Wounds, Stories as Sense-Making, and the Power of Critical Distance

By The Seventh Wave

An Interview with Author Melissa Febos
November 7, 2019

Interviewed by Bretty Rawson, TSW Director of Programs

Melissa Febos writes the sonic: her work devours, outlining the shape of pleasure and pain, unveiling the connectedness of trauma and the threads of language that spin us in endless loops. It is in her story — a story of stories, a memoir or memories — that the reader will find, understand, and realize their own. The subtitle is appropriately the plural of a form — Memoirs — as her book is a collection of ongoingness.

Abandon Me will consume its reader in a raw portrait of the overlooked power of abandonment, and it will deliver you into new situations of thought. This work is a flash of light that looks like a blueprint, and each day, as we witness the extent of broken systems, it is texts and stories like these that we need in order to function; to understand impact in reverse; to avoid the damage we cause on those around us who we don’t completely see.

Bretty Rawson: Is there a point at which we stop looking for stories, because we want to become one?

Melissa Febos: I don’t know. I don’t think I ever stop looking for stories. Maybe that’s one of the benefits of being a reader, or what makes someone a reader: that hunger for stories and to make sense of things. But I do think, in a lot of respects, by the time we get to be adults, or even earlier, we already sort of settled on a story that we can live with. Or that we found one that gives us some relief, or feels comforting, and we sort of clutch onto that and become resistant to other stories. A little narrative perm wrap or something.

We find a place and say, this feels protective, I’ll just wrap this around me and hide in it when I feel threatened. In some ways, that’s what I was interrogating in Abandon Me: the story that I had held onto for a long time without realizing it and seeing what happened when I put it down to see what’s around. To see if it was actually a fit. There are also stories we’re given, and we don’t always have a critical distance from them. We took for granted everything we were given and, unless we make a conscious decision or someone else suggests it, I don’t think we ever do question it.

Bretty: Do we only realize — I can exist out here — when someone or thing throws us out of orbit?

Melissa: Yes, but I also have to be careful not to condemn that process, because it keeps a lot of people alive. Having a story that feels safe, that makes sense of something is a really powerful resource, and our letting go of it or discarding it depends on us having the psychic resources to confront what someone needs for the uncertainty that is underneath or the other scary narratives that might pop up. It’s not for me to say if someone should let go of their story.

Bretty: In the beginning of Abandon Me, you wrote: “I had no story to make sense of it.” How important is it for people to have stories for things they experience?

Melissa: When you don’t have a story to make sense of something, you traipse around it. It’s hard to be oriented around anything else. We see it all the time: people will have a trauma or a wound or a shame, and if you don’t find a place to put it or make sense of it — and shelve it in some way — it becomes the thing around which the rest of your life and thinking is oriented. You can’t get away from it.

Bretty: Could we ever not have a story?

Melissa: If you don’t have a story for something, the world will give you one. Culture will give you one; capitalism will give you one. It’s tricky to talk about it. Narrative facilitates communication: how do we tell another person about our wounds if we don’t have a way to contextualize them inside of ourselves? Like, here’s my pain. You can’t just present those things. We don’t even have words for them.

We have to find a story to make sense of it: this person hurt me in this way because of these factors and this is how I dealt with it. You have to build that. And if you don’t, I think it can become a secret almost by default in some ways, which then has its own scary dynamic.

Bretty: Toward the end, you wrote: “It’s a violent way to emerge. To tell a secret.” How hard is it for people to come to terms with themselves, or with the actual terms themselves?

Melissa: I get a lot of responses about being a memoirist or to my work that are along the lines of, “Oh, you’re so brave,” or, “You’re so comfortable sharing things that people don’t like to talk about.” I think that most memoirists would claim the opposite.

We write about secrets because they are so impossible to talk about. For the things that we don’t have a story about, writing is a way of creating and discovering one. It also just comes with sharing. I write my stories and I know I am probably going to share them, but I write them because I need them. And I am sometimes reluctant to admit that. People are always calling memoirists diarists. But I think that most memoirists or people who write about secret things are usually very private, secretive people. And that burden grows overtime.

Bretty: Do people ask you about the difference between a memoir and your book, which you call a memoirs?

Melissa: That was a real negotiation. As much as I believe in a narrative, it’s not a singular narrative. Sometimes it is. My first book was a memoir. It was one thread that I pulled out from all the major threads and told one stream of it. Abandon Me was not that. It was much more of a tangle, a constellation, or mobile or prism. It’s much less linear than other memoirs. I actually wanted to have no subtitle. I wanted it to just say, Abandon Me. To not explain any sort of form for it and just let it be what it was.

