Letters to a young writer

Article published on Nov. 27, 2012
community published
Article published on Nov. 27, 2012

The decision to be a writer can be a daunting one and the process is strewn with frustration. Words of advice and encouragement from three established European poets and novelists

Jackie Kay: poet and novelist, UK

'Keep reading, read widely, variously and all the time and make sure that you read books, really choose to read them and other material. Keep trying and don’t be frightened of failure, keep taking risks, have a friend who reads your work, whom you get opinions from, whom you trust. See writing as a kind of a conversation that you’re having with yourself, see that that conversation involves days when your self-belief is attacked and know that the kind of Jekyll and Hyde role of going from extreme complement to extreme lack of it is part of being a writer. So, I would tell a young writer not to worry too much about thinking, ‘Oh no this is rubbish I can’t do that’. Actually all writers do that, even published writers. That’s part of the job.'

Herman Koch: novelist, Holland

'A lot of writers answer that you should read a lot but my advice would be is to look very closely at your favourite writer or writers, when you’re only 20 or 21 and try to imitate them as well as you can. Then think, I will try and write a book just like this favourite writer of mine and if you are strong enough then the individual thing comes out. Maybe someone will say, ‘This book is exactly like the Catcher in the Rye’ but if you are good, there will something very personal, it will be clear that this guy or this woman has personality.'

John Burnside: poet and novelist, UK

'I’m worried about the whole workshop mentality. I’ve seen so many poems or poets in fact who’ve been formed by the workshop process, whose entire oeuvre has been formed by that process. You see this formal competence, this ability to not seem to put a foot wrong, which actually depends on not trying very much anyway. There are ways of getting together with your friends and adjusting, fine-tuning a poem that that was originally searching for something ambitious or unique. If one lands on your table and you start reading it, you might know it’s from this particular workshop group, but you wouldn’t know which poet. What is poetry more than anything? There’s nothing to gain from writing poetry. You’re not going to become rich, or famous. So why not be as unique and individual as you can be? If you fall flat on your face, only three people will have noticed. But if you do something wonderful, it doesn’t matter if nobody notices, because you read it yourself and you think, ‘Yeah, I did something there. I did something different.’

I think patience is really important. Most people haven’t got enough to say or haven’t practiced their art long enough or consistently enough to do a book at the age of 22, 23, 24. It’s very rare that people do that and it lasts. Again, it’s not a career. So, why not take your time? In particular, be patient for your first book. Two or three years can make all the difference. I bet there’s a lot of poets who, if you asked them whether they would be happy had they published two or three years later in book form, would say yes. I’d almost say, publish anything, it doesn’t matter if you publish an individual poem in a magazine. Maybe you’ll realise, oh, I don’t like that at all – sometimes you don’t know till you see it in print. But fine, you’ve learnt something from that, that wasn’t such a good poem after all. So when you come to put a book together, maybe your judgement’s been refined by that humiliation. There’s a lot to be said for humiliation, to just fall flat on your face and say, okay, I learned something there.'