“I do not think that the vocation of writer is superior to any other,” writes Melissa Febos in her newest essay collection, “but I do believe it is the most useful life for me, the one in which I can most be of service to this questionable project of human civilization.”
Although the essays in what is arguably her latest act of service to that questionable project — Body Work: The Radical Power of Personal Narrative — are all personal narratives themselves (as opposed to straight-up craft essays with clear dos and nos for the aspiring or practicing writer), they also provide practical and philosophical arguments for the expansiveness that such narratives allow and for their power in the world. Phoebos is no stranger to this writing, having produced books like boyhood and Whip Smart.
body-work is a slim collection of four essays, with the second and third being perhaps the most practical in nature. The second, titled “Mind F—” (although the expletive is spelled out), is subtitled “Writing Better Sex” and is ostensibly about precisely that: writing better sex scenes. “The harder work of writing sex scenes,” Febos writes, “is undoing your own mind’s preconceptions about writing about sex.” Beyond the writing itself, though, the essay asks us to interrogate more broadly the narratives that we have all been handed down about sex, about whom we have been taught that it is for, why we engage in it, and how many of the scenarios. reproduced in our sex lives come from learned scripts that have nothing to do with our own desires or pleasure. “[T]or write an awakened sex scene,” Febos writes, “one may need to be awake to their own sex.”
The third essay, “A Big Shitty Party,” is subtitled “Six Parables of Writing About Other People” and begins with a rather amusingly acerbic letter from Billie Holiday to her ex-lover Tallulah Bankhead about the latter’s concerns regarding how she’d be represented in Holiday’s upcoming book (apparently, Bankhead went to the publisher behind Holiday’s back to complain, despite having not yet read it). In this essay, Febos addresses the oft-asked question of how to deal with the realities of other people’s feelings when writing creative nonfiction or memoir. Febos’ first response to her, when she gets this question, is to claim that “there are no living people in [her] work, only characters, which are figments animated by imagination plus a small number of qualities shared by the person on whom they are based.” Fair enough, and yet, as she admits, “no one likes to be reduced, even to their most cherished qualities.” The rest of the essay outlines the various ways Febos herself has dealt with this issue, using both her mistakes and her successes to make the case for being an empathic and considerate storyteller.
The final essay, “The Return,” centers around the notion of “confession,” from its Latin root that means “to acknowledge” to its religious connotations to its place in literature, which has embraced and rejected confessional writing at different times, depending on on the fashion of the day. The essay circles many other questions: What does it mean to confess on the page? To acknowledge a hurt experienced or a harm enacted? What does it mean to try to heal from a trauma or set of traumas, and how does writing parallel that healing? And what lies in that distance between the author’s internal self de ella and the version of herself that lands on the page? “It is not experience that qualifies a person to write a memoir,” Febos argues, “but insight into experience, and the ability to tell a story of the past that contains both dimensions.”
It’s the first essay, however, “In Praise of Navel Gazing,” that was my personal favorite among the four. An impassioned argument in favor of the personal narrative, Febos also points out the sexist bias surrounding it: “Karl Ove Knausgaard is a genius, a risk-taker for his chronicles of the interior and the domestic,” she writes, “while all my female graduate students are terrified to write about being mothers for fear that they will be deemed (or already are) vacuous narcissists.” Febos argues that the stories of trauma — especially the trauma of marginalized peoples — have always been politicized, and have always, too, been sneered at or ignored or made to seem small, irrelevant, or self-indulgent. She argues, convincingly, that such “resistance to memoir about trauma is always in part — and often nothing but — a resistance to movements for social justice.” Rather than believing the narrative that stories of trauma are dull or overdone or whiney or gauche, Febos encourages her readers to tell their stories, to write them, for themselves or others. In this way, body-workis in itself an example of the strength of personal narrative, as well as an argument for how such narratives inevitably create space for community as well as a freer self.
Ilana Masad is a fiction writer, book critic and author of the novel All My Mother’s Lovers.