Whip-smart Melissa Febos

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Melissa Febos’s work has been widely anthologized and appears in publications including Glamour, Salon, DissentNew York Times, Kenyon Review, Post Road, Bitch Magazine, The Rumpus, Hunger Mountain, The Portland Review, The Brooklyn Rail, and The Chronicle of Higher Education Review, and she has been featured, among other places, on NPR’s Fresh Air, CNN, and Anderson Cooper Live.

I first came across Melissa Febos’s writing through her essay, “All of Me,” in the Kenyon Review. Her writing—intimate and honest—pulled me in and I then read Whip Smart, a memoir of her time spent as a dominatrix in New York shortly after she moved to the city. In addition to being a whip-smart writer, Melissa also supports other writers through her teaching and her work with VIDA. I am thrilled to present you with some of her thoughts on writing, feminism, and other gems. Read on!

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When I read Whip Smart, I thought a lot about the idea of duality. There are so many sections of your memoir where you are emotionally invested in the dungeon, and also removed from it. How did you achieve a balance of this duality in the memoir? How do you continue to work toward conveying this duality in your other writing?

I think that this question of duality, and interrogation of false binaries is at the heart of most writing that interests me. Maybe it is at the heart of all writing. Somewhere in the memoir, I mention that Fitzgerald quote: “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” (The quote is from an essay in a series he wrote for Esquire in 1936, in which he applies the wisdom to his own ambitions, and interrogates his prejudices—a work that strikes me as especially relevant today, as I’m writing this just after reading an update on the protests in Baltimore.)

Writing is my best way of thinking, and of untangling conflicts, and the most compelling conflicts come out of the distance between our cultural values and my own experience. That is, things are not what we are told, either implicitly or explicitly—my empirical knowledge of sexuality, power, womanhood, race, commerce (I could go on) vastly differs from the definitions and prescriptions I’ve been given (less by my family than by my culture).

When I decided to write Whip Smart (more like, when Whip Smart insisted on being written), it was an instinctual urge – I must write this – and the questions that drove it, for which I needed answers, were not clear in my mind. As I wrote, I began to recognize that I needed to articulate the way I, and the things I observed, embodied seemingly opposing truths: I was a feminist who fetishized the trappings of prescribed femininity. I identified with the role of dominatrix, with the women I worked with, with my clients, and I also felt very different from them. I absorbed the experiences I had there, as I absorbed the lessons I’d learned about deviance and pathologies of desire and goodness, and I also rejected them. I was keenly conscious of my own mind and impulses, and also in denial of them. These tensions were everywhere: in the world, between me and the external world, and within me entirely.

If the book has an argument that arises out of this interrogation and exploration, it is that there is enough room for all of it. Truths can oppose one another and not invalidate one another (similarly, people). Maybe this is the argument of everything I write—an argument I am making to myself over and over again, because I need to be reminded.

I think the best I could do is accurately and honestly depict the existence of these opposing truths in the same space.

Whip Smart is also about your maturation as a woman writer in New York. What about the city inspires your writing? How has your relationship with NYC changed or matured since you first moved here?

I was drawn to New York as a little girl, and have lived here for virtually my entire adult life. I love it the way I aspire to love my human beloveds: with romance and idealization, but also seeing with affection the ways it is broken, overwhelmed, and overwhelming—New York is a humming, vast, and perfect example of a thing that embodies opposing truths. I think that even as a kid I identified with New York—she is complicated, beautiful, extravagant, and powerful, but also humble, disorganized, seedy, imbalanced, and constantly changing. I wanted permission to be as many conflicting things, and being here felt like a kind of permission.

Since then, and since the younger ages when I wrote that book, and experienced the things it describes, I’m much more comfortable in my contradictions and complexity; I don’t need that permission so much—a growth that’s come very much out of my writing. So, my relationship to New York has also changed. I will always love New York, the way I will always love the people who I’ve known that well, and who have changed me. Just recently, I’ve begun to feel that I could leave, could feel as much myself in another place. I’ve quieted and eased a lot, and so perhaps it will make sense for me to go somewhere that mirrors that a bit more.

New York is a humming, vast, and perfect example of a thing that embodies opposing truths.

