On Writing by A.L. Kennedy

On Writing A L Kennedy

The book is made up of three sections, the first and largest of which contains extracts from her blog for The Guardian. These blog posts are largely unaltered from their original form and chart a three-year period during which Kennedy completed the short story collection What Becomes, and wrote the novel The Blue Book. During this time she also performed “Words,” a hit one-woman show at the Edinburgh Festival.

If any reader was under the illusion that the writer’s life is glamorous, Kennedy puts paid to the notion over the course of her blog posts.

We get glimpses into her life, from ill-fated gannet rescue attempts, to chronic back pain and bouts of labyrinthitis, to a dizzying travel schedule spent in a succession of “grey hotel rooms” while “considering the possibilities of self-harm and overpriced in-room porn.”

However, her passion for what she does shines through: “I have just spent a month standing on stage every day and telling people that I love my job and that words are important… It’s a simple, lovely, human thing. I tell stories. I like being able to remember that.”

Although the blog posts are presented in a conversational, diaristic tone, we learn more about Kennedy’s early life from the second part of the book which contain her essays.

In the introduction, she describes her grandfather: an amateur boxer,  ”a huge, apparently invincible and yet deeply gentle man.” In her essay Insomnia she describes a childhood in Dundee filled with the late night escapism of compulsive reading and the beginnings of her desire to write her own stories.

In the stand-out essay in the book, To Save Our Lives, Kennedy focuses on community arts and her time working with marginalised people. She writes passionately about how writing should not be the sole preserve of the elite and how the act of writing has the power to enrich lives:

“What if others suddenly can know a part of you, a deep and intimate part of you, the dreams you make? What if you light them and are useful, bring them in to what previously may have been an alien experience? What if you change their lives? How could that possibly not be a joy in your life and change you? How could that possibly not improve, for example, your health and well-being?”

The final section contains Words, Kennedy’s one-woman show. Here we see a writer of immense skill and precision. Although this is a performance piece, it sings off the page and provides a fitting end to the book:

“But there’s not a word we have that’s weak — and every one of them for nothing but our use – without us they fade, without them we are nameless, we are silence, we are the lies and blurs and slogans of other people’s minds — when there shouldn’t be a beauty we can’t sing, there shouldn’t be a love we can’t declare, there shouldn’t be a truth, a hope, a justice, a new reality we can’t name and start to make with words.”

Rating: 4/5

Recommended for: Aspiring writers and curious readers.

Other recommended reading: Stephen King‘s On Writing, Margaret Atwood‘s Negotiating With The Dead

Maire Robinson