Reviewed by Michelle Bowdler
Melissa Febos dedicates her latest book, Body Work: The Radical Power of Personal Narrative (Catapult, March 2022), to her students. After reading the book in one sitting, I feel as though I am one of them, a kind of disciple of the author’s patience and deep well of wisdom.
Febos states in her author’s note that Body Work is “not a craft book in the traditional sense.” It is not prescriptive or didactic about what any one writer must do or that there is one way to succeed. Instead, Febos has a conversation with us about the ways in which writing has been incorporated into all aspects of her life and the things she has learned over many years.
Body Work seamlessly offers an insight into the author’s creative processes as it invites the reader to explore their own. Because of this juxtaposition, I learned many important concepts in this stunning book, and never for a moment felt dashed by them. This is more remarkable than it sounds. Too often in reading craft books, one is in awe of how someone whose work they admire approaches their art yet feels discouraged that they could ever write as compellingly.
Quite the opposite lessons were true in reading Body Work. Febos leaves ample room for readers to partake of her insights and move forward in their own unique ways. In twelve-step programs, the expression “take what you like and leave the rest behind” also applies here. Febos’s ego is decidedly absent from the discourse — a true teacher, the best kind. When I got to the last page and closed the book with a sigh of admiration, I realized how optimistic I felt: worthy of attending to my voice and the subjects I wanted to explore.
It shouldn’t surprise anyone that writers can be insecure and too often compare ourselves to others, with literary awards, “best of” lists, residencies and fellowships celebrated daily on social media. Febos — no stranger to these accolades — gently encourages self-reflection and a trust of one’s own artistic development. As a result of her willingness to show vulnerability, normalizing it for others and gently challenging us to reconsider our assumptions, I found myself able to face a writer’s block I’d been fighting. For weeks after reading this book, I noticed an absence of judgment and self-criticism during my writing time and was able to produce pages without dread or exhaustion overwhelming me.
I have my own relationship to traditional craft books and instruction. I suppose most writers do. While I had hoped to have a career in writing after graduating from college, an overwhelming trauma in my early twenties (which became the subject of the book I would finally write 30 years later) left me unable to pursue this dream. By the time my nervous system recalibrated, I had moved away from artistic expression and abandoned my earlier aspirations.
In my forties, I started writing again. When I complained to a friend how lost I felt, she sent me Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird. That book was instrumental in providing me with a next step. I worried less about the quality of my “shitty first drafts” and instead focused on getting my thoughts on the page little by little, bird by bird. A few years later, I began an intensive nonfiction program for nontraditional writers. My instructor was Alex Marzano-Lesnevich, and the first reading they assigned was Vivian Gornick’s The Situation and the Story. From that book, I learned more basic tenets. Alex’s classes were laden with craft lessons, and I needed them all, especially what Alex modeled as a teacher in class: respect, honesty and generosity to fellow writers and self-compassion. While writing is a creative and seemingly solitary endeavor, we have much to learn from authors and instructors who have an open hand as they teach. Febos falls into that category.
There are specific notes of brilliance and insight in each chapter. I was especially taken with the analysis in the first chapter, “In Praise of Navel Gazing,” which counters the notion that writing about one’s life is self-indulgent, uninteresting, and too often applied to those who are marginalized in society as a tool to diminish their voices and prevent movement on social justice issues.
“Mind Fuck” gives us several insights into writing about sex. Febos states, “My whole practical thesis around the craft of writing a sex scene is that it is exactly the same as any other scene.” The chapter offers a feminist analysis of what makes writing about sex difficult for writers. Febos offers concrete strategies for getting past the belief that the topic is too challenging to get right.
“A Big Shitty Party” offers guidance on ways to be thoughtful and act with integrity when real people are characters in your work. My favorite of her many insights is that “cruelty rarely makes for good writing” and that it is not contrary to making art to consider the impact of one’s words on others. Throughout Body Work, Febos includes several references to the work of other writers, philosophers, mental health professionals and more. This single book provides an exhaustive reading list that would benefit a writing student for years.
The books, essays, and instruction I most value are the rare ones that make it abundantly clear that one does not need to suffer to become a better writer. Febos’s book is smart but it is also compassionate. The rarity of that combination has a kind of magic to it. Perhaps a different frame, in fact, will produce several new voices unafraid and willing to stand by their work and the subjects they choose to write about. There is a kind of grace in the immersive experience of reading Body Work and it will find its place on my bookshelf, in a location where it is easy to grab anytime I need to hear Febos’ voice reminding me to carry on in a way that is value laden, kind and intentional.
Michelle Bowdler is the author of Is Rape a Crime? A Memoir, an Investigation and a Manifesto, which was longlisted for the 2020 National Book Award in Nonfiction. Her writing has been published in two anthologies, The New York Times, Ms. Magazine, Psychology Today, Literary Hub, Gertrude Press, and other journals. She is a recipient of the Barbara Deming Memorial Award for Nonfiction and has been a fellow at MacDowell and Ragdale.