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Melissa Febos on “Body Work,” Medieval Women, and First Drafts

This past weekend, I got the chance to catch up with Melissa Febos on the eve of her forthcoming hybrid literary-craft-book-slash-memoir Body Work’s publication. I caught her just as she was returning home from an errand, she told me. She’d gone to pick up a letterpress drawer she found on Facebook Marketplace and that she wants to turn into a cabinet of curiosities. (If there was ever a better metaphor for memoir, I haven’t yet seen it.) After laughing about being a Facebook Marketplace, Goodwill, or Etsy kind of gay, we turned our attention back to the book, and our conversation covered everything from the voices we internalize, her relationship with prospective readers, and the medieval women who pioneered autobiographical writing.


Yashwina: First, I just wanted to ask, how are you doing? Pub day is coming up, and your book is about how we tell the stories of pain and trauma; this is a pretty uniquely painful and traumatic moment in history. And I was wondering how it feels to be writing about that in the middle of it.

Melissa Febos: Well, I am pretty good at functioning through hard things. And so often my feelings catch up with me later, which is unavoidable. I’m definitely vacillating between feeling a lot of sort of grief and terror and rage about what’s happening in the world and the country. And even my new home state of Iowa. However, I’m also very much in sort of “I’m publishing a book” mode, which is really different from “I’m writing a book” mode, which is a more emotionally present space. So I’m not really…I’m not exactly in touch with how I feel, and I’m kind of okay with that at the moment. There’s always a price to pay for when you take a break from your feelings, but sometimes it is necessary, and it’s just been an incredibly busy semester, and I’m on the cusp of publishing my second book in two years, and it just requires a kind of outward-facing energy. It’s hard to be in your most vulnerable self when you have to be sort of perceived in the way that a published book demands. So…it is what it is, you know? I’m doing okay, considering everything. I’m very grateful for a lot of things in my life right now and that’s good.

I think a lot of people are going to be very grateful for this book. One thing that I especially enjoyed was the elaborate integration of craft and memoir, especially because that genre hybridity is so cutting edge right now. How do you understand the relationship of genre recombination like this, to the practice of storytelling for marginalized narrative?

Well, first of all, I don’t really think most of the time about structure in terms of genre when I’m writing. When I was writing this book, like most essays I’ve written, I just felt a very, very urgent need to set down some ideas and to work my way through my own thinking. And because this book is about writing, working through an idea is working through my own experience. Writing has been at the center of my life for a really long time, both in terms of teaching and in terms of my own practice.

And it’s sort of fun when the thing you’ve been doing for a long time feels like, people are interested in it now. With my last book, people were like, “Oh, it’s so timely.” It’s exciting because I feel like I’ve been writing about straightforward feminist stuff for a long time, but after all the #MeToo stuff happened, people became sort of interested in it.

Oppression of certain groups in society is almost always contingent on erasing the stories of their harm, right? So we’re talking about personal stories and corporeal realities. And so I think most forms of liberation and social justice inevitably include the acknowledgement of those corporeal realities. The most palatable form of that is in storytelling, right? So if you’re interested in changing society, you’re interested in the stories of the people who have been harmed by the structures that form a society, but if you’re not interested in changing it and you benefit from it, then you’re probably not interested in those stories, right? To a certain extent, we’ve all internalized the hierarchies and power structures that govern our society, so I think this book really came out of watching my students and my peers and myself wrestle with the internalized voices. Internalized patriarchal voices for me, mostly, that insisted no one cared about the ways I’ve been harmed by living in a patriarchal society.

And that goes for anything in the realm of embodied experience, sexual experience. I had a lot of noise in my own mind whenever I tried to write about those things. By writing through it, that noise became more transparent, and more transparently not my own voice and not a voice that was based on my own experience or my beliefs. And I found myself saying the same things over and over and over again to my students. “Actually, what seems to be your belief that writing about your own experience is self-indulgent, it’s like publishing your diary, that no one’s interested, it’s narcissistic, it’s navel-gazing… Let’s see if we can practice discerning whose voice that actually is, because I don’t think it’s yours.” And that was such an effective strategy that at a certain point, I just wanted to be able to kind of share that conversation with people beyond my students and former students and friends. This book is sort of the product of that.

