The Usefulness of Pain: An Interview with Melissa Febos

I first read Melissa Febos while in my MFA program. Her memoir Whip Smart was next to the register of my local indie bookstore, and I picked it up while the cashier was helping the person in front of me. This was years ago, but I remember it well, because her memoir of her work as a professional dominatrix was unlike anything I’d ever read before. Her new book, Abandon Me, is a collection of luminescent autobiographical essays—stories about bonds that break, fierce love, and what makes a family, all shot through with art and passion. It defies easy description or categorization, and begs to be reread, to be unpeeled, layer after layer.

Jaime Rochelle Herndon: Abandon Me feels more “bare bones,” somehow, than Whip Smart. More raw or vulnerable. On page 196, you say, about Whip Smart: “By building a story, I could find a beginning, middle, and end.” Does this also apply to Abandon Me?

Melissa Febos: Oh yes. It applies to everything! Though in Abandon Me, I had no conscious sense of the arc until I lived my way into it. I wrote the book while I was living the experiences I describe in it. I can’t recommend this, but it was the only way I could do it. I needed to write it in order to survive it, in many ways. This is exemplified by the title, and how it came to me. Usually, I come up with titles last—after I’ve finished the writing and I know what it is. Before I even began this book, I had a sudden thought: I am going to write a book about this time, and it’s going to be called Abandon Me. I wrote the title on an index card and pinned it to my wall. There it stayed for a while before I had any idea that the essays I was writing would be that book. I think I needed to know that the pain I was in would be useful; would become a material thing that proved their purpose. The real use of experience is never material in this sense, so it was and is a symbol, of course. But it was something to hold onto, in my mind, and now, in my hands.

JRH: In Abandon Me, you write, “The unseen parts of us have the most gravity. They repel and compel us.” And later you say “We all craft a story we can live with. The one that makes ourselves easier to live with. This is not the one worth writing….” For me, that encapsulates so much of the book—being seen, unseen, connecting with others.

MF: Writing has always been a way for me to confront the things I cannot confront in other parts of my life, or inside myself. In life, we create and live inside the story that makes us comfortable, even if it is a sad story, even if we are a victim or tragic figure. It is familiar, and it is only ever a partial “truth.” Writing—the page, the art and artifice of creating a world out of words—becomes a kind of liminal space, a space that doesn’t belong to or inside of anyone, where I can test out other forms of truth, ones that are less comfortable. Every time, I tell myself that I don’t have to show it to anyone, sometimes that I definitely will not. It’s a trick I choose to fall for over and over. Meeting my own gaze is scary enough; I can’t usually bear the idea of letting others into that, even as witnesses. But after I’ve done it, that larger and more terrifying truth is always so liberating, so clarifying, that I want to share it with other people. I want to perform that process for other people, so that they will know it is worth facing the fear to reach that greater freedom. This is a book about seeing and being seen. It’s about attachment and vulnerability, how much fire we have to walk through sometimes to become capable of true connection with others, and how worthwhile it is.

JRH: What inspires your writing?

MF: Chekhov said that “The job of the writer is not to solve the problem, but to state the problem correctly,” and that speaks to my motive for writing most succinctly. The “problem” being some kind of question, contradiction, or irreconcilable thing. Grief, desire, love—all of these are rich with “problems” and I think that is why there is so much writing about them. They are not solvable, but we can follow their tunnels into the darker recesses of our psyches and experiences. I’m inspired by writers and artists and thinkers who do this, and a lot of them made it into the book, and were my companions while I was writing it and living it. Among them are poets, psychologists, holy people, historians, mythological figures, and the characters of the movie Labyrinth.

JRH: How do your memoirs differ, and how are they the same?

MF: Writing these essays was unlike any previous writing experience I’d had. I’ve long been a pragmatist when it comes to process; I’m an outliner, a note-maker, a lover of systems. These essays defied all my methods. Instead of beginning with narrative, as I had before—sketching out the structure along Aristotle’s lines and then filling in the images and symbols—I began with image, with sound and rhythm, and I followed those into the narrative, which only revealed itself later on. I had to devise completely new methods, and many of them seemed ridiculous until they worked. I cut up all the drafts by paragraph and arranged them in little piles, made mobiles out of them, taped them to the wall. I’m a visual learner and had a powerful need to materially work out the structures. I often didn’t know what I was writing about until near the end of the process. It was thrilling and scary and I have no idea how those methods will carry over into the next book. I suspect I will have to keep reinventing my own process forever. How horrible! But also, perhaps, necessary to any longstanding practice, including that of being.

JRH: What are you working on next?

MF: I’m messing around with some new essays. I think they are a collection of some kind. I’ve also got a novel drafted that I’ve been slowly picking at for the last seven years. They are both about girlhood in some sense. About what it means to be female in a culture that insists on defining what that means.

JRH: You talk about telling your story, the hard work of looking at hard stuff. Where do you see writers fitting into the world in the next 4 years? We are at what feels like a crossroads, a dangerous place where truths are discredited. What do you see our roles being?

MF: Our role as writers has not changed. There is a new urgency, maybe. Really, I think that urgency always was, we have just reached a point where we can no longer avoid recognizing it. We have always been the voices of dissent, the canaries, the carnival barkers of unpopular truths. It felt like we had a choice before, but it doesn’t anymore.

Jaime Rochelle Herndon graduated with her MFA in creative nonfiction from Columbia and is a writer and editor living in NYC. She is a contributor at Book Riot and a writing instructor at Apiary Lit, and her writing can be seen on Healthline and New York Family Magazine, among others.

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