Catharsis Isn’t a Dirty Word: A Conversation with Melissa Febos

March 20, 2022   •   By Lilly Dancyger

MELISSA FEBOS IS the author of the critically acclaimed memoir Whip Smart (2010) and the essay collection Abandon Me (2017), which was a Lambda Literary Award finalist, a Publishing Triangle Award finalist, an Indie Next Pick, and was widely named a Best Book of 2017. Her second essay collection, Girlhood (2021), was a national best seller and winner of the NBCC Award. Her new craft book, Body Work: The Radical Power of Personal Narrative, was recently published by Catapult.

I’ve been lucky enough to study with Melissa, and my work has benefited greatly from her advice and feedback. So I took the dedication of Body Work, which reads, “For my students,” to heart. Reading the four rigorous and thoughtful, deeply wise and generous essays that make up this book that’s somewhere between a craft book, a creative manifesto, and a roadmap for navigating the perilous emotional terrain of putting personal writing into the world, I knew I wouldn’t be alone in feeling like it really was written for me, so perfectly did it answer ethical, creative, and practical writing questions that have been swirling in my mind forever. Melissa and I spoke on the phone, and I had a chance to ask her a few questions that Body Work raised for me.

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LILLY DANCYGER: In the first essay in this collection, “In Defense of Navel Gazing,” you write, “I am done agreeing when my peers spit on the idea of writing as transformation, as catharsis, as — dare I say it — therapy.” This idea really struck me. I’ve so often found myself getting defensive when people assume that my writing must have been cathartic — I want to push back and say, “No, it’s art!” But you make such a good case in this essay for why it can be both. Can you talk a little bit about where that either/or idea comes from?

MELISSA FEBOS: I’ve been in that same position so many times. When my first book came out, there was a total onslaught of people being like, “Oh, so cool that you published your diary,” when I had worked really, really hard to make that work of art. And I did the reactive thing which was to be like, “It wasn’t therapy, it wasn’t cathartic, it was an intellectual work,” thereby reinforcing what I see as a sexist binary between emotional and intellectual work. But those things weren’t mutually exclusive. And I never felt great about [agreeing that they were], especially as I kept writing personally, because it was so obviously cathartic for me. It was so clearly saving my life.

I think really it was being a teacher that forced me to look at my own internalized biases and my response to that argument with more scrutiny. Because my students — and when I say my students, I mostly mean my female students, my students of color, my queer students, my disabled students — were like, “Oh, I can’t write about my experience because people will think I’m just doing it as a therapeutic exercise.” And the truth of my own experience just rose up and trampled over whatever else I had internalized, and I was like, “One, that’s a great reason to do something. And two, the best art that I have ever made is that which has healed me the most.” That’s just a fact of my experience. And I think I had to accumulate enough years of experience to feel confident saying it out loud, and risk the embarrassment of being like, “Yeah, it was therapeutic.”

I loved how you blew open that assumption in that first essay, that writing could be art, or it could be healing, but it couldn’t be both. But then later in “The Return,” you go back to that idea and complicate it again, saying that the relationship between writing about trauma and healing from it are related and sometimes interconnected, but they’re also, as you put it, “vastly different undertakings.” So, parsing these different motivations for writing about a traumatic experience, what do you think is the biggest distinction between writing to heal, and writing that may happen to heal you along the way?

If we’re going to put them in discrete categories, it’s the aesthetic work of it, right? But the more I think about it, the more complicated it gets, because I think part of the way that I actually heal through writing is by distracting myself with the aesthetic concerns so that I’m able to walk toward something that I would be too scared to otherwise. I am so captivated by the aesthetic pursuit of making art out of my experience that I’m willing, and sometimes I actively forget that it’s going to be painful. So, the more I look at it, the harder it is for me to tease those things apart. But on its face, that’s the difference — there are tons of people doing art therapy that’s doing great healing work but will never see the light of public attention. And the difference between that and what we’re doing is that we’re foregrounding in our pursuit the aesthetic concerns.

It’s like the aesthetics are almost a way to trick yourself into doing the hard healing work.