I was relieved at how long I got away with that. But then the marketing department said, “Let’s just call it a memoir.” I said absolutely not, because it is so clearly not that. And even from a marketing standpoint, if you say that, and then people pick it up and read it, they’re going to be disappointed because it does not read that way. And so I thought, essays maybe. But in some ways, that is a betrayal of the book, too, because all of those threads were so related and so tangled and in conversation with each other, that it had as much in common with a memoir as it did with a collection of essays that are full of different topics. And so I thought of “memoirs,” and it seemed somewhere in between them.

It seemed like the most accurate word I could think of.

Bretty: How untraditional is this form and what other texts gave you a sense of permission to write like this?

Melissa: Once it became to clear to me that the book was going to be experimental or mixed form — whatever you want to call it — I read books that I thought might also be called that: Maggie Nelson, Eula Biss, and others. People would be surprised how far back these traditions go. I went back and read those works to see what I wanted to do and what I didn’t want to do. Some of my grad students have this resistance to reading things that are in the tradition or dissimilar to what they’re writing, as if those voices will overtake theirs. I think ultimately they’re afraid they will find that someone has already done what they are doing. But avoiding that experience just doesn’t prevent it.

I consider it my job to look at what other people have done and learn from it. To know if someone has already done what I am trying to do, so that I can either abandon it or find the ways in which my work is doing it anew. I also don’t prescribe to the idea that we can’t repeat some stories. I think it’s necessary to repeat a lot of stories — and it’s also inevitable — but it’s really important to look at what those stories are doing in terms of form, and to see what was possible and to note the ways I wanted to make different choices. I wanted the emotional vulnerability and depth of a memoir, but I also wanted it to be an exercise in structure and form, and to be academic in certain ways. I really wanted to go there emotionally. I didn’t want to backbeat the psychological elements or hide behind form.

It’s not easier, but that’s what is exciting to me. There are opportunities in trying to find new ways. Sometimes you can crack open new pockets, or find a way to say something in form that you can’t articulate in explicit language. When we have a lot of scripts or formulas for something, it’s so easy for us to follow the script and not remain really present in the discovery of it. But if you are inventing a form, you’re awake in the process, and the more awake we are in the process, the more opportunity there is to discover something new in the story or surprise ourselves.

Bretty: The first seven chapters ranged from 12 to 33 pages — four took place in the teens, two in the 20s, and one in the 30s — and in total, those seven chapters are less pages than the final one, which bears the name of the book and sits at 174 pages, compared to the previous 130 pages. I am curious, how did you stitch it all together, in terms of timing, intention, or serendipity? What came first, and what comes last?

Melissa: That was not a part of my plan. I wrote the shorter essays, not entirely in the order they appear, but surprisingly not far off. For the first few essays, I wasn’t sure they were a part of the book. There was so much overlap in them that I couldn’t really imagine them existing together in the same book. But at a certain point, I realized I was circling around a story, rather than moving straight through it.

The title essay, I thought, would be long-ish, but not necessarily the longest in the book. I thought it would be about 40 pages. Once I had written the other seven essays, I could see the way that they added up in little jigsaw pieces, and then I could see what was missing. At one point, I cut them all up and tried to put them back together, which was a disaster. I was so glad when it didn’t work. I worked so hard to establish the integrity of each essay, and so to break them apart didn’t make any sense. But then I was at a residency and I was writing the final essay, and it just kept going. I crossed the 40-page mark and I barely had gotten started. When I crossed the 100-page mark, I stopped thinking about it, because it was terrifying. I had no idea how this was all going to go together, but I just kept going, because the essay understood where it needed to go.

I couldn’t believe how long it was. When I finished it, I felt a small crisis. I couldn’t think of any essay collections where more than half the book was a single work. I thought maybe I should break it up. Should I have it in three pieces? Should I make it interstitial and between the other essays? I tried a bunch of things, but it really didn’t make sense in any form. I often think of the book as the first seven essays being these little islands, and the final essay filling in all the gaps. It was a sweet surprise and very different from everything, in the sense that it was revealed to me as I was writing it.

Bretty: When did the title come to you?

Melissa: The title came to me before I wrote any of it. That is totally unlike how any other title has ever come to me. Usually for me, the title is the last piece. I can’t know until I am done and I know what the essay or book is. But Abandon Me was the opposite of that. I was in the beginning and also middle of experiencing what I wrote about: the primary relationship I describe in the book. I was in the early part of that and I was a disaster. It was so painful. I was in my apartment crying, like every other day, and it just came to me. And I thought, I am going to write a book about this and it’s going to be called Abandon Me.

