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Dr Lee Kofman is an Israeli-Australian author of three fiction books and two memoirs: Imperfect (2019), which was shortlisted for the Nib Literary Award, and The Dangerous Bride (2014). She is also the co-editor of Rebellious Daughters (2016) and the editor of Split (2019), an anthology of personal essays by prominent Australians that was longlisted for an ABIA Award. Since 2006, Lee has been teaching fiction and non-fiction workshops and courses around Australia.

You write both fiction and memoir. What is most challenging about writing memoir?

Memoir is a very challenging form full stop. To write it well, you must be prepared to make yourself hyper-vulnerable, skinless – and not necessarily in a confessional sense (as in ‘telling it all’). Good memoirists reflect on what they describe probingly, and this includes examining their own behaviour and thinking, which is also very exposing, but this is where the art and wisdom of memoir reside. As V.S. Pritchett famously wrote (I am paraphrasing), a writer doesn’t get credit for living but for what they make of that living. To do that, a memoirist must find a way to distance themselves from what is often an emotionally raw experience and look at it as coolly as possible. This is hard to do and requires a lot of stamina and self-work, but can be also deeply rewarding because you gain more self-understanding. 

When writing scenes from the past, how do you recall dialogue and descriptions from so long ago?

One of the beauties of memoir is that it’s a pliable genre. Scenes in memoir are optional. Having said this, fictional devices can greatly enhance our stories, inject them with immediacy and emotion. The key thing is to strive for plausibility. Nobody, I believe (or hope) expects a memoirist to recall verbatim conversations from the past, or certain descriptive details like the colour of wallpaper in their childhood house. But while you may not remember precisely what words your mother used when, say, years ago you informed her that you decided to leave family’s religion, you can surely plausibly recreate the words she was likely to use. What counts is that your work is emotionally honest. Memoir is a sub-genre of creative nonfiction. The way I see it, ‘creative’ part means memoirists can take some liberties with factual truths (but only minor ones, like the wallpaper) in order to render the emotional truth of their stories more palpable. And what can be more palpable than letting your mother scold you in her own voice?

Writing memoir can mean recording very personal things about other people. Can writing memoir be hurtful to others?

Absolutely! Everyone’s story is bound with other people’s, and so every memoir is a potential violation of other people’s privacy. But does this mean we can’t tell our stories? My take on this much-debated question is that we have the right to tell our story despite the potential hurt as long as we put in place some ethical safeguards to minimise potential hurts. I don’t have the space here to discuss the various strategies I use (they are in my writing courses), but I do want to acknowledge that sometimes my anxieties about other people have paralysed me so that I’ve stopped writing altogether. However, no such a paralysis has lasted longer than several months. I’ve come to realise that these struggles, as gruesome as they have been, actually invigorate me artistically. They keep me on my toes. And instead of allowing them to become narrative stoppers, I write them into the work itself. Finally, in my view, if there are many things a writer feels they can’t say because they are not prepared to offend people, then it’s not worth writing this particular work. 

Given writing memoir can be so difficult, have you ever considered fictionalising your own life?

Definitely. Most of my fiction is infused with my life. But, unfortunately, it doesn’t always work like this. Some experiences I feel urgency to write about just don’t want to become fiction. I discovered this the hard way when I tried to fictionalise my two non-monogamous relationships – something I was ashamed to publicly disclose. But writing about that part of my life just didn’t work in fiction. My writer’s block lasted four years and ended only when I finally gathered the courage to write about that slice of my life in a memoir form. I learned from that experience that I can’t force a form on my subjects, so nowadays I try to surrender to my works rather than tame them into submission.

What is the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever received?

The best advice I’ve ever received was also the worst advice I’ve ever received…. It came from quite a few people, mostly migrants like myself, during my first years in Australia. They all said: ‘Forget writing in English, you have to be a native speaker for that.’ But I always love doing the opposite of what I am told, so that advice spurred me on to change my writing language as fast as possible, just to show my ‘advisers’ that I could!

You can find Lee’s two online memoir writing courses here: