When a Writer’s Great Freedom Lies in Constraint

The memoirist Melissa Febos discusses how an Annie Dillard essay, “Living Like Weasels,” helped refocus her life after overcoming addiction.

By Heart is a series in which authors share and discuss their all-time favorite passages in literature. See entries from Karl Ove Knausgaard, George Saunders, Emma Donoghue, Michael Chabon, and more.

Doug McLean

Artistic freedom, paradoxically, relies on the presence of constraints. Expression somehow flourishes when it has rules, norms, and conventions to push against—or as William Wordsworth once wrote of the sonnet’s rigid form, “the prison into which we doom ourselves / no prison is.” But Melissa Febos, the author of Abandon Me, takes this a step further. Her entire working ethos is about willingly, even willfully, imposing limits—and not just on the page. In a conversation for this series, Febos explored how an essay by Annie Dillard inspires her to pursue only one thing, deeply, at a time, and why she’ll always choose to restrict the total number of choices in her life.

A desire for single-mindedness powers Febos’s artistic pursuits, but she knows that very impulse—to be not just preoccupied, but obsessed and consumed—can be destructive, too, as we discussed. That’s a central concern of Abandon Me, a memoir in eight connected essays. The book starts by exploring her relationship to an absent father—“abandon,” as in left. But it’s also about another sense of the verb—“abandon,” to give oneself recklessly and completely. From heroin addiction to romantic infatuation, the book considers forces powerful enough to inspire utter devotion, and the way that posture can both destroy and redeem.

Melissa Febos is the author of Whip Smart, and her essays have appeared in publications like Tin House, Granta, and the New York Times. She’s on the board of directors for VIDA: Women in Literary Arts and teaches writing at Monmouth University and the Institute of American Indian Arts. She lives in Brooklyn, and spoke to me by phone.

Melissa Febos: A few weeks ago, I got a tattoo for the first time in years. It’s something I feel prompted to do when something really important happens, or there’s something that I want make sure I’ll never forget. This time, it’s a single line of text along my back. It’s from Annie Dillard’s essay “Living Like Weasels”: yielding at every moment for the perfect freedom of the single necessity.

When I first read the essay, years ago, I’d recently retired from both heroin addiction and working as a professional dominatrix. I’d become a graduate student, and was finally putting all my eggs in the basket of being a writer. This line in particular just rang like a gong all through me, and kept ringing for days and days afterward. I memorized it instantly; at regular intervals it would just float to the surface of my consciousness, unbidden. I have taught the essay in every single creative writing class since then, and the passage still moves me every time:

We can live any way we want. People take vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, even a silence by choice. The thing is to stalk your calling in the certain skilled and subtle way to locate the most tender and live spot, and plug in to that post. This is yielding, not fighting. A weasel doesn’t attack anything. A weasel lives as he’s meant to, yielding at every moment to the perfect freedom of the single necessity.

Dillard looks to the weasel for a way to let go of our lesser needs and preoccupations, to simplify our process of decision-making, and in turn to simplify our lives. A weasel, after all, is always the platonic ideal of a weasel. Everything it does is loyal to its highest natural concern—whether it’s surviving, or killing something, or making a burrow, everything a weasel does is a perfect expression of its weasel nature. Dillard’s saying that we, too, can choose a life like that. We can live in accordance with the thing that feels truest—what she calls plugging into “the most tender and live spot.” The line “yielding in every moment to a single necessity,” might sound like being in bondage to something. But I’ve found there can be great freedom in constraint.

Dillard seems to be talking about writing in the essay, and I relate to that. Writing and making art is most often my single necessity—I think you have to make it your single necessity if you want to be any good at it, or be fulfilled by it. But this attitude is a good way to approach anything that matters, and I don’t think a person has to choose just one thing. Loving, or activism, or simply being awake to my own experiences as a human being: I aspire to do these things as if they are what that matter most to me.

When I was younger, I mistook complication for sophistication, or intellectualism, or deepness, or profundity. But simplicity is a very sophisticated way to live, if you can manage it. I learned this most clearly as I recovered from heroin addiction, because I only needed to do one thing, just one, to survive that experience: and that was to stop. To not take heroin. It was so hard, in part because it required letting go of all the unnecessary, complicated, rationalizing ways that I had managed to maintain doing it. I had to let go of all that and just accept this one simple thing, and it was the thing that would save my life.

It was the hardest thing I ever did, and nothing about my life would be possible if I hadn’t done it. But it was a very clear lesson that, although simplifying the way you live is incredibly difficult, there’s so much freedom on the other side of it. Since then, I’ve replicated that experience in many other ways, especially in my writing life. The challenge is to bring a singular focus to everything I do, and to give as much of myself to it as I can. I've never regretted it.

