The four essays in Body Work, the new book by Melissa Febos, pull at several underlying power struggles that are inherent in acts of creative writing: vulnerability risks judgment, writing your side of the story privileges your memories and perspective over others in the story, presenting a perspective at odds with hegemonic forces invites resistance, and writing our truth is spiritual work.
The book has a subtitle: The Radical Power of Personal Narrative. Readers of Febos’ work have come to her for her insights on power struggles in her previous three works of personal narrative. Body Work is different, however, as these essays are intended to offer insight into the act of writing nonfiction. The book cover asserts it is a “masterclass” and a “captivating guide to the writing life” and tells of Febos’ journey from aspiring writer to acclaimed author and writing professor. However, the first page of the Author’s Note explains that, “while there is some practical advice, herein [the book is] not a craft book in the traditional sense.”
I have a sizable collection of writing craft books, on topics such as editing like an editor and how to workshop without the workshop. Most of them do not make any claim about being traditional craft books or use autobiographical essays to make their points about their writing process. I hoped Body Work would offer tools, exercises, questions, organizing principles, and creative approaches to building a story in sentences and paragraphs, the stuff that makes up a masterclass. At the very least I wanted something that would legitimize calling the collection of these four essays a craft book.
The book opens with the essay, “In Praise of Navel Gazing,” which makes some rhetorical points to build a case that self-reflection offers sufficient material for one to write one’s story. The essay quickly narrows its focus to the ways in which those who discredit memoir wholesale seek to silence victims of trauma. Febos is willing to read it all, regardless of the quality of the writing, or since this is a craft book, the standards of literary craft: “Tell me about your navel … about your drunk father and your friend who died.” The aim to tell “stories so that specificity reveals some larger truth” is no secret of high quality writing and the idea is so often repeated in adult writing centers, workshops, and in craft books it appears trite no matter how applicable it is.
One of Febos’ strengths as a writer is to make connections among poetry, philosophy, psychology, religion, and art. In her earlier books, her essays surprise and delight with ideas from writers and thinkers across disciplines and add depth and dimension to her first-person narratives. Sources cited in Body Work are paltry in comparison and include a CDC study, a New Yorker article here and there, the poet Eileen Myles, and the Torah among others. Febos’ body of work is unique and interesting because she uses extensive research into ideas across genre and time period and connects them to larger, more complex points about her experience. The threads connecting to bigger ideas in this slim volume are fewer and further between than her previous books, and the lack rhetorical heft that might make this book as instructive as it claims to be.
One concrete exercise appears in the second essay. Febos dedicates the essay to writing about sex, the longest in the collection titled “Mind Fuck,” in which she describes instructing her workshop students to write their sexual life story in five sentences timed for five minutes. When they finish, she asks them to do it again. The point, reinforced after returning to the task from varying perspectives is that we come to the page with a preconceived idea of what we want to express but through the process of approaching the task from a new direction, say the chronological list of one’s most fun experiences rather than an overall summary of one’s proclivities, the writers get to the essential, unique, vulnerable layers of one’s story. Good writing involves a great deal of rewriting.
The third essay, “Big Shitty Party: Six Parables of Writing About Other People” threads a line from an unverified letter written by Billie Holiday to her lover Tallulah Bankhead in which threatening legal action is “a big shitty party.” The entirety of the essay, about telling your version of events while most certainly ignoring or distorting other versions, can be summed up:
“I will stick to my own experiences as a way of demonstrating how every writer might develop and follow their own moral compass around this issue. This chapter is not a source of legal advice, though you should request from your publisher a careful legal read of your work if it implicates others. Nor is this a comprehensive list of my own experiences.”
Unless you want to know some personal anecdotes about what Febos went through in writing her prior books, you need not read the essay’s remaining 22 pages.
The book’s last essay, “The Return: The Art of Confession,” comes closest to weaving other texts into an instructive essay. In it, Febos’ refers to her favorite confessional writers, Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath among them, and takes ideas about healing trauma from William James and a 13th century Hebrew text called the Mishneh Torah in which repentance is translated as returning. This essay is complex, offering the perspective that to write about one’s experience in a way that is both illuminating of human truths and interesting to readers one must work off the page as much as on it. Febos connects the dots of writing her book about addiction, Whip Smart, with her book about her addictive love affair, Abandon Me, to a return to those painful memories. By confessing to the page she takes steps two and three in the process of healing her trauma: relating to the past and confessing.
The first step is stopping action and resolving to change, which she argues she needed to do before sitting down to write. She tried writing while in the middle of trauma and produced stories that were both cowardly by omission and evasion and not the kind of art she wanted to create. This essay shows through specific examples the path to write down the bones, to reference one of my favorite craft books by Natalie Goldberg. The way is not the same for you or me as it is for Febos or Goldberg, but it does have some landmarks we can measure our progress by. If we are writing from experience that has lessons to offer and we are willing to learn them, if we are sitting in front of the page ready to receive a change of heart, then we are on the right path.
To be a writer or artist or creator of anything one must ask if the act of creation is worthy of sharing with an audience. Sometimes we don’t know the answer until we finish and sometimes abandoned projects provide seeds for more interesting projects later on. That the work must start with the writer before she shares it with the larger world places a heavy burden on the maker. The writer must be the first and last arbiter of her work making its way in the world. When the world is prone to only share one kind of story or stories from a dominant class of people, writers on the margins have to fight for themselves and for others to erase the arbitrary rules about whose stories get told. Febos assures us that there is room for all the stories that want to be written and read. But first, she cautions, the writing can and must change the writer. Or at least the writer must be willing to be changed by the act, the process of writing and rewriting. She writes to us, “Let this book be a totem of permission, encouragement, proof, whatever you need it to be.” There is power in having an advocate, pushing us forward to rewrite when we might be tempted to abandon our work. There is power too in the act of reading, which I argue builds the writer’s skills as much as any other tactic. And maybe this is the radical power the subtitle refers to, more than advice. Just by reading this book you are already on your way to writing better.
By Melissa Febos
Published March 15, 2022
Jeannine Burgdorf is a writer in Chicago. Her fiction has been appeared in Signal House Edition, New Reader Magazine, Orange Quarterly, and the anthology Writer Shed Vol. 2. Her nonfiction has appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books, Quail Bell Magazine and INELDA.