In Whip Smart, you write about an anxiety and hyper-awareness that you often sought to subdue through drugs and other means. You mentioned mindfulness; I wondered if you have any tips about “brain health” for us anxious writers that you could share. 

This may not be welcome news (it wasn’t for me, when I realized it): What I’ve learned about my own anxiety is that it is not a real feeling. For me, it is almost always the fog that rises when I avoid some deeper, truer feeling—when I need to make a choice that I am afraid of making. After years of running from my own anxiety, I slowly learned to stop, to get still, and to ask myself what I was really running from. Underneath that crackling tension was usually a sadness. An anger. A secret I didn’t want to tell myself. Preceding every great change, I have experienced a period of great anxiety. I have finally stopped, or exhausted myself enough that I yield to the real thing I am avoiding: That I had a drug addiction and was going to die. That I was done being a dominatrix. That I needed to leave a relationship.

Mindfulness is the practice of remaining open to those feelings and truths as they arise. Being present in the moment means that I am not wrapped up in my own story about what’s happening, and I’m available for the greater truth of my experience. It can be very uncomfortable, but the anxiety goes away. I’ve been practicing this long enough that it has become habitual (mostly)—when I feel a wave of anxiety creeping up, I stop and ask myself, what are you not looking at here? What are you afraid to face? And the answer is usually there.

What’s your approach to teaching writing and what do you hope that your students take away from your classes?

When I started teaching, I had no idea if it was the right job for me. And pretty quickly I realized that it was perfect. In the simplest terms, I love sharing the books I love, and talking about the thing I love most, and the fact that I get paid to do that is so lucky — I’m stunned by my own luck every day.

The only wisdom I have is that which I’ve gleaned from my own experience, and so the basis of my teaching is to treat writing as a process of inquiry. I urge my students to take the raw material of their lives, and dig into it—with their minds, the tools of their craft, with a bravery and willingness to see the things they have been reluctant to see. When I read, I am looking for a bigger truth. I am looking to be surprised. I want the writer to show me—whether through explicit analysis, or artist means—the dark corners of the known. And this only comes out of rigorous work. . .Our job is look more closely than reasonable people are (or need be) willing. In this way, we hold up a mirror in which our readers can see more of themselves, more of the world we occupy.

I want the writer to show me—whether through explicit analysis, or artist means—the dark corners of the known.

There was a line in Whip Smart about a spiraling feeling you felt from the exhilaration of secrecy and the loss of your footing in your feminist upbringing. How you have progressed with this feminist identity and about your current identity as a feminist writer?

I was raised in a feminist household—my mother banned Barbie dolls and corrected my children’s books with a  Sharpie so that the female characters had more agency—and identified as a feminist as far back as I can remember. I was a queer, zine-making teen, and always clear about my politics in a public way. But I am also a product of this culture, and struggled privately to reconcile the seeming contradiction of my beliefs and my behavior. As an adolescent I suffered from an eating disorder, and both craved and feared sexual attention from men—and I worried that these conditions undermined my values. Being a dominatrix at first seemed like a perfect solution: I could indulge my fascination with hyperfemininity and desire, and also play the role of a powerful woman, a woman in control of both herself and men. This was an illusion, of course.

My mother banned Barbie dolls and corrected my children’s books with a  Sharpie so that the female characters had more agency.

In those years I did not learn how to navigate loopholes in this narrow definition of feminism—I learned to broaden my definition of feminism to something that does not exclude those who’ve internalized the dictums of a their sexist society. . .I am a feminist, and a femme, and stake no claim on who can claim any such words for themselves. Words should work in the service of our experience, and while they carry the history of their meanings, we can also stretch them to encompass the things we need named.

For a lot of my life, the word feminism was not so popular. . .Feminism needed to expand in its connotations, to become a more inclusive term. And this is happening. I think every 20 years we recycle, and now it’s been 20 years since third wave feminism and riot grrl, and we have a younger generation identifying as feminists, like Tavi Gevinson, as well as a growing language of inclusivity and intersectionality. It’s no accident that feminist awareness and a new public consciousness and reaction to racial injustice are happening simultaneously—we are long due for both, and they will inform one another. And in 20 years, another generation will blow it up again. I can’t wait.

