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Melissa Febos on Rejecting the Patriarchy’s Bad Ideas
In this interview, Ruth Joffre talks with Melissa Febos about her new craft book, ‘Body Work,’ the therapeutic effects of writing and reading, the ethics of writing about other people, and more.
Ruth Joffre: In the Author’s Note of , you write, “This is not a craft book in the traditional sense.” In the process of writing this book, did you find yourself having to work against or position yourself in relation to this craft tradition, and, if so, how did you navigate that experience?
I’m going to write a book of craft essays
RJ: Your essays draw from a wide range of sources, including literature, history, psychology, music, religion, and more. When you sit down to write an essay, do you specifically seek out these sources while researching the subject, or do these materials accrete in the course of your daily life?
RJ: Taken together, the essays in present not only lessons on the craft of writing but real-life examples of how to move through the world as a writer, drawing from your experiences, successes, and mistakes. Why was it important to you to model these ways of being and thinking?
RJ: The first essay, “In Praise of Navel Gazing,” is a powerful condemnation of the ways that personal narrative as a form has been maligned and ridiculed by those afraid of its power. What advice would you give to a writer who find themselves in the position of having to defend personal narratives and protect their own belief in their project?
RJ: At one point in “Mind Fuck,” you note, “I’ve spent my whole life being prescribed narratives about my own body.” How do you recognize when you are prescribing to imposed narratives, whether in life or on the page, and what advice would you give to a writer just starting to break free?
Wait, is that my thought/belief, or is that the heterosexist white supremacist patriarchy piping its bullshit brainwashing through the speakers of my own interiority?
I am interested in art made out of experience. I only care about the opinions of people I respect. I prefer fat asses to thin but recognize the beauty and integrity of all kinds of asses.
RJ: In “A Big Shitty Party: Six Parables for Writing About Other People,” you write, among other things, about the ethics of writing about real people. Is developing an ethical code an essential part of developing craft as a nonfiction writer? How do you teach the ethics of creative nonfiction to your students?
RJ: “The Return,” the final essay in the book, focuses on the art of confession and includes a series of reflections on your past selves, including yourself as a girl and as a new author. How do you maintain compassion and perspective in writing about yourself, and, in the event that this compassion falters, what do you do?
I have this trick that I use a lot in my daily life, when I am trying to be more generous and patient with myself. I just imagine someone else whom I love—a friend, a student, a child—and I consider how I would respond if it were them struggling instead of me. I would never, ever treat someone else I loved (or even someone I hated!) the way I sometimes have treated myself, with that kind of impatience and expectation. In a way, writing personal narrative is a version of this exercise. I am externalizing my past self, creating a character out of her who then becomes objective to me; she is no longer me, though I am drawing her with the colors of my own memory. I am telling myself a story about the past, in which I can relate to my former self as a character—in all her innocence and error, her vulnerability and grace. It is easier to access love that way, and then graft it back into my present self.
Ruth Joffre is the author of the story collection Night Beast. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Kenyon Review, Lightspeed, Pleiades, The Florida Review Online, Flash Fiction Online, Wigleaf, Baffling Magazine, and the anthologies Best Microfiction 2021, Unfettered Hexes: Queer Tales of Insatiable Darkness, and Evergreen: Grim Tales & Verses from the Gloomy Northwest. She lives in Seattle, where she serves as Prose Writer-in-Residence at Hugo House.
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