A.L. Kennedy (on rewriting and joy and justice)

Wendy-joon, who doesn’t Tweet – who doesn’t even write much, that I know of – is nonetheless a chronically well-read haunter of libraries. If you see her driving ‘round town, you may see a slightly open-mouthed look of attention on her face, an intense calm, if she’s listening to one of the books-on-CD that is among the 7 or 27 that she’s borrowed from her local branch. (Libraries! What pillars of civilized living they are!) And now that I’m officially an Automobile Owner again, she even has me hooked on the habit of listening to books. Yesterday, a 20-minute stick-shift errand turned into a two-hour drive because of Marilynne Robinson’s novel Home, but that’s not what this post is about.

I like this person. This photo courtesy of The Guardian, where I think her blog appeared. (Or appears.)

I like this person. This photo courtesy of The Guardian, where I think her blog appeared. (Or appears.)

My Wendyful friend wouldn’t let me leave her home the other month without A.L. Kennedy’s On Writing. Stephen King’s same-titled look at the scribbling life was great, and I was up for another even if I’d never heard of Ms. Kennedy. She’s a wordsmith and often a funny one, but her artistic aim is true. Much of the book is simply a collection of her blogs on the writing life over a few years. They’re short, witty, wise, and not infrequently they draw blood.

So now I’m a Kennedy fan, though I’ve never read any of her six collections of short stories or half-a-dozen novels. She also teaches creative writing, an activity about which she is amusingly and reasonably doubtful. Yet as she went back to start a new term at Warwick University, she focussed on the delights of the job. One of those deep pleasures, in the midst of the general deafening solitude of her writing life, was the mere collegiality of the thing, the fellow-feeling, being among others for whom word-spinning is also bread and hearth and home.

The second great delight, she says, is in re-writing. While she wishes there was a less bland-sounding word for it, she is ecstatic in her praise of the necessary joy of making writing effortless for the Dear Readers, by taking what she or any writer has done and then sorting, cutting, sorting, adding, and then sorting some more:

“It seems only fair to do what we can for the reader. Fair and polite. It’s also deeply practical. No one can teach you…how you write or how you could write better….[T]he way you really improve is by diving in and reworking, taking apart, breaking down, questioning, exploring, forgetting and losing and finding and remembering and generally testing your prose until it shows you what it needs to be….[B]y making a mental commitment to believe that you are not as good as you could be, you allow yourself…to mature as a writer. This can seem disheartening and frustrating – why wouldn’t it? It involves performing surgery on something which is intimately your own: the way you express your self….Fretting and worrying at something you made up, an intimate product of your hopes, enthusiasms, passions – it’s bound to feel odd, unnatural, but it’s also deeply rewarding. In time, you will willingly, if not always happily, put invisible hours and days and weeks of effort into offering someone you don’t know, and who will probably never thank you, something which will appear to be ‘effortless’…”

Kennedy then goes off on a deliciously ranty side-channel excursion into the foolishness of literary academicians — well, one unnamed pedant who stands for the rest of the worst — plus an extended dissection of the general level of British public discourse, which she finds not only “tedious and depressing” but also dangerous. One consequence of careless, pre-programmed and “insultingly slapdash” writing and thinking, she argues, is the kind of slippery political conversation that resulted in the Blair-era blundering into the whole weapons of mass destruction in Iraq fiasco. The entire post, number XVII in On Writing, is especially good. She continues with her call to writers, to all of us with something to say, to do some rewriting, some reconsideration:

“A writer who thinks, who rewrites, isn’t just bucking an ugly trend. He or she is also taking control of a power which can delight the heart, encourage, entrance. That same power can deceive, betray and murder and it is a matter of basic self-defence to keep ourselves as literate as possible, as strong as possible in our words…”

A.L. Kennedy (1965- ) is a Scottish novelist and short-story writer. Oh, and a stand-up comedian and one-woman-show performer, and

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