Title: Body Work: The Radical Power of Personal Narrative
Author: Melissa Febos
Genre: Memoir
Publisher: Catapult
Source: ARC via NetGalley (in exchange for an honest review)
Length: 192p.
Publishing Date: 15 March 2022

When I started listening to the audiobook for Melissa Febos’ latest, Body Works, I wasn’t sure what to expect. Her last memoir, Girlhood, had come to me at a time when I needed it most. Not only was I blown away by the bravery of the nakedness of the truth in her writing, I felt a challenge rippling beneath the surface to re-examine my own girlhood. Which is to say, re-examine what parts of myself I was still silencing.

So when I found out Body Work was coming out, I knew I needed to read it. For starters, I loved Febos’ writing voice, the way she tells stories. But I wanted to know what she had to say on the idea of personal narrative, something I struggled with in my own writing. Autobiographical writing, whether it’s fiction or memoir, is usually mocked rather than read. From The Bell Jar to Wild, women’s stories especially are pushed aside. So, when you look at your own story you can’t help but wonder why bother?

In Body Work: The Radical Power of Personal Narrative, Melissa Febos demands that you bother. “It doesn’t matter if your story is your own,” she writes in the opening essay, In Praise of Navel Gazing. “Only that you tell it well.”

“The articulation of painful memoirs, including the literature and art that arises out of political upheaval is integral to the formation, perseveration, and integration of collective memory.”

Melissa Febos, Body Work: The Radical Power of Personal Narrative

What followed was a three-hour discussion about memoir, why it’s important to write it, and a roadmap for what it takes to make good art. Just because something is personal, doesn’t mean it also isn’t worthy of being heard, of being turned into good art.

Body Work is described by its publisher as “a mix of memoir and master class,” and that’s exactly what I found when I listened to the audiobook. Broken into four essays, the book covers Febos’ personal experiencing with writing and what made her switch to memoir, and the pitfalls that come with writing about real people who are still alive. She shares rules about writing she teaches her students and balances it with her own struggles to follow them.

In the second essay, Mind Fuck: Writing Better Sex, Febos tells writers (and readers) to challenge the lens they view the world through. She shares how every day she ends and says: Today I reject the patriarchy’s bad ideas. Whether it’s about how your body should look, what you should keep to yourself, or what you deserve. “We do not have to earn our humanity,” she writes, “by being any kind of human.

“Writing [Girlhood] was an exercise in applying my intellect, and the intellects of other thinkers—philosophers, holy people, poets—to the raw matter of my own abandonments.”

Melissa Febos, Body Work: The Radial Power of Personal Narrative

For me, Body Work is easily one of the best (if not the best) book on writing craft I’ve read. It’s inspirational, reassuring, and validates writers struggles with telling their truths. Body Work is one of those books that, if you are ready for it, that shatters the reader and/or writer you were before and empowers you to build yourself back up.

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