Reviewed by Magdalena Ball
The Writer Laid Bare
Emotional honesty in a writer’s art, craft and life
By Lee Kofman
March 30, 2022, 352 pages, ISBN13: 9781920727550
I read a lot of writing books, almost in the same way I read recipe books. Not so much to improve my writing, but just for the vicarious pleasure of imagining that I’m writing. Maybe even as procrastination. Lee Kofman’ The Writer Laid Bare is a bit different from most writing books. For one thing it’s not prescriptive. The Writer Laid Bare is more like a tightly structured condensation of multiple writing courses, research of other writing books, and writing group sessions, exhuming the key issues writers face and providing a huge range of ideas, tools and best practice tips to deal with the many issues writers face. Some of the ideas are conflicting, as what works for one writer might not work for another. Kofman is a writing instructor whose courses pivot around emotional honesty and how to get at it, and as the title makes explicit, this is the main theme of the book–that good writing requires emotional honesty. There’s no easy way to get it. The only way is to move forward is through the painful fire of uncertainty. The first draft will inevitably be bad, and drawn out through tricks, conjuring, and a lot of discomfort. It’s an important lesson that needs to be re-learned with every new book.
The book is richly detailed and takes a deep dive into such things as the roots of writing, how to find a subject that is real, where to begin, how to engage with failure and discomfort, developing a voice, writing emotions authentically, revising, how to deal with distraction and other roadblocks, and much more. Throughout the book, Kofman uses her own experiences, which, as you’d expect, she recounts with honesty and open humility and her experiences as a teacher, along with quotations and guidance from a very wide-range of writing masters to address pretty much any problem a writer might be wrestling with. For example, Kofman explores a piece of writing she was mentoring which wasn’t working, pinpointing the problem through a Fitzgerald quote:
The malady that afflicted that novel makes me think of Fitzgerald’s famous suggestion that if a writer creates character by beginning with an individual, they may end up also saying something of importance about the character’s sociocultural milieu – their ‘type’. But if they begin with a type (as my mentee had), they end up with nothing. (133)
There are many rather unusual tips and tricks in the book, such as using a layering technique to help spread the pain of drafting into incremental revisions, setting a reading regimen around writing a new book or as Kofman puts it creating a “reading diet to get into the right headspace”, or honing your writing style. Kofman’s own prose is lovely to read in and of itself, with a distinctive voice and cadence that is warm and evocative, no matter what she’s writing about:
We should pay attention to the mystery of words: how ‘sandwich’ contains sand, and ‘serendipity’ is a serpentine word. And to the fact that words have a texture and flavor in our very mouths. Say it aloud and you’ll notice how chocolate truffles melt in the mouth, how ophthalmologist resists the tongue. (117)
One of the key tenets of The Writer Laid Bare is the importance of paying attention. This almost obsessive focus is the writers’ stock-in-trade. Kofman calls it voyeurism, but in our attention-starved culture, being able to lock onto the details contained within a moment is more than just a tool to make our work more interesting (though Kofman makes a good case for that), it’s revolutionary. This kind of presence is at the heart of how Kofman encourages writers to get at the truth of what it means to be alive, now, beyond our roles, or the media soundbites we repeat without engagement, there is something pulsing and real, and it’s this pulsation that Kofman urges us to engage with. There are all sorts of techniques provided to help our writing get closer to this truth, none easy but all involving engagement: sensory detail, utilising the body, tapping into our unique cultural heritage, letting obsession guide you are all keys to creating writing that is powerful, and there are chapters devoted to each of these things and more.
The book also explores modern roadblocks including different types of fear, a variety of self-imposed blockages, and the worry that our work might hurt others. There is no shying away from the complexity of these problems, nor the inherent violence that memoir contains as we tread over other people’s stories in search of our own, but Kofman provides a delicate and helpful pathway through some of it. The impact of social media is a distraction/roadblock which Kofman addresses in a way that both recognises the importance of the medium and its particular pitfalls for writers:
I realised I had to take more care with how to be in the electronic, flickering, seductive universe without considerably compromising my integrity as a writer. A crucial step has been to acknowledge the price that I’ve paid artistically for the social and promotional benefits I’ve gained online – the harmful ways in which this ah-so-enticing slice of virtual reality has encroached onto my pages (225)
One of my favourite chapters is the final one in which Kofman addresses the pressure to always have something new happening – a writer’s output. I feel this pressure acutely, wondering what my next project is going to be even as I’m finalising the proofs of a completed book. Of course this is purely an internal pressure. Good writing takes time and fermentation, sometimes for years, and no-one does nothing but write. Kofman doesn’t so much give permission permission to take time, but instead makes the very helpful suggestion that all those other things: parenting, day jobs, fermentation, and reading of course, are part of the process, not in opposition to it. The Writer Laid Bare is a rich distillation of Kofman’s best strategies, and is as enjoyable to read as a novel or one of her nonfiction books.