Exploring Narratives: Melissa Febos & Sara Marcus Talk Writing

Friday, October 1st, 2010

By Melissa Febos and Sara Marcus

“If, when you begin the process, you plan on leaving out things that you think are going to hurt other people, then don’t even bother writing the book. Even when you think you know the whole story, you don’t until you get to the end.”

Melissa Febos is author of the memoir Whip Smart, a literary journey through her drug addiction and life working as a dominatrix. Sara Marcus is author of the new book Girls to the Front: The True Story of the Riot Grrrl Revolution, a history of the movement and bands that sparked an angry, loud, and important feminist revolution among young punk girls of the nineties. Febos and Marcus got together to talk, and occasionally finish each others’ sentences, about writing their books, narratives of all kinds, and the importance of not holding back when writing about yourself and other people.

Melissa Febos: When my memoir first came out and I was doing interviews, people started saying, “What’s the question you never get asked that you always want someone to ask you?” which I find really uncomfortable because I don’t know what that question is. Do you?

Sara Marcus: Well, I like being asked what books I was reading and what books were making an important impact on me while I was writing. I have this insecurity that a book about teenage girls and rock and roll is going to be seen as not that literary. So then I feel like it’s a chance to show my bona fides and that I really do read things. Like, I wasn’t influenced by Please Kill Me.

Febos: That comparison’s probably going to drive you crazy.

Marcus: It came up in the Bitch piece and then Harper Perennial put it on the website because, well, Please Kill Me sold a lot of books, I guess.

Febos: Right.

Marcus: But I wasn’t influenced by Please Kill Me, and I wasn’t influenced by—even though Michael Azerrad is very nice—Our Band Could Be Your Life. It’s just not the kind of book [Girls to the Front] is. And I recently ran into someone I met months ago at a party and she had asked me that question and I had said, “Really, Moby Dick.” And so I ran into her a week ago and she was like, “I still remember how you were writing a book on rock and roll based on Moby Dick and I thought that was so awesome.”

Febos: Interesting. I wonder how many writers’ priorities when talking about our books have to do with our insecurities. Because for me, it’s exactly the same thing. I was so cognizant from the beginning, from the moment I started writing a memoir about having been a dominatrix and a junkie, of how it was going to be perceived–that “literary” might not be the first word the subject connoted. And I couldn’t really blame people, because I would probably also judge it as sensational and an exhausted genre. Dominatrix memoir being the sensational part and junkie memoir being the exhausted genre. I actually most loved those questions about process and the writing of the book because I constantly wanted to remind people that I was actually a writer and that I didn’t just vomit out memories, like, “Oh yeah, and then this crazy thing happened!” So much of my interviews were about being a dominatrix, not writing a book about it.

Marcus: That’s the Terry Gross interview style.

Febos: I love her, but right? “What was it like to tie someone up?” Not, “What was it like to turn the most intense experiences of your life into a well-constructed narrative?” That was the challenge for me. Giving people enemas was really easy, you know? Writing a book was much harder and more interesting.

Marcus: I think that’s very interesting and sometimes I wonder about it in general in regards to women artists. How much are women not given credit for crafting their work?

Febos: I know that it was my experience. I think that it happens to women writers all over the place, specifically if you’re writing about your own experience; a lot of people look to discredit it in literary terms, as if you just managed to get your diary published. I also think there’s this incredible blurring that happens between the work and the person. And I know that happens to all writers, but I think for women writers it’s even more pronounced.

Marcus: My book isn’t memoir, except for the very beginning, and I wouldn’t even have written that part except that my agent told me to. Grad school really put me off writing about my own life pretty much for good, because the feeling of exposure was one that I didn’t relish. I didn’t feel like translating the scenery of my life for people who didn’t live it. I didn’t think I could do that in a way—I didn’t think that in my life, in the past ten years, that there were lessons or gifts that I could give to a general readership. Whereas my life in my teens, I did feel that there were definitely lessons and gifts to bring out. Still, there’s inevitably a nonidentity between the writer and the narrator of a memoir.

