Every day, through TikTok, Instagram and Zoom, the internet forces us to think about how we present ourselves to the world, giving us endless opportunities to rebuild our identities. It’s perhaps unsurprising that the staff also feels ubiquitous in contemporary writing, with a slew of publications that draw or appear to draw inspiration from the lives of their authors. (Think of the novels of Douglas Stuart, the essays of T Kira Madden, and the poems of Ocean Vuong, all writers who blend personal experiences with exceptional creative writing.) But over the past few years, I would say another driving force has been behind many personal writings: the many traumas of the recent vintage, including the pandemic, racist violence and the mental health crisis. As these events accumulated, my writing students became more interested in rendering their own experiences, especially the painful ones.
Melissa Febos is at the forefront of this particular denominational writing boom, and she is the guide I direct my students to when they want to write in this style. She is best known for her non-fiction: Smart Whip, abandon meand last year Youth, a masterful analysis of the growth of women, which won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Criticism. Febos is a captivating, cerebral writer who blends what might seem like familiar ingredients – research, interviews, cultural criticism and personal anecdotes – in surprising ways. His latest book is body worka collection of essays that aims to teach the art of personal writing by showing us not only How? ‘Or’ What capture the difficult and intimate details of our lives, but also advocate for Why we should continue the practice in such a difficult time.
“It’s not a craft book in the traditional sense,” Febos asserts from the start. body work, I’ve learned over its tense 192 pages, explains why stories like Febos’s are powerful, and moreover, why they take so much work. In their attempts to write in the confessional form, my students inevitably encounter dilemmas – including struggles over sentence sequence and fear that problematic ex-boyfriends will read their work – which Febos wants to help solve. “Writing has become for me,” says Febos in body work‘s author’s note, “a first means of digesting and integrating my experiences and thus of reducing the pains of life, or if not, at least of making them useful to myself and to others.”
There’s a musty axiom emphasized in writing courses that forging that kind of connection with a reader shouldn’t be the priority, that writers should instead aim to create art that transcends personal concerns. But relatability is at the very heart of Febos’ project, which makes it essential for teaching the kind of writing that many students want to produce in 2022. That doesn’t mean Febos thinks we should remove the classic nuts and bolts of technical: body work argues that after initial relief — that 2 a.m. denominational rush in the Notes app — drafts should pile on drafts. Febos emphasizes form which is well balanced throughout by charming low-level woo-woo. (This is, for example, the only crafting book I’ve read that describes, step-by-step, the author’s process for casting a spell on an ex-lover. I might try.)
body work begins with an extended version of an essay I’ve taught for years, which Febos published in 2016 in the magazine Poets and writers: The Work of the Heart: Writing about Trauma as a Subversive Act. He talks about the need to write about personal trauma without fear of sounding navel-gazing. “Since when did telling our own stories and drawing ideas from them become so reviled? It doesn’t matter if the story is yours…only that you tell it well,” writes Febos. This essay always opens up my students, many of whom fear their lives are “too boring” to merit a personal essay. When trauma is an almost universal experience, is that trauma still interesting? It is – of course – but it can be difficult to feel this. Finding the creative spark in a difficult time can be extraordinarily liberating.
Febos argues that one of the reasons a writer might fear that their stories have no value is a function of our society’s preconceptions about certain people or groups. Pivoting on a personal anecdote from his book tour for Smart Whipa memoir in which Febos recounts her experience working as a dominatrix, she writes:
The investigators only asked me questions about my experiences and never about my profession. At readings, I was displayed on posters as “Melissa Febos, former dominatrix” alongside my co-reader, “[insert male writer name]poet.” Even friends, after having read the book, wrote to me to exclaim: “Writing! goodas if it were a happy accident accompanying my columnist’s transcription.
Through body work, we see this kind of maneuver, which I have come to think of as Febosian: a critical assertion – in this case, that women-identifying writers are too often reduced to their biographies – backed up by an amusing personal anecdote. The author’s life, in other words, becomes an inexorable part of his argument (in a book about making his life an inexorable part of his writing).
I’ve discovered in my own work that including personal anecdotes can be difficult, because to make them useful we need to see ourselves through a lens that allows for weakness and even wrongdoing. Febos also offers advice on this: “When something seems difficult, in writing and in life, we tend to set rules around it,” she claims in a section on sex writing. , before presenting antidotes to common creative obstacles with a list of productive elements. “mess up”: “You can use any words you want. Sex doesn’t have to be good.”
Even when Febos comes up with a thesis I don’t agree with – “that to write a waking sex scene you have to be aware of your own gender” – I’m convinced by his argument for the need for creative honesty. I took my first writing class during my semester abroad in Italy, a time when I was definitely sleeping in my own gender. But I wrote, because my teacher made me write, a sex scene. I agonized over it. And the little scene that I ended up producing is the one thing that made me realize that I wanted to keep writing forever. Confessing my own limits freed me: for the first time, one of my characters moved on its own. It was like magic. Since then, I have been looking for this feeling.
My favorite passage in body workhowever, and the anecdote that most convincingly argues for the need for creative confession, is an epiphanic sequence in which Febos recalls the experience of writing about a difficult relationship, the story of which became the foundation of Leave me. While writing a draft, Febos realized that “there was only one correct ending to my story: my narrator would leave his lover.” In other words, her creative practice helped her understand what her rational mind could not. This is a lesson many of my students mention: Writing for my class helped them discover something about themselves.
And I thought I knew what they meant.
But recently, like 24 days ago, as I type the first draft of these words, my brother died. It was an impossible time of intrusive images, random floods of emotions and extreme dissociation. The actions of my brain are unpredictable. They scare me.
Writing about my loss, my therapist told me, would be good for someone like me, for whom writing comes naturally. “It’s a way of treating yourself and recognizing yourself,” he said. “To find a way to engage.” Trying to encounter my brother’s death in an active form, in other words, I might start to metabolize it.
What I can say is that the night I learned my brother was dead, I retired to my parents’ living room, an incoherent mess of tears, or whatever state of flooding that exists beyond tears. I wrote a few sentences. I wasn’t trying to make art, but I wasn’t writing either. I didn’t feel better afterwards, but I felt a little different. My thoughts were less frantic and more grounded. I’ve continued this writing practice every night since, slowly turning my initial surge of honesty into something that could potentially connect with others. body work helped me learn to work with and through my ongoing pain by forging a creative outlet. I am grateful to Febos for the lesson on how to do this.