The Writer Laid Bare
by Lee Kofman
Ventura Press/Simon and Schuster
Published March 2022
In her 2019 memoir Imperfect, Lee Kofman wrote about the disfiguring scars she sustained as a child, the result of several major surgeries. She describes going to great lengths to conceal these scars as an adult, with her ‘shell of stockings and long dresses’. It is this impulse towards concealment and secrecy that first led me to feel a great (and covert) sense of kinship with Kofman. In my case, it was my own mental illness, and its strange physical manifestations, that I was driven to hide.
At the recent launch of The Writer Laid Bare: Mastering emotional honesty in a writer’s art, craft & life, Kofman confessed, with ready laughter, that whenever her parents visited she instinctively hid her books from view. This, too, I identified with: so profound was my terror of exposure that I kept over a decade’s worth of journals that make no mention of my illness, don’t even allude to it, despite the fact that in those years my compulsions were all-occupying, and despite the fact that my scribblings were for my eyes alone.
When, in 2018, I finally attempted to put my experience into words, I found it extremely difficult. I purchased a special separate journal expressly for the task, found a hiding spot for it in my room (double-plastic-bagged, at the bottom of a cardboard box of op-shop-bound clothes under my bed) and even then, it took me several pages of stalling to so much as mention the thing. As though my secret were not just unspeakable, but un-writeable too.
As I write this, one year away from the publication of a memoir based on the contents of that secret diary, the thought of even naming my illness, even to an unknown reader, still fills me with dread. I came to The Writer Laid Bare feeling much the same way as when I first ventured into a therapist’s office: hungry for answers, assistance, and advice.
Like any therapist worth their salt, though, Kofman is not one to supply easy formulas, templates or reassurance. Hers is ‘an enquiry into the mystery of writing, not its ultimate solution’. Like George Saunders’ A Swim in the Pond in the Rain (2021) and Charlotte Wood’s The Luminous Solution (2021), The Writer Laid Bare stands out among the burgeoning number of writing manuals precisely for resisting direct instruction. All three are companionable in tone; pedagogical but never didactic. They don’t attempt to codify an approach to creative writing, inclining towards the memoiristic.
In The Writer Laid Bare, Kofman draws on her extensive experience as a writing teacher and mentor, sharing practical suggestions and strategies which she organises into short, well-signposted chapters tackling, for example, ‘authentic characters’ and ‘writing in the age of social media’. But these lessons are braided with a more intimate, meandering account of her own writerly trials, errors, and revelations. Kofman migrated first from Russia to Israel as an adolescent, and then to Australia in her twenties, and her life traverses diverse cultural and linguistic traditions. The Writer Laid Bare is likewise a rich melding: part-memoir, part-guidebook, part-writing compendium.
George Saunders, (who, like Kofman, teaches creative writing) guides his students to achieve their ‘iconic space’: ‘the place from which they will write the stories only they could write, using what makes them uniquely themselves’. Kofman shares this overarching aim, emphasising the need for us each to ‘tune into our singularities’. Knowing what to write about in the first place, for instance, is critical, but Kofman rejects the idea that anyone can direct us in this regard (she is scathing of books like John Marsden’s Everything I Know About Writing, which features ‘600 extraordinary topics guaranteed to have you or your students writing’). Deciding on a subject, she says (in characteristically Kofmanesque terms), is ‘like sexual desire: you cannot choose what to be attracted to’.
For Kofman, ‘emotional honesty’ is the single biggest difficulty writers face. She defines this as a combination of self-awareness, deep reflection and moral courage, and contrasts it with what she calls ‘nonesty’: ‘the times when we lose touch with our viscera, with how we perceive ourselves; or when we are reluctant to share what we find there’. Somewhat surprisingly for a writer who is now known for her candour and bravery on the page, Kofman characterises her early years in Australia as lacking authenticity: ‘in the process of changing countries and languages I had lost touch with my gut’.
Much of this struggle has to do with voice. Her Hebrew voice, she tells us, was ‘tough and bold, at ease with obscenities’ but this jarred in her new Australian context, where she moved in ‘hyper-educated circles of artists and academics’. Her bookish and dreamy Russian child-self (which she suppressed in Israel) resurfaced in Australia, and so, eventually, she found ‘a version of my Hebrew voice, still desirous and excitable, still darkly humorous…(but) less susceptible to grand statements, more pensive and hesitant’. It is this distinct sensibility which animates The Writer Laid Bare.
