How to Become a Writer: Lee Kofman

This series is based on an early short-story by Lorrie Moore called ‘How to Become a Writer’, a wry account of all the seemingly random events, choices and missteps that led a young woman to dedicate herself to a life of putting words on paper. This is a subject I’m fascinated by. Whenever I talk to authors, read their interviews or hear them speak, I’m struck by the enormous variety of routes there are to the same end-point.

There are those who come to writing through study, others are self-taught; some begin early while others are ‘late-bloomers’; some are lucky enough to find mentors, others go it alone; some begin as teachers, editors or in other word-related professions, others come from lives as accountants or sheep shearers. I take tremendous comfort in knowing there’s more than one way to pack a sack; that just because you haven’t done certain things (like gone to university), doesn’t mean you can’t become a writer; we must each find our own path to the writing life.

Lee Kofman

Lee Kofman is the author of five books, including memoirs Imperfect: How bodies shape the people we become and The Dangerous Bride; co-editor of Rebellious Daughters and editor of Split, an anthology of personal essays by prominent Australian authors. Her short works have been widely published in Australia, UK, Scotland, Israel, Canada and US. Her blog was a finalist for Best Australian Blogs 2014. 


A sickly childhood

How does one become a writer? In my case, the becoming occurred organically, or perhaps out of sheer necessity, rather than by choice. Yet it has been a lengthy process. To begin with, I was born in a place and time where books were a natural habitat of the mind in the absence of other entertainment, and on account of their state-driven cheapness.

In the Soviet Union of the 1970s and 80s, even truck drivers were fond of referencing Tolstoy.

The Soviet Union not only popularised books but it also bred graphomania. Much of the available literature was state-sponsored propaganda – the Soviet writers of whom the government approved received handsome salaries – and such books resembled each other in many ways. It seemed to many, then, that writing was easy. And profitable. Artless poetry, in particular, was a national disease – on an epidemic scale. So, when I wrote my first poem at the age of three (blue bird is in the sky/blue bird flies high) no one was particularly surprised. Or concerned.

Our home, however, was bookish even by Soviet standards, crammed with volumes of various collected works – Chekhov, Konan-Doyle, Victor Hugo and so on.

A sickly child, often bound to bed, I was mostly surrounded by (voraciously reading) adults and didn’t understand other children and their pastimes. I learned to read at four, and first tackled War and Peace at eight. I skipped the war and peace parts mostly, though, concentrating on the romance.

In any case, my life, from early on, was bound with words-on-the-page. So it felt natural, also at around the age of eight, to begin inserting my own words to join the conversation with my well-thumbed friends living on our bookshelves.

But I also needed to write. To escape the pain and loneliness of my sickbed, the claustrophobia of our ever-expanding family’s ever-shrinking apartment, the tedium of ever-present state propaganda. In my pre-teen years, it seemed my mind, as it expressed itself in my notebooks, was my best refuge.

A program for young writers

During my adolescence and young adulthood, which unfolded in democratic Israel, my writing graduated from escape into the forging of identity.

I had an embarrassing accent and scars from my childhood surgeries, I was tone-deaf and a failure at sport. I was a freak, I decided. So I wrote to become something. To compose a more attractive self.

And I kept reading obsessively, now also furiously taking notes, with the hope that literature would improve my knowledge of the world and, even more importantly, improve me.

My efforts paid off. At 16, to my great surprise (by then I’d lived just four years in Israel), I was accepted into a prestigious Young Reporter program at a national magazine. Writing, then, elevated me into ‘The Journalist’.

In my new job I wrote prolifically and, by literary standards, badly.

Journalistic clichés came to me easily. And they seeped into, then flooded, my attempts at fiction. I had many articles, and some short fiction, published in youth journals. But was I writer? Even my adolescent self didn’t think I was. What helped, eventually, was failure.