I thought that’s what Stephen Elliott was doing in The Adderall Diaries and I was really impressed with it, and then I went to hear him read and I asked him about it. I said, “I’m so excited about the way you use rupture and contradiction in your book to confront the reader with—and not only rupture and contradiction but other characters completely lying about everything—to break down the impression that you, the narrator, are giving us the truth of the author’s life.” And he responded, “I wasn’t doing that at all. I was just trying to tell you about the truth of my life.”

Febos: I love that.

Marcus: And I was like, “Wait, don’t you see how since everyone else in the book is lying, the narrator can’t always be the only one telling the truth?” And he said, “No, I really think my job in writing the book is to let you know me.”

Febos: “To tell you the truth.” That little anecdote is such the perfect composite of how perception and intent get so fucking tangled up and warped so quickly. It’s just happening constantly. It’s probably happening in this conversation. It’s definitely going to happen if anyone reads this conversation in the magazine. If I had known what I was getting into when I was publishing a memoir, I might not have published it. I mean, I’m glad that I did, but it’s one of those things.

But at the same time, I suspect that I will keep exposing myself in ways that are really uncomfortable. Part of it is that’s how I come to an understanding of things, which is kind of hideous, but true. I would actually be more afraid of doing what you’ve done and writing about other people’s experiences. Even writing about the secondary characters in my memoir was so nerve-wracking.

Marcus: Oh, it was nerve-wracking for me.

Febos: And thinking about their reactions was really painful. It’s part of the reason why I feel like I’m a writer, not like a filmmaker, or in a band. Because if I fail, it’s just my failure. You know what I mean? I’m not necessarily failing anyone else. Writing about other people, it takes a different kind of bravery.

Marcus: In interviewing the 150 people that I interviewed for the book, I was getting their narratives, narratives that they had already created. As Janet Malcolm will tell you, the best subjects for a writer are people who already have a good sense of their story of their own life. Because you don’t want—you can’t just have somebody come and give you everything they remember about a five-year period of their life if they have no narrative logic to it at all. It will drive you insane and there won’t be any sense to it. Interviewing people was part of how I made peace with narrative, which I needed to do. I did not have a peaceful relationship with the very idea of narrative going into the book. I had been reading and writing a lot of poetry that was deeply invested in examining the problem of how narrative warps experience. There are a lot of specifically feminist and specifically queer critiques to be made of that, too. But in interviewing so many people, I understood more deeply that that’s how people work, that’s how memories work, that’s how our brains work. We attach any kind of knowledge or information to a teleological thread. So I made peace with that through the interviews.

Febos: One of the more painful parts of publishing my book was dealing with inadvertently terrorizing people’s self-perception. In some cases, I tried to present scenes that involved other characters simply as I remembered them—in action and dialogue, and refrain from any overt assessment. Some people got really upset that I just wrote what I saw, and not what was in their minds. And then there were things I knew were going to be hurtful to other people. So at the end of writing my book, once I knew what that story was, I had to go back and take out everything that I thought would be hurtful or shed an unkind light on people that wasn’t totally integral to the story.

Marcus: Right. Because you can’t be thinking about that while you’re writing.

Febos: No.

Marcus: And that was this great piece of advice that I got from the writer who was in the studio next to mine at MacDowell. I was hitting this absolute wall where I was afraid of writing something that was going to be really destructive to one of the people in my book. And he was like, you can go back later and spruce it up, but you’re not going to be able to get the story down if you’re censoring yourself before the fact.

Febos: That is the most emphatic piece of advice that I ever give to my memoir writing students. I talk about it in the very first class. If, when you begin the process, you plan on leaving out things that you think are going to hurt other people, then don’t even bother writing the book. Even when you think you know the whole story, you don’t until you get to the end. And if you start leaving things out you can behead your story without realizing it.

