Body Work: The Radical Power of Personal Narrative: Is there something sinister at play?

Melissa Febos, who has penned three celebrated memoirs, wonders at bias against the genre

Body Work: The Radical Power of Personal Narrative
Author: Melissa Febos
ISBN-13: 978-1526165848
Publisher: Manchester University Press
Guideline Price: £12.99

It hardly seems necessary given the variety and abundance of excellent memoir-writing to warrant a defence of the form. Yet, Melissa Febos finds, even after years of writing, publishing and teaching, that she still encounters a bias against it.

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

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

From her secrets and her pain, Melissa Febos has penned three celebrated memoirs: Whip Smart, Abandon Me and Girlhood. She brings to bear her experiences as a queer woman, a former sex-worker and a recovering addict, and through the alchemy of writing, she has something of substance 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 that writing is integrated into the fundamental movements of her life: political, corporeal, spiritual, psychological, and social.

Engaging and timely

For Febos, personal narrative is a literary endeavour. Of the many texts on the subject, this one feels most engaging and timely. Febos examines the work of contemporary authors: Raven Leilani, Garth Greenwell and Eileen Myles, as well as some old staples of the autobiography 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 necessary to create art out of life.

Febos dedicates this volume to her students, but it will be of interest to all readers, writers and potential writers of personal narrative, as well as anyone interested in the mysterious way the creative spirit moves through an artist brave enough to engage it, and embrace it in return.