‘As strong as possible in our words’

AL Kennedy, On Writing

Jonathan Cape, 358pp, £18.99, ISBN 9780224096973

reviewed by Eli Davies

As the flux and uncertainty of the publishing industry has grown, so has the market in creative writing courses, masterclasses, writing retreats and how-to guides. This stuff is big business - some of these courses will set you back thousands - and it seems a little too convenient that the growth of this business appears to have coincided with plummeting revenue from book sales. As a new writer, all this can all be extremely tempting. We are a vulnerable bunch: writing your first book is a strange and bewildering experience, and frequently you want somebody to just tell you whether you’re doing it right. A course, a writing holiday or a book full of prescriptive dos and don’ts can sometimes seem like the answer. Personally, I feel that much of this can be a distraction from the hard graft of actual writing, which is why I am wary. Hard graft is something which AL Kennedy is all for; she has far less time, however, for the burgeoning market in creative writing courses, with one or two honorable exceptions, and she minces no words in letting us know it throughout this collection.

The book shares its title with Stephen King’s 2000 ‘memoir of the craft’, regarded by many as a staple text for those beginning a career writing fiction. King’s text is much more straightforwardly instructional than Kennedy’s; his is the cut-the-crap tone of a stern uncle, full of recommendations for the writer’s toolkit and words of warning. Kennedy takes a softer approach. ‘On Writing’ is certainly no writers’ manual (though it does have its fair share of tips) and frequently it reads like a kind of manifesto, with some kindly words of encouragement thrown in. She wants to be your companion, hold your hand, sympathise about the tough times, and reassure the new writer that they are engaged in a beautiful thing. What she shares with King is a fierce commitment to the craft. Both writers are experienced - they know what they’re talking about, they’ve been there and done it - and they want to share all this because writing - writing well - is extremely important.

Kennedy’s book is divided into two sections. The first, which makes up the bulk of the book, is her collected Guardian blogs. These span three years and cover the publication of a short story collection, the writing and publication of a novel and the beginning of work on another collection. This writer’s life is an itinerant one: Kennedy is on the move almost constantly, ‘tarting myself across the globe on behalf of my books’, as she puts it, and the blogs find her at literary festivals, on boats (rarely on planes due to her fear of flying), in hotel rooms, very occasionally on holiday and, even more occasionally, at home. She ends each blog with the word ‘Onwards’ and read all together like this, they have a nice narrative momentum. They have the added impact of a historical backdrop, with British politics providing material for some magnificent rants along the way. The second section of the book is five stand-alone essays and the text of her one-woman show ‘Words’. Some of the material in these is familiar from the blogs, but extended and polished. This section does at times feel a little tacked on - the self-contained arc of the blogs on their own would have been enough - but this is a small complaint, as there are some powerful and fascinating ideas on show here.

I have said already that new writers need reassurance, and in On Writing Kennedy provides it in shovelfuls. Writing a novel is a lonely business: you spend long periods of time in a room staring at a screen, with only your imaginary world for company, veering between exhilaration and despair. But don’t worry, Kennedy tells us, it is supposed to feel like this. Here she is, in one of the earlier blogs: ‘I’m always happy when a new writer comes to see me and says, in a puzzled and downhearted way, something along the lines of, “It’s hard.”’ A bit later on, she writes that ‘anyone who says the process isn’t grisly or won’t become so fairly soon, is a big fibber.’ Towards the end of the blogs, she writes about the range of procrastination techniques employed by writers, in a kind of ‘I can see you’ moment: the kettle must be boiled, your fingernails must be cut, the window must be looked out of. This is all amusing, but it is more than just observational humour; it’s a nod to the sheer, gaping terror of simply beginning to write.

She wants to establish solidarity with the new writer. ‘So here we all are - united and yet hideously isolated by our own bewilderment. And by “we” I mean those of us who are attempting to type anything.’ The use of the ‘we’ there is key: she may be a published author with several novels and short story collections under her belt, but she is saying, ‘I’m still one of you.’ It’s an appealing approach and she keeps it up throughout the book. She is great on the nitty gritty of the craft and many writers will feel the thrill of recognition when in one blog she describes in painstaking and perfect detail the slow process of working and reworking a sentence. Unexpected tips turn up throughout the book, as when she tells us that she imagines her words spoken in the voices of her favourite actors to keep her interest up. (The physical voice, incidentally, is something which Kennedy sets great store by, as both a political and a creative tool, and there is a stirring essay devoted to the subject in the second section)

At times Kennedy paints a mildly terrifying picture of her profession. Her version of the writer’s life is one in which she rarely sees her loved ones or takes holidays and in which she battles a succession of physical ailments, including a bad back and a stomach ulcer. I’m not quite sure how typical some of this is - she is, by her own admission, a workaholic - but at the very least it should be read as a simple warning for us all to look after ourselves. Not only is there solitude and ill-health to contend with, though: there is the current state of the publishing industry, about which she is consistently gloomy in both the blogs and the essays. She is upset that it is so much more difficult for the current generation of new writers than it was for her and dislikes the way that so many are being enticed onto ‘poorly conceived and exploitative Creative Writing courses’ which take aspiring writers’ money while ‘rendering them less able to be writers.’

As the blogs progress the entries become angrier and more political. Kennedy is unapologetic about her belief in the importance of writing and the arts. For her these things are absolutely not a luxury; they give people strength and confidence, help them get through life and express who they are, and she writes beautifully about this. ‘Without a muscular capacity to imagine we can’t construct better alternatives,’ she tells us at the beginning of a passionate rant about the coalition government’s assault on higher education. She is angry about lazy, slapdash journalism and links this deftly with the power of words and writing, telling us that ‘it is a matter of basic self-defence to keep ourselves as literate as possible, as strong as possible in our words.’

One of the most valuable aspects of any creative writing course - even those which Kennedy pours her scorn on - is simply being around other people who write. The encouragement and reassurance afforded by this company cannot, in my view, be underestimated. And a sense of company is a huge part of this book’s appeal. There is certainly something of the self-help for writers about the collection, and Kennedy chivvies us along with big, bold statements about why we should keep at it. And as grim as she can be about politics and publishing there is an optimism and faith in the craft that shines through. So while writing a novel is difficult and terrifying and ridiculous it’s also ‘beautifully unwise’. She is at pains to stress that what she does is wonderful: ‘It’s lovely and it’s mind-bending and I wouldn’t be without it.’ Non-writers may cringe at some of this, at her unflinching portrayal of the craft as noble and magical, and she tempers this here and there with her comedian schtick: self-deprecating quips and ironic riffs. But there is a belief running through which is fierce and authentic. It is refreshing and exciting to hear a writer speak this way, to be so completely committed both in an artistic and political sense, and so very much in the world.
Eli Davies is a London-based teacher and writer.

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#4: Posted by Chick Counterfly on Wed 5 Jun 2013 21:28

I'm just very disappointed that, when referencing her physical ailments and their effects on her writing, she didn't reproduce the (very!) hard to find topless pics of her from Hot Aesthete Quarterly.

I also take issue with her position that ‘it is a matter of basic self-defence to keep ourselves as literate as possible, as strong as possible in our words.’ When, frankly, being literate today puts you at the extreme ends of the bell curve, makes you an outcast and, most importantly, makes it much tougher to get laid.