LEE KOFMAN is a highly regarded memoirist, novelist, editor, and writing coach. Her latest book, The Writer Laid Bare, is a combination of raw memoir and a professional writing toolkit which examines Lee’s own life and reveals how committing to a truthful writing practice helped her conquer writer’s block and develop her own authentic voice.
The Writer Laid Bare is a book for everyone who loves the craft of good writing. Be they a voracious reader wanting to know more or an emerging writer themselves, best-selling author and writing coach Lee Kofman has distilled her wisdom, insight and passion into this guide to writing and emotional honesty.
A combination of raw memoir and a professional writing toolkit, Lee examines her own life, rich in story and emotion to reveal how committing to a truthful writing practice helped her conquer writer’s block and develop her own authentic voice.
‘Show don’t tell’ has never been so compelling.
Inspired by her popular writing courses, Lee also offers practical advice on drafts, edits and how to achieve a life/writing balance. How combining her writing with motherhood led her to recognise that ‘ the pram in the hall’ issue is real.
Plus the ultimate reading list of books you really should read, from Chekhov to Elena Ferrante and Helen Garner.
Finding Your Subject
In the autumn of 2006, I was doing my first writing residency in a yellow house in the Blue Mountains called Varuna, which once belonged to the novelist Eleanor Dark. Every night we, the fortunate guests, feasted on the Varuna cook’s curries and other culinary wonders. Every night my housemates – a poet who wrote villanelles, a novelist who was also a yogi and a terrifyingly prolific New Zealander who whipped up plays, poetry and fiction – discussed their daily writing progress. Every night I sat mostly silent. After dinner I lay on the monastically narrow bed in the former maid’s room I was staying in, reading and crying myself to sleep.
While everyone else moved ahead, I was going nowhere. My book had no clear direction, even though I’d been writing it for two years. When I’d dragged my suitcase up Varuna’s steep pathway, I was eager to set my fingers in typing motion, greedy for all the hours stretching before me, hopeful that a fortnight away from my busy life would help me to finally capture that elusive work. But it rained heavily when I arrived and, at first, I blamed my failings on the gloom of the weather. Later, when the sky cleared, I blamed the wealth of Varuna’s library for overwhelming me. What was the point of writing anything new? I fought that thought by perusing books by Gail Jones, Sasha Soldatow and Brian Castro, hoping to spark my fire with their bewitching prose, but nothing helped. Good writing became a mystery I was unable to solve.
Towards the end of my stay, I gave up writing altogether. I took long walks in the mountains. I bought a halter dress with blue flowers. I called my husband many times a day and sat in my garden studio, looking at yellow roses and cockatoos luxuriating in the comfort of well-established trees. I, too, had comfort: generous windows, a large desk, a sofa to daydream on. I sat in that studio that was every writer’s fantasy, feeling even more miserable than I did at night. My only happy day was when the New Zealander, satisfied with her output, took me along for a trek to the Three Sisters. The air was moist and warm, the foliage laden thick with silvery spiderwebs, and neither of us mentioned writing for the entire trip. Soon after, I returned to Melbourne, feeling my life was devoid of meaning. I did have a good dress though.
I was clearly meant to write that book. So, I worked and worked on it.
To explain my failure to write in the magic of Varuna, I have to tell you about a period that preceded that stay – my early years in Australia when I didn’t know what to write about. The life baggage I’d arrived with seemed too foreign, even compared to that of other migrants; Russians, Israelis and especially Russian-Israelis like me are as rare as unicorns in Australia. I worried nobody would care for my stories if I wrote about what I knew. At the same time, I didn’t feel ‘qualified’ to write about my new country.
Soon, however, I noticed that the locals I met seemed fascinated by my childhood spent in Odessa’s dissident circles under the watchful eye of the KGB. It seemed like this was a kosher subject for a book – something that local readers would be interested in. All the signs were there to the extent that I was awarded a major literary grant and, later, that residency at Varuna to support the writing of my ‘Russian memoir’.
I had other reasons for writing that book. The story of Soviet Jewish dissidents, which once made headlines in the West, had been largely forgotten. As per Orwell’s writerly motivations, I wanted to rescue it from oblivion. I also wanted to pay tribute to the courage of my parents. I was clearly meant to write that book. So, I worked and worked on it. For writing it always felt like work, never pleasure, and my prose reflected that unfortunate state. Still, it took me several years to let go of it. Even after coming back from Varuna, when it became crystal-clear I wasn’t passionate about the work, I persevered for some time – out of duty, ‘just to finish’ it, and because I didn’t know what else to write. Or rather, because deep down I did know and was afraid of the subject.
Emotionally honest writing practice begins with the choice of themes. Or as VS Naipaul put it: ‘Half a writer’s work … is the discovery of his subject.’ Before finding his, he grew so insecure in his writing ability that he would write with a pencil – a more tentative instrument.
There is plenty of advice out there for writers to help with such discoveries, like John Marsden’s Everything I Know About Writing book, which includes ‘the great feature: 600 extraordinary topics, guaranteed to have you or your students writing’.
Topic 368: Describe a time when an animal you’ve known has shown courage, loyalty, affection…
I hold the ubiquity of such advice responsible for many mediocre books being written, and sometimes published. Fortunately, or unfortunately, I don’t believe anybody can direct us to our subjects. Premade topics don’t make delicious stories. Isaac Bashevis Singer talks along these lines: ‘every writer must write… the things he is pondering about, or brooding over. This is in part what gives writer his charm and makes him genuine. It’s only the amateur who will take any topic.’ Elena Ferrante describes in Frantumaglia how she chooses her subjects in this spirit: ‘The question in every story is the same: is this the right story to seize what lies silent in my depths, that living thing which, if captured, spreads through all the pages and gives them life?’
Writers cannot rely on another’s advice, but they can hone and sharpen their intuition. During the years that followed my first sojourn in Varuna, I gathered some sharpening tools, or tenets, that help me to discover my themes.