Any reader familiar with the Paris Review interviews will know the pleasure to be had in discovering the idiosyncratic detail of a beloved writer’s tastes and habits.
My own demeanour, my temperament, and my cultural background all diverge from Kofman’s, and yet —to my delight— I found we had much in common. Both of us tend to use the material of our own lives for our writing, rather than imagining alternative worlds. We care more about language than the careful construction of scenes or plotting of narrative arcs. Like Kofman in her thirties, I am ‘acutely self-conscious’ and have to fight a tendency on the page (and in real life) to ‘smooth over’ or ‘airbrush’ reality. We love to write in cafes. We both adore Knausgaard. And then there are the points of difference: she is writing in her third language. Her style is more ‘linguistically extravagant’ than my own. I do not share her obsessions, which she names as: the dark side of eros, Russia’s pull, the female body.
In other words: beyond readerly voyeurism, Kofman’s words prompted me to reflect on my own processes and predilections. I found myself wondering to what extent I’d fallen prey to the current fashion for plain, direct prose, and went scurrying off to read Nabokov, and fell quickly under his spell, relishing his strings of clauses, his liberal use of adverbs, his glorious digressions. I wondered whether there was more internal logic and merit to my writing process than I usually gave myself credit for (accustomed to thinking of myself as haphazard and amateur). I wondered why I took for granted the fact I write in my mother tongue, and at what point I had narrowed my own reading to almost exclusively other anglophone writers.
The one domain where Kofman is prescriptive is reading. We need to ‘read up’, because ‘not every kind of reading makes us grow’. Reading is no trivial matter; poor choices will ‘dumb our writing down’. She also insists on the importance of reading books that contradict our own views. Her sentiment is echoed by Wood, who in her essay ‘Reading isn’t shopping’ connects the current demand for ‘relatability’ to a consumer culture in which ‘we’ve been slowly but thoroughly trained to see the world in terms of its capacity to please us’. Tegan Bennett Daylight, too, bemoans the university/business culture of ‘spoon-feeding’ students/customers, who struggle to engage with ‘anything more difficult than a Harry Potter book’. In an interview with Astrid Edwards for The Garret, Kofman confesses that she fears backlash for her firm opinions, because
at least in Australia, but maybe it’s not just in Australia, we kind of tend to be a bit sheepish about reading and I think a lot of teachers are scared to appear elitist… But we have to go to the greats. And not to be shy and coy about it and not to worry about being egalitarian.
Kofman’s erudition is on display throughout The Writer Laid Bare. This never renders her style academic, or elitist, though. Rather, her deep passion for books shines through. She finds expression of her ideas and emotions in literature, and is enthused to share these – surely not an act of superiority, but one of generosity to the reader. Her warmth and tenderness towards her literary kin are clear; writers from centuries past are no less alive and no less beloved to her than any person she knows in the flesh. Daylight, too, lives and breathes books. ‘I want them to find something difficult and do it anyway’, says Daylight of her students. Otherwise ‘they never get to feel the limits, or the limitlessness, of their real selves’.
Kofman’s previous works of memoir, The Dangerous Bride (2014) and Imperfect, both incorporate direct quotes from a vast range of interview subjects, and she is also the editor of two anthologies of essays and memoir. The Writer Laid Bare draws mostly from literary sources, but as with her previous publications, the inclusion of other voices alongside her own – Ferrante, Didion, Hemingway, Banville – lends the book a real vitality. She is a skilled quoter, a gift Montaigne once described as ‘arranging other people’s flowers’. There is a reciprocal quality to Kofman’s writing; indeed, in her discussion with Edwards she describes conceiving of this book as ‘a conversation’ with Peter Bishop, who she credits with first teaching her how to talk deeply about writing, and to whom she has dedicated this book.
