Melissa Febos has made a career out of telling her own story. Her work is deeply personal, sometimes painful, and always resonant. Her memoirs and essays stand out even beyond the import of her experiences and her talent because they are always interwoven–almost bursting–with poetic and philosophical references and insights that help connect her own experiences to universal ones. Body Work: The Radical Power of Personal Narrative, is no different.
I saw this book categorized somewhere as a craft memoir. As such, I anticipated that it would be centered somehow on instruction, something I was eager for from a writer I so clearly admire. What I read was something entirely unexpected, and also wonderful. Body Work is at a times a treatise, at times a meditation on personal writing, and at times Febos’s intellectual autobiography.
Febos tells the story of her writing life, the difficulties of portraying real people, the hard work of finding the truest and best story among the many versions of the stories we tell ourselves. More than that, she stands up for memoir, which is often derided as unserious or self indulgent–in part, she argues, due to its categorization as a feminine art form.
The first essay, “In Praise of Navel-Gazing,” takes on these denigrations of the form and tells the story of how she was able to dismiss them and embrace personal writing as political, as intellectual, as worthy–and, as the title claims, radical.
“Resistance to the lived stories of women, and those of all oppressed people, is a resistance to justice,”Melissa Febos
Silencing stories of the oppressed is of service to their oppressors and silencing stories of people recounting trauma is of service to its perpetrators. While, revealing our pasts–grappling with and drawing insights from them in the process–is of service not just to the person writing, but to the greater collective.
“Transforming my secrets into art has transformed me,” Febos says. “I believe that stories like these have the power to transform the world. That is the point of literature, or at least that’s what I tell my students. We are writing the history that we could not find in any other book. We are telling the stories that no one else can tell, and we are giving this proof of our survival to each other.”
These threads are pulled, and tangled and teased out throughout the book. Febos explores narrative’s place in personal healing, the deep, long-held human need to share our stories–as a form of therapy, political activation, and a religious rite. In psychotherapy, she argues, finding and telling the story of a trauma is necessary to heal it. Confession is also a step towards redemption–as she explores in the text of the Mishneh Torah in the book’s final essay, “The Return.”
But not all trauma narratives or confessional stories are art. What makes a personal story a work of art–or at least a good one, Febos argues–is the writer’s ability to gain and transmit their insight. Just as writing about and processing a trauma helps the writer to transform their experiences, it is the resulting understanding and self awareness that allows their writing to transcend them and to touch upon something beyond the particulars of their personal circumstances. This is something Febos does expertly when writing about her own artistic history.
I read this book over the course of 24 hours, and finished feeling exhilarated and inspired. Febos portrays writing our stories as an urgent act, an act of completion, a primordial urge, and a return to self. As a reader, this book was a revelation. As a writer, it was a call to action, an incitement. In Body Work, Febos does more than defend navel-gazing or self reflection, she champions it. This book is a call to arms.