Yeah. That’s actually a really reliable experience of mine. The fact that I end up truly surprised so much of the time when I arrive at a traumatic experience in my writing is a testament to that fact.

You open the essay “A Big Shitty Party” with how you handle writing about other people, by saying that the most common question you get about your work is how you’ve dealt with fallout from people in your life. That question always feels so invasive to me, like people are looking for more dirt and more vulnerability, as if the very personal writing hasn’t given them enough of that already. How do you feel about getting that question now? Have you gotten used to it?

I’ve almost come full circle with it. With my first book it felt really invasive, because it was — because people’s interest in my first book, which was about sex work, was prurient in nature — but also because I didn’t know how to talk about it, and my experience of negotiating those interactions was still very much in progress, and it felt very tender and very private. And looking at it objectively, I think it is a rude question. It’s evidence of how, particularly when women write about something personal, it feels to readers like they have carte blanche to know or say anything to her or about her. And I think that’s real. But over the years of people asking me that question, I have gotten so much experience with navigating those scenarios that I think about it in a different way now, and I’m just a lot more comfortable talking about it. And I feel more forgiving, because I’m nosy, too. Humans have a gossipy nature, and it’s through being nosy and gossiping that we sometimes get really helpful tools for our survival. I also think that at this point, most of the people who ask it of me are coming from a space less of being nosy and more of being interested in the possibility of being seen by the people in their lives in that way, and interested in strategies for risking that, and that is something I really support.

That’s such a generous way to look at that question. I’m going to try to remember that. So, how do you go about answering when you get questions these days about how people in your life react to your writing? How do you answer honestly without just giving more personal details about people in your life who may already be chafing at the fact that you’ve shared personal details?

One of the things I say is the most common thing you hear or read memoirists saying, which is that the rule of thumb is to be harder on yourself than anyone else in the book. I don’t mean that in a self-flagellating way, but just that the scrutiny of our moral attention must be greater when we’re looking at the character of ourselves than it is on any other character in our work. And that does most of the work, but not all of it. And then what experience has taught me is that in the relationships that I would like to preserve, it is the best strategy to show them the work before the world gets to see it. Not to offer to let them edit it, but to tell them that I’m interested in their response, and I’m happy to show up for the conversation, and I will try to mitigate the ways it might be hurtful to them as much as I can. And for me, if an event was bigger in someone else’s life than it was in mine, I need to have a really sincere conversation with myself about whether it’s my story to tell, and I probably need to talk to them before I start writing it. And I learned that from taking the other path.

Yeah, that was the part of this book that I most wished I had read before my memoir came out — the excellent argument you make for letting the people closest to you have a say in what you write about them, which goes against most of the advice on that topic. Reading a lot of this book I was like, “Man, I wish I had read this before I did all these same things and had to learn the hard way myself, too.” But the truth is I probably wouldn’t have listened because it’s true that the best way to find a limit is to cross it once.

Yeah. Maybe now I’m more inclined to take other people’s experience to heart, but all the way into my 30s it was just entirely from personal experience. I just had to make every mistake.

Yup. Okay, so speaking of changing the way that you think about things, going back to “The Return,” you write, “By the time most books find their unknown readers, […] the writer’s relationship to the past is irrevocably changed. The writer is changed.” 

We talked about people focusing on your experience rather than the art made out of it and thinking they’re entitled to your personal life because they know things about your past. But I think maybe an even trickier layer is when readers think they know you because they know the narrator you’ve created on the page — even when that’s not really you, and it wasn’t even fully you at the time you wrote it … but then time passes and it becomes even further removed from you as a person. So how do you contend with a fixed version of your perspective living on the page? And how do you talk about and answer for older work when it no longer reflects your perspective?

