I came across this book while browsing in Edinburgh. I had an hour so started to read it, was captivated. Since then I have heard A.L. Kennedy a few times on the Radio, but for me reading her is more enjoyable than hearing her.
This is a book about writing and being a writer, but who would have thought that writing about writing could be so compelling? The chapters of the book started as blogs on the guardian website and you can still read them there.
But there is more in the book than is on-line, so you will miss out if you only read the blogs.
There is a pace to the book which is attractive and which suggests something of the busy-ness of this writer’s life – so often on the road, so often involved in a workshop, so often re-writing something, and so often fretting about things in general. One of the most amusing chapters is about procrastination. It’s called ‘Off-Putting Behaviour’ and I have often shared it with people while leading a day on ‘time wisdom’. Writing is a task that many dread, and so the procrastinating writer – sharpening pencils and lining them up neatly – is someone we all know from the inside; even if the writing task being put-off is just a short note.
This is how the procrastination chapter begins:
I have a small blackboard in my study. On it, I carefully chalk all of the writing-related tasks I have not yet completed: essays, scripts, treatments, rewrites, short stories, letters, novel-planning, crying in a corner, talking to my kettle … There are days when I love this blackboard and its anal-retentive attention to detail: its tiny chalk-holding flange, its even tinier rubbing-out cloth: and there are also days when it feels like having a debt-collector in the room with me, smelling of broken legs and hardened hearts.
Reading its vitality one can easily imagine the ever-so-fluent-and-articulate-writer just sitting down and writing it in one efficient sitting. But Kennedy spills the beans. Most writing is not writing, but thinking or drafting or re-writing or editing, or, more likely, worrying so much that nothing productive seems to be happening at all.
All of which I find both realistic and reassuring. I love this passage about signing a book contract, and specifically getting a ‘deadline’ into the bargain.
One Minute I am ambling along with my hands in my pockets, flirting ardently but gently and with no real legal obligations, and the next I am handcuffed to what may – I’ll admit – develop into a lovely, warm and clean-limbed partner, but which I, as usual fear, may turn out to be at best a corpse, and at worst, some kind of brain-eating undead gentleman who will embarrass me at parties.
Of course there must be contracts if publishers are to publish real books, and deadlines are inevitably part of the process if writers are to write them. But words like ‘contract’, deadline’ and ‘process’ are a million miles away from what she calls, ‘[that] beauty that you see when someone is really reading, completely engrossed’. She goes on to say that people who are reading or writing often look ‘frozen’. That doesn’t look too good to the outsider, but Kennedy is at her sharpest with the observation that follows.
But if we happen to glance at people just before they kiss (not in an intrusive or unpleasant way, I would hope), then their expression is the same – oddly solemn, intent. And yet nobody ever suggests that kissing is dull, or pathetic, or a bit of a waste of time. I happen to believe that giving and receiving a kiss operates very much along the same lines as giving and receiving a word – it’s simply that the giving and receiving are done in different rooms and at different times – they are still an attempt to touch, be touched, be recognised, to exist in passion, to be human.
It is because she makes writing and reading so human that this book by A.L. Kennedy is one of my books of the year.