Collected blogs cleverly detail a writer’s life
A.L. Kennedy has shown an exceptional talent for writing, and an endearing wit, in her six novels, three non-fiction books and five short-story collections. And the Scottish author puts those talents to good use, even while writing books, in a blog for the U.K. newspaper the Guardian. Those blogs, at least a three-year stretch of them, form the core of On Writing, a humorous look at the serious business of writing that Kennedy designed as a guide for new and aspiring writers, and for those of us who like to live vicariously through one of our favourite authors. Through the train travels (she hates to fly) of an erudite, sometimes-curmudgeonly author and lecturer, we learn something not only of the craft of writing, but of the struggle to become a writer and to make a decent living at it, especially in a time when funding for education, the arts and libraries in the U.K. is under attack. “I am also aware that even people who love writing and are free to write may sometimes need something to smile about,” Kennedy writes in her introduction. “I have hoped to be entertaining.” She is that. She spends a great deal of time on the move, attending workshops and conferences, and so spends little time worrying about the neighbours she seldom sees “and more time worrying about why so many B&Bs are run by former law-enforcement personnel. On the one hand, their emergency-related skills are probably cracking and, on the other, they clearly harbour a pressing need to lock people up overnight in tiny rooms with inadequate plumbing and facilities. When I started writing, no one told me it would come to this.” The blogs include a period of prolonged ill health in 2011, and Kennedy manages to make even her discomfort and distress readable and engaging. She did a lot of writing and revising stretched out on a hotel bed, but would-be writers probably shouldn’t try this at home. Kennedy on eating on tour: “Hotel restaurants are either full of satellite football games, tattooed men and soiled copies of the Sun, or have dress codes and an insistence on staying upright which I usually can’t manage when I’ve been on the road for more than 48 hours.” On New York’s Penn Station: “...one of the very few rail termini to have been demolished in the real world and reconstructed within Satan’s colon.” “And why is it I can enjoy these happy torments?” she writes. “Because I got an adequate education, because I grew up in a house with access to books, was a child who could visit my local, well-stocked library and know it was full of wonders, unguessedat beauties...” and as a result she can make a living as a writer. She wants new writers to have the same or better chances, but doesn’t think they will. While the bulk of the book, first published in the U.K. in 2013, is composed of the educational and entertaining blogs, Kennedy includes longer-form essays on character, voice, writers’ workshops and writers’ health. The essays take a more serious tone about their subject matter, but are not without the wry asides that make you want to spend some time with Kennedy — maybe even on the train. The last section of the book, Words: A One-Person Show, is the transcript of Kennedy’s show about writing and language that began its life at the Edinburgh Festival and has travelled around the world. You don’t have to be familiar with Kennedy’s writing to learn something from this collection, or to simply enjoy a peek into a world any reader has imagined in so many different ways. If you want to taste Kennedy’s fictional wares, Paradise and Day showcase her outstanding ability to imagine characters from within.
Chris Smith is a Winnipeg writer.