Linda Back McKay grew up writing stories and poetry, but was well into adulthood before she reached a major conclusion: that she could, and should, be a writer.
The odds were stacked against the single mother of three children, who lacked any formal training or job connections. But she figured that a volunteer gig with the Minneapolis community radio station KFAI might help boost her résumé and secure a reference letter for a future writing job. She was right.
McKay parlayed her volunteer work into a series of advertising jobs, the creation of her own copywriting business, and a long career as a writer and teacher at the Loft Literary Center. She authored several books, including one — about female motorcyclists of the 1930s and 40s — that will be released posthumously.
McKay died Sept. 17 of brain cancer at her home in Minneapolis. She was 72.
David McKay, her husband of 35 years, said his wife's talent and grit were evident from the earliest days of her writing life. He met Linda McKay while working alongside her at KFAI — and eventually was the person she asked to serve as a reference when she applied for her first copywriting jobs.
"She pursued that with her usual determination and vigor," he said. "And she did get a letter of reference from me."
Raised in St. Paul and West St. Paul, McKay spent her adult life in Minneapolis. There, she raised her children, developed wide-ranging connections in the city's literary community and developed a lifelong hobby of motorcycling — always riding on the back of her husband's bike.
Daughter Michele Back said her mother was dedicated to the craft of writing, but also realistic about the economic realities of being an artist. She remembers listening to McKay cold-calling potential clients as she worked to build her copywriting business and then building up a résumé as a writing teacher, step by step.
Back said McKay was open about the uncertainty of building her career but insisted on teaching her children that trying, even if it meant failing, was necessary for success.
"Her philosophy was that she felt like she had enough talent to do this stuff, but she believed talent wasn't everything," Back said. "You have to put the work in it, and she realized that writing was work — constant work, and hard work."
McKay also believed that she could best reach people, both through her writing and in her day-to-day life, by showing her own vulnerability. In two books, "Shadow Mothers" and "Out of the Shadows," McKay shared stories of women who had placed children for adoption and reunited with them later in life. She also shared one of the most personal experiences of her own life: how she'd become pregnant as a young woman, was sent to a home for unwed mothers, and had her baby taken from her and adopted by another family. Years later, McKay tracked down her son and the two developed a lasting relationship.
Jennifer Dodgson, program director for education at the Loft, said McKay's ability to relate to other people — and all the ups and downs of their lives — helped her excel as a teacher. McKay spent three decades with the Loft, first as a student and later as an instructor.
"I don't know that she ever had a negative class evaluation," Dodgson said. "I remember her students always reporting that she would really go the extra mile."
In addition to her husband and daughter Michele, McKay is survived by daughter Katie Back, stepdaughter Rebecca McKay, sons Tom Franta and Joel Back, ex-husband Bill Back, brother Robert Trazig, six grandchildren and one great-grandchild. Services are scheduled for Nov. 9 at Becketwood Cooperative, 4300 W. River Parkway, Minneapolis.
Erin Golden • 612-673-4790