material.' Wallace Stevens

'Be influenced by as many great artists as you can, but have the decency either to acknowledge the debt outright, or to try to conceal it.' Ezra Pound

'To live in the world but outside of existing conceptions of it.' Wallace Stevens

And finally:

'For every reader of books on art, 1,000 people go to LOOK at art. Thank heaven!' Ezra Pound

So stop reading this and get writing! You know you can do it. 

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