Given Kofman’s extensive publication record in both Hebrew and English, her humility throughout The Writer Laid Bare is remarkable. She never positions herself as an authority, and much of what she shares of her own writing career revolves around her struggles and failures. She admits to feelings of overwhelm, shame, insecurity and paralysis. She recounts a stay at the hallowed Varuna Writers’ House where over the course of two weeks she manages to achieve nothing at all. Her refrain is that writing is inherently and inescapably difficult. Indeed, if the process feels too straightforward or comfortable, that may be a red flag.
As someone who often interprets her crippling self-doubt and terror of the blank page, her inefficiency and uncertainty as a sign she is not a real writer, Kofman’s framing of writing as nothing short of a ‘curse’ is oddly helpful. Now, Kofman says, she is ‘more willing to be led off course’, she sees the value of ‘continual failure’ and has come to regard fear and shame as an ‘asset’. (I suspect Kofman would agree with my therapist, who likes to remind me that the goal is not to eliminate discomfort or anxiety, but rather to learn to sit with and accept such feelings). Wood echoes these sentiments: the ‘horrible state of unknowing’,which she still experiences ‘nine books in’ is a sign she is ‘on the right track’. For Wood, ‘that old question must I always know nothing? no longer haunts but consoles…’; for Kofman the ‘best writing is an expedition into the unknown, the urgent, and the uncomfortable’.
Western life, writes Wood, seems deliberately designed to kill our inner lives: it depends on ‘relentless productivity and expansion twinned with their opposite: unceasing, completely passive consumption’. I confess to devouring descriptions of writers’ routines, thinking that if I could only land upon the right formula (the Pomodoro method? bullet journals? meditation apps?) I might optimise my time and maximise my output. In this context, it is deeply refreshing to be reminded of the creative value of not actually doing anything (the second of Kofman’s tenets is: ‘just wait’). So much ‘writing’ happens at a subconscious level. Kofman sees value in ‘brooding’, and in cultivating patience, and in fallow periods between books, so that a depleted mind can rest and be renourished.
In her research into creativity, Charlotte Wood interviewed writers, looking for a commonality of approach and discovered ‘we were indeed using a series of specific creative processes, almost always without knowing it’. Some of the methods she identifies ‘involve obscure hunches, blind instinct and almost no logic at all’. It is fascinating to read Kofman with Wood’s findings in mind, the apparently illogical or circuitous or idiosyncratic routes she takes actually parallel others’ paths. I recognised many of the methods described – the way Kofman puts her work aside for periods when revising, which seems to ‘switch on’ her unconscious; Wood’s ‘heat-seeking’, where one instinctively follows the ‘energy’ or ‘glow’ coming from often-unexpected corners of a work-in-progress; the ‘cantilevering’ approach adopted by Peter Carey.
I wondered whether Wood’s or Kofman’s books would have helped me had I read them at the very start of my writing journey; whether they would have saved me some heartache. Ultimately, I suspect not. There are some things in life for which no amount of preparation or education is adequate. Wood believes the value of her creative taxonomy is as a ‘consoling diagnostic tool’ rather than necessarily being helpful in the creation of new work. This she finds ‘dispiriting’ but also ‘cheering’: ‘the value of a new work of art lies in its mysterious, irreplicable nature’. I wonder whether there is more satisfaction, and more magic, too, in figuring out one’s own approaches over time, and only later realising that each of us are, at some subconscious level, operating according to a secret creative algorithm: what one assumes are one’s own epiphanies are part of a larger, collective knowing.
For all her own humility and fallibility, when it comes to literature, Kofman shifts into more exalted tones. The Russians, writes George Saunders, ‘seemed to regard fiction not as something decorative but as a vital moral-ethical tool’. In this respect Kofman, who describes her ‘writerly soul’ as ‘essentially Russian’, takes after her literary forebears. It is startling, and moving, to see literature spoken about in spiritual terms: writing is something ‘holy’; a way for her to experience the ‘sublime’. No mention of publishing contracts or agents or book deals here. For Kofman, ‘morality’ is less to do with the kind of self-righteousness and outrage rife on social media, and more to do with interrogating one’s ambivalence and confusion ‘instead of grinding it down into the smooth paste of moral certainty’.
Rather than de-mystifying the writing process, Kofman’s endeavour might better be described as a re-mystification. For all its difficulty, and all its many obstacles, writing is a ‘blessing’; her ‘salvation’.