I love that. That “This voice belongs to someone, but it does not belong specifically to you.” Learning how to discern whose voice you’re reacting to takes so much work, and this book makes that process easier because you’re not just talking about the writing process as a generalization. I really enjoyed that you kind of mathematically show your work, “here’s how I did this for each of my books.” Seeing your own writing processes made it a lot easier to understand how you were dismantling those misapprehensions. It felt like seeing a mathematical proof, laid out step by step!

I love that. I’m so glad you had that experience of it.

It is a joy to copy your homework. Because you write so much through your own individual processes in this very behind-the-scenes way, is there one thing you want your readership to take away? Not just about writing as a practice, but specifically about your own body of work from this behind the scenes look?

If there is an impression of my work that the readers of this book take away, I would like it to be an understanding that my work is a liberatory practice. One of the reasons why I wanted to write a craft book, insofar that I did.

So often I think that writing craft is sort of siloed from the other practices of life, as if you’re in relationship with other people, and you’re in your spiritual practice, and you’re in your embodied practice, and then you’re writing, and all of these are sort of discrete categories within a person’s life themselves. And that, of course, isn’t true at all. It’s absolutely not true for me.

The process of writing all of my books was a process that integrated my spiritual practice, my relationships with other people, my desire to be a better person, to be a more awakened person, my practice of trying to sort of liberate my own mind from patriarchal white supremacists and homophobic social structures. The process of writing for me is the great work of life. It is the nexus where everything that matters to me intersects. And when I’m doing that work, I am getting closer to everything I believe in, and enacting everything I believe in. Without sounding grandiose, I hope all of my work is the artifact of that truth.

And I think when I’m encouraging people to write, I’m encouraging them to understand their own practice of that enactment, because it takes so much of the pressure off of publication or public perception or whatever it is that other people do with your work. If it means that much, if it is that central to everything that matters to you, it is worth doing regardless of the outcome, right? That’s the thing I want people to take away from this book, both in general, but also about my work, to understand that process was unfolding as I was writing all of my books.

I think that’s such a beautiful sentiment. And the thought of it being worth doing, regardless of relationships to institutions like traditional publishing, I also feel like that came through very distinctly in the tone of the book. Are there any things about other craft books or general writing “advice” that you felt this book was specifically reacting against?

I think it’s less that other craft books were getting it wrong. That wasn’t my feeling. It was more that I just haven’t seen a lot of writing about writing that was articulating the things that writing means to me and that way that it intersects with all the other practices that are meaningful to me and about writing as a kind of liberatory practice, right? Writing as a political practice within our own selves and lives. The places where I most saw that kind of writing was more in political writing than craft writing.

Take Audre Lorde. She’s writing sort of a political and liberatory way of living that transcends activity, right? That filters into every single thing that a person does, right? So in theory and political writing, I see people writing about this, but in literary craft writing, I have not seen a lot of that. There are some newer books, like Matthew Salesses’ book and Felicia Rose Chavez’s book about the anti-racist writing workshop that are really taking writing craft and putting it into the context of politics and a way of living in the world. But that’s pretty new, and I wanted to do that in a really personal way. There are craft books and craft writings that I love, and individual essays, certainly. But I think, like everything I’ve written, I really wanted to write the book that I couldn’t find, that I would’ve pressed into the hands of my students, if it had existed.

I loved the fondness that your book takes toward its reader. And I think that was a really unusual tone; so often craft writing feels like there’s a teacher-student kind of power dynamic and also distance, and so it was really nice to feel that kind of immediacy and that kind of urgency in what you were conveying. All my favorite parts in there are underlined to hell!

I am such a wild annotator and so I love it when people annotate the shit out of my books. It makes me so happy. I mean, that’s how I know if I loved a book, right? If it’s completely falling apart.

Yep. Absolutely. You like when you open a book and the spine is cracked and you can tell you keep going to that place a lot?

Yep…I do.

That place in Body Work for me, when I drop it, the page it opens to is the line, “Cruelty rarely makes for good writing.”

Wow, the foreign correspondent! That’s really funny. I’m so glad. I would never have guessed, but I’m so glad that that spoke to you.

It was one of my favorite points of the book. How you apply that insight when you’re writing about people who you don’t have kind feelings for? I’m still trying to reconcile the fact that 1) cruelty doesn’t make for good writing, which I entirely believe to be true, with the fact that’s 2) it’s not necessary for us to have “processed harm,” whatever that means, in order to write about it. So how do you navigate or integrate those two true things? How do you make them fit together?