I wrote it down on an index card and I stuck it on a kitchen wall where it stayed for a year or so after that. I don’t think it was a premonition. I think it was a decision and a wish that the pain I was going through would be something I could subject to the alchemical process of writing a book; that I would be able to make sense of it; that I would be able to apply narrative to it; that I would be able to make something useful out of it because it was so painful. It was one of the clearer examples of the way that that writing works for me in my life. The way that my psychological process — my process of survival — is really entwined with the process of writing.

It usually doesn’t happen that way. I think there’s always a part of me that’s happy to step into a more observational, writerly place in my mind as a way of getting relief from an intense experience, but it’s never quite as clear as that: this is so painful I need to think about it like a writer and write some emotional missives. But it was very clear in that moment. I wrote the early essays in the book and I didn’t think they were a part of that book. It wasn’t until I was five essays in that I thought, “Oh, this is Abandon Me, I am writing it, this is it.” I just stuck with it the whole way. There’s something really comforting in that. Some why cleared it’s room and said, “Here it is.” Like when you go on a hike and see those little markers painted on a rock: “No, over here, over here.” You know?

Bretty: How important is handwriting to your process, craft, or creativity?

Melissa: Probably not very. I’ll use whatever I have at my disposal. If I’m driving and I have ideas, I’ll record myself. I’ll keep notebooks everywhere so I can scribble things down. I think the early notes for most of the things I write are handwritten because that’s what I always have with me. I guess now, a lot of times, I’ll type them in my phone. I still always have a notebook and almost everything I write arrives out of a list I’ve made in my notebook. But I’ll just use whatever I have in early stages of my thoughts. It’s important to get the words out as fast as possible. I have a terrible memory, so if I’m transcribing an event, or if I’m writing dialogue, it’s really just a ticking clock before I forget things, so typing is the fastest way to transcribe before I lose my thoughts.

Bretty: I have an obsession with unwords — words that begins with “un.” I found a lot of yours intriguing: unqualified, unselfish, unavailable, undivided, unreasonable, unlovely, undressing, unutterable, and those last two stuck out to me. It seems like those words — these unwords — tap into the unconscious and give silence a little bit of love.

Melissa: As you were talking, I was thinking about using that prefix and finding a different word. It feels kind of onomatopoeic almost. Like the prefix un is the sound of a “u,” which is so open, almost as if you’re undoing the verb. You’re really sort of peeling it open in some way, taking something away but it really feels like you’re undoing it. That’s funny, I am only thinking of unwords to describe what unwords do, which makes sense, right?

Abandon Me is adjacent in some way to the unwords. One, to the phonics of it — uh-bandon and uhn-do — it has a similar sound. And I think it has a similar meaning also, where Abandon Me could’ve been Undo Me. It has the things I love about the word abandon. It feels like an undressing or an undoing or a reversing of something.

Bretty: Does understanding happen in reverse?

Melissa: It’s inevitable that the experience we end up writing about are often experiences that are impossible to be fully awake while they are happening because they are too much.

We have to sort of shutdown to get through them. And in many ways, the urge to write about them is the urge to recover; the things we couldn’t think or feel or understand while something was happening. But we have this fantasy that we’re going to write about just the things we remember and make them beautiful, but it’s much more excoriating than that. You actually have to go back to the experience and find the things you couldn’t feel or think or understand at the time, and then you have to mix those things in with the things you remember, so it becomes this psychological and emotional, detective work.

That can be harrowing, because you have to feel all the things. You’re safe now because you’re not in the experience; you can stop writing whenever you need to; you have access to resources you need in order to withstand those experiences. But you have to go find them, insofar as you want your book to be conventional and true and a demonstration of fully experiencing and understanding something that happened to you in the past, which I think is one of the goals of writing.

Bretty: How does Abandon Me approach the simultaneity?

Melissa: I think writing is a strange process in that it includes two kinds of experiences. On the one hand, I needed to abandon myself to the story and really dive into these experiences and my memories, and I could only do that alone. But at the same time, it was driven by a deep need to find companionship in lonely experiences, and that is the ultimate goal of writing a book about something: to find community in your most lonely experiences.

Bretty: What’s your relationship to, or with, social media?

Melissa: I have a really mixed relationship with social media, which I think most do. There’s a small group of people who feel enthusiastic about it, but they are small and select, and I am not among them.

