Kofman, Lee. The Writer Laid Bare: mastering emotional honesty in a writer’s art, craft and life. Edgecliff: Ventura, 2022. RRP: $32.99, 352pp, ISBN:9781920727550.
Menzies-Pike, Catriona (ed). Open Secrets: essays on the writing life. Penrith: Giramondo, 2022. RRP: $29.95, 272pp, ISBN:9780648062165.
It’s a fact well known among Australian writers, if not necessarily Australian readers, that making a living from writing in this country is overwhelmingly a precarious and unpredictable proposition, quite removed from the imagined ideal of hefty advances and dreamy days spent communing with the muses. Indeed, as Catriona Menzies-Pike notes in her introduction to the Sydney Review of Books’ anthology, Open Secrets: essays on the writing life, ‘Most Australian writers don’t get paid much for their work, not by publishers, not by readers, not by the government—which is hardly to say that they shouldn’t’ (1).
Open Secrets asks how, in this context, the ‘creative labour’ of being a writer gets done, with its contributors offering a powerful collective rejoinder to often-romanticised accounts that, as Menzies-Pike puts it, prioritise ‘precious morning rituals’ and ‘magic tricks for aspiring writers’ (1). Instead, the volume presents a frank and unsentimental portrait of creative resilience; of writers persisting in the face of a cultural, political and economic infrastructure that chronically undervalues their efforts, while pointing out—with considerable wit and style—the fallacy of the well-worn ‘doing it for the love of it’ rhetoric. As Fiona Kelly McGregor puts it in the collection’s first essay, she might write ‘out of love’, but that ‘doesn’t mean you can ask me to work for free’ (11).
Unsurprisingly, given the anthology’s framing and the broader circumstances (a number of the essays were written during Covid lockdowns), precarity—economic and otherwise—is central to many of the pieces. Writing about the various jobs she has undertaken to support her creative endeavours, McGregor makes the case that ‘removing our quotidian toil from public discourse entrenches elitism: the only visible thing is the end product’ (12). Laura Elizabeth Woollett’s wry account of attending the Prime Minister’s Literary Awards (where she was in contention to win ‘a life-changing amount of money’ (25)) is interspersed with a discussion of her day-job as a call centre mystery shopper. James Ley excoriates the casualisation of academic labour and the devaluing of the humanities, while Fiona Wright writes of a precarity that is also bodily in her essay about realising the pandemic’s ‘new normal looked so much like my existing normal’ (192).
Elsewhere, the focus is often on insecurity or uncertainty of another sort: the maddening difficulty of getting writing done in the face of distraction and self-doubt. Oliver Mol recounts quitting his job and moving to Barcelona to write, a plan he comes to regard as ‘clichéd, pathetic, indulgent, terrifying’ (102), while Eda Gunaydin meditates on writing and not writing during a time of personal turmoil. Perhaps because the challenges such essays describe feel potentially more responsive to personal agency than the systemic failures detailed elsewhere, they allow a little more space for something like hope. And yet, presenting these two strands of concern side-by-side makes the point that, as things currently stand, one’s ability to sit down and get writing done is intrinsically related to one’s capacity to buy oneself time to do so. It also suggests that there is some degree of solace to be found in realising you’re not alone in experiencing such difficulties: Lisa Fuller reflects on receiving a despairing email from a student—‘they say they can’t write, that their dream is pointless because their writing sucks’—and is immediately struck by a feeling of recognition. ‘God, I can relate’, she writes (153).
The consolations of seeing shared challenges plainly expressed is further illustrated by Lee Kofman’s The Writer Laid Bare. Indeed, Kofman opens with a description of the way, ‘for many of us, writing is foremost an act of self-doubt, a breeding ground for self-loathing’ (x)—an observation so simultaneously accurate and reassuring I immediately screen-shotted it for the benefit of my writing-friends group chat. This sense of Kofman as a fellow traveller who has been there, and learnt some hard lessons, is key to The Writer Laid Bare. She is clear that the book should not be mistaken for a ‘how-to’ guide, with ‘step-by-step guidelines for building a story followed by writing exercises’ (294). Instead, it’s as much intimate memoir as writing manual, drawing on the Russian-born, Melbourne-based author, editor, writing teacher and mentor’s prodigious reading and research as well as her own creative struggles (among them, starting to write in English after moving to Australia from Israel). The result is a firmly non-prescriptive balm for worried or weary writers: readers are encouraged to think of The Writer Laid Bare ‘as a hardware store that has a range of tools for you to choose from in order to build, or expand, your own singular writer’s toolkit’ (xv). You may or may not agree with everything Kofman suggests, but the main thing is ‘to discover which method works for you’ (56).
Indeed, an embrace of what Kofman calls ‘our singularities’ (88) is central to her overarching thesis about the importance of ‘emotional honesty’, not only as a means to discover one’s preferred ways of working but also to produce the strongest possible end result. Kofman argues that the most dangerous moments for a writer are ‘when we lose touch with our viscera, with how we perceive ourselves and the outer world; or when we are reluctant to share what we find there’ (x). By her reckoning, such ‘nonesty’—as she calls this insufficiency of truthfulness—leads not only to inferior literature that depicts a moral landscape stripped of nuance and complexity, but also potentially to the kind of creative blockages that have characterised her own periods of writerly crisis. In encouraging her readers to ‘write what makes you blush’ (25), Kofman acknowledges the difficulties and risks of doing so—refreshing in itself—and offers practical suggestions, rooted in her own experience, for how this might be accomplished.
As all of this might suggest, The Writer Laid Bare is interested not only in the craft of writing but also its more intangible mysteries. Striking a balance between practicality and a near-spiritual reverence for the written word, its chapters focus on subjects such as reading ‘like a writer’ (which is to say, analytically and voraciously) and the particulars of voice and structure, but also the significance of feeling and intuition to the creative process. As in Open Secrets, the work of writing is seen to exist in concert with other components of one’s life: Kofman reflects candidly on the challenges of combining her career with raising young children, and the toll that a singular focus on creative work can exact on relationships. Yet she is equally forthright in articulating her dedication to her art and its vital importance as ‘a scaffold to build my life around’ and as a source of purpose and pleasure (14). Indeed, this might be one of the book’s most valuable contributions to the current moment: its reassurance that though writing can be a difficult pursuit, it is also a worthwhile one.
Gemma Nisbet is a writer and PhD candidate in Creative Writing at the University of Western Australia, researching objects, memory and the personal essay. Her work has appeared in publications including TEXT, The West Australian and a number of Australian anthologies. Her first book, The Things We Live With, will be published by Upswell in October 2023.