The Rumpus Book Club chats with Melissa Febos about her new book, Abandon Me, choosing to be celibate for six months, letting go of our own mythologies, and the sexist reaction women receive when they write nonfiction.
This is an edited transcript of the book club discussion. Every month The Rumpus Book Club hosts a discussion online with the book club members and the author, and we post an edited version online as an interview. To become a member of the Rumpus Book Club, click here. Upcoming writers include Julie Buntin, Gabrielle Bell, Samantha Irby, Achy Obejas, and more.
This Rumpus Book Club interview was edited by Marisa Siegel.
Jordan K: Hey Brian and Marisa!
Brian S: Hey, Jordan! Thanks for joining us. This is my first time doing a Book Club chat, so forgive me if it takes us a few minutes to get started properly!
Jordan K: Oh, because Brian S usually does them, and Brian S is your screen name, so I’m confused. You are a different Brian S.
Brian S: That’s because this is Marisa typing!
Jordan K: Ah.
Marisa: And I think now it will say so.
Jordan K: It does. Congrats on The Rumpus.
Marisa: Thanks so much! Now if only I could figure out how to invite the author to the Book Club chat I’d be set.
Marisa: She should be arriving imminently.
Melissa Febos: Hi!
Jordan K: Hi!
Melissa Febos: I’m in like Flynn.
Melissa Febos: Nick Flynn.
Kim: Hi 🙂
Melissa Febos: How’s it going in here?
Marisa: Welcome, Melissa! So far, I’ve pretended to be Brian Spears and made you seven minutes late.
Kim: I think this may be a first book chat for a few of us, so slightly confusing. Hehe.
Melissa Febos: Same!
Marisa: Hi, Kim! And yes, but we’ll figure it out together.
Kim: Okay! I’ll follow your lead. 🙂
Melissa Febos: So what do we do now?
Marisa: Melissa, you know I love Abandon Me. I literally wrote it a love letter.
Melissa Febos: I literally loved that love letter.
Marisa: Some pieces of this book appeared as individual essays online. Did you set out to write this book, or did it come together as you saw connections between essays you were working on or had already worked on?
Jordan K: So much love.
Melissa Febos: Well, I knew I was going to write a book, and I knew it would be called “Abandon Me.” I didn’t know that the first couple essays were a part of it.
Melissa Febos: They had such different forms, you know?
Ann B: Can you share some of the better excerpts from said letter?
Melissa Febos: NO EYES BUT MINE.
Melissa Febos: Plus it’s basically unreadable now, because I sleep with it under my pillow each night.
Marisa: I’ve only written two love letters in my life, and no one gets to read them except their recipients.
Melissa Febos: Anyway, I figured out the essays were part of the book, were the book, after I’d written about four of them. I thought, Oh! It’s just not going to look like any book I thought I’d write.
Melissa Febos: I once wrote a secret admirer note on a fellow classmate’s workshop story in college.
Marisa: Workshop notes… so much drama.
Melissa Febos: Yeah, she busted me immediately.
Kim: That’s really sweet. If it were me, I’d keep something like that tucked away somewhere.
Melissa Febos: But then we fell in love, so… I recommend it.
Melissa Febos: I don’t know if she kept it. Guessing not, since our first breakup was ugly. But maybe now I’ll ask 🙂
Marisa: Are you still celibate? (Is that an acceptable Book Club question?)
Melissa Febos: I have no boundaries. There are no unacceptable questions.
Marisa: You’ve written a little about this in newer essays.
Melissa Febos: I am decidedly not celibate anymore. I tried dating for the first time in my life, and it was hilarious. Now, I think I might be falling in love…(???!!!)
Marisa: Did you learn a lot from the experience of being celibate? Did it help you learn to be loved?
Kim: Marisa posted links to a couple of your essays in our book club space. I enjoyed reading those alongside the book.
Melissa Febos: Thanks, Kim!
Melissa Febos: Being celibate was so wonderful. It taught me a lot about love, but even more about my own self outside of love. I’d never met myself out of love before, really. I spent most of my life in serial monogamous relationships.