So much of the way I’ve learned to survive is about relocating my energies into preoccupations that are less and less likely to kill me. Because addiction, actually, was a similar impulse. It, too, meant yielding at every moment to one necessity—though it was the opposite of freedom. Still, all of that reaching and pushing, I think, was an effort to find a boundary, to find where the end was, so that I could just stop. The difference is agency, is choice. If I can take the incredible fervor with which I pursued heroin, or my former lover, and if I can direct that kind of passion and fixate on something that can fulfill me, it becomes an immense kind of power.

My life, and certainly my work, is fixated on that experience of abandoning myself. The new book I’ve just published is about a love affair that I treated in the same way, where I just collapsed all my other concerns into this one place, and just ran at it as hard as I could despite its total lack of qualification to meet that insatiable need. Destructive as it was, that abandonment of self really taught me something about giving myself to something. It’s not a question of forbidding ourselves from doing that. It’s about selecting necessities worthy of yielding to.

If there’s a thesis to what I’ve learned in life, it’s that pursuits that appear self-destructive or self-sabotaging are, at their core, often misguided quests to find comfort, or wholeness, or healing. Drug addicts get this reputation for being self-destructive and out of control, but the use of substances in an addictive way is more like a failed attempt at control. Addiction is an attempt to manage your own feelings and everything else inside you. I don’t want to quash that impulse. I just want to take, for its object, something that can actually meet that need.

Writing has become that for me. Aside from reading, it’s the only thing that I can remember having been obsessed with as far back as my memory goes. I’ve never wanted to build my life around anything else. I think I discovered it very young, because I was an obsessive—I would even say addictive—reader as a kid. I found that narratives, and stories, and the words of other people helped me make sense of my own experience very early on. And I trusted books, I trusted language, more than anything else. By the time I started thinking about what I was going to do with my life, it already felt like a forgone conclusion, because that was the thing I’d already invested so much in, the thing I’d believed in and enjoyed for so long.

Writing has become so integrated into all other aspects of my life that it’s become inextricable. It is the way that I connect with other people. It’s the way that I think. It’s the way that I transform myself. It’s the way that I make sense of everything. Not that it’s easy. Writing can be harrowing. But it is simple, and I want to choose simple over easy.

Giving yourself completely to writing doesn’t require having all the free time in the world. Just the opposite. One of the most important lessons that I try to teach my students is not to be precious about your process. I have worn away any preciousness about where I write, or when I write, or for how long I write because I live in New York City, and I’m a college professor. I work a lot, and I’m in motion a lot. And I have to be comfortable pulling out my notebook or my computer on the subway, or in a café, or in a cafeteria, and just working for 20 minutes if that’s all I have. Because if I wait for the muse to get comfortable, I may never write again. I’ve learned that the more important thing is to just sit and do it. When I do that, I can summon her.

We can’t be romantic about our practice, because it is hard work that requires time and sacrifice. The beauty isn’t in the way that we sit down to do it. The beauty will be in the thing that we create, whenever and however we can force ourselves to buckle down and start. For me, that means carrying a notebook everywhere and writing down any surge of anything in me—a thought, a memory, a worry. Sometimes, those things turn into essays. Sometimes they don’t. But it’s how I keep track of things, and how I make sure that, when something important happens, I’ll be ready for it.

I think that’s why I love nonfiction. Fiction is so much harder for me, I think, because of the great wealth of possibility. You can do anything in the world of your fiction—and that immobilizes me. I freeze up with all of that possibility. Whereas non-fiction gives a hunk of material, but it’s finite. I can’t invent. I can't fabricate. I have to use what happened, or my memory of what happened, find a way to arrange it, to mold it and manipulate it so that it clicks into a certain form that can communicate something to another person. I am always wanting to solve that puzzle.

Our first-world lives are so marked by this glut of choice. We spend so much time deciding between television programs, or breakfast cereals, or dating apps. We could spend our entire lives deliberating over superfluous decisions. I think it’s easy to forget that we have a choice—we can just opt out of a lot of that, and we won’t miss it.  Think if we took all the energy we spend wondering what other people are thinking about us, or deciding what to eat or not to eat, or worrying about money—if we just could consolidate that energy and relocate it, use it on some task that we really believe in. On our artwork, on our activism, on our parenting, on loving people as fully as we can. Oh my god, we should all hope for such economy of energy. We could do so much. We could solve so much.

In Salinger’s Franny and Zooey, Franny’s obsessed with this book, The Way of a Pilgrim. It’s about a pilgrim who’s obsessed with reciting an incessant prayer. The theory is that if you repeat a prayer enough, it moves into your body and into your consciousness—it syncopates with your pulse, and with your organs, and with your blood. By aligning your whole will with the prayer, you manage to merge with something divine. I think that is a process like what Dillard describes, of yielding in every moment to a single necessity. That necessity, and the way you reorganize your life to meet it, becomes a part of you. It becomes a lens through which you see the world, and all the other choices you make grow out of that one choice.