As I read the first memoir penned by today’s guest, I remember thinking, When I grow up, I want to write like this. I was underlining phrases and making notes in the margins, such was the beauty of the prose. But, even better, there was a searing honesty about her work: this writer went where others feared to tread.
That writer was Lee Kofman, and I’m thrilled to have her in the attic today. So, without further ado, I’ll hand over to Lee.
Lee Kofman is an Israeli-Australian author of three fiction books, and two memoirs: The Dangerous Bride (Melbourne University Press, 2014) and Imperfect: How our bodies shape the people we become (Affirm Press, 2019), and the co-editor of the anthology, Rebellious Daughters (Ventura Press, 2016).
Her short fiction, creative non-fiction and poetry have been widely published in Australia, US, UK, Scotland, Israel and Canada. Her writing received numerous awards and her blog about the writing process was a finalist for Best Australian Blogs 2014.
On Imperfection and Writing
Q: Tell us about your book.
A: I’ll discuss here my most recent book, Imperfect. It is a hybrid work of creative nonfiction that combines memoir with literary journalism and cultural criticism. In it I explore how our appearance can shape our lives in a variety of ways, and what we can do when the shaping isn’t in line with our wishes.
My own story drives the work. By the time I was eleven, I’d undergone numerous operations on a congenitally defective heart and on injuries I received when a bus ran me over in a drink-driving accident. My body now hosts a constellation of disfiguring scars which have impacted my behaviour, and even my personality.
But I also tell stories of other people with imperfections – meaning an appearance that deviates from the current norm – whether these are common (such as mastectomies) or rare (like Marfan Syndrome or dwarfism), as well as stories of extreme body modifiers who un-perfect themselves intentionally. Somehow, eventually, all these stories did come together to create a coherent whole. Or so I hope…
Q: Tell us about the process of writing your book. Are you a plotter or a pantser? What inspired you to write it? How hard was it to get published?
A: I’ve carried this book, or rather variations on this book, inside me since my teens. In fact, my very first novel, surprise surprise titled Scars,was a lightly fictionalised account of how my body has impacted me. It was published when I was twenty and it was bad. In fact, it was so bad that I almost quit writing after it. And when I resumed, I stayed away from my scars.
Or sort-of stayed away. During my late thirties, I wrote a PhD that explored the experiences of women with non-facial scars. So I did keep skirting around my story. It was pressuring me from within to be told, but I couldn’t find the courage to reveal my secret, to reveal that I was a sphinx, as I thought then. Half-woman, half-creature. This went on until my second child, Ollie, was born. Ollie emerged into the world looking unusual, with a full head of very fair hair, and eyes that dart from side to side. Soon he was diagnosed with albinism. And as my husband and I were coming to terms with his condition, one day I thought: it was time I wrote the book I needed to write.
By then, though, the book had changed shape. I was no longer interested in just my own story, but also in the stories of any ‘imperfect’ people, including those like Ollie whose imperfections are not concealable. I wanted to talk about their, our, experiences, honestly, without euphemisms or positive thinking clichés, and bring this conversation out into the world, including, hopefully, Ollie’s future classroom.
Normally I don’t plot, I’m an intuitive writer. But for ImperfectI had a publishing contract before I began writing the book. Which meant I had a rough plan my publisher, Martin Hughes from Affirm Press, and I agreed upon. My initial proposal was miserly – one page with half-baked ideas. Luckily, Martin shared my passion for this project and helped me to write a stronger outline. Still, as the writing progressed, things changed multiple times, as I kept following new research leads.I’m glad I deviated from the plan, because I tend to grow bored when I know what I’m writing. Many of my writing pleasures lie in the discoveries I make as I go.
Q: Why do you write? What, for you, is the best thing about writing, and why?
A: Writing serves for me the same functions that religion serves for many. It helps me to understand the world around me, and through writing I try to better myself.
Q: Tell us what you find hardest about writing.
A: Thomas Mann once wrote that ‘Writers are those people who find writing difficult’. He must have meant me. Writing rarely comes easily to me, because it is always bound with enormous self-doubt. But what I find particularly daunting is first drafts. I can be seized when writing them, to the point of paralysis, by the feeling that I have nothing, or nothing worthy, to say.
Q: When and where do you write? Do you have a writing space? Please describe your writing routine.
A: I’m quite non-monogamous in my working habits… I often wander between my local library, cafés, my bed, the couch and my study while writing. Changing the scenery, or at least my posture, keeps me alert. I particularly love my study, because there I’m surrounded by my many, many books, and the palette of the room – a riot of red, orange and black – energises me. But then, I’m probably at my most productive on the couch in the living room, in a semi-horizontal position …
Since becoming a mother, six years ago, my writing routines have changed dramatically. I now simply write whenever I have childcare, which is usually two long days and one half day per week, plus I sometimes write in the late evenings after the boys go to bed. Of course, at that time I also do my other, teaching and mentoring, work. So I no longer have the luxury of daydreaming or ‘getting into the mood’ for writing. Instead, mildly panicked, I just attack that mythical blank page (not always successfully, though).
Q: Is there anything you’d do differently if you had your time over?
A: I wish I understood from a young age that in order to be a decent writer you actually need to prioritise writing in your life. Sounds self-evident? Well, for many years it wasn’t so for me. For a long time I put other stuff – various careers, love affairs, and even time-consuming hobbies such as cooking – first, fitting writing in between, rather than shifting my priorities to the other way around. This happened, I believe, due to my greed for living alternative lives, but even more so out of fear – fear of failing as a writer. Only in the last seven years or so have I begun to treat writing as my chief occupation.