A.L Kennedy’s advice

I used to read A.L Kennedy’s funny and engaging pieces on being a writer in the Guardian newspaper some five years ago. I believe these led to her book ‘On Writing’, which will probably go on my Christmas list along with Don Patterson’s  book on Shakespeare’s sonnets. I was lucky enough to see AL speak about being a writer in Nottingham a couple of years back, and today I came across a Guardian article from a few years ago called ‘Ten rules for writing fiction’ in which a number of well know writers were asked to provide ten top tips each. I thought A.L’s was the most relevant to me, and thought that it could equally be applied to writing poetry. Here is the list with a comment or two from me in italics .

1. Have humility. Older/more ­experienced/more convincing writers may offer rules and varieties of advice. ­Consider what they say. However, don’t automatically give them charge of your brain, or anything else – they might be bitter, twisted, burned-out, manipulative, or just not very like you.

I thought about the word ‘humility’ and I suppose I take it to mean having a clear perspective and respect for one’s place in context.
Practicing humility as a poet would involve reigning in one’s vanity.

2. Have more humility. Remember you don’t know the limits of your own abilities. Successful or not, if you keep pushing beyond yourself, you will enrich your own life – and maybe even please a few strangers.

3. Defend others. You can, of course, steal stories and attributes from family and friends, fill in filecards after lovemaking and so forth. It might be better to celebrate those you love – and love itself – by writing in such a way that everyone keeps their privacy and dignity intact.

Interesting one this. I’ve been thinking quite a bit about what I might put in a poems and what I might not- of some sort of moral obligation
to omit details which might cause distress to others, or to disguise inhabitants in poems by changing their gender or in other ways .
I once said something about this responsibility to a famous poet and he said ‘No, no, no, don’t censor it. Just get it all down! ‘ I’m not sure he did this in his own work, and if he did how that might have been viewed by those close to him. I was also once at a reading where a poets child sat through her detailing the breakup of her relationship with the child’s father in poem after poem. That felt very uncomfortable.

4. Defend your work. Organisations, institutions and individuals will often think they know best about your work – especially if they are paying you. When you genuinely believe their decisions would damage your work – walk away. Run away. The money doesn’t matter that much.

I have turned down publication on a couple of occasions when editors suggested changes I couldn’t agree with at the time. As for money, I don’t really have to face any money induced dilemmas, although I did once apply for a commission to write a sequence I wasn’t really inspired to write on the basis that it would pay. Thankfully (perhaps)
I didn’t win that particular commission.

5. Defend yourself. Find out what keeps you happy, motivated and creative.

6. Write. No amount of self-inflicted misery, altered states, black pullovers or being publicly obnoxious will ever add up to your being a writer. Writers write. On you go.

You could add to this list ‘no amount of status updates or tweeting will ever add up to your being a writer’. A difficult navigation around such distractions is required.   

7. Read. As much as you can. As deeply and widely and nourishingly and ­irritatingly as you can. And the good things will make you remember them, so you won’t need to take notes.

8. Be without fear. This is impossible, but let the small fears drive your rewriting and set aside the large ones ­until they behave – then use them, maybe even write them. Too much fear and all you’ll get is silence.

9. Remember you love writing. It wouldn’t be worth it if you didn’t. If the love fades, do what you need to and get it back.

10. Remember writing doesn’t love you. It doesn’t care. Nevertheless, it can behave with remarkable generosity. Speak well of it, encourage others, pass it on.




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