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Baring it all

On memoir and writing the self

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Confessional writing has gotten a bad rap in intellectual circles, seen as more suited for the diary than the bookshelf. Melissa Febos is the queen of the confessional, or rather a literary and political offshoot. Her last book, “Girlhood,” about the experience and expectations of living in a precociously developing female body, is currently up for a National Book Critics Circle Award for criticism. In “Body Work: The Radical Power of Personal Narrative,” Febos hopes to revamp the genre’s reputation.

In the book’s opening essay, “In Praise of Navel Gazing,” Febos takes on the common criticisms leveled at personal writing, often by men, often toward women, that such writing is self-absorbed and narcissistic. “Since when did when did telling our own stories and deriving their insights become so reviled,” she wonders. Febos celebrates writing about trauma, which she links to the power of testimony in service of social justice. She also turns those tired gendered clichés on their heads. “Navel-gazing is not for the faint of heart. The risk of honest self-appraisal requires bravery,” she writes. “To place our flawed selves in the context of this magnificent, broken world is the opposite of narcissism.”


“Body Work” seems targeted to the writer who fears their personal narrative would be seen as self-indulgent, hurtful to others, or simply not worthy of their time and talent. This imagined young writer was once Febos, who when still in grad school had been determined to write the “Very Important Novel” and scoffed at memoir because of “internalized sexism.” That is, until a professor read a piece of her nonfiction and insisted she drop whatever she was working on and write a memoir. She did and published “Whip Smart,” but even with that book’s success she still “fielded insinuations that I had gotten away with publishing my diary.”

Resistance toward memoirs about the body and the emotional interior, she goes on to argue, is rooted in patriarchy: “[W]hite straight male writers are writing about the same things — they are just overlaying them with a plot about baseball, or calling it fiction. Men write about their daddy issues incessantly 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, it’s “not a craft book.” And yet, mixed in with her behind-the-scenes stories — before it was a title for her second book, “Abandon Me” was an index card pinned to her wall promising an eventual way out of an all-consuming affair — there are solid craft 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 living people? Take off your “mom goggles” as you draft 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 underlining passage after passage, eager to read them aloud to my own nonfiction students who oohed and ahhed in recognition, just as I’d expected.

For Febos, the writing life is merged with a therapeutic life: “[A]n honest and awake recollection” is required to make good art. This forces the writer to confront their own choices and blind-spots about their past. It should come as no surprise that Febos is the daughter of a therapist and was herself put in therapy at age 10. Only through revisiting her life on the page, Febos explains, is she able to unbind herself from “the pains of living.”


In her closing essay, “The Return,” Febos describes being obsessed with the confessional as a child, first seen on visits to Catholic church with her Puerto Rican grandmother. She rescues the word “confession” from its connotations of guilt, sin and crime and returns it to its Latin route, meaning “to acknowledge.” The confessional, first a thin little wooden box, “a coffin for my secrets,” then lined notebooks, became a space to acknowledge herself but also to find a witness for her revelations, an audience, an ideal reader. “I could never speak of my most humiliating experiences — the things that brought me to my knees and for which I crawled —without believing there was someone who truly understood on the other end of my words.

Even more than the Catholic take on confession, Febos is drawn to the Jewish idea of “returning” as described by philosopher Maimonides in the Mishnah Torah. In this model, the confessor must begin with a “change of heart,” a longing to return to their past. Through writing, such practice is healing for Febos in the way that religion can be for others. “I have found a church in art, a form of work that is also a form of worship — it is a means of understanding myself, all my past selves, and all of you as beloved,” she writes.


This is a generous-hearted book, a wise, and you go, girl empowering book, yet there’s a regrettable thinness to “Body Work.” The book is composed of just four essays, including two previously published and available online. Even with wide margins, and extensive quoting from outside texts which widen the margins further, the book comes in at just over 160 pages. As I read, I couldn’t help but think that after her last collection became a 2021 bestseller, Febos felt pressure to get another book out. “Body Work” is good but not great. More than why I write, or how I write, I would have loved to see how to write well. Less Maimonides and more Melissa, please.

Alysia Abbott is the author of the memoir “Fairyland” and leads the Memoir Incubator program at GrubStreet in Boston.

Body Work: The Radical Power of Personal Narrative

Melissa Febos

Catapult, 192 pages, $16.95