Writers On Writing / Lee Kofman on crafting emotionally honest writing

“Emotional honesty isn’t a tell-it-all confessional honesty. It is to do with acknowledging the complexity of human thoughts, emotions and experiences.” We spoke to Lee Kofman on mastering emotional honesty in writing.

How has the idea of emotional honesty shaped your literary practice?

It is my most foundational principle in everything I do as a writer. Many years ago I’d suffered a severe writer’s block that lasted for four years. I believe its main cause was that I was at the time disconnected from how I see the world around me, partly out of fear (it takes courage to point out life’s complexities) and partly because I was a new migrant then, transitioning into writing in English. In the process, I couldn’t see who I was becoming in my new country and language. So whatever I wrote then, fiction or creative nonfiction, I airbrushed. I smoothed the corners of even mildly controversial topics. And I skimmed the surface of my characters’ minds, staying with the easier basics: Does she love him or not? Is he a loner because he had a difficult childhood? I ignored the ambivalences inherent in romantic love (she may love him a little and need him a lot?) or how someone’s solitary nature is likely to be formed by a mix of factors (is he also an introvert with a rich inner world?).

When eventually I managed to resolve that writer’s block, I emerged a different writer, no longer taking for granted that what I put on the page was ‘true’. Nowadays, before I consider such basics as narrative and voice, I foremost evaluate and revise my works-in-progress (and those of others when I do editorial work) on the basis of how honest I am in my every sentence. I now trust that honesty is a prerequisite before anything else in the text and once you have nailed it, many other issues (like the said voice and narrative) will start being resolved.

Which writers or works demonstrate mastery of this idea?

All my favorite authors and books do. All great authors and books, even if they aren’t my favorites, do. But here are some particularly exciting, brave writers that come to mind: Geoff Dyer, Helen Garner, Hanif Kureishi, Anton Chekhov, Joan Didion, Gustave Flaubert, Karl Ove Knausgaard. And some books by some of these authors I’m thinking of in particular: Out of Sheer Rage, Joe Cinque’s Consolation, Something to Tell You, A Man in Love. Also Lucy Grealy’s remarkable memoir Autobiography of a Face and Ann Patchett’s no less remarkable companion memoir Truth and Beauty, as well as Marguerite Duras’s novel The Lover and any of Elena Ferrante’s novels. I can go on and on…  

Is it possible to go too far with emotional honesty and how can writers find the right balance?

Never! You can never go too far. Emotional honesty isn’t a tell-it-all confessional honesty. It is to do with acknowledging the complexity of human thoughts, emotions and experiences, and describing these with appropriate nuance, even when the truth is inconvenient or damn infuriating…

Join Lee’s course, Online Feedback: Creative Non-Fiction, Monday 5 February to Friday 21 June 2024.

Dr Lee Kofman is an Israeli-Australian author of three fiction books and two memoirs, Imperfect (Affirm Press, 2019), which was shortlisted for Nib Literary Award 2019, and The Dangerous Bride (Melbourne University Press, 2014); co-editor of Rebellious Daughters (Ventura Press, 2016); and editor of Split (2019, Ventura Press), anthologies of personal essays by prominent Australian authors, which was longlisted for ABIA Awards 2020. Her short works have been widely published in Australia, the US, UK, Scotland, Israel and Canada. Her blog about writing was a finalist for Best Australian Blogs 2014. Since 2006, Lee has also been teaching fiction and creative non-fiction workshops and courses all around Australia, as well as mentoring writers, particularly those working in the genres of creative non-fiction and literary fiction.

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