Socrates taught that the key to the examined life was to ‘know thyself’. Is this also true of good writing? Does a richer knowledge of the self, and how it interacts with a work, create a better story?
Absolutely! Even for fiction writers, self-knowledge is crucial. Good writers, whether they write fiction or creative nonfiction, create complex characters – at once singular and yet also universal with all their idiosyncrasies, internal contradictions and innermost desires. If we don’t know ourselves well, can’t examine our psyches honestly, how can we make others (including our younger selves, in the case of memoirists) to sound emotionally true?
Your recently published book, Imperfect, is a personal reckoning with the cultural myths around physical perfection. How did the genre of creative nonfiction uniquely serve its themes and purpose?
In Imperfect I tried to answer two related questions. Can the way we look shape our lives? And what can we do about this shaping when it’s not in line with our designs? Creative nonfiction is a remarkably flexible genre that allows writers to incorporate within their works any types of writing, even poetry. So I had free rein to draw upon whatever was useful to answer my questions. My personal story of having scars and having a child with albinism frames the book, but I also incorporate there investigative journalism, interviewing people and visiting places such as burns survivors’ camp. Then I have passages of cultural criticism, looking at how appearance is understood in popular culture and art. I also engage with philosophy and trace history of western attitudes towards appearance, as well as drawing on psychological empirical studies.
What are some of your favourite creative nonfiction works?
I have so many. But here are some top examples. Anna Funder’s Stasiland, Out of Sheer Rage by Geoff Dyer, In Praise of Messy Lives by Katie Roiphe, anything Robert Dessaix writes, Helen Garner’s Joe Cinque’s Consolation.
Lee Kofman is the author of four books, including the memoir The Dangerous Bride, and is co-editor of Rebellious Daughters, an anthology of prominent Australian memoirists. Her forthcoming book is Split, an anthology of personal essays. She’s worked as a writing mentor and teacher of writing for 15 years.