I give myself permission to participate, to ask questions, and to change my mind.

I am honored to work with VIDA, as a member of their Executive Committee—to be participating in activism inside my own field. It’s easy to feel as if we are politically active these days just by posting an article on Facebook, and I think we have to fight our own complacency, the overwhelming fact that everything is so fucked up. In this way, as in writing, we need to push beyond the point of our own discomfort, our own fear of being wrong or embarrassed, or of changing our minds. We have to demonstrate a willingness to participate in the conversation, in the movement toward the world we want to live in. I give myself permission to participate, to ask questions, and to change my mind. Avoidance has never led to personal peace for me. I share Alice Walker’s sentiment that “Activism is my rent for living on the planet,” and Fitzgerald’s resolution that, “I must hold in balance the sense of futility of effort and the sense of the necessity to struggle.”

In Whip Smart, you mention answering questions about your work at the dungeon. I wonder how you feel about being a spokeswoman for a frequently misunderstood subculture.

Somebody has to break the seal. Meaning, the first stories from marginalized experiences are always going to appear incorrect, because there is such a deficit of variety in representation. They are incorrect, because no single story can speak for a universal experience. But the answer to this has always seemed obvious to me: more, not less. I wrote a recent essay about competition among marginalized writers, and how much I understand criticizing and feeling threatened by writers from our own communities, and how important it is to resist that spiral, to push outward, and use that energy to add more stories to the public consciousness so that we can finally start to build a more complex and real definition of our experience.

Your memoir also touches on the idea of masks, how they disappear and reappear, like in the dungeon. Is there something like this shift that also occurs when you write a nonfiction essay? What attracts you to this genre?

I feel less attracted to the genre than held hostage by it, in some ways. Of course, we are always wearing different masks when we write — adopting voices and positions that don’t represent the whole of us — but I actually find that nonfiction prevents me from hiding more than any other genre. My psyche is so eager to draw the veil over the ugly or scary truths that underlie my work, and I find fiction and poetry facilitate that more than nonfiction.

I want to take off the mask, and the limits of nonfiction force me to do that a little more.

Tell me about the Mixer Reading & Music Series or other events that you can recommend for women writers in New York.

I both need and believe in cultivating a community to support our work, to share the challenges and joys of it. The biggest reward of being a memoirist is having readers come to me and say, hey, I thought I was the only one who thought/felt that! The things we don’t share contribute to our isolation from each other. Also, writing is such a lonely practice, and as an extrovert, I require a lot of human connection to balance it, and curating literary events is part of how I do that.

My friend and fellow writer Rebecca Keith and I have been running our monthly series Mixer for over eight years now, and it is a kind of home to me – a place I can count on feeling a part of, and whose audience is always warm. It’s also been a great excuse to connect with writers I admire, and whom I might not have reason to know otherwise. I also curate and host a yearly Pride reading at the Housing Works Bookstore which is all woman writers. This year the reading is on June 11th, and features Shelly Oria, Stacey D’Erasmo, Kirstin Valdez Quade, R. Erica Doyle, Amy King, and Lydia Conklin.

I also think some of the best advice is to start your own reading series/writing group/feminist biker gang. Networking can sound like such a gross thing, but what it really means to me is just finding the people I want to know, who inspire me, and finding ways to collaborate with them.

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If you live in the New York area, you can check out the
Mixer Reading & Music Series on May 13 at Cake Shop.

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Stop by next time for my review of The Blondes,
a feminist science fiction from Emily Schultz.

You can see other profiles and interviews of mine here.

2 thoughts on “Whip-smart Melissa Febos

  1. This was such a wonderful interview, @marybreaden! Your questions really got to the heart of things.

    I resonated with the anxiety that precedes big changes; the different masks we wear as writers; writing as a way of thinking, and untangling conflicts; the tension of holding opposing ideas and false binaries in one’s mind, and especially this:

    “Words should work in the service of our experience, and while they carry the history of their meanings, we can also stretch them to encompass the things we need named.”

    It’s the work I feel when I’m wrestling with poetry and imagery, digging in the dirt for the right word, or smashing it and melding it with something else to stretch the boundaries and give it new meaning.

    Like

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