Review: On Writing by A.L. Kennedy


Astute, electrifying and very funny – Neil Stewart hails A.L. Kennedy’s latest work as one of the most useful books ever written for writers in training


A.L. Kennedy is on the road again – or on the rails, or at sea, or up in the air: all travel clichés I’m sure she’s smiled tightly at before. Among the less-discussed aspects of the successful modern writer’s career is the astonishing amount of time that will be spent travelling to, reading at and recovering from talks, workshops, symposiums, book festivals and signing tours.

Kennedy’s newest book of non-fiction redresses the balance: it’s largely made up of blogs originally published in the Guardian newspaper, on a semi-regular basis, over a period of around 18 months in 2010 and 2011 – approximately covering the gestation, composition and release of her 2011 novel The Blue Book – and many of them written in travelling vehicles, or in diverse locations, or on what passes for a “holiday” (a new location with the same manuscript to write). She dislikes planes; she likes trains, and she has ample opportunity in these pages to reconfirm her impressions of both. She’s so constantly busy, in fact, that you wonder how on earth she found the time to put together a 300-page novel amongst all her other obligations.

It remains something of a mystery in On Writing. While certain other authors have been convinced to put together books of advice to the unpublished, A.L. Kennedy’s book is not a “How To” book; there’s little, even, about the specifics of how The Blue Book came to be written (though there are hints at its themes in what were, before its publications, slightly baffling references to magicians Penn and Teller or Derren Brown). Instead, her absolute frankness about her back pain (among other pains), constant travelling, difficulties in “pottering at the terrifying edges of the new novel” et al make this something more like a “Why It’s a Very Bad Idea To” book.

She has a terrific answer to the vapid rhetoric of “In a time where money is short, do you think that money should be spent on a baby’s incubator, or on supporting poetry?”

When she lets herself be cajoled into offering actual advice, in one of the half dozen essays appended to these collected blogs, it’s astute, electrifying, and nicely self-deprecating. (Having stated that a writer ought “to love your character – that means you’ll allow them to be whoever they are … If you object to them too strongly, they’ll go somewhere else”, she adds, winningly: “this is partly nonsense, but it can be a useful way to think”.) Modest in all things, you have the feeling Kennedy is appalled at the notion of anybody actually coming to her for advice; as she says, however, when her students confess to her how difficult they’re finding writing, she feels reassured for them.

There’s also time for anecdotes (often told against herself), comic vignettes, and very justifiable rage about the welfare “reforms” being enacted by the newish British government at the time these blogs were published. (It’s irritating that none of the blogs gives the precise date it first appeared, which would have helped match each to real-world issues.) Kennedy describes herself as “leaning to the left” physically and politically, and her invective against the Cameron-Clegg government powers the best blogs here: this is not unfettered fulminating, but expressions of  disbelief and despair at whatever latest government crankery has been rolled out, her arguments underpinned at all times by empathy and a belief in the vital importance of the arts, neither of which seems to have had much to do with government policies of the time. She has a terrific retort to the vapid rhetoric of “In a time where money is short, do you think that money should be spent on a baby’s incubator, or on supporting poetry?” On the incubator, she replies, obviously – but poetry is one of those ineffable things which makes us want to bring that baby into the world in the first place.

She’s a master of the absurd, the wry juxtaposition, the startling image

It’s not a ranty book, however: in fact it’s frequently extremely funny. The humour relies on context, rather than on gags (those who’ve attended her standup gigs as well as her readings will be aware you laugh more in the latter): she’s a master of the absurd, the wry juxtaposition, the startling image. I particularly liked an off-the-cuff description of working with words: “it’s a little bit like taking an infinitely large box containing an infinitely large number of small, possibly furry animals – a bit like hamsters – and then trying to set them out in order – stay still – one after another – don’t do that – and hoping that you can compel them to say their names in order … without you having to hit them with a hammer.” Even the book’s index is of the surprisingly common “comic” variety, serving principally to bring to the reader’s attention the surprising number of times gannets are mentioned in the text.

The essays that follow the blog entries are more technical, and deal with character-building, voice, and, in one piece a little too dry to sit comfortably here, how to lead a creative writing workshop. These have something of the air of the exclusive bonus on a greatest hits record: almost all the material here has been published before (and the blog entries are still freely available online, making this book’s high price tag a touch cheeky). In being the antithesis of the didactic “How to Write” manual, On Writing proves to be one of the most useful books imaginable for writers, in training and beyond. Kennedy doesn’t seek to instruct, just describes her own experiences, and it’s her utter inwardness – her solipsism – and candour which makes this book indispensable for writers and readers alike. C