Body Work: The Radical Power of Personal Narrative by Melissa Febos
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
This is my first time reading anything by Melissa Febos, and now I’ve vowed to become a Febos completist!
Body Work by Melissa Febos offers creative nonfiction essays about the vital importance of writing about trauma in a society that shames people into silence and the transformative internal work that goes along with reclaiming your story. We delve into how to write honestly about sex, how the process can make us more aware of the difference between internalized misogyny and our own truest desires, how to write about other people without destroying them or ourselves in the process, and some of the deeply spiritual aspects of writing.
While reading this book, I was also taking an online course in creative nonfiction. As a newbie, I felt frozen, staring at the blank page, questioning whether I could really write about trauma. I wanted to write about sex, queer sex, dissociation, growing up an unusually precocious and sensitive child, the pervasiveness of patriarchal oppression, and I needed to make it compelling and honest and to “excavate events for which I had been numb on the first go-around.” I saw myself in Febos, and seeing her thrive and heal and do so through writing gave me a framework to visualize what I want in my own creative life. Body Work found me at the exact moment I needed it most.
One of my favorite essays in Body Work is A Big Shitty Party: Six Parables of Writing About Other People. I feel relieved to have read this essay before publishing anything of note! Febos shared her own mistakes, regrets, and shifts in perspective with such insight that my own immaturity as a writer felt impossible to ignore. I had ideas for essays that had long been brewing that weren’t necessarily cruel nor untrue, but they could sting someone. Febos reminded me, “There are good essays that there are good reasons not to write,” but also, “…a difference in individual truths is not always a conflict. So long as we don’t try to speak for each other, there is room in our house for more than one story.”
I’m always looking for books that illuminate the experience of gifted children (a term that’s not always appealing, and yet we don’t have any other highly recognizable terms for intellectually advanced kids and adults), as these children tend to have difficulty seeing themselves reflected in the world. She describes her heightened perceptivity, openness to spiritual experience, early advanced reading and writing abilities:
“I wanted to be a writer very young because writer was the only role I could see myself occupying in society, the only one that might hold everything that I was: queer, overly emotional, burdensomely perceptive, reluctant to do any kind of work whose purpose was opaque to me, ravenous in ways that made me an outlier. It was an occupation that seemed to offer respite and relief, but also was connected to the sublime—it offered the gift of self-forgetting, a transcendence on the other side of which lay insight. I did not think to compare this with any description of religious experience, because I had not read any. Now, it seems obvious.”
My copy of Body Work is so laden with highlights, it’s impossible to pick out the most profound or exciting quotes. I felt magnetically drawn into the writing world of Febos with each essay. This book is like a course in itself, and I’m sure I’ll read it dozens of times over the next few years both to learn and measure my learning and just to hear the voice of someone who actually gets it…someone who has done the work, knows the work never ends, and sees transformation and art as necessary to one another.
I recommend this book to writers of all experience levels, and to anyone who has ever considered telling their own story through memoir. If you consider yourself an intersectional feminist, queer, contemplative, and literary, this book is a dreamscape of inspiration.
Thank you, NetGalley, for this ARC!
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Devil House by John Darnielle
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
“What happens when somebody tells a story that has real people in it? What happens to the story; what happens to the teller; what happens to the people?”
Devil House by John Darnielle is part crime novel, part novel about a writer, writing. The main character, Gage Chandler, narrates most of the chapters. We hear the stories of his most successful book, The White Witch, and his current book, Devil House, and some of my favorite bits are the chapters that discuss his writing style and methods.
“I try to honor the dead in my books. It’s one of the things, I hope, that sets me apart a little from my partners in true crime. When I read what others write about places where the unthinkable became real, the focus always seems off to me. Victims spend their entire time in the spotlight just waiting for the fatal blow, on a conveyer belt that leads to the guillotine: I pity their fates, but it’s hard to grieve for them, because the treadmill on which they ran feels specifically designed to kill them.”
The undercurrent running through this book is about the act of creating a story and honoring the subjects. How can we do that and create a story people want to read? How can story possibly convey a version of truth reverent of all the people involved?
