I began writing in my teens and in the 30 years since writing has been the touchstone of my life.
My first published books were of poetry. I come from a very ordinary, non-literary Scottish background, so writing poetry was an odd thing to do. I don’t know why I began, but it was secretive and liberating and real.
By the time I’d got into university (I studied Philosophy at Edinburgh) I’d found my way to a writer’s group. My first pamphlet, Black Spiders, appeared when I was 19. In the years since, there have been several collections, including The Queen of Sheba (Bloodaxe 1996), The Tree House (Picador 2006), and most recently, The Overhaul. I’ve taken to writing non-fiction too, producing Findings in 2006 and in 2012 Sightlines.
Becoming a writer was certainly a gamble, but it seems to have worked. From poetry it was a short step into non-fiction and writing for radio. My books have been honoured with many awards. (You can find out more about my work under Publications.) Poems of mine have been published everywhere from Minnesota to the Shanghai underground. I’d edited books and judged prizes, and I’m now a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, but for every success there have been plenty of false starts and intermissions, and these inform my teaching.
I use wonderful poems to teach the basics of writing poetry. Likewise, non-fiction. We learn from the masters. In my classes, there’s a lot of reading and talking and listening, and a fair amount of laughter and genuine feeling. People produce good work! I insist on precision and craft, but there’s plenty room for imagination and play. Students are encouraged to find their own path, and to engage in the great conversation which is literature. Mostly it’s a matter of showing students what’s possible.
A writer’s life, especially a poet’s, probably won’t be a wealthy one, but that also means we’re not slaves to ‘the market’. It’s a life rich in many other ways. You develop a whole bag of tricks to help you get by, and it allows us to live with integrity, to challenge what needs challenging, and to engage fully with the world through language.
People sometimes ask ‘can you really teach creative writing?’ but I think the question is wrongly put. Better to ask ‘can you learn to be a writer’? The answer is obviously yes. I did, and I’m learning still. I learn as much from my students as they do from me, probably more.