Writing from the guts

Tuesday, January 15, 2013
Lee Kofman

headshot of Lee Kofman
Lee Kofman

Welcome to my first ever feature for this website. Here I’m going to develop a conversation with you about the craft of writing. More precisely, my intent is to focus on that tough beast called “the writing process”.

I believe that understanding this process is more important for a writer than learning so-called rules of craft, which in our post-Raymond Carver times, teachers and books on writing like to bestow on their students – such as, “don’t use any adverbs” or “no more than one adjective per noun is allowed”. But – have you ever read Gail Jones? Or that guy, Lev Tolstoy, for that matter? Try to count their adjectives and adverbs if you can be bothered. I bet you’ll be too busy getting involved with their characters to even think about that stuff. So let’s relegate mathematical considerations (zero adverbs + one adjective = another Raymond Carver) to the realm of style rather than quality.

To my mind, the craft of writing resides not in formulaic rules, but in that elusive process when our innermost, vaguest dreaming eventually shapes itself into a story we can interest others in. When we come to understand why we choose to write what we write about, what form/genre/voice our dreaming requires and, no less importantly, how to manage those weeks, months, years of creation without giving up. And without giving up on that initial impulse that gave rise to all the subsequent toil, to not succumb to “easy” writing but to complicate and deepen our ideas.

But who am I to attempt to unpick, on a regular basis, the intricacies of the writing process, the secrets of taming the beast? Oh, not an authority that’s for sure. Just a long-time sufferer of the same condition I suspect all of you, my one-and-a-half potential readers (my mother included), are also afflicted with – the writing compulsion. So let me tell you a little about where I come from (metaphorically but also literally).

I’ve recently completed a memoir, after five years of on-and-off work, about my (gloriously failed) attempts at being non-monogamous. But my non-monogamous tendencies extend to my writing too. I could never stay faithful to one genre, or even one language. My first writing attempt occurred at the age of three in Siberia where I was born, when I read in front of the village babushkas my freshly minted poem in Russian: “The blue bird flies up to the sky. The blue bird goes high.” They appreciated it. Seventeen years later, my first novel, Scars, was published in Hebrew, in Israel, where my family had moved. That book, written way too early and hastily, luckily sank into obscurity after selling no more than 350 copies (although, lately, to my embarrassment, it has re-emerged in the small universe of the Hebrew-speaking internet and, for reasons mysterious to me, keeps selling). Five years later I followed that amateur novel with a more thought-through short story collection that was picked up by a major publisher. That same publisher would several years later release my second novel, which would be the last thing I’d write in Hebrew, since at the time it was released, in 2003, I was already living in Australia. I soon realised that writing for a readership based on another continent was an unsatisfying business, so I focused on mastering English.

Of course it was easier to start with short works in my new language and they came out, the short stories I’ve always written but also all these creatures I didn’t previously know I could produce – poems, essays, short memoirs. Quickly I fell in love with the genre of creative non-fiction, but – habitually – kept thinking of myself as a fiction writer. I began fantasising, after some years in Australia, that I would be able to write a novel in English. And this was when my writing block began…

For four years I tried, unsuccessfully, to write a novel, because that was what I thought I should be doing. I was acting on autopilot, with no reflection on where I was now as a writer and not even on what the work I was trying to write needed to be. And I failed at the novel writing gloriously, just as I did at non-monogamy (although for different reasons, I suspect). For four years I filled pages upon pages, but my characters remained too earnest and nothing ever happened to them.

What prevented me from going mad in those four years were the short works I kept producing in the meantime, guiltily, thinking them diversions from “the real thing”, particularly since most of them were in the creative non-fiction genre. Then one day I just knew: it was time to put the novel away. Time to write what I really had to write – the memoir of my romantic misadventures. But this wasn’t really a lucky epiphany, I believe, but a result of a long, and convoluted, writing process. I think now that one of the most essential writing skills is to learn to find out what you really want to write about and what shape it should take.

So it is about such issues – like being attentive to our writing desires – that I’d like to write about here. And about other questions of process, the big and the small ones. Why write (or not)? How to survive self-doubt? How to write about what is worthy and urgent, and what is you? How to steal from other writers and remain ethically intact? And even – with what to write? (A pen? A keyboard? Or on your mobile phone, as some of my younger students do nowadays to my utter puzzlement.) And how to believe in the vocation we’ve chosen when the fabric of the contemporary world seems to be woven out of football and Lady Gaga? My plan is that each future entry will engage with one particular aspect of process.

I’d like to finish with a little confession. In the coming months, in between blogging and attempting to finish a long-overdue PhD, I’ll also be foraying into that discarded novel, which – five years later – I finally feel ready to write.

Oh, the writing process…

About Lee Kofman

Lee Kofman is an Israeli-Australian author of three fiction books (in Hebrew). Her English publications have appeared in Australia, UK, Scotland, Canada and USA in Best Australian Stories, Griffith Review, Malahat Review, Lilith, Westerly and more. She is the recipient of an Australian Council Grant, numerous writing residencies, ASA mentorship, and her memoir-in-progress The Dangerous Bride has been shortlisted for the Harpers Collins Varuna Award 2012.