I think this is so important. It’s one of the first things I address in my memoir classes — the idea of the narrator. The narrator is never you, and the sooner we can start thinking of ourselves on the page that way, the better for our work. That character on the page is just this shaving off of the person that was within a very particular context, intermingled with bits of perspective from all the time since — it’s a very specific little cocktail of pieces of the self and memory and art … it’s a very weird thing. And then it’s frozen in the pages. There are two ways I think I can address this, and one is easier than the other, which is that when people read memoir, it feels really immediate. They are traveling back in time to an experience that happened many years ago, but it’s happening immediately for them. And so, they imagine us, the memoirists, spilling our guts in this incredibly vulnerable way, but actually, we’ve been constructing this piece of art for years. By the time they read it, it’s like old news. And I’ve already gone through this cathartic aesthetic process of integrating and making peace with the past. Probably the second most common question I get is, “How do you bear being seen in this way?” And my answer is always, like, “You’re not seeing the person you read about, you’re seeing the person who wrote that book. She’s very changed.” I’m not scared of my own unprocessed emotions around that event anymore. And that’s a lovely thing to describe to people, particularly if they’re interested in writing personally.

The other part of it, which I think is actually what your question is about, is having to contend with beliefs and perceptions that I no longer have. I had the experience recently of recording the audiobook for my first book, which I wrote 15 years ago. And I wish that certain readers would imagine if 300 pages of the things that they thought 15 years ago were publicly available for all time. Yeah, talk about character building. Everything from the style of the writing to the conclusions to representations of other people, there’s just so much that’s changed. It can be very, very painful to slip into the perspective of my younger self, and see all of the things so clearly that she did not know and was not aware of and was wrong about. It’s profoundly humbling. But I can fight it, or I can make peace with the fact that I have grown inestimably in the last 15 years, and even in the last year.

I was really terrified of reading that whole book aloud, alone, to one stranger. But the prevailing feeling I had while I was reading was like, “Good job, 25-year-old me.” I’ve changed my mind about a lot, but that was the best thing I had ever written, and the best thinking of myself at that age is in that book, by far. So, I was able to feel forgiving of the ways that I now see myself as having failed in the writing of that book.

Okay, one more question. You also talk about the time immediately after publishing Abandon Me as having some miserable aspects. Which was actually really validating and a relief to read. Not because I want you to have a bad time! But because I felt so ungrateful and shitty when I was anxious and depressed and kind of fucking miserable after my book came out, and I think that’s partly because that part of it is just not really talked about. Like you’re not supposed to say it’s miserable, you’re supposed to be so grateful and so happy because you’ve accomplished this big thing. But do you think it’s more common than we realize to be miserable when your book comes out, and do you have any advice for writers to prepare for that aspect of it?

Absolutely. I think that it is the experience of almost everyone. Because you’ve been investing in expectations for like decades before it happens, and anything that we fantasize about for decades is bound to be a disappointment in reality. Whenever I talk to someone who’s about to publish their first book, and I find myself in these conversations a lot, I make sure to tell them that it is always at least sometimes demoralizing. It just is. And because book publishing is crazy and random, and there’s such a chasm between how people who are not doing it see it, and the actual experience of it. It frequently does not change your financial situation. It exposes you in ways that are deeply uncomfortable. And it disappoints your fantasies, your often secret unarticulated fantasies, that publishing a book will complete you and make you impervious to insecurity, and whatever it is that we want to subtract from our human experience that is unsubtractable.

When I was on the cusp of publishing my first book, I was hosting a reading series, and a famous writer who read at the series was like, “Do you have many published friends?” And I said no, because I was the first of my friends and my MFA cohort to publish a book. And he told me, “Go find some, because you’re gonna need people to talk to you. And it can’t be your unpublished friends.” And, of course, I didn’t do that, because how do you do that? We barely knew how to use Twitter in 2009, or whatever that was. But it was very, very good advice. And it’s one of the reasons why I have so many conversations with people who are about to publish their first books, because I really needed somebody to talk to when I was going through it, and I didn’t really have anyone.

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Lilly Dancyger is the author of Negative Space (2021), a reported and illustrated memoir selected by Carmen Maria Machado as a winner of the Santa Fe Writers Project Literary Awards; and the editor of Burn It Down (2019), a critically acclaimed anthology of essays on women’s anger from Seal Press. She is currently at work on a collection of essays about the power and complexity of female friendship. She lives in New York City.