I think for me, the key is to take my time because I don’t always recognize my own cruelty in the first draft. The first draft is sometimes like skimming the muck off the surface of the pond. My first take is not my best take. In terms of this kind of thing, when I have resentment against someone, I often just need to write it and then I need to wait, and I need to go back, and I need to, as you said, complete my own process with it so that I can change my relationship so that it runs…it’s cooled. What felt hot goes cold.

Then I can really look at it with my full heart, because I no longer feel threatened by that person or situation. There have been a lot of things that I’ve written and let sit and then gone back to and realized that I was still sort of acting something out that hadn’t been finished. And I take a lot of stuff out. It can even be as small as the physical detail or a detail about someone’s life that I include. What my memory is catching on is informed by the way I feel towards that person. And if I still feel an active threat or resentment against someone, then it’s really hard for me to write about them with tenderness. I generally try not to publish anything until I can look at every character in it with tenderness. It took me a little while to get there. That anecdote in the book is a perfect example of how I had to cross those boundaries before I learned where they were.

It’s one of those ones that’s always shifting and you kind of have to rediscover that boundary every time you’re writing about a different person or relationship. The line is never where it was for the last person.

That’s right.

Definitely a really fascinating aspect of memoir is how every memoir about one person has to bump into the lives of other people at some point. We live in a society!

It’s impossible to avoid.

Yep. It really is. You’d have to be…I mean, even Julian of Norwich still bumped into other people. If she couldn’t escape the lives of others, none of us can.

I know, I mean I’ve been reading a lot about medieval women who had cloistered themselves away so that they could make their work.

I’ve always been a Margery Kempe girl, myself.

I know, she’s wonderful! She’s excellent.

Margery is a rock star. Every time I read that book, I find her funnier as a protagonist in her own life.

Oh my God. That makes me want to go reread it. That’s really fun. Reading all of those medieval nuns is going to be a part of the research for my next project, so I’ve got a big stack of them in my office.

Oh, I love that, I can’t wait for that! What I secretly want, someday, is for someone to make a show that’s like The Favourite or The Great, but about Margery Kempe.

Oh my God, that would be amazing! Or Hildegard of Bingen? Take your pick. There are so many.

Hildegard of Bingen is the G.O.A.T!

Hildegard is indeed the G.O.A.T. She absolutely is.

So I’m sure you’ve been doing a ton of interviews about this book in the lead up to pub day. What is one question you’ve been asked most frequently in talking about this book? And what’s the one question that you wish people would ask you instead?

You know, it’s funny, because I don’t really have something in mind like that. My writing process really begins with questions, and so I’ve exhausted a lot of the things that I have to say about it. It’s just fun to have another person in the proverbial room to talk to about it. And, the ones for this book are pretty different because they’re really about sort of process and writing, and less about my own personal history, which is pretty different from my previous work. I have been asked quite a few times, “What would you say, or what do you want to say to people who disparage personal writing?” That’s been a pretty common one, to which I think, I don’t have anything to say. I just want to hand them this book and send them on their way because I don’t have time for it. If only writing a book about something meant that no one ever did the annoying things that made you want to write in the first place.

The world would’ve gotten so much better, so much faster. My last question here for you is, I love thinking about book recommendations of pairing or like a shot and a chaser. If your book is the shot, what is the chaser? What should someone read immediately afterward?

Oh my God. I feel like people should go read the draft that they’re working on immediately after. That’s my fantasy, is that people read my book and they’re like, “Yes!” And they go guns blazing into whatever it is that they really want to write that they felt hesitant about.


Body Work: The Radical Power Of Personal Narrative is available now.


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Yashwina

Yashwina Canter is a reader, writer, and dyke putting down roots in Portland, Oregon. You can find her online at @yashwinacanter.

Yashwina has written 37 articles for us.

3 Comments

  1. ok so a new life goal is to see an avengers reboot populated entirely by medieval nuns and mystics. heloise and catherine of siena having VERY CONFUSING feelings for each other! hildegard and julien being aggressively nice to margery because they feel bad for rolling their eyes every time she turns her back! joan of arc showing up and starting a fight club because why the hell not?

    i didn’t know i wanted this but now it’s everything i ever needed

    also this book has been on my radar for a while and i’m very excited for a new addition to the febosverse 😊

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