On Writing, by AL Kennedy

Review published on March 11, 2013.Reviewed by Madeleine Beresford

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[product sku=”9780224096973″]If you seriously wanted to be a writer, AL Kennedy’s On Writing would be a good place to start. Not because it offers beautiful prose or insight or divine inspiration, or because what it has to say is strikingly new. It’s a good place to start because, being a collection of AL Kennedy’s Guardian blog and her own essays, it reflects the life of a successful literary fiction writer in today’s market.

There’s a significant amount of illness and a modicum of self-indulgence, but reading the blog posts in order reinforces how much sheer work being a writer is. If you make it a career, writing is hard. It’s a slog. It involves being polite to people you don’t know and probably don’t like, and entertaining audiences who are wondering how to leave without anyone noticing. AL Kennedy is very polite about all of this, but she gets across some of the exhaustion that results from a peripatetic life of literary festivals, lunches, signings and appearances. Along the way she apologises, but as a I reader I don’t have to: being a writer is hard. I sympathise with her.

AL Kennedy is very good on writing masterclasses. Like her, I’m broadly suspicious of masterclasses. On the whole, they seem to be an excuse to extract money from the middle classes and the gullible. That’s fine, if you have the money and you don’t expect to get published or learn much, and if you want to spend time with a group of dubious and/or tedious or self-indulgent people. AL Kennedy has a lot more experience with writing classes than I do. She’s honest about the process and how it can go wrong, but she’s more optimistic about how it can go right, and that’s inspiring. The way she describes a successful class gives us all hope for the importance of creativity and the creative industries.

The value of creativity and the importance of art is at the backbone of AL Kennedy’s life choices and this collection. In its honest portrayal of that most elusive of creatures, the literary fiction writer making a living, it is very valuable. Aside from the traveling and the flu, Kennedy’s essays in the second half remind you about the pleasure that can come from writing and being involved in creative practice. These are things which are incredibly important, and increasingly ignored and belittled. They are the reason we should feel strongly about things like losing our public libraries, about the importance of good state education, and the access both these things provide to the wealth that is literature.

If more people considered how much hard work it is, they probably wouldn’t want to be writers. Being a writer is not glamorous. That’s what this book will teach you. And most of the time, that’s the truth.


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