Pain Is Not Always an Emergency: The Millions Interviews Melissa Febos

March 17, 2022 | 5 books mentioned 10 min read

When I was an undergraduate in college, I sent a fan letter via Facebook to an author, a personal essayist, that I greatly admired. To my astonishment he replied, and an email correspondence ensued. Immediately I inundated him with craft-related questions, the most pressing of which was about navel-gazing and how to avoid it. I wanted to write personal essay like he did, but the fear of being interpreted as navel-gazy—vain, narcissistic, self-obsessed—often kept me from writing about myself. This author’s work, though intensely personal, never felt myopic. He sent a lengthy and enlightening reply with the subject line “How to Avoid Navel Gazing.” I’d never treasured an email so much.

You can imagine my curiosity, then, when I opened Melissa Febos’s Body Work and began to read its first chapter, “In Praise of Navel Gazing.” It didn’t completely change my mind on the topic, but it made me reconsider my initial aversion to being seen as a navel-gazer. Febos incisively articulates the systemic undervaluing of women’s narratives and how personal writing has been gendered as feminine—to its detriment. “Bias against personal writing is often a sexist mechanism,” she writes, “founded on the false binary between the emotional (female) and the intellectual (male), and intended to subordinate the former.” If writing about oneself is a feminine act and feminine acts lack intellectual rigor, I wanted to avoid bringing myself into my work at all costs. The trouble was that I bought into this false logic in the first place.

I diverged with Febos on other points, though, such as the extent to which reading is an “exercise in empathy” (I defer to Namwali Serpell on that issue), as well as her claim that Body Work is “not a manifesto.” Even more than a craft book, it is a manifesto that claims and declares, as its subtitle states, The Radical Power of Personal Narrative. She implores her readers to:

tell me about your navel. Tell me about your rape. Tell me about your mad love affair, how you forgot and then remembered yourself. Tell me about the hands, the things they have done and held and hit and let go. Tell me about your drunk father and your friend who died.

Don’t tell me that the experiences of a vast majority of our planets human population are marginal, are not relevant, are not political. Don’t tell me that you think there’s not enough room for another story about sexual abuse, motherhood, or racism. The only way to make room is to drag all our stories into that room. That’s how it gets bigger.

You write it, and I will read it.

A sentiment I fully agree with—there’s no reason not to document your experiences, to capture yourself with words, to work through your life on the page. There is every reason to do these things! But after that last line—“You write it, and I will read it,” I couldn’t help but write in the margins: “yes, but will it be any good?” If Febos gave me permission to write about myself, then my correspondent showed me how to write about myself well. Febos sees all personal writing as navel-gazing; my correspondent saw it as a subsect of personal writing that is superfluous, unfocused, and not-very-good.

Body Work is a sophisticated, penetrating, and elegantly written argument for devoting space, time, and energy to oneself, especially those who have been marginalized and excluded from literary history. For any writer leery of venturing into the personal for fear of being “unserious”—like college-aged me!—this is required reading. I was privileged to speak with Febos about cultivating internal discernment, the quiet work of bearing witness, and why she thinks of writing in terms of temperature.

The Millions: Earlier in your writing career, you were somewhat in thrall to the “the fantasy of toughness—the idea that lack of feeling signified mastery of it.” I love this line. When I read memoir, I want my narrators to feel deeply—I find nothing particularly cool about being cold. At the same time, I want them to be clear-eyed enough to reflect critically on their emotions and actions. In writing personal narrative, how do you negotiate being vulnerable with doing the more detached work of analyzing your own life?

Melissa Febos: I couldn’t agree more! In general, I’m increasingly more interested in being warm, instead of cool. I actually think of writing a lot in terms of temperature. Memoir is almost always interested in topics and experiences that I think of as hot—like, they have a lot of magnetism, they are active and roiling, they can burn to touch. They require a lot of care in handling. When I first approach my subject, it’s messy—there are a lot of the intense feelings, and only the crude bones of what will later become the essay are visible to me.

As I work my way into it, and through it—using craft techniques, research, lyrical modes, et cetera—it starts to cool a bit. And the tools of writing—the aesthetic elements—work as mediators between me and that molten subject. While handling the difficult past and processing it, which is slow and challenging work, I am half distracted by the more instinctive and imaginative and analytical pursuits of my artist brain. That distance allows me to move toward and through difficult emotions and memories in a way I cannot under any other circumstances.

It’s this dynamic that makes writing the site of so much personal transformation and integration for me. By the time a reader sees the work, that molten beginning is still in it, but it is layered over and molded by the whole process—the aesthetic, emotional, and intellectual progressions are all visible and working together to form this very faceted and crafted final product.

