Tag Archives: writing

Book Review: Body Work: The Radical Power of Personal Narrative by Melissa Febos

Melissa Febos’ latest essay collection, Body Work, is “not a craft book in the traditional sense,” she states. Nor is it a flowery ode to the writer’s life. Instead, it’s a practical, clear-eyed take on the intimate (and intricate) connection between our bodies and our bodies of work. Throughout, Febos beautifully narrates the ways in which writing is “integrated into the fundamental movements of life,” asking readers to go beyond writing about their lives to writing their lives.The author, whose previous works include Whip SmartAbandon Me, and Girlhood, is a keen social critic, and she makes a cogent argument as to why women’s writing about trauma has been dismissed as unartistic, trite, and self-indulgent:

“Resistance to memoirs about trauma is always in part a resistance to movements of social justice.”

Indeed, while male navel-gazing has been valorized as the kindling for many a Great American Novel, when the introspection comes from women, it is scorned as so much whining no one wants to hear about yet again. (No wonder the words “histrionics” and “hysteria” sound so similar.) Febos makes an impassioned defense of self-reflection as a subversive act that personifies the notion “the personal is political.” Further, the freedom it creates benefits not just the writer but society. From it, we all wrest a bit more license to be honest about our truths.

Her essays are well researched, and much of the excitement here comes from the way in which she curates writing from Native and other non-mainstream voices. In “In Praise of Navel Gazing,” Febos discusses the work of social psychologist James Pennebaker, who found that writing about trauma is healing. She also examines how her “own internalized sexism” shaped her view of what a “real” writer does — craft fiction in the traditional American sense. This essay made me think about similar criticisms leveled against actors for “playing themselves” and thus “not acting.”

As you might guess, her chapter on how to write about sex is less about the mechanics and more about refusing to be shamed into silence. Her inclusion of an Audre Lorde essay on what sex actually is — and it’s not just sex — is especially well developed. When someone in an audience asks Febos if she feels any shame writing about the act, she responds, “I am shameless.” But shameless is not the same as vulgar or vacuous. Rather, writing about sex “might free me from shame and replace the onus of change onto the society in which we live.”

Even though Body Work is not meant to be a manual on memoir writing, it offers a useful, nuanced take on many issues that come up when tackling any sort of nonfiction. The third essay, “A Big Shitty Party,” explores writing about other people — a thorny subject faced by journalists and anthropologists alike. “It is profoundly unfair,” asserts Febos, “that a writer gets to author the public version of a story.” It is moments like this where her vulnerability and thoughtfulness are truly illuminating.

Febos also discusses ways in which writers can strengthen a story by taking a “casualties be damned, this is my artistic vision” approach or, conversely, by declining to add something “when a detail felt cruel.” She is never reckless in her own story-making; this is not slash-and-burn truth-telling. Rather, she explores how one can stay true to their recounting of an event while maintaining care for those woven into it.

The must-read Body Work is a captivating, eloquent paean to the power of working through a “pain that has been given value by the alchemy of creative attention.” In its pages, Melissa Febos posits self-appraisal as a brave act that is both intensely personal and also communal. “The only way to make room is to drag all our stories into that room,” she writes. “That’s how it gets bigger.”


Film Review: Salinger

My Review of Salinger

Salinger, the ten-years-in-the-making documentary by Shane Salerno, is a surprisingly moving and thorough look at the life of one of American’s most beloved iconic writers. It is a must-see film for anyone who appreciates the child birthing-like nature of writing and its nearly supernatural ability to give voice to our shared humanity.  Surprisingly because there was a veneer of sensationalism/celebrity-chasing in the marketing of the film as a “never before seen” and uncomfortably probing  wide-angle-lens-ish expose on a man who purposely shunned the spotlight. The Catcher In The Rye captured the hearts and minds of generations; the very relatable angst of Holden Caulfield and his condemnation of all things fake made this seminal work timeless and dearly loved and not just one of those other classics you were forced to read in English class but never really enjoyed. Salerno’s documentary certainly covers a lot of ground—as for the attention-grabbing ploys, we can chalk those up to misguided publicity efforts because the strength of the film is certainly not in unearthing unseen footage but in painting a holistic portrait of the enigmatic Salinger.

