Body Work: The Radical Power of Personal Narrative
- By Melissa Febos
- 192 pp.
- Reviewed by Antoaneta Tileva
- August 5, 2022
There’s strength in telling your own story.
Melissa Febos’ latest essay collection, Body Work, is “not a craft book in the traditional sense,” she states. Nor is it a flowery ode to the writer’s life. Instead, it’s a practical, clear-eyed take on the intimate (and intricate) connection between our bodies and our bodies of work. Throughout, Febos beautifully narrates the ways in which writing is “integrated into the fundamental movements of life,” asking readers to go beyond writing about their lives to writing their lives.
The author, whose previous works include Whip Smart, Abandon Me, and Girlhood, is a keen social critic, and she makes a cogent argument as to why women’s writing about trauma has been dismissed as unartistic, trite, and self-indulgent:
“Resistance to memoirs about trauma is always in part a resistance to movements of social justice.”
Indeed, while male navel-gazing has been valorized as the kindling for many a Great American Novel, when the introspection comes from women, it is scorned as so much whining no one wants to hear about yet again. (No wonder the words “histrionics” and “hysteria” sound so similar.) Febos makes an impassioned defense of self-reflection as a subversive act that personifies the notion “the personal is political.” Further, the freedom it creates benefits not just the writer but society. From it, we all wrest a bit more license to be honest about our truths.
Her essays are well researched, and much of the excitement here comes from the way in which she curates writing from Native and other non-mainstream voices. In “In Praise of Navel Gazing,” Febos discusses the work of social psychologist James Pennebaker, who found that writing about trauma is healing. She also examines how her “own internalized sexism” shaped her view of what a “real” writer does — craft fiction in the traditional American sense. This essay made me think about similar criticisms leveled against actors for “playing themselves” and thus “not acting.”
As you might guess, her chapter on how to write about sex is less about the mechanics and more about refusing to be shamed into silence. Her inclusion of an Audre Lorde essay on what sex actually is — and it’s not just sex — is especially well developed. When someone in an audience asks Febos if she feels any shame writing about the act, she responds, “I am shameless.” But shameless is not the same as vulgar or vacuous. Rather, writing about sex “might free me from shame and replace the onus of change onto the society in which we live.”
Even though Body Work is not meant to be a manual on memoir writing, it offers a useful, nuanced take on many issues that come up when tackling any sort of nonfiction. The third essay, “A Big Shitty Party,” explores writing about other people — a thorny subject faced by journalists and anthropologists alike. “It is profoundly unfair,” asserts Febos, “that a writer gets to author the public version of a story.” It is moments like this where her vulnerability and thoughtfulness are truly illuminating.
Febos also discusses ways in which writers can strengthen a story by taking a “casualties be damned, this is my artistic vision” approach or, conversely, by declining to add something “when a detail felt cruel.” She is never reckless in her own story-making; this is not slash-and-burn truth-telling. Rather, she explores how one can stay true to their recounting of an event while maintaining care for those woven into it.
The must-read Body Work is a captivating, eloquent paean to the power of working through a “pain that has been given value by the alchemy of creative attention.” In its pages, Melissa Febos posits self-appraisal as a brave act that is both intensely personal and also communal. “The only way to make room is to drag all our stories into that room,” she writes. “That’s how it gets bigger.”
Antoaneta Tileva is a Bulgarian transplant who has lived in the DC area since she arrived here at age 12. Besides being first-generation, she is also a first-generation Ph.D. in cultural anthropology. She is a mean cruciverbalista and a not-so-mean feminista.