gives the Keynote Speech at Nottingham's Festival of words
Published in Tongue
Renowned short-story writer, novelist, Guardian blogger, multi-award winner and stand-up comedian A.L. Kennedy sits before a lecture theatre of eager fans, writers and press. While Kennedy is introduced, she appears at ease, hearing her work complimented dotingly by a slightly quivering NTU lecturer.
‘For some reason, I make people nervous,’ Kennedy says, pointing out the distribution of attendees, who have all avoided the front row.
She’s hilarious, as we knew she would be, with a dry sense of humour and a reserved delivery. She gesticulates wildly, accentuating every syllable, and I want to grab onto her hands and ask her how. How did you do this? Will I be able to do this, too?
Where it began
Kennedy graduated from Warwick University in 1986, in the middle of a recession, and sturggled to find a job. In a sense, Kennedy explains, this gave her a lift. It gave her the gift of desperation. As most writers and creatives can vouch, when you are so close to the edge of your mind, your patience, or even your life, desperation can be an infinitely powerful tool. For Kennedy, she had no choice. ‘All I could do was what my heart wanted to do,’ she says.
Kennedy spent ten years earning her living through work with “special needs”. She uses air quotes, noting that the term should be ‘socially excluded’ and include, well, everyone. She explains that her employment surprisingly turned out to be a wonderful way to get into writing. The group Kennedy worked with all had a variety of conditions which meant they would never be literate. And so, they formed a writing group. They wrote poetry collaboratively, allowing those without a voice, to find one.
Challenging the notion of group writing, ridiculued for being fake and inexpressive, Kennedy brings forward writing as a therapeutic process. Discussing her work with people in prison, psychiatric hospitals and psycho geriatric wards, Kennedy addresses the archaic classifications of the writer, demonstrating that the essence of writing is simply in establishing what you want to say and how best to say it.
‘My experience was that it made people happier. And, medically speaking, it made people better,’ she asserts.
Kennedy recalls a poetry recital from one such group of people, and the ‘curdling’ smiles of social workers and community education workers, as they witnessed the groups’ raw and fearless approach to poetry. By offering this tool to those who are considered weak and low status, Kennedy was controversially giving them authority. It seems a horrifyingly present belief today that literature and writing is off-limits to anyone who is considered lacking in mental capacity or social privilege. Writing is still a process considered high-status and reserved for the intellectually gifted. As Kennedy declares, ‘If you find your voice, then you find your voice. There is no messing around with that.’ And with that, she bangs her fist on the desk as if to end the debate.
‘I owe, if you like, the disabled community my entire career, because they helped me to understand the power of language. And that it could change the world. And that it would change people’s lives.’
The Golden Key: Fearlessness
Kennedy’s latest works, On Writing, is a three-part examination of writing. The dividing section of her book which is a story of her grandfather, is the section Kennedy claims to be ‘the most important...the key to everything that you need to know in order to write’. She reads it to us and we are a sea of silence, absorbing every word.
The section focuses on one story in particular; the one and only boxing match her grandfather ever lost. Her grandfather claimed that he had climbed into the ring viewing his opponent as someone better and stronger than he believed himself to be. He had been beaten, her grandfather explained, not by his opponent but by himself.
Although it took decades, I finally came to realise that I can defeat myself with fear at a moment’s notice.’
Her grandfather’s story became a sustaining one, and after many years of constructing lists regarding the rules of writing. It came down to one golden key: be without fear.
Kennedy talks of fearful young writers, and claims that they often believe their plot intentionally has no meaning, or their protagonist intentionally has no feelings. Kennedy identifies this as the result of a writer being ‘shit scared’, the result of fearing that your essence will leak through the cracks and you will be exposed. She laughs to herself, and points out that this is one of the joys of being a writer - you don’t actually have to be there when you are vulnerable and exposed. But, by cultivating this fear, by tackling the tasks that you think are beyond you, by writing something you believe to be beyond your capabilities, that is when writing becomes really wonderful fun. She urges the writer to face the blank page or the white screen and ask: Who are these people? What is this about?
Kennedy ends this chapter with a moving statement. It is one which leaves the room hushed, and me feeling unexpectedly powerful.
‘Procrastination, half-heartedness, cowardice; they are the fruits of my fear. And they have robbed me daily, sometimes hourly, or joy. Our nightmares are fearful enough. Our dreams, I think, must be better and louder and unafraid.’