Perspective and place color any story, making the deeper truths, beyond objective statements of fact, mirage-like. Every person can be seen in a million different ways through a million different eyes. So what is the truth we tell? Is anyone truly interested, or are their curiosities really expectations?
The character Seth explains this conundrum well, “‘They didn’t see me, and you don’t see me, and nobody’s ever going to see me except the people who actually know me outside of that whole story,’ he concludes – there’s no rancor in his voice, no anger. He’s just laying out the facts on the ground for me, making his case. ‘Unless you were actually inside, any story you end up telling will be some distortion.’”
All of Darnielle’s characters have depth and complexity, and I love when authors include gifted characters. Seth is noted as having a fantastic memory, vivid imagination, issues with focusing when something isn’t interesting to him but he has laser focus with his passion projects. He’s entrepreneurial and prefers small intimate conversations with one other person to crowds which can feel overwhelming. Gage Chandler says, “I get the feeling that there is no point in trying to hide things from Seth, who reads moments accurately while they’re still developing.”
I found the writing to be spectacular, but there were a number of repetitive details. Derrick getting ready for college, for example, seemed a detail I heard so much about, many pages devoted to his background that could have made their point much more quickly. “Enough with his college applications,” was one of my notes mid-way through the book. My larger curiosity kept me interested despite the many detours and sometimes draining detail.
While I sense the writer had a deeper purpose in all of his choices, one that maybe even mirrored the internal experience of Gage Chandler, I found myself frustrated a number of times, wanting to get back to the really good stuff. There was an entire chapter that seemed completely unrelated to the story other than to link the truths of the children in Devil House to classic archetypes and mythologies (another version of their personal truths that would not be told in any crime novel, except Darnielle’s). As I write this, I might be changing my stance on this chapter.
I expected this to be a horror story going into it, and while there were components of the crimes that were grotesque, it was not a horror novel.
“Even when we don’t find ourselves doing something wild, we sort out several selves along the line as we’re becoming the people we will be. It’s a constant, half-conscious process.”
This quote is talking about the character Angela, but I feel this applies to Chandler. He is half-consciously communicating with several layers of his Self while writing this book, integrating his experience. This is my favorite aspect of Devil House. It’s not just telling you the surface stories, it’s leading you through a half-conscious journey of growth and connections, which is in part possible due to the method in which the story is told. Really fascinating.
I would recommend this book. It was dense and not something to be devoured in one or two evenings, but it was so well-written and had layers of depth that kept me reflecting on human nature, story, and my own expectations while reading.
Other writers, or wannabe writers, would enjoy this read as would people who enjoy true crime or historical fiction, and philosophers who love a read about human nature.
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Are you one of those people who not only enjoy studying but have crafted their entire existence around learning, research, and finding awe in nearly everything? Do you thrive when learning by discovery over learning by instruction? Me too. That’s what drew me to the book How to Read a Book: The Classic Guide to Intelligent Reading by Mortimer J. Adler and Charles Van Doren.
Being an autodidact, or one who is self-taught, is a life belonging to the passionate. One cannot be compelled to this life, it’s an intrinsic drive toward self-actualization, a thirst to know the depths of a topic, seeing the web of connections that usher forth new ideas and embodied understanding.
In Adler and Van Doren’s book on how to be a better reader, one who reads to understand, we can explore what it means to be an autodidact who learns from reading, experience, and the world itself, and what skills are acquired and required in this lifelong dedication to learning by discovery.
What is learning by discovery?
Adler and Van Doren state:
“In the history of education, men have often distinguished between learning by instruction and learning by discovery. Instruction occurs when one person teaches another through speech or writing. We can, however, gain knowledge without being taught. If this were not the case, and every teacher had to be taught what he, in turn, teaches others, there would be no beginning the acquisition of knowledge. Hence, there must be discovery – the process of learning something by research, by investigation, or by reflection, without being taught.”
Questioning is the beginning of learning. When one has a curious mind and doesn’t take what’s on the surface as the ultimate knowledge of a thing, they are immediately poised to be a deep diver for meaning and truth. To learn by discovery is to be asking questions of the world and then listening with elephant ears and owl eyes.
Why would someone wish to be an autodidact?
