Staying up late with A.L. Kennedy

Screen Shot 2014-04-22 at 4.45.09 PM I've mentioned before how much I adore A.L. Kennedy's columns on writing in the Guardian. There are many people who post items on this topic, and not very many are successful at it. Either they sound too academic or preachy or remote from anything that we care about.

But not Kennedy -- her pieces have always managed to blend the personal and the practical in a way that leaves you feeling inspired, and realistic, about the tasks ahead of you.

And I've been dealing with withdrawal symptoms ever since they stopped appearing last year.

What did I really expect? That she would want -- or need -- to keep dissecting aspects of her experience as a writer for my benefit forever? Did I think she'd forsake her fiction just for that (her new book, by the way, is the story collection "All The Rage.")

Oh, c'mon now.

Instead, the Scottish author's ken has gotten much wider with a new piece that appeared in the past week at the Guardian. With "Insomnia and me," she talks about something that troubles plenty of people at bedtime.

Her writing life is still there, skirting the edges of the column and informing much of what she says. In a short space, she also offers some affirming perspectives that sound like they've been truly hard-won, not platitudinal:

…[T]ime alone in bed with an unreliable mind is still a battle. When I can't sleep I recite the fears that would harm me most: harm to the man I love, or my mother, ill health, bad ill health, penury, death. It's horrible and pointless. So now I try to use the inventory to rehearse my appreciation for the good I have about me, to promise I will seize the day. What we love can be lost, so why not love it a lot while it's here?

In the end, this column, like all the rest, reminds us that what the best pieces do is communicate and connect us. And the best writers, like Kennedy, very rarely stay settled in one space, one topic, when their curiosity is too great and their voices are pulling them somewhere else.

I'm just glad she's back.

For more of Kennedy, find the link in the blogroll here at Call of the Siren.



Readin', Writin' and RLS

Robert_Louis_Stevenson_portrait_by_Girolamo_NerliWhat image do you  see when you hear the word "Frankenstein"? Chances are, it’s Boris Karloff (avec neck bolts and platform boots) -- not the brooding, sewn-together creature who hides in a woodshed and reads John Milton (in Shelley’s novel). I really hate that.

Movies and other popular media have ruined that gothic story, just as they’ve  ruined  another incredible story, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson.

We know that the title refers to the same character — even people who haven't read the story know that! But 19th century readers didn’t. I envy them. Can you imagine what it was like to get walloped in the head by the surprise ending? Try to put yourself in their minds for a minute and you’ll understand why,

What a truly brilliant twist. Absolutely perfect. And it still holds up after all these years.

That’s because Stevenson is amazing  — in spite of getting treated all the time as a writer of boys' adventure tales.

He knew how to put a good story together, and we were reminded of that fact earlier this week with the news that a lost Stevenson essay (well, part of one) had been found.

Published in issue 39 of The Strand Magazine, the essay  “Books and Reading. No 2. How books have to be written” is sharp, solid, practical. Among his comments:

“In the trash that I have no doubt you generally read, a vast number of people will probably get shot and stabbed and drowned; and you have only a very slight excitement for your money.”

"Such a quantity of twaddling detail would simply bore the reader’s head off.”

Love it. Give yourself a little treat this weekend. Swallow a dose of literary amnesia and read Stevenson’s “Strange Case” if you have it.  It’s not a long book. You'll be done in an afternoon. Marvel at its construction. Then, when you turn to your own manuscript again, I bet you’ll find that you’ve learned something that helps. It's happened for me.

Good luck, my friends.