Marcus: If you are even able to write through it at all.

Febos: It’s funny that I was so able to it, actually, because I’m such a people pleaser. I hate hurting other people’s feelings. But luckily, I’m even better at dissociation than I am at people pleasing—it’s a gift that not just served me as a writer, but also enabled me to be a really good heroin addict and dominatrix. While writing the book I just had to completely exile the part of my brain that was worried about how people were going to be hurt, or disagree with me. I wrote it in a total vacuum. I put everything in such that my thesis advisor—the memoir was my thesis in grad school—I gave him this one chapter and then we met at this café in Carroll Gardens. I said, “So what do you think?” and he replied, “It’s too much!”

Marcus: You know, last night in trying to decide what to read for The Rumpus reading–I was supposed to leave the house in ten minutes, there was a massive downpour outside, I had not picked my excerpt. My editor had once told me, “Oh, I really think you should read the preface, the part that’s about yourself because everyone is so drawn in by that.” And that night, Kathleen Hanna had just posted the thing on her blog and said, “I specifically appreciated the preface and how honest about herself she was.” So I thought, Okay, I’m going to read it. I was going through it and thought, I’m not comfortable with saying any of this stuff in front of people. It was too much self-exposure. I thought, thank God the whole book isn’t about me because I wouldn’t have anything I could read.

Febos: It’s horrifying. It’s totally horrifying. Whip Smart is about everything that ever happened to me that I never said out loud to anyone. I’ve learned that it’s much harder to lie to myself or other people in my writing than it is in the privacy of my mind. When I write about something, I get a lot more honest about it. I get to a better understanding of it. Most of the ultimate revelations I came to in that book I came to by writing them.

At the same time, I think when you write you learn to develop an acceptance, if not sometimes tenderness, for the fact that writing a work of nonfiction is always a process of mythologizing. My memories of the experiences that I wrote about in the book are forever transformed by the process of writing the book.

Marcus: I think of it as often the other way. The distortions of narrative have changed my sense of—

Febos: I don’t think they’re the same transformation. My social and psychological understanding of what those experiences meant is one thing. My reminiscing on the experiences as a narrative are completely changed. And I had to figure out what some things meant and what the feelings built under the memories were and then I had to insert them into the narrative in places. At the time I was a dominatrix, I don’t remember feeling much at all honestly for a lot of those experiences. Then I had to go back and—

Marcus: Graft an arc.

Febos: —and graft an arc onto it. And when it was happening the whole experience of being a dominatrix was emotionally plateaued in a certain way that—

Marcus: That comes across, though. It comes across. I actually felt in your book that there was this sort of rigorously honest refusal to over arc-ify.

Febos: It was hard because that was when I was in grad school and workshops and people were like, “But weren’t you feeling this?” and I said, “No; I was feeling nothing.” That was one of the main challenges for me in terms of constructing that narrative—wanting to represent what I actually felt at the time, but also that there was more going on and I just wasn’t aware of it. So I had to represent that person who thought she knew what was going on, but also that she often didn’t.

Marcus: Right, and that’s hard to do because you’re—you don’t want to pop out of the story like, “Years later, I would come to understand that I was actually—”

Febos: Yep.
[Sara and Melissa drift off into a long conversation about future projects, email and radio interviews, and trains. And then finally—]

Marcus: Should we say anything more about memoir?

Febos: Is there anything else you want to say or know? I mean, in the context of this conversation.

Marcus: There’s a lot I want to say and there’s a lot I want to know.

Febos: That’s why we’re writers.

Marcus: And my Six-Word Memoir: Revolution girl style now! And now . . . ?

Febos: My six words: Couldn’t say it. Wrote book instead.


BUY both Whip Smart and Girls to the Front: The True Story of the Riot Grrrl Revolution.

VISIT Melissa Febos’ website.

VISIT Sara Marcus’ website.

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4 responses

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