In many ways, I have benefited and seen value in social media. The times when I have felt isolated from my community, or had a job where I had to live far away from my community, it was integral in my remaining connected to people. And I was grateful to it for that. So it has facilitated connection for me in a real way in the past.

I feel careful here, because I don’t want to speak for other peoples’ experiences, but for me, there’s not a lot of cross-over between what I write about autobiographically and what I share online. It’s not a place for that kind of presentation. What I write about is vulnerable. It doesn’t feel useful to share my more vulnerable and complex personal experiences, because what occurs on the surface — the quick-take of those things — are never the truest ones, and they’re never the ones through which I will forge a truer and lasting connection with another human being.

So I do struggle when I see people throwing out raw, personal stuff because I think, you’re not going to get what you need, or it’s unlikely to me you’re going to find the connections that those parts of you are longing for through that quick exchange with unselective person. It seems like those feelings are deep, but that expression is superficial, and so is the response you’re going to get it. I struggle with that.

It reminds me of a lot of my dominatrix clients. They would have a fetish that was based on a childhood trauma, sometimes unacknowledged, and they would want to enact the fetish, but it didn’t treat the trauma, which doesn’t mean the fetish is pathological or bad or anything, but that it was insatiable, so they would always be needing to come back. Sometimes, I would want to say to them, who are you talking to about the root of this because the loneliness that surrounds it is not going to be treated by the enactment of the more surface-level system of it, and I say that without judgement for the privateness.

Bretty: Abandonment becomes a liberation for you, but do most people associate the word abandon as a positive process?

Melissa: I think there was a very clear pleasure for me in the nuance of that word and the definition because the first definition is to be abandoned. It’s a passive thing. It’s a thing that is done to us. It’s an undesirable thing. It is the great fundamental fear that we have in relationship. But the other meaning of it, to abandon oneself to something, is not passive. It’s active. You’re making a decision and it has a completely different connotation. To abandon yourself to something means to be impassioned. To give yourself to it willingly and with pleasure, and it has this joyful connotation.

I think there is this other facet to it: if it ends up being worth something incredibly valuable, let it be worth something so much that I would ask for it. Let it be worth so much to me in the end that I would demand it of someone. Abandon me, so I can go through this experience, so that I can reap the rewards that are on the far side of it. And so I think all three of those things were operative and why it felt so perfect for the book. I wanted it to be equally about all of those things.

Headshot of Melissa Febos

Melissa Febos is the author of the critically acclaimed memoir, Whip Smart (St. Martin’s Press 2010) and the essay collection, Abandon Me (Bloomsbury 2017), which The New Yorker called “mesmerizing,” and was a LAMBDA Literary Award finalist, a Triangle Publishing Award finalist, an Indie Next Pick, and named a Best Book of 2017 by Esquire, Book Riot, The Cut, Electric Literature, The Brooklyn Rail, Bustle, Refinery29, Salon, The Rumpus, and others. Her second essay collection will be published by Bloomsbury in 2020. Her work has been widely anthologized and appears in publications including The Believer, Tin House, Granta, The Kenyon Review, Prairie Schooner, Glamour, Guernica, Post Road, Salon, The New York Times, Elle, The Guardian, Vogue, Dissent, The New York Time Book Review, The Chronicle of Higher Education Review, Bitch Magazine, Poets & Writers, The Rumpus, and Goodbye to All That: Writers on Loving and Leaving New York.

Febos is the inaugural winner of The Jeanne Córdova Nonfiction Prize from LAMBDA Literary, the 2017 recipient of The Sarah Verdone Writing Award from the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council, and her essays have won prizes from Prairie Schooner, Story Quarterly, and The Center for Women Writers. She is the recipient of fellowships from the Bread Loaf Writer’s Conference, Virginia Center for Creative Arts, Vermont Studio Center, The BAU Institute, Ucross Foundation, The Barbara Deming Memorial Fund, Lower Manhattan Cultural Council, Ragdale, and The MacDowell Colony. The recipient of an MFA from Sarah Lawrence College, she is currently an Associate Professor of Creative Writing at Monmouth University. She serves on the Board of Directors of VIDA: Women in Literary Arts, the PEN America Membership Committee, the Advisory Board of The Rumpus, and co-curated the Manhattan reading and music series, Mixer, for ten years. She curates literary events, teaches workshops, and speaks widely. The daughter of a sea captain and a psychotherapist, she was raised on Cape Cod and lives in Brooklyn.

Photos of Melissa Febos by Sandra L. Dyas.

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