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 construct our identities anew. Little wonder, perhaps, that the personal feels ubiquitous in contemporary writing, too, with a slew of publications that draw from, or appear to draw 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 mingle personal experiences with exceptional creative writing.) But in the past few years, I’d argue that another driving force has been behind much personal writing: the many traumas of recent vintage, including the pandemic, racist violence, and the mental-health crisis. As these events have piled up, my writing students have become more interested in rendering their own experiences—especially the painful ones.
Melissa Febos is at the vanguard of this particular boom in confessional writing, and she is the guide I point my students to when they want to write in this style. She’s best known for her nonfiction: Whip Smart, Abandon Me, and last year’s Girlhood, a masterful analysis of growing up female, which won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Criticism. Febos is an engaging, cerebral writer who mingles what might seem like familiar ingredients—research, interviews, cultural critique, and personal anecdotes—in surprising ways. Her latest book is Body Work, an essay collection that sets out to teach the craft of personal writing by not only showing us how to capture the difficult, intimate details of our lives, but also arguing for why we should pursue the practice in such a challenging time.
“This is not a craft book in the traditional sense,” Febos asserts early on. Body Work, I learned over its 192 taut pages, is an explanation of 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 sequencing and the fear of problematic ex-boyfriends reading their work—that Febos wants to help resolve. “Writing has become for me,” Febos says in Body Work’s author’s note, “a primary means of digesting and integrating my experiences and thereby reducing the pains of living, or if not, at least making them useful to myself and to others.”
There’s a musty axiom put forward in writing classes that forging this type 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 core of Febos’s project, which makes it essential for teaching the kind of writing that many students are interested in producing in 2022. This doesn’t mean that Febos thinks we should do away with the classic nuts and bolts of technique: Body Work argues that after an initial unburdening—that confessional rush at 2 a.m. in the Notes app—drafts should pile on drafts. Febos maintains an emphasis on form that is nicely balanced throughout the book by some charming, low-level woo-woo. (This is, for example, the only craft book I’ve read that describes, step-by-step, the process the author followed to cast a spell on an ex-lover. I might try it.)
Body Work begins with an extended version of an essay that I’ve taught for years, which Febos published in 2016 in the magazine Poets & Writers: The Heart-Work: Writing About Trauma as a Subversive Act. It speaks to the need to write about personal trauma without the fear of seeming navel-gazey. “Since when did telling our own stories and deriving their insights become so reviled? It doesn’t matter if the story is your own … only that you tell it well,” Febos writes. This essay always opens up my students, many of whom worry that their life might be “too boring” to merit a personal essay. When trauma is a near-universal experience, is that trauma still interesting? It is—of course—but it can be hard to feel that. To find the creative spark in a difficult moment can be extraordinarily liberating.
Febos argues that one reason a writer might fear that their stories don’t have value is a function of our society’s preconceived notions about certain people or groups. Pivoting to a personal anecdote from her book tour for Whip Smart, a memoir in which Febos chronicles her experience working as a dominatrix, she writes:
Interviewers asked only about my experiences and never about my craft. At readings, I would be billed on posters as “Melissa Febos, former dominatrix” alongside my co-reader, “[insert male writer name], poet.” Even some friends, after reading the book, would write to me to exclaim, “The writing! It was so good,” as if that were a happy accident accompanying my diarist’s transcription.
Throughout Body Work, we see this sort of maneuver, which I’ve come to think of as Febosian: a critical assertion—in this case that female-identifying writers are too often reduced to their biography—supported by an entertaining personal anecdote. The author’s life, in other words, becomes an inexorable part of her argument (in a book about making one’s life an inexorable part of one’s writing).
I’ve found in my own work that including personal anecdotes can be challenging, because to make them worthwhile we must view ourselves through a lens that allows for weakness and even wrongdoing. Febos offers some guidance on this too: “When something seems difficult, in writing and in life, we tend to make rules around it,” she asserts in a section on sex writing, before presenting antidotes to common creative roadblocks with a list of productive “unrules”: “You can use any words you want. Sex doesn’t have to be good.”
Even when Febos reaches a thesis that I disagree with—“that to write an awakened sex scene, one may need to be awake to their own sex”—I’m persuaded by her argument for the need for creative honesty. I took my first writing class during my semester abroad in Italy, a time during which I was definitely asleep to my own sex. But I wrote, because my teacher made me write, a sex scene. I agonized over it. And the little scene I ended up producing was the single thing that made me realize that I wanted to keep writing forever. Confessing my own limitations liberated me: For the first time, a character of mine moved on their own. It felt like magic. I’ve been chasing that feeling ever since.
My favorite passage in Body Work, though, and the anecdote that argues most convincingly for the necessity of creative confession, is an epiphanic sequence in which Febos recalls the experience of writing about a challenging relationship, the story of which became the foundation of Abandon Me. As she wrote a draft, Febos realized that “there was only one correct ending to my story: my narrator would leave her lover.” In other words, her creative practice helped her understand what her rational mind couldn’t. This is a lesson that many of my students mention: The act of writing for my class has helped them discover something about themselves.
And I thought I knew what they meant.
But recently, as in 24 days ago, at the moment I’m typing the first draft of these words, my brother died. It has been an impossible time of intrusive imagery, random floods of emotion, and extreme disassociation. My brain’s actions are unpredictable. They frighten me.
Writing about my loss, my therapist told me, would be good for someone like me, to whom writing comes naturally. “It’s a way to process and recognize yourself,” he said. “To find a way to engage.” By trying to encounter my brother’s death in active form, in other words, I could start to metabolize it.
What I can say is that the night I learned my brother had died, I retreated to my parents’ living room, an incoherent mess of tears, or whatever flood state exists beyond tears. I wrote a few sentences. I wasn’t trying to make art, but I wasn’t journaling either. I didn’t feel better afterward, but I did feel a bit different. My thoughts were less frantic and more grounded. I’ve continued that writing practice every night since, slowly turning my initial rush of honesty into something that could potentially connect with others. Body Work helped me learn how to work alongside and through my ongoing pain by forging a creative outlet. I’m grateful to Febos for the lesson in how to do it.