By Morgan Riedl
A body can work and do work in many ways—a body can also not work, or perhaps another way of saying this is a society can make it harder for some bodies to work, in which case a body itself can become work. Our body can be our life’s work—a body of work is the work of our lifetime.
In Melissa Febos’s recent essay collection Body Work: The Radical Power of Personal Narrative, she investigates how bodies and writing intersect, how to tell the stories of our bodies and why we should. By mixing memoir and craft, Febos’s book does exactly the kind of work it argues is important, underscoring the power of the personal. I can’t help but think of the slogan from Second Wave Feminism here, the personal is political, and how today we might consider the personal is professional—that sometimes this binary, like so many others, subjugates certain bodies.
Body Work an intensely readable collection, and one I knew I would teach before I’d even finished the first essay in it. With searing insight and singing prose, Febos succeeds at what Virginia Woolf in “Professions for Women” felt she couldn’t accomplish in her own work—write the truth of her body, a female- and queer-identified body, and encourages others to do the same.
In the first of four essays, “In Praise of Navel Gazing,” Febos defends the genre of the personal essay, unpacking why there is a bias against and tendency to dismiss this kind of writing. At the heart of the issue is sexism, built on the “false binary between the emotional (female) and the intellectual (male), and intended to subordinate the former.” Through her characteristically sharp analysis, Febos persuasively reclaims navel gazing, insisting it is neither easy nor self-serving. Writing the truth of one’s body requires courage because it is a sort of reverse Photoshopping. Rather than touching ourselves up and making our image palatable, we strip ourselves down and our façade away, revealing the bones underneath. Looking inward is where we begin to look outward.
Putting the story to paper is just the first step for those wishing to share their work, and Febos takes to task the publishing gatekeepers who deny space to the stories of certain bodies because they’ve been heard before—such as essays of the #metoo movement. We need more of these stories, she counters, and the literary world needs to make space for them. Having long been a reader for several lit magazines, I found myself cheering at these words. For me, her explanation “that resistance to the lived stories of women, and those of all oppressed people, is resistance to justice,” carries resonant echoes of French feminist Hélène Cixous’s claim in “The Laugh of the Medusa” that “woman must write her self: must write about women and bring women to writing, from which they have been driven away as violently as from their bodies.” Women have been—continue to be—pushed out of their bodies, off the page. Febos advises that we not “avoid” ourselves. If we belong in the story, then we go in the story.
Following the call to be present in our own stories, the book includes two essays that take a practical approach to writing, and which are also very much about living. In “Mind Fuck: Writing Better Sex,” Febos asks us to throw out the rules and escape the tired baseball-themed metaphors that pervade the writing of sex. Her own short list of “unrules” reminds me of Eve Sedgwick’s “Axiomatic,” the introduction to Epistemology of the Closet, which disrupts how readers conceptualize sexuality identity by taking them back to some basic truths. While Febos is using the lens of writing about sex, her advice goes beyond the boundaries of the bedroom (not that that space ever confined sex). In encouraging awareness of the stories we’ve been told and pressured to keep retelling, Febos wants readers to take up the “revolutionary” task of “undoing narratives”—that revising, actually re-writing, these stories is a way to improve not only our writing but our vision of the world and so, hopefully, its reality.
In the third essay, “A Big Shitty Party: 6 Parables of Writing about Other People,” Febos shares her own experience of writing about people in her life, not to tell writers what to do but to demonstrate what writers might want to consider when deciding for themselves who they’re willing to write about and how to do so. What I found most compelling was Febos’s own changing attitude or, perhaps more accurately, increasing awareness that an earlier approach of always letting the writer side of herself win had lacked consideration and intentionality. In the classroom, one of my favorite exercises comes from Ijeoma Oluo’s article “You Must Understand Why You Believe What You Believe—And How You Got There.” Our beliefs are fluid, and as Febos’s example demonstrates, it’s important to check in and take stock of how our beliefs are serving our values. For her, the writer no longer gets to always win. Some things matter more. Like the essay before it (and the collection as a whole), the ideas here have applications that can serve us both on and off the page.
In the concluding essay, “The Return: The Art of Confession,” Febos challenges the widely held belief that a writer needs enough distance from an event to be able to effectively write about it. Febos states, “This has not been my experience.” It hasn’t been mine either, which makes her conclusion all the more meaningful. According to Febos, “All that has been required of me to write about something is [a] change of heart.” It is not hindsight in the traditional sense, which might require passing through X stages or living through Y years—this is not to say we don’t ever need time, but rather it’s not about that at all. It’s about perspective, and that comes from within. Indeed, Febos locates it in the “desire to become whole again.” That is the work of the essay, and the work of a body. It is work I look forward to doing and teaching my students to do as well.
Morgan Riedl is a doctoral student at Ohio University in Athens, where she lives with her partner and her retired horse (not in the house). She has an MA in creative nonfiction from Colorado State University, and her essays have been featured in The Normal School, Sonora Review, and Entropy.