Melissa Febos: It might have been the best six months of my life.
Marisa: My favorite was the P&W essay on trauma writing as a subversive act!
Melissa Febos: Right on. Did you relate to it?
Marisa: I hate that we still have to defend “emotional writing” as a valid literary form.
Melissa Febos: It’s total horseshoe.
Marisa: Have you personally faced critique of your books for this reason?
Kim: The essay “Writing About Trauma as a Subversive Act” was great. I feel like a lot of people are told that writing about themselves is somehow not worthy enough for a public audience, and my guess is that that happens a lot more with women.
Melissa Febos: HORSESHIT. But maybe horseshoe, too if horseshoe is horseshit.
Kim: Do you get that sense? Did people try and talk you out of writing this book?
Melissa Febos: Yes to all! People didn’t try to talk me out of writing this book, mainly because I didn’t give anyone an opportunity to. But after I published Whip Smart I was certainly treated (mostly by folks who hadn’t read it) as though I’d published my diary.
Melissa Febos: I absolutely think that women suffer this all the time. I hear it so often from my students and friends. As if it doesn’t take rigorous craft, and intellectual acuity to write a slammin’ book of any kind. But perhaps, especially, about the body.
Marisa: Your writing is so full of intellect and craft, though. It’s hard for me to imagine someone winning that argument.
Melissa Febos: Most of the smart things I’ve ever thought or written came vis-a-vis my body.
Melissa Febos: I didn’t say that they’d WON, Marisa 🙂
Marisa: You weave a good amount of history and philosophy throughout the book. How much research did you do for this book? Or was this material you already had in your arsenal, because you’re a genius?
Kim: To me, it’s a very lazy criticism of creative nonfiction. Very obviously, care and artistry has gone into your writing. I can’t stand that sort of knee-jerk invalidation people can be prone to.
Melissa Febos: Exactly, Kim.
Melissa Febos: Marisa: Most of the texts and narratives and thinkers I brought into the book I already knew well and had loved a long time, but I did do some research. The book felt very much like a conversation with myself, trying to figure some things out, and inevitably, other books came into it, because that’s how I figure things out. I have always trusted writers, books, thinkers, psychologists in that process. Maybe because they don’t know me, so they are always honest, if that makes sense. Their wisdom and counsel are always unconditional.
Kim: You grew up with a lot of psychology texts around the house, I’m guessing? So kind of as you were forming your personality, those words were available?
Marisa: That makes me think of the class exercise, described on pages 291-292. Have you learned how to meet your own gaze, through writing this? It seems like you do in the pages of Abandon Me…
Melissa Febos: I think I’ve met my own gaze, to a pretty intense degree. Parts of this book were things I really, really wanted to look away from. And did for a long time in some cases.
Marisa: I cringe to think of being as honest with and about myself in writing as you are in this book, and am so in awe of it.
Melissa Febos: But it was so incredibly liberating to just yield to the truth, you know? If you don’t, you should. It’s amazing. Skin-scorching, but very changing in a good way. It’s fucked up! Letting go of the cozy stories you’ve been carrying around is devastating. But there’s more room for new stuff after you do it. I really had to peel away a lot of mythology to write this book.
Kim: Did it feel self-affirming?
Kim: Maybe I didn’t say what I meant to, actually. It seems to me that writing like that would sort of help you really know who you are.
Melissa Febos: Absolutely. Because inherent in the mythologies was a fear of the larger truth. When I let go of my stories and faced it, it didn’t kill me. I was like, hey, that’s me. And it’s okay. It’s better than okay. Being celibate was like that, too. There really are some parts of us that just ARE. And that is scary. What if they are bad or broken or self-destructive or unlovable or whatever, right?
Marisa: And does the new possibly-falling-in-love feel different because of facing those things?
Melissa Febos: It does.
I mean, I’m still me. I still race toward things that feel good; I say I love you really fast; I want to get married five minutes after I fall in love. But I no longer have to heed every impulse, you know? I know that I’ll be okay if I don’t. There is time.
Kim: I really love the book, but actually found it pretty painful even just to read much of the time because of how raw it