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Based at The University of Edinburgh, the ESRC Genomics Policy and Research Forum is part of the ESRC Genomics Network and pioneers new ways to promote and communicate social research on the contemporary life sciences.

Monday, 13 August 2012

The Pressure to Write - A L Kennedy, 13 August 2012

Genomics Forum blogging team at the Edinburgh International Book Festival 2012
Blog by Hazel McHaffie

Some people seem to have a kind of superhuman capacity to be creative: AL Kennedy is one of them. A stand-up comedian, as well as a teacher of creative writing, as well as a writer, she's recently recovered from an illness ('that made my bone marrow disappear'), but still managed to bring out an award-winning novel last year - The Blue Book - and to pen a series of funny but perceptive essays on the challenges facing authors today. An exhausting schedule by any standard.

She has a reputation for writing dark, intense, melancholic stories; she 'doesn't really do happiness', and she 'despises Hollywood endings'. But listening to her, it's hard to reconcile ALK as performer, with ALK as writer. Indeed her answers to the audience border on the superficial and frivolous at times, and don't always do justice to the erudition behind some of the questions. I read some of her essays, 'AL Kennedy on Writing' in the Guardian and marvelled at the brilliant way she has of teasing out the humbug from the reality of life as a writer, and I liked her gritty honesty. Those insights were missing for me in her verbal presentation, the comedian eclipsing the thoughtful analyst.

Today she was talking about her current personal homelessness and emotional vulnerability. She's decided to move south from her native Scotland to be closer to her mother, but has fallen foul of the English conveyancing system. But being a 'sofa-surfer' isn't that different from her usual nomadic existence, according to her, as she spends 70% of her life elsewhere. For her 'home' is 'being with people who care about you', and 'where I have enough peace to be able to do what I love to do - write.' The chairperson, Sue MacGregor, previously host of Radio 4's Woman's Hour, probed what constituted Scottishness, and how Scottish a Scottish writer would feel out of Scotland. Kennedy's reply was unexpectedly serious: though she fees a certain sense of sadness at leaving her native country, the most important thing is to be herself wherever she is - 'a human being reaching out and speaking to her fellow human beings'. And the recent Olympics have underlined our commonality rather than our separateness.

As she read one of her essays about spending months in a wooden summer house belonging to a millionairess patron in the US, contending with woodpeckers and armed border guards, trying not to break priceless artefacts, it was easy to see why she's so much in demand as a speaker. She is robustly self-mocking but an undisputed  master wordsmith. Sometimes the desire to raise a laugh rather got in the way of her message, but the kernel of her presentation was that being a writer is a fantastic life:  'It's a really, really lovely job', and hugely satisfying. 'You are trying to make something as beautiful as possible for people that you don't even know.'

The audience were curious about the day-to-day experience of being a writer. Underneath the flippant asides, Kennedy described it as essentially lonely, confusing, flexible, and potentially toxic. There is danger in the sense of being in charge of your (albeit fictional) universe, in being alone for long periods of time, of being seen as a expert, a voice, when quite possibly your opinions are no more valuable than anyone else's. She firmly refutes the notion that writers are more sensitive 'than plumbers', but they do need to be very motivated, comfortable with the performance side of the job, and able to survive the self-doubt associated with creativity.

Her respect for her readers came through clearly - she 'loves' them - but she says it's important to be true to oneself and not be afraid of the reactions your writing might engender. The response of friends offering her accommodation while she is homeless has underlined for her the importance of kindness. It's the 'glue that keeps us together'. That kindness she tries to extend to her readers.

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