This article is part of a regular series of conversations with the Review’s contributors; read past ones here and sign up for our email newsletter to get them delivered to your inbox each week.
On January 15, 2022, we published an essay by Melissa Febos about the literature that blew her mind as a queer teen on Cape Cod in the 1990s. Seemingly by the hand of fate, she discovered the novels of Jeanette Winterson shortly after starting sessions with her first lesbian therapist. In the conversation that ensued—between herself, her therapist, and Winterson—Febos forged a queer identity, one that was inextricable from being a writer: “At fifteen, I had already been thinking of myself as a writer for some years.”
Febos, who currently teaches nonfiction at the University of Iowa, has made a career out of turning her probing attention on herself, writing with frank, lyrical intelligence and humor about sex, the body, and identity. Her first book, Whip Smart (2010), recounts her experience working as a dominatrix in New York during college; in Abandon Me (2017) and Girlhood (2021), she chronicles personal history and feminist awakening through short, explosive essays in which she is in constant dialogue with the books and writers who have influenced her.
This week, over e-mail, Febos shared her thoughts about writing the self and taking lessons from fiction.
Lucy Jakub: Your essay is so much about how young people read, and how, in particular, romantic and sexual obsession and self-formation are catalyzed by literature during our teen years. When did you grow out of reading that way, or do you ever feel yourself tapping back into that intense sort of relationship to works of art?
Melissa Febos: I think now that I have a more complete self-conception—which is not to say it isn’t a constantly fluctuating thing, but rather that I don’t worry it as I did in my teens, and that I have a wealth of places in which I locate it, specifically in relationships with people I actually know, so I don’t need to form such personal attachments to books and their writers—I don’t read that way anymore. It does happen occasionally, though. There is an essayist whose work I love in that dazzled, spiritually activated kind of way (I won’t name them, for both of our sakes), and when by chance I did get to meet them, I was flummoxed in a way that is incredibly rare. My wife was there and has been gently teasing me about it ever since.
The books you describe as formative (Beloved, Written on the Body, Rubyfruit Jungle) were mostly novels. As a writer, why did you turn to memoir and the personal essay instead of fiction?
Novels have been the great loves of my reading life, and probably more of an influence than any nonfiction. When I was younger (that is, before I went to college and studied writing), I really didn’t pay attention to whether a book was fiction or memoir—I mean, I honestly didn’t even register the distinction. I didn’t start thinking about nonfiction craft concerns as distinct until graduate school. This was good for me, I think, because it foregrounded the elements of craft that give me pleasure as a reader, which is to say: narrative structure, the beauty of the line, and emotional depth that is at least partly arrived at through intellectual digging. Of course, these are all absolutely among the concerns of the essayist and the memoirist, but I think it was helpful for me to first identify them in fiction and to know them outside of the conventions of nonfiction. (It is so much fun to go back to the favorite novels of my past and notice how essayistic they are.) I still read more novels than anything, though I do love and have learned a lot from memoir and personal essays.
What was the first thing you remember writing about yourself—the first piece you felt satisfied with, or proud of, or shared with others?
It was the beginning of my first book, Whip Smart. Not the beginning of the book, but the first piece of it I wrote. It was for an assignment in grad school, and I didn’t even plan to write it, to ever write about my experiences in sex work or with addiction, not as nonfiction anyway; but I sat down and started typing and it just sprang out of me like some Athena, sword drawn, or like something that had been cooking inside me for a long time and was desperate to emerge. I told my professor that it was a one-off, that I would never write a memoir, but in my gut I knew there was no turning back, that there was more where that had come from and it wouldn’t take no for an answer.
Have you ever experimented with “autofiction”? And, as a memoirist, what does that term mean to you?
Funny you should ask! I’m working on a new book right now and navigating the urge to manipulate things (time, mostly) to an extent that I might need to call it autofiction eventually. As a memoirist, if I’m honest, I have sometimes just thought of it as a name for writers who aren’t brave enough to call their books memoirs, a kind of veil that allows for the option of saying, “Well, it’s fiction!” to avoid the discomforts of being asked personal questions, or questions that might make them vulnerable in the ways that memoirists are vulnerable. But I know that’s a rude and simplistic view. I guess I think of autofiction as the same thing as, or a sister to, what Truman Capote called “faction”—writing that constrains itself by the “facts” of an event but takes more liberty in their representation than the writer feels comfortable calling “nonfiction.”
Your forthcoming book, Body Work, is about the art of writing memoir. Was there a particular question or insight that spurred you to write it?
Body Work is really the culmination of my fifteen years of teaching creative writing, and of the innumerable conversations I’ve had with other writers about personal writing and its intersections with the psychological, political, and spiritual aspects of our selves and lives. If pressed, I’d say that my biggest motivation was my desire to set down my most repeated arguments about the value of personal writing, my rebuttals to the long-standing arguments against it. The book is really a response to the voices inside my students (and me) that insist our stories are not worth transforming into art, are not worth a stranger’s time, that we are self-indulgent for even considering writing them. I don’t think those are our voices, nor do they spring out of our own lived experiences. They are the internalized voices of dominant social structures that benefit from our silence.
What writers do you think are currently doing the most exciting personal or memoiristic work?
Oh gosh, where do I even start? Right now, I’m really excited by the work of essayists like Elissa Washuta, Lacy Johnson, Sarah Minor, Alexander Chee, Jenny Boully, Brian Blanchfield, Leslie Jamison, and Sinéad Gleeson; mixed-form criticism by writers like Olivia Laing, Hanif Abdurraqib, and Patricia Lockwood; memoirists like Randa Jarrar, Emerson Whitney, Anne Boyer, Lars Horn, Erika Krouse, Deborah Levy, Jaquira Díaz, Grace Lavery, Tanaïs, Thirii Myo Kyaw Myint, Paul Lisicky, and Alex Marzano-Lesnevich; and graphic artists like Mira Jacob and Kristen Radtke—so many writers! I’m going to think of a hundred more in five minutes.
The quality these all have in common, and which compels me especially, is the sense of earnest curiosity in their work, and a willingness to push beyond the expected boundaries of nonfiction forms; all of them are combining different modes in ways that I find surprising and illuminating. I feel so lucky to be writing during what feels like an expansive time for nonfiction, particularly the essay.