Publication…and failure

At 20, I had my first book published. A novel. A very bad novel. Even my publisher, who ran a small, unimportant press, admitted it was more a diary than a literary work. The book earned me some media attention, but no reviews and barely any sales, and justly so. It was a hardback, but to me the book seemed ethereal in the way it vanished into the vacuum. I didn’t know it at the time, but that vanishing would help.

In the year following publication, I was so demoralised that I finally paused to re-think what literature was. I stopped writing. But not reading. That year I read more than ever, masochistically, relishing all that I now believed I’d never be part of. Kundera, Marquez, Erica Jong, Paul Auster, Aharon Meged, Yona Wallach… I inflicted all those delectable punishments upon myself to remind myself how great literature was and how implausible my chance was of finding my own tiny space within it. I read to exorcise my disease. .

A writing course & a mentor

At the end of that year my desire to write still hadn’t vanished. So, I employed my heaviest measure, seeking the ultimate humiliation. I enrolled in a writing course – so that I could be told by the teacher, a known author and the editor at the time of Israel’s most prestigious literary magazine, that I was no good. Then I’d finally quit writing and get on with my life.

Instead, Dorit Zilberman published two of my short stories, which I composed while in her class, at her magazine. Those stories, I wrote them bitterly, painfully, with far more struggle than I’d ever experienced during my years of graphomania, with no expectations of any success. I don’t know what exactly made the difference – the desperately passionate reading that I did the preceding year, my epiphany that writing was art more than craft, my coming to terms with the extent of my limitations, my grief over my undercooked first work which possibly deepened my writing… Most likely, all of those combined.
The End.

Proving the naysayers wrong!

Or was it? Did I really become a writer just then, having finally made some kind of an entry into the literary establishment? If only it was that simple.

After those stories came many more failed stories. And it would always be like this. There would be periods in my life, even years, when I’d try and try but couldn’t write, or couldn’t write anything of value. I’d become, then un-become, then become again a writer.

Of the many things that assisted me each time to return to my writerly self, what was most consistently useful was opposition. It always helped, for example, that my mother considered my writing to be erunda, bullshit (or not the writing itself, but my ambition to live a literary life). And post the publication of my stories, it was a man whom I briefly dated and so displeased that after our breakup I heard he once referred to me as ‘that pretentious woman who fancies herself a writer’. That spurred me into action. (I’ve always been fond of The Count of Monte Christo and other dramatic tales of revenge). Some months after that remark I finally finished my second manuscript, a collection of short stories. It was picked up by a major publisher and wasn’t as bad as my first book. Now this would show him! (Or, actually, my mother…)

Making Writing a Priority

Despite all my un-becomings, and despite having had several other occupations and professions, I’ve never in my entire life imagined myself to be anything else but a writer. And yet it was just seven years ago that I finally made writing – the practice and teaching of it – my main focus. Only after having three books and countless short works published did I realise, as self-evident as it may sound, that to be a decent writer one actually needs to prioritise writing in one’s life… Up until then I’d put many other activities – those different careers, love affairs, even hobbies such as cooking or watching films – first, fitting writing in between, rather than shifting my priorities the other way around, so afraid was I to fail again as a writer.
So this is how I became a writer. I think…

By the time she was eleven, Lee Kofman had undergone several major operations on both a defective heart and injuries sustained in an accident. Her body harbours a constellation of disfiguring scars that have shaped her sense of self and her view of the world. In a seductive mix of memoir and cultural critique, Kofman casts a questioning eye on the myths surrounding our conception of physical perfection and what it’s like to live in a body that deviates from the norm. She reveals the subtle ways we are all influenced by the bodies we inhabit, whether our differences are pronounced or noticeable only to ourselves. She talks to people of all shapes, sizes and configurations and takes a hard look at the way media and culture dictates how bodies should and shouldn’t be. By turns illuminating, confronting and deeply personal, IMPERFECT challenges us all to consider how we exist in the world and how our bodies shape the people we become.

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