Why would one want to dedicate their life to learning? They’re likely compelled to seek truth, understanding, greater meaning, and advanced personal growth. This drive is part of their essence, a mandated mission that calls to them at every turn.
With infinite questions about everything in existence, including oneself, desiring the truth about things often presents as a voracious hunger. The ability to see meaning as a transmutable, flowing, contrived and configured thing can lead a person to submerge themselves in an ocean of wisdom in hopes of even the smallest bit of living, green sustenance sticks to their limbs.
“If you remember what an author says, you have learned something from reading him. If what he says is true, you have even learned something about the world.”
As Adler and Van Doren note, not all we read will be truth, but what is memorable can still be used as fodder for personal growth. The sensitive and objective autodidact will learn to sense and see the difference between truth and conjecture intuitively.
It is this sorting and sifting that eventually illuminates new avenues of understanding, satisfying, at least momentarily, the voracious curiosity of the lifelong student. This path provides unlimited opportunities for personal and societal evolution, as one who is motivated to learn is often motivated to make a positive contribution to the world.
What’s the difference between being informed and being enlightened?
Being informed is par for course on the journey toward being enlightened about any given topic, but one must not stop there.
“To be informed is to know simply that something is the case. To be enlightened is to know, in addition, what it is all about: why is it the case, what its connections are with other facts, in what respects it is the same, in what respects it is different, and so forth.”
In this quote, Adler and Van Doren show us that knowing something “is the case” is not nearly enough to consider oneself knowledgeable about a topic. In fact, this can lead to misinformation and misunderstanding. To truly attempt to learn the breadth of what is to be known one must explore the corners and shadows and connections and comparisons available to us. They sum up this notion by saying:
“Enlightenment is achieved only when, in addition to knowing what an author says, you know what he means and why he says it.”
How does one go about learning deeply while reading?
Syntopical reading, or comparative reading, is not only a method of reading, it’s a way of life for the autodidact.
If one has a specific fascination or topic of study, all that one reads, watches, sees, and otherwise encounters, becomes part of a web of connections feeding into understanding that topic. Alder and Van Doren introduce us to syntopical reading by explaining:
“When reading syntopically, the reader reads many books, not just one, and places them in relation to one another and to a subject about which they all revolve. But mere comparison of texts is not enough. Syntopical reading involves more. With the help of the books read, the syntopical reader is able to construct an analysis of the subject that may not be in any of the books. It is obvious, therefore, that syntopical reading is the most active and effortful kind of reading.”
For example, I’m passionate about studying intuition, identity, the unconscious mind, and meaning. Pieces of conversation, the movement of a tree, or the day’s challenges all give me fodder for my research whether directly or through metaphor. The books I choose to read, fiction and expository works, regardless of their specific topic or theme, help me gather seemingly unrelated information and wisdom which can lead to innovation, insight, and deeper understanding.
As Alder and Van Doren tell us, “The art of reading, in short, includes all of the same skills that are involved in the art of unaided discovery: keenness of observation, readily available memory, range of imagination, and, of course, an intellect trained in analysis and reflection.”
It’s Not All About Intellect
And lastly, Alder and Van Doren know that intellect and analysis are only part of the world of learning by discovery.
“Thinking is only one part of the activity of learning. One must also use one’s senses and imagination. One must observe, remember, and construct imaginatively what cannot be observed.”
Reading, analysis, research of any kind, are all essential aspects of lifelong learning, but only in equal proportion to the world of sensuality and imagination.
How fortunate we are to have bodies that take in information that then triggers feelings, memories, connections, which can lead us to insight and even transformation. Just the act of observing in silence is a gift to anyone seeking truth and expansion, and a sense of the oneness that connects all things.
The imaginal realm is often said to be the world of the right brain, and the free association plane of dreams and our unconscious Self. This is where the truest form of magic happens within, and where the fruits of analysis and knowledge can be effortlessly incorporated into something new, something unique from one’s own perspective. It’s from this place our intuition sends our conscious mind its most creative discoveries.
To learn by discovery, to be self-taught, and to live life as an autodidact, is to be constantly receiving, integrating, and transforming. We are permeable and transitory filters of this human experience, moved by a will to create and evolve. Are you an autodidact too? Would you have it any other way?