In “Body Work” by Melissa Febos, “Writing is a form of freedom”
We all have our favorite authors: those whose next works we eagerly await; those whose captivating, devouring and overwhelming books feed the intellectual, psychological and/or lecherous hungers of their authors, and ours. At the top of my top 10 list is Melissa Febos, rising literary star with a warrior bullet.
The daughter of a feminist psychotherapist and a Puerto Rican captain, Febos is a cultural comet propelled by the resolutely modern contradictions that define her: public intellectual and former professional dominatrix; proud bisexual and devoted wife of poet Donika Kelly; kinky wife and associate professor at the Iowa Nonfiction Writers’ Program; former heroin addict and former board member of VIDA: Women in Literary Arts, the feminist nonprofit that called Time’s Up on the US edition. Self-emancipated at 16, wildly prolific at 40, Febos has dozens of published essays, four provocative non-fiction books and a long list of prestigious scholarships to her name.
Today, a year after publishing his superb collection of essays Youth, which has drawn praise from people like The New Yorker, The New York Times, and O Magazine, Febos brings us Bodywork: The Radical Power of Personal Storytelling.
A lazy categorization would describe body work as “part memoir, part craft book, part literary treatise”. But Febos’ work defies this kind of segmentation. Each of his books contains multitudes, seamlessly merged into a single truth-seeking missile. Its trademark magic is in fusion.
In body work, Febos offers a convincing rebuttal of the charge that a memoir is just a printed diary. “A memoir is a diorama of experiences,” she writes, “populated only partially by the memories we carry on the desk. Part of the writing job is to fill out the diorama with many memories and experiences that we does not have have access during the events we describe.
The opening pages of the book deliver its fundamental message: that the genre known as “personal narrative”, “personal essay” or “memoir” has been constantly belittled because “writing is a form of freedom…and there is there are forces at work in our society that would like to hide it from those whose stories threaten the regimes that govern that society. Fuck them.
“Since when did telling our own stories and drawing their ideas from them become so reviled?” asks Febos. “I suspect that when people denigrate [memoirists] in the abstract, they imagine women… Men write endlessly about their problems as fathers and I don’t see anyone accusing them of staring at their navel.
“Navel gazing is not for the faint of heart,” concludes Febos. “Listen to me: it is not inappropriate to write about trauma. It’s subversive. »
In the second of the book’s four chapters, “Mind F*ck: Writing Better Sex,” Febos recounts an exercise she assigns to her creative writing students: Write your sex life story in five sentences. She asks her students to repeat the exercise four, perhaps five times in quick succession, until they produce the desired result. “Their writing has become truer. I told them, We could do this all day and not run out of ways to tell this story.
Sex is the river that runs through Febos’s writing, just as it dug deep furrows in the life of the former pro domme. The combined powers of his acquired experiences and his intellect – itself a definition of memories – taught him that one of the best ways to know a person, including, or perhaps especially oneself, is to know who she is sexually. No matter how solid its facade, this five-sentence story reveals it all: how each of us gave in to and/or resisted our own most powerful desires; how each of us has internalized and/or resisted the culture’s response to these desires.
“I’ve spent my whole life being prescribed stories about my own body: what it should and shouldn’t look like, what it should or shouldn’t do, and what its value is,” writes Febos. “What I learned is that my body is mostly good for sex and sex should mostly be good for men.”
Febos examines these false teachings in his writings, in his teaching and in body work, whose goal, she says, is to “unpack the narratives we’ve learned about ourselves, and how this project might make us not just better writers and lovers, but more human to ourselves.”
In the middle of reading body work, I asked Febos what prompted her to add to the already sagging shelves of memories how and why. What hole in the cultural library, I asked him by e-mail, do you hope to fill?
“I was tired of hearing the same old bias against personal writing, which is really the same old tired bigotry against stories from women, people of color, and all people of difference.
“I want this book to be where a new writer could reach when they’re wondering if telling their own story is self-indulgent or narcissistic. When she wonders if this inner voice is hers, or how she could make her art despite its noise.
“I wanted a queer, feminist memoir manifesto,” Febos concluded. “So I had to write one.”
The best non-fiction books have a paradoxical effect on their readers. Their well-formed prose and tight story arcs pull us through their pages, while the originality of their musings often make us stop, wondering if we’re okay. By this measure, among others, Melissa Febos is a master (mistress?) craftsman, ditching bogus authorship questions in favor of the bolder, truer authorship statement.
Take chapter three, “A Big Shitty Party,” which answers the most frequently asked question of any memoirist: “Is it right to tell other people’s stories while telling your own?”
“I was generally a very good employee, a good teacher, a good friend, a good daughter,” writes Febos. “But when any of those roles came into conflict with my writing, or I anticipated they might, I was a writer first. I always let the writer win.
A few pages later, Febos updates its own statement. She summarizes the incident that changed her way of thinking. Before that happened, she says, “I had subscribed to a somewhat superficial, self-interested and, I now see, heartless outlook…an attitude of convenience that now strikes me as particularly blatant for an artist whose the main form is the essay.I now believe that I don’t have a clear field to write my story of events that happened to someone else more directly than they did to me…Sometimes, it’s important to let the writer loose.
But how does the memoirist calculate which are his own stories and which are, in whole or in part, someone else’s? Unless the memoir is about being stranded solo on an island, it necessarily includes the characters that populate the author’s life. How does Febos “let the writer lose” without violating his very reason for writing the book?
“At the end of the day, I write the books I have to,” Febos told me. “I don’t need anyone to approve my ideas, and I usually don’t show anything to my agent or editor until I have a complete manuscript…
“My wife…is the only person who has absolute veto power…She has rarely exercised that right…As a writer, she understands that a difference in individual truths is not always a conflict. There is room in our house for more than one floor.
body work asks the fundamental questions that our literature, and our culture, are currently grappling with. Which version of the story is yours, which is mine, which is true? Is there room in our American home for more than one story, or more than one version of the same story?
Febos dives deep into the closing words of his book: “Everything I have created that is worthwhile has been a practice of love, healing and redemption. I know this process is divine.
I know his fourth book fits that description.
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