One of the things I love most about Kofman’s writing is her suspicion of fashions. She questions popular writing maxims, such as ‘show don’t tell’, and is critical of students’ over-use of dialogue, which she attributes to the influence of film. She believes social media is damaging our brains: ‘when not petty or nasty then nice, saccharine, friendly and chit-chatty daylight of our online interactions encroaches on the silent, dark spaces within us’. She cautions against writers’ groups, where in her experience feedback veers towards the conventional, even moralistic, and away from the raw and the experimental.
This questioning of convention applies not only to the literary sphere, but to larger societal mores. In The Dangerous Bride, she asked why, in our ‘hypersexual times’ monogamy was still considered to be ‘the only realistic model for committed relationships’. In Imperfect, she interrogated our modern, Western inclination, to ‘see the body as Other: a vessel carrying its commander, which we call a soul, or self, or mind’ and came to the conclusion that ‘beauty, as well as its supposed opposite, imperfection, can actually go deeper than skin, perhaps even to the core of us’.
One of the more surprising threads of The Writer Laid Bare is her discussion of ‘socialist realism’. In the Soviet Union, where writers were closely monitored by the state, writers were expected to write in this genre; ‘to describe the world not how it was but how the Soviet dictatorship wished it to be’. Kofman identifies a similar trend in contemporary Western literature, where writers might not glorify communism ‘but their essence is the same – they describe the world as the writers wish it to be, or as they are habituated to see it through the lens of their received wisdoms and ideologies’. This bold assertion is, however, unsupported by any concrete examples, and it’s left unclear to which ideologies exactly she’s referring. Today’s reviewers, she observes, assess authors’ (and even characters’) ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ attitudes, ethics, and even feelings. She provides an example from Imperfect, where a reviewer admonished her for feeling ashamed of her scars, rather than proud. It’s a poignant example, but the sole one given. And she notes an anxiety among her peers about what they can or cannot write, for fear of upsetting popular public opinion. Again, the specifics here can only be guessed at. Kofman urges her writer-readers to take risks and to be vigilant against ‘the desire to please’, but I couldn’t help but think at times she was holding back herself, out of fear of causing offence or hurt. I wanted her to be braver, and to venture into more uncomfortable territory.
When it comes to the publication of my own hidden experiences, here is what I fear:
That readers will find the descriptions of my own compulsions weird, repulsive, wrong (one editor rejected my manuscript on the grounds she found it ‘too confronting’). Or that because I am describing an affliction that is largely unknown, and under-researched, it will strike readers as outlandish or not real. I fear that publication will exacerbate my already deep-seated shame. I fear that my experience doesn’t conform to the ‘recovery’ narrative and I fear the longer this illness plagues me, the more deeply lodged certain grooves of thought become, and the further from recovery I stray. I fear hurting the people I’ve portrayed, despite the great lengths I’ve taken to preserve their dignity and complexity. I’m terrified by the fact that exposure of this kind is irreversible: that anyone will soon be able to discover my secret at the click of a couple of buttons.
Kofman reminds us that good literature reveals something to the reader ‘about themselves, not just about the author’. This is the real achievement of A Writer Laid Bare: in permitting the reader ample space for introspection, Kofman’s narrator is as good a listener as she is a writer. And like any good listener, her role is not to leap to the rescue with answers or advice. What her attentive presence does is more subtle, and more precious than that. It makes the reader feel consoled, encouraged, unburdened, heard.
And thus, in my lonely fear, Kofman’s words provide more solace than any ‘how-to’ guide ever could. I try to remember that my fear is a sign I might be writing something valuable; that this murky, frightening space I find myself in is where creativity dwells, and that my words might provide succour to another, might comfort another, in her strange secrecy.
Tegan Bennett Daylight, ‘The difficulty is the point’, The Guardian Australia 2017.
Astrid Edwards and Lee Kofman, ‘Lee Kofman on writing honestly and reading as a writer’, The Garret Podcast: 2022.
Lee Kofman, Imperfect. Affirm Press: 2019.
Lee Kofman, The Dangerous Bride. Melbourne University Press: 2014.
George Saunders, A Swim in a Pond in the Rain. Bloomsbury Publishing: 2021.
Charlotte Wood, The Luminous Solution. Allen & Unwin: 2021.