Is there something sinister at play?

Book title:
Bodywork: The Radical Power of Personal Storytelling


Melissa Febos

Manchester University Press

Guide price:

Given the variety and abundance of excellent memoirs, this hardly seems necessary to justify a defense of form. Yet Melissa Febos finds, even after years of writing, publishing, and teaching, that she still encounters prejudice against her.

In her latest book, Body Work: The Radical Power of Personal Narrative, she recounts examples where she encounters resistance: in class, at conferences, among other writers, even other writer friends. For Febos, there’s something more sinister at play beneath seemingly innocuous sneers about “writing as transformation, as catharsis, or even as therapy.”

She argues that ideas drawn from lived experience are political. “Writing is a more accessible form of freedom than many,” she says, “and there are forces at work in our society that would like to deprive it of those whose stories most threaten the regimes that govern this society”.

From her secrets and her pain, Melissa Febos wrote three famous memoirs: Whip Smart, Abandon Me and Girlhood. She brings to bear her experiences as a queer woman, a former sex worker, and a recovering drug addict, and through the alchemy of writing, she has something substantial to share about her process. Body Work is not a craft book in the traditional sense, but rather, she says, an attempt to describe the ways in which writing fits into the fundamental movements of her life: political, bodily, spiritual, psychological and social. .

Committed and punctual

For Febos, personal narrative is a literary enterprise. Of the many texts on the subject, this seems the most engaging and timely. Febos examines the work of contemporary authors: Raven Leilani, Garth Greenwell and Eileen Myles, as well as some old essentials of the autobiographical genre: Augustine and Montaigne among others. She shares practical advice on how to write better sex, how to write about people you know, and how to develop the critical distance needed to create art from life.

Febos is dedicating this volume to its students, but it will be of interest to all readers, writers and potential self-narrative writers, as well as anyone interested in the mysterious way the creative mind moves through an artist brave enough to engage it and embrace that back.

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