The author believes navel-gazing and personal essays can change the world

The desire to confide, to be seen, is a universal human desire; the personal story is a way to harvest the art of this desire. But only some people learn that their life is worth the effort.

In her 15 years of non-fiction teaching, Melissa Febos has listened to students criticize and dismiss their own projects as “navelousness.” Many had internalized the popular backlash against the memoir as a degraded form: clickbait, self-centered, a kind of narcissistic public therapy pursued instead of writing great, important novels.

Febos noticed a trend. The students most inhibited by these inner voices of doubt weren’t straight white men. They were women. They were weird. They were people of color.

“Some of my students thought there was room and audience and value for their stories in the world,” she said in a recent phone interview, “and other students don’t. absolutely could not overcome the fear and the belief that there was none.”

One of America’s most accomplished memoirists, Febos, now 41, decided to build on the pep talks she gave her students in an essay, “In Praise of Navel Gazing,” which became the first chapter of his new book, “Body Work: The Radical Power of Personal Storytelling.

This quirky, lyrical collection weaves memory and teaching — about craft, about trauma and healing, about social justice — into an ode to personal writing that couldn’t come at a more critical time: at the in the midst of a nationwide onslaught against precisely these types of stories.

Amid an unprecedented increase in book bans by legislatures and school boards targeting LGBTQ writers and authors of color, Febos writes that “resistance to trauma memoir is always partly — and often nothing but — a resistance to social justice movements.

We have all, to a greater or lesser extent, internalized a certain antipathy for the idea of ​​personal testimony as a higher art form. Febos too. For much of her 20s, she thought she would write fiction instead. But today, she challenges these stereotypes, writing: “It is not left to write about trauma. It’s subversive. »

Febos and I talked about his new book on February 24, the day Russia invaded Ukraine. At first, we both searched for words to express how we felt. I shared that I found it comforting to focus a bit on something as hopeful as her book. She was also happy with the distraction. But the news set us back. At one point, she choked up, wondering how we — that is, all of us — could “reclaim our humanity, our conscience, and our free will to move forward.”

It was our first real conversation, but we had read each other’s memoirs. (Febos published my first book in 2018, but we have no other relationship). Her first memoir, “Whip Smart,” is about the four years she spent working as a dominatrix in Midtown Manhattan while overcoming addiction. his second, “Abandon Me”, explored his childhood with a sea captain father; and “Girlhood” focused on coming of age and related violations and abuses.

In conversation, Febos is down-to-earth and self-deprecating, with echoes of his literary voice. “The inside of my consciousness is super messy,” she insisted. “It’s like how my bedroom looked after I got back from a trip: suitcases burping clothes all over the place. And the only way to organize my own thoughts is to write them down.

“Body Work” seeks to demonstrate that the art of confession has a sacred power, capable of transforming us individually and collectively – and as much if not more than other genres.

Febos begins by dismantling the false binary between the emotional, which we are conditioned to associate with the feminine and the body, and the intellectual, which we consider elevated and masculine.

Praising literal navel-gazing, she observes that she could write something intellectual and political about the knotty depression in our bellies that once bound us to our mothers. “I don’t think it’s a stretch to ask whether the navel, as the site of all this disdain, has anything to do with its connection to birth, body, and woman,” she writes.

Febos said she chose to center the body in the title to help anchor her and the book: to dispel the scholarly impulse to disembodie our writing. She devotes an entire chapter to writing better sex, delving into the need to challenge patriarchal programming on what good sex looks like and examining how Carmen Maria Machado, Eileen Myles and other writers manage to transfigure the taboo into something transcendent and irresistible.

The book is enlightening but not didactic. Febos approached it as she had in her previous books – as a dialogue with herself, slowly uncovering deeper and more difficult truths. She makes no apologies for the cathartic potential of the form.

“How many times have I been aware of conversations between other writers in which we laugh at the very concept?” Febos writes. “We compulsively make sure the writing isn’t about setting up some kind of therapy. How gross! We are intellectuals. We are artists.

Febos reverses these assumptions by briefly describing how each of her books has transformed her. “Whip Smart” began the process of freeing her from the breakout. “Abandon Me” helped her end a toxic relationship. “Girlhood” gave her insight into abuse she had previously been unable to name. She emerged with a new empathy for her younger self and, therefore, a sense of wholeness.

But it is continuous work. “I try to remember that I’m doing a kind of work on myself and my relationships that tries to counter centuries of contradictory movements,” Febos said. She also sees the regressive movements in society through this lens: “We fail to do this [work] as a nation, the same way we struggle to do so as individuals.

The personal story, in its framing, is an exercise in humility and relentlessness, a refusal to stick to the first version of its history. According to her, the most powerful writing of this type superimposes the perspectives of the past and the present.

“Body Work” examines and exposes these lessons. In one passage, Febos recalls an interview she gave years ago in which she joked about her teenage years that she was “busy getting her finger tapped behind the mall.” She writes, “I cringe now even typing these words. Not because they are rude, but because they are cruel.

But what was behind the impulse? She analyzes her earlier belief in “the tenacity fantasy – the idea that lack of feeling meant her mastery”. She notes: “It is true that there is a kind of social power in the pageantry of indifference. It makes you less vulnerable to others. This protection can come at a high price.

Febos could have stopped there. But it is a book that explores self-reflection as a path to rebirth. “Time and experience have softened me,” she adds, “until the instinct that pushed me to [the quip]. It was a first attempt to deal with the pain of that time.

While most books on memoir writing focus on the craft, “Body Work” explores its power to transform our relationships with our bodies, our memories, and each other. Her subject, as she identifies in her book, is the “revolutionary power of undoing the narratives we’ve learned about ourselves, and how this project could make us not just better writers and lovers, but more human for ourselves”.

“Bodywork: The Radical Power of Personal Storytelling” by Melissa Febos.

Lola R. McClure