A L Kennedy’s On Writing sort of is and isn’t a how to… book. If you’re looking for a book that gives you points and takes you through exercises and shows you how you’re going to be J K Rowling in six months’ time you’re looking in the wrong place. (If that’s the book you’re looking for stop looking; you’re just going to spend money and I can tell you now for free that the J K Rowlingness is very unlikely to follow that spending). If you’re looking for a book that gives you an idea of what it’s like to be a writer you’re getting closer to the truth. If you want to know what it’s like to be A L Kennedy you’re pretty much spot on because what you get in the two parts of this book are collected entries from the blog she ran at The Guardian, or from material on her own website, wherein she talks about her writing – the act of it and the fact of it and how being a writer makes her happy and also makes her ill, and how because of it she has to do things that scare the wits out of her, like get on planes, and that sometimes she likes to assist a gannet from one place to the next – and I don’t mean geographically. Then there are the essays and show transcripts where she talks about how powerful words can be, and her first-hand experience of seeing that power in action, whether it’s the application or the withholding of it. She talks about things that she feels very deeply and she talks very honestly. It’s moving stuff. And none of it sounds particularly like a how to book. Unless you look at those exhortations to keep at it. And to question. To try, and quite possibly fail but then to question, and to try again, and to keep trying because that’s what’s important. Because without that there is only silence, and there are so many things out there that can silence you. It’s like a little piece of you falling off and turning to dust and blowing away when you’re silenced. And for some silence can be a truly terrible thing.
My own experience doesn’t fall into the truly terrible category but for me it is still as vivid today. I was thirteen years old and silenced as I held that thin sheet of ruled A4 paper with the ‘F’ scored into it and circled in red pen. I’d written a story for my English class under the title we’d been given: The Handicap. I imagined a boy in a wheelchair stuck on the sidelines at a football match, his wheels only ever leaving tracks in the dewy grass up to the edge of the pitch and never onto it. He was referred to as ‘the handicap’ right up to the end of the story, where surgery had given him the gift of his legs back and he could look at his footsteps as he crossed the line onto the pitch. And finally he had a name. I’d lay good money it was awful though at the time I was immensely proud of it. And the teacher carved an ‘F’ on my page. And perhaps because that didn’t quite convey the depth of her feeling about it she circled it to make it stand out a little bit more.
She added a note: the idea that a handicapped person should not have a name is obscene.
I should have said it, should have shouted it, should have railed, how can you give me an F when you understood the very reason I wrote it? But I didn’t. I sat there silently and shook because with that F she took my voice away. That’s the day a little part of me fell off and turned to dust and blew away. That’s the day I stopped listening. That’s why I got moved from the top to the middle class a few weeks later.
A L Kennedy talks a lot about voice. I should say writes a lot about voice but you see what happened there? Because I’ve seen A L Kennedy at a reading and there is absolutely no way it could be any other voice playing in my head while reading On Writing than A L Kennedy’s. The writing sounds like the author. It’s written in her voice.
When the voice is good, when it really works you know it, you fall into it instinctively as a reader. There’s something in the pattern or the rhythm or an idiosyncrasy in the words themselves that clues you in and the voice you hear in your head isn’t your own voice but that of someone else entirely. That’s the magic and the mystery of that elusive x-factor that is Voice. And putting it like that makes it seem so small! But try it. As a new-to-the-task writer or an aspiring writer or a seasoned writer, as any kind of writer, this is knowledge like water that runs in beads off the back of your hand and leaves no trace. It’s not as easy as it sounds. It’s not even easy to explain to someone who’s been told to ‘find their voice’ as a writer, or that they need a unique voice to get anywhere, or any of the other myriad little smoke bombs that you then have to peer through to try and get near to some kind of understanding of what it is these Gatekeepers of the Land of Authors are trying to baffle you with.
What A L Kennedy says about voice in this book makes enormous sense because it goes right back to that basic question of what a voice is. All the smoke we blow around that question gets wafted away.
It reminded me of Paul McVeigh and his fabulous novel, The Good Son. When I read it I heard a young Irish lad and his Irish family and friends in my head because all the clues were there for me. And I loved it. It’s a great book, funny and touching and wise. I was lucky enough to be at the launch of the book, where Paul read the opening chapter and all the playfulness, the cavernous depths of cheeky little boy humour came tumbling out. It wasn’t quite as funny as that to me when I first read it but when I go back to it I know now I’ll be laughing my arse off because now it’ll be not just an Irish voice but Paul’s voice I hear telling me Paul’s words in my head.
Writing tip: you are your own voice so be you. It’s not the end of the search but it is a great place to start.
A L Kennedy’s On Writing is all honesty. Her humour, fervour and sometimes anger shines as we read into what it’s like to be an committed obsessive workaholic writer. I know that doesn’t sound much like one but it really is a good read.
On Writing was published by Vintage in 2013 ISBN: 9780099575238
You can find A L on Twitter @Writerer or at her website http://www.a-l-kennedy.co.uk/