Change of Art

Body Work: The Radical Power of Personal Narrative BY Melissa Febos. New York: Catapult. 192 pages. $17.
The cover of Body Work: The Radical Power of Personal Narrative

There is a conventional wisdom about memoir that claims a writer must have sufficient hindsight in order to write meaningfully about her past. This has not been my experience. All that has been required of me to write about something is this change of heart. A shift toward, or away, or perhaps a desire to return to some truer version of myself. I don’t even have to know that I’ve made it, but when I look back at the beginnings of everything I’ve ever written, there it is. 

I recently reread Natasha Trethewey’s exquisite memoir, Memorial Drive, in which she explores her mother’s murder by an abusive ex-husband in 1985. After the murder, the nineteen-year-old Trethewey willfully chose to walk away from the site of that trauma and did not fully face it, it seems, until writing this book. In it, she reflects on her choice to move back to Atlanta sixteen years after her mother’s death, when she and her husband bought a house just a few miles from the site of the murder. At the time, she had no conscious intention to confront the past. Of course, a confrontation with it was inevitable. “All those years I thought that I had been running away from my past I had, in fact, been working my way steadily back to it,” she writes. In this articulation, I recognized a familiar shift, a psychic (and physical) movement toward a subject before we know consciously what that deeper part of us has chosen. 

This change of heart has manifested for me in many different ways, rarely recognizable at the time that they happen. Often it is signified by an urge to write. This is one of the ways that craft and what I have called instinct elsewhere in this book interact with psychology. Here, I will call it inspiration, a sister to the word spirit, both of whose origins trace back to the Bible, meaning to breathe into or animate with an idea, and also the essential nature or character of something. Inspire—an apt word for the change of heart that precedes a return. Also, the beginning of art. 

Another example: in the spring of 2013, I was in the grip of that torturous, addictive relationship. I had made a person my higher power, and all who have done so know its torment. It was a form of worship that held me in bondage, as all obsessions do. I thought of her all day and night and would have sacrificed almost anything to secure her love, or rather, to stabilize the quaking insecurity of our attachment. I ended up sacrificing quite a lot, by the end of it. Though I had not been much of a crier since childhood, I cried so often that the skin around my eyes had begun to peel in dusty flakes. 

One evening, near the end of a long and terrible cry, unsatisfying as all my cries were in those days, their churn in me repetitive as the scrape of rubber against the pothole in which it is stuck, I had a flash of inspiration: I would write the story of this, and that story would be called “Abandon Me.” I found an index card, scrawled the title on it, and tacked the card to my kitchen wall. No title had ever come to me like this, and none have since. It felt so clear and so certain, I understand why the Greeks assigned such moments to the will of powers beyond the self. 

But it was not a gift from any muse. It was an act of resilience, the result of all the ways that art had rescued me in the past. It was an intention, a decision come from deeper than my conscious mind, a wish, a prayer—sometimes these can all be synonyms. It was a shift of heart, as embedded in that urge was the desire to leave her, to free myself, because I could not tell that story correctly without doing so. 

There the card stayed without addition for the better part of a year. A year in which I continued crying, and in which I wrote a small handful of essays. These essays were unlike any I had written before. They depended less on narrative than a lyric sense. Sunk deep inside the experience I was attempting to describe, I had no perspective. I did not have access to a narrative except the one my lover and I colluded in, which seems increasingly far-fetched the further away from it I get. 

There was relief in the meticulous process of massaging these sentences out of myself. I was writing about my affair and my feelings, but, at least while I was writing, I didn’t have to feel them the same way. It has been like that since childhood. An analytical part of me takes over when I write and creates a distance between me and the subject, and in that space I have always been able to breathe. Like a cracked door the cold seeps through, so did the truth begin to seep into me. 

I would stare up at that index card multiple times per day. It comforted me, like a superstitious tapping of the newel post each time one descends a staircase. Though I never thought this in words, it reminded me that there was a way out, that there was a way to make my suffering useful. Beautiful, even. I had only a foggy idea of what the book it referred to might consist of. I had no idea that I was already writing it. 

What I have described is a creative experience, a moment of inspiration, and isn’t it also a spiritual one? The decision to transform my suffering into art related to my spirit, certainly—for my essential nature and its expression had changed in that relationship such that the people who had known me longest said in nearly identical ways afterward, “you were gone.” That index card signified my spirit’s rebellion, the assertion of my nature as it had existed before her and would after. It was the shovel with which I would tunnel my way out. 

The decision also related to my religious belief—I worshipped that woman more fervently than many have their deities, and embedded in my decision to write about our relationship was the intention to abandon that worship. My art will tolerate no false god. My older faith was in the power of telling my own story, which had demanded truth so many times before and thus transformed me. It was a gospel with the power to cure. 

Excerpted from Body Work by Melissa Febos. Used with permission of Catapult. Copyright © 2022 by the author.