Salinger makes a lot of how World War 2 shaped J.D. Salinger, calling it the “ghost in the machine of all his stories” and rightfully so—this is the meat of the film, providing an unparalleled glimpse into something that affected the author’s work profoundly.  Salinger was very patriotic and determined to serve in the war and voluntarily enlisted, not even imagining the horrors that lay ahead. Being a part of D Day (while carrying six chapters of Catcher In The Rye in his pocket) and the ensuing 200 days of battle, he fought in the fields of France aptly called “the meat grinder,” where routinely 200 men would die in the span of a couple of hours. Witnessing the sheer desecration of humanity in camps abandoned by the Nazis left lasting scars on Salinger’s mind and he suffered a nervous breakdown in Normandy. His treatment and the themes of “craziness” and damage to innocence would make an indelible mark on his writing, finding its way into almost all of his stories. Salinger’s coverage of the author’s war years also shines a light on his complexity as a character—despite his later reputation as a recluse, he was affable, close to his fellow soldiers, and very in tune with the perspective of both the victims and the perpetrators, especially when he started working as a war investigator in the aftermath. He also met Hemingway there who was very encouraging of the young author.
The only significant way in which Salinger sputters is when the film starts to psychoanalyze Salinger, ascribing motivations without much ground for the conjecturing and the giving of voice to opposing views makes for a  rather meandering “was he or was he not” narrative. For example, a lot of time is spent on Salinger being the “Howard Hughes of his day” yet aside from choosing to live in the woods, one would be hard pressed to see what other “idiosyncracies” he displayed. As for the recluse moniker–by all appearances, he was far from it. His retreat to Cornish, New Hampshire was a rather pragmatically-driven quest for find peace and silence to continue to work. He certainly seemed to be social enough in the town itself. He protective of just how much the public extracted from him, granting interviews on his own terms and with the reporters he trusted and staying actively plugged in. Salinger also suggests that Salinger IS Holden Caulfield and that all of his writing is essentially autobiographical, which does not seem to be of tremendous relevance nor anything specifically endemic to Salinger as an author. As Salinger once aptly put it, “I am a fiction writer, not a counselor.”
Salinger also delves rather deeply into Salinger’s relationships with women (specifically younger women). To its credit, the movie does not attempt to sensationalize those relationships under a queasiness-inducing rubric, but it does suggest, perhaps groundlessly, that he was platonically attracted to the innocence he saw in them and once he perceived them as “women,” he grew disinterested.  It also uncovers the author’s deep devotion to the Vedanta Hindu religious tradition and his daily meditation. There are some rather ham-handed plot-propelling devices too, like the constant flashing of one and the same picture or of the image of an actor sitting behind a typewriter in a giant movie theatre. The part of the film that delves into all of the killers who claimed that The Catcher In The Rye made them do it (John Hinckley, Mark David Chapman) also seemed entirely out of place with the rest of the narrative and thrown in for pure shock value.
Salinger offers an enthralling look into the creative process of the author. Salinger was really committed to writing a “good book and not just a best seller,” when he set out to write Catcher In The Rye. He was fanatically perfectionistic in his approach and fiercely protective of his work, to the point of being maniacal even about the punctuation. He toiled assiduously, doggedly writing all day, every day, to the detriment of anyone and anything around him. Ultimately, like his fellow creative geniuses, he espoused passion—“there has to be fire between the words.”
Salinger is a paean to lovely mystery that writing really is and a tribute to a man who wanted to be known for his work rather than for himself. The big revelation of Salinger’s end is that a lot of the late author’s works will be released starting 2015, including the completion of the Holden Caulfield and the Glass families stories as well as books on the Vedanta religious tradition.