The simpler answer to your question is that I let the process take as long as it takes, and I support myself in a lot of ways while I’m writing. Some essays take years and years to ripen before I can really, safely, thoroughly write them. I lean on my creative community a lot. I lean on my spiritual practices. I take a lot of breaks and get a lot of hugs and seek the counsel of other people frequently.

TM: As a woman writer I’ve often bought into what you call “the false binary between the emotional (female) and the intellectual (male),” in which the former is subordinated to the latter. For so long women’s intellect was discredited that there remains a pressure to prove ourselves. As a woman writer yourself how have you confronted this binary, and how would you advise any writer of any gender to confront gendered expectations around their writing?

MF: We’re bombarded with this kind of gendered conditioning from the moment we are born, so I don’t know anyone who is immune to it. The important first step for me has been to stop blaming myself for internalizing the bad ideas that I’ve been disciplined to believe. I’ve had to confront this in many areas of my life. For instance, feeling ashamed of having body shame does nothing to free me from body shame, you know? So, I try to approach the interior voices that parrot these messages with compassion, and then begin the sustained work of countering them.

A big part of this work consists of cultivating an internal discernment. When I have the thought No one cares about this story or This has been done before or This isn’t serious nonfiction, I practice slowing down, so that instead of taking these ideas for granted as true, I have the space to ask myself, Do I really believe that? Does this belief arise from my own experience as a reader? If the answer is no, then I ask, Where did it come from? Sometimes it’s like solving a crime in that a useful question is often: Who benefits from this belief? Who benefits from the silence of this voice or from discrediting this story?

The idea of having to prove my intellect is a trap, and one I wasted a lot of energy on as a younger writer, and a student, and a person in the world—which is no accident. It’s an illusion that distracts and dissuades me from creating my best work. It gets me to cosign a definition of “intellectual” that excludes many forms of my own intelligence. It tricks me into disembodiment.

The other important part is surrounding myself with people who are also committed to this work. I mean, friends and peers and role models, but also the books I’m reading and teaching. Though I’m sort of framing it as an individual undertaking, what we are talking about is social change and social change does not happen in a vacuum or in silence or in secret. It is a collaboration that begins in relationships, that grows out of the stories we tell and to which we give our attention.

TM: Historically women have loomed large in memoir. Four of The New York Times’s top five memoirs of the past 50 years are by women, and it seems like so many leading figures of the formCheryl Strayed, Vivian Gornick, Maggie Nelson, Sarah H. Broom, Mary Karr, Alison Bechdel, Carmen Maria Machado, Margo Jefferson, Jesmyn Ward, Elizabeth Gilbert, Patti Smith, Roxane Gay, etc., etc.—are women. How are gender and memoir as a genre interrelated? What do you make of the remarkable surge of women memoirists who are really coming to define the form?

MF: This is one of the main premises of Body Work—that personal writing has been gendered as female over the last 25 years and the biases against it have grown in parallel. I think the perception of “confessional” poetry has taken a similar trajectory, though it begins more like 60 or 70 years ago.

It’s arguable that memoir’s popularity really peaked decades ago, and many magazines that used to publish personal writing no longer do. But overall, the popularity of memoir makes sense, historically. Particularly those by women. Women’s stories, like those of all folks of marginalized identities, are relatively absent from our national histories because they weren’t considered worthwhile or were considered dangerous to the prevailing social structure, and because women didn’t have access to the parts of society that are considered relevant to history or to the means of documenting them publicly, whether they lacked time, a room of one’s own, etcetera. Therefore, they were often isolated from each other, isolated from knowledge of the shared aspects of their experiences. Partly as a result of this vacuum, women—and so many other marginalized folks—are hungry for each other’s stories.

Also, we are all hungry for these kinds of stories. Whatever biases they have, all sorts of people love reading personal writing because it is not actually gendered subject matter. The stories of bodies and interior life, families and sex and friendship and death, and the way our understanding of them changes over time—we all benefit from the sorts of insights that mark the genre of memoir.

Still, if you think about even the most successful memoirs, they might be rewarded in terms of sales, but it is incredibly rare that they are lauded in the institutional way that historically male forms are recognized. How many times has a memoir won one of our most prestigious literary prizes? Almost never. The ones that are occasionally recognized are usually those that include some significant aspect that has been historically gendered as male: theory, journalism, more analytical or archival realms of nonfiction, books that use the personal to overtly take a broad social or historical view. Or they are authored by writers who have already proven themselves by masculine-gendered metrics, like Patti Smith or Joan Didion. Don’t misunderstand me, I love these books—and I write them! But I see clearly the lack of institutional recognition given to straightforward memoirs, books whose principal forms of intelligence and insight—corporeal, psychological, interpersonal, sexual, interior, “domestic”—have largely been gendered female. In the even rarer occurrence that this sort of writing is recognized as serious or intellectual, it’s often written by a man.

I mean, if the equivalent to Karl Ove Knausgård’s autobiographical works, which I appreciate, were written by a woman—multiple enormous books detailing the granular details of motherhood and home life and the narrator’s attending thoughts—would it have found a publisher? If it did find a publisher, do you think it would have been an international literary sensation? Would it have received many awards? The idea is laughable, until it’s cryable.

TM: You cull such amazing examples and excerpts, from heavyweight theorists like Sontag and Foucault, to the leading writers of today, like Natasha Trethewey, Raven Leilami, and Garth Greenwell, among many others. What was your research process like for this book? You pull, for instance, such great models for sex-scene writing; how did you know those were the ones you wanted to spotlight?

MF: My process of consulting and sometimes including other texts in this book was a bit different from my research process for my previous books. Usually, when I’m in the early stages of writing an essay, I have a distinct research phase. I’ve established my interest in a subject and probably begun writing some early ideas and outlines, but my best energy during this phase is spent reading. I cast a wide net, scavenging in databases of scholarly articles, library stacks, whirling in Wikipedia eddies, and talking about my subject obsessively with everyone. It’s a kind of ecstatic, overwhelming state to be in—seething with questions, my mind sparking. Everything leads back to the subject and everything feels connected. It has elements of what Jung might call synchronicity, or what other psychologists might call “selective attention.”

Body Work was less an immersion than a distillation of thoughts that had been circling my mind for many years. [These thoughts] were based on observations accumulated over years spent reading and teaching, and refined through the writing process. So, my own thoughts and experience were really the main source, and the other texts were ones I was already familiar with, that had already contributed to my thinking, rather than new ones that served as foils spurring me deeper into the work. As I was writing the sex essay, for instance, I just made a list of all the sex scenes that came to mind, that rested within reach. The ones I cite in the essay were mostly ones I thought of without ever looking at my bookshelves. I trusted that my memory had already collected and filed the sex scenes that stood out to me, and it had.

TM: I imagine teaching memoir poses unique challenges, since your students are often producing such vulnerable, intimate works. How has your philosophy of personal narrative informed you as a teacher of writing?

MF: My philosophy of personal narrative has been informed by my experiences in the classroom as much as the other way around. So much of what I write about in Body Work came out of years of working with other writers—seeing what making this kind of art did in their lives, what prevented them from doing it, and how the aesthetic processes interacted with their emotional, psychological, and social experiences.

covercoverI guess I could think of the phenomena unique to personal writing that occurs in my classrooms as challenging, but I more often think of it as a privilege and an opportunity. I feel so fortunate to have a job that essentially boils down to facilitating other artists as they develop their relationships to their lives and the world they live in through the medium of this form of art. It’s fucking amazing. I love being the custodian of a space where they can do this work, which is so much more than the work of writing—it is the work of growing, becoming, learning how to be in community, how to be seen by others, how to see others and ourselves.

coverI’ve learned a lot over the years about how to hold a space into which people bring their greatest fears, their secrets, their traumas, their regrets and humiliations and rage. I have learned how to create and maintain boundaries. I have learned—and learned how to teach others—that it isn’t any of our jobs to fix or react to other people’s feelings, only to do the quiet work of bearing witness, of demonstrating that pain is not always an emergency. One of the things that we learn, over and over, is that the most confounding and painful of experiences, when looked at through the lens of art and artistic practice, can become opportunities—to transform those experiences and ourselves vis-à-vis the artistic process, and to demonstrate the possibility of that alchemy for other humans.

In Body Work you advocate for unlearning entrenched attitudes around personal narrative. What other books on craft would you recommend to a burgeoning writer looking to do some unlearning?

coverI think the unlearning education is one most supported by books that aren’t writing craft books, because our writing is us—our ideas and beliefs and perceptions and feelings, it’s all completely integrated. Unlearning entrenched attitudes is less of a craft issue and more of a life issue. This is one of the arguments of Body Work: that to awaken to a greater truth in our writing, we must awaken inside of ourselves, inside of our society. That said, Matthew Salesses’s Craft in the Real World is fantastic, as is Paisley Rekdal’s Appropriate, How to Suppress Women’s Writing by Joanna Russ, Hélène Cixous’s work on écriture féminine. But really, the unlearning literature at our disposal is vast and multifarious. I think everyone should start by reading Audre Lorde’s Sister Outsider—over and over.

is an editor and writer from Los Angeles. She lives in Brooklyn and tweets at @smswrites.

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