Confessional writing got a bad press in intellectual circles, seen as more suited to the newspaper than the library. Melissa Febos is the queen of the confessional, or rather a literary and political offshoot. Her latest book, “Girlhood,” about the experience and expectations of living in an early developing female body, is currently up for a National Book Critics Circle Award for review. In “Body Work: The Radical Power of Personal Narrative”, Febos hopes to restore the image of the genre.
In the book’s opening essay, “In Praise of the Belly Button,” Febos picks up on common criticisms leveled at personal writing, often by men, often towards women, that such writing is self-serving and narcissistic. . “Since when did telling our own stories and drawing their ideas from them become so reviled,” she wonders. Febos celebrates writing about trauma, which it connects to the power of testimony in the service of social justice. She also overturns those tired gendered clichés. “Navel gazing is not for the faint of heart. The risk of honest self-assessment requires courage,” she writes. “Putting our flawed selves in the context of this beautiful, broken world is the opposite of narcissism.”
“Body Work” seems to target the writer who fears that their personal narrative will be seen as self-indulgent, hurtful to others, or just plain unworthy of their time and talent. This imaginary young writer was once Febos, who while still in college was determined to write the “very important novel” and scoffed at the memoir because of “internalized sexism”. That is, until a professor read a piece of her non-fiction and insisted that she drop whatever she was working on and write a memoir. She did and published “Whip Smart”, but even with the success of that book, she “always responded to the insinuations that I ran away publishing my diary”.
Resistance to memories about the body and the emotional interior, she continues, is rooted in patriarchy:[W]Straight male writers write about the same things – they just layer it with a baseball plot, or call it fiction. Men write endlessly about their dad issues and I don’t see anyone accusing them of navel gazing.
Although she dedicates “Body Work” to her students, Febos is the first to admit, as she does in her author’s note, that it is “not a craft book”. And yet, mixed in with his behind-the-scenes stories — before it was the title of his second book, “Abandon Me” was a pinned index card on his wall promising an eventual outcome to an all-consuming affair — there are solid crafting tips. here. How do you write better sex scenes? “You can use any words you want; Sex doesn’t have to be good. How do you write about the living? Take off your “mommy glasses” while you write and when choosing between being a good friend, a good daughter, and a good writer, “let the writer win.” As a writing instructor, I found myself pointing out passage after passage, eager to read them aloud to my own nonfiction students who ohh and ahh in recognition, as I expected.
For Febos, the life of writing merges with a therapeutic life: “[A]“Honest and awake remembrance” is necessary to make good art. This forces the writer to confront his own choices and the blind spots of his past. It’s no surprise that Febos is the daughter of a therapist and was put into therapy herself when she was 10 years old. It is only by revisiting her life on the page, Febos explains, that she is able to detach herself from the “pains of life.”
In her closing essay, “The Return,” Febos describes being obsessed with the confessional as a child, first seen during visits to the Catholic church with her Puerto Rican grandmother. She rescues the word “confession” from its connotations of guilt, sin, and crime and brings it back to its Latin way, meaning “to recognize.” The confessional, first a slender little wooden box, “a coffin for my secrets”, then lined notebooks, becomes a space to recognize oneself but also to find a witness to one’s revelations, an audience, an ideal reader. “I could never talk about my most humiliating experiences – the things that brought me to my knees and crawled for – without believing that there was someone on the other end of my mind who truly understood. words.
Even more than the Catholic view of confession, Febos is drawn to the Jewish idea of ”return” as described by the philosopher Maimonides in the Mishna Torah. In this model, the confessor must begin with a “change of mind,” a desire to return to his past. Through scripture, such a practice heals Febos in the same way that religion can heal others. “I found a church in art, a form of work that is also a form of worship – it’s a way to understand myself, my whole past and all of you as beloved ones,” she wrote. .
It is a generous, wise and go ahead girl stimulating book, but there is an unfortunate leanness to “Body Work”. The book is made up of only four essays, two of which have already been published and are available online. Even with wide margins and numerous quotes from outside texts that widen the margins further, the book is just over 160 pages. As I read, I couldn’t help but think that after her latest collection became a bestseller of 2021, Febos felt compelled to release another book. “Body Work” is good but not great. More … than Why where do I write How? ‘Or’ What I write, I would have liked to see how to write well. Less Maimonides and more Melissa, please.
Alysia Abbott is the author of “Fairyland” memoirs and runs the Memoir Incubator program at GrubStreet in Boston.
Bodywork: The Radical Power of Personal Storytelling
Catapult, 192 pages, $16.95