In this interview, Online Nonfiction Editor Vera Carothers spoke to Melissa Febos about being honest with yourself, dropping out of high school to become a writer, and her next essay collection Girlhood. Melissa Febos is the author of the acclaimed memoir, Whip Smart (St. Martin’s Press 2010), and the essay collection, Abandon Me (Bloomsbury 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 third book, Girlhood, is forthcoming from Bloomsbury in 2021. Febos is the inaugural winner of the Jeanne Córdova Nonfiction Award from LAMBDA Literary and the recipient of the 2018 Sarah Verdone Writing Award from the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council. She has been awarded fellowships from the MacDowell Colony, Bread Loaf Writer’s Conference, Virginia Center for Creative Arts, Vermont Studio Center, The Barbara Deming Memorial Foundation, The BAU Institute, Ucross Foundation, and Ragdale. The recipient of an MFA from Sarah Lawrence College and an associate professor and graduate director at Monmouth University, her work has recently appeared in Tin House, Granta, The Believer, The Sewanee Review, and The New York Times.
Melissa Febos is the Nonfiction Judge for the Columbia Journal Spring Contest.
Each time I read your work, I’m stuck by the arrows of truth you dispense in lines as puncturing as, “A daughter is wedded to her mother first.” In a piece you published with BuzzFeed News this fall, you write about the page as a place where you feel free to go into candid self-examination, which has sometimes felt hard in other parts of your life. I think of radical honesty as a recurring theme in your work. I’m curious, what does it mean to be honest with yourself, and with others? And how does writing become a place where you allow yourself to do this?
To the reader, writing seems like a public activity, which from their perspective, it is. But it’s only ever me alone in a room with my words. The page has always been a place of reckoning for me. For reasons not entirely clear to me, I have always felt that I owed it the truth. In the dark of my mind, I can more easily manipulate a memory, or the narrative of an event into a shape that feels easier to bear. But externalizing it impels me to sheer away all the self-flattering bullshit. In a larger sense, I believe in being honest with oneself because in my experience, true connection with other people and with one’s art is contingent on having a true connection with oneself. That is, I have to be awake inside of myself if I want to have access to the rest of the experience. Self-deception is sort of like a psychic plaque that builds up over time until you are dealing with your own life through a smudgy window. That’s a gross mixed metaphor but you get the idea.
You write that you dropped out of high school to pursue writing. What compelled you at a young age to want to write? And what do you think compels you now?
Oh, I was an obsessive reader as a kid and understood very young that books and writing were probably the only thing I could devote my life to. I had parents who encouraged my obsessions and supported the idea of being a writer as a possible future, which was a tremendous stroke of luck. I was a particular combination of confident and miserable as a teen, though I still marvel at the hubris it took to drop out of high school. I really was just like, this is boring and stupid and I have better things to be reading and writing. I mean, how innocent and brave and arrogant must I have been, right? I’m grateful to that little punk every day.
Much of your writing is based closely on personal experiences. Do you go through a research/excavation stage in your writing process and if so what does that look like?
I do a tremendous amount of research for most of my writing these days. For longer essays, I often have a period of weeks or months, or even years in some cases, during which I am just reading and making notes. Once I start writing, the research and the writing start to happen in tandem and inform each other. Even with straight personal essays, I usually interview a few people, look at old journals, emails, and so forth.
I’ve had to really transform my own concept of what “writing” is and the metric by which I measure my own productivity. It used to be all about word count, but the research/rumination phases have gotten so substantial that now myriad activities comprise my writing days besides actual typing.
Your last book, Abandon Me (2017), pushed the limits of experimental “memoirs” in essay form. How do you decide what form a certain piece or essay will take?
Oh, I don’t usually decide. I read a bunch and as I figure out how the research will function in the essay, the shape starts to come into focus. I don’t usually know the exact form until I get into the writing. The essay usually teaches me how to write it. I always start with lots of notes and outlines, and then there are inevitable surprises. Michelangelo once said of sculpting, “I saw the angel in the stone and I carved to set him free.” That describes my process pretty well, too: I glimpse the work inside the stone and I carve to set her free.
Tell us about the new collection Girlhood; how did this newest book project begin for you? What is it about?
Girlhood is basically about the mindfuck of being an adolescent girl in this country and how the burdens of that time inform our thinking and relationships as adults. In some ways, it’s a record of the work I’ve done to expel all the bad ideas that patriarchy embedded in my mind as a girl. It’s much more outward looking than my previous books – I interviewed a lot of other women, did some investigative work and incorporated a lot more research. It was kind of a brutal book to write, but certainly transformative. My hope is that it will articulate some of the things that many of us share but don’t always speak about, and that it will offer some proof that it’s possible to get (more) free—to redefine our relationships to our bodies, our lovers, our every interaction with other humans. It’s also an illuminated manuscript! Every essay has a gorgeous hand-drawn illustration by the brilliant writer and artist Forsyth Harmon.
You recently posted a list of questions you asked your students at the beginning of the semester on Twitter. I’m borrowing a question here from that list because it piqued my interest about your own writing process. What are your most formidable challenges as a writer? What are some strategies you have developed (or are developing) for overcoming them?
Let’s see. I have written whole essays about this, so I’ll just keep to one. I have this problem wherein every time I get into a meaty new essay, I go through a phase of believing I need to go get a PhD in whatever the topic is. I’ve actually had this challenge since I was a kid. I remember reading something when I was 13, and thinking, shit! How do writers know so much? I can’t imagine knowing enough to write a book like this! Then, I figured out that the job of being a writer was that of becoming a student of everything you’re interested in. Which is perfect, because while I never wanted to go to high school, I always wanted to be a never-ending student of my own interests. What I usually do now when the feeling of not knowing enough overtakes me—in addition to reading exhaustively—is call a friend and ask them to remind me why I don’t need to go to school for five years to write the essay, or channel that friend because I already know what they will say: that I only need to go back to school if I want to write a scholarly work on the subject; what I do is something different—I synthesize research with my own experience, ideas, and imagination to create a work of art that couldn’t possibly be made by anyone but me. Usually that chills me out. You’re welcome to borrow that one, if you have the same problem. It’s very helpful.
My last question relates to your role as our Spring Contest Judge: What pulls you in when you’re reading a new piece of work from a writer you don’t know?
I like to be surprised. I also treasure beautiful sentences. And in nonfiction, clarity. This doesn’t mean the meaning has to be explicit, only that it’s not enough to be provocative or suggestive; there must be some real clarity behind the images and beautiful sentences. By the time I read something, the writer ought to know what it is they came to the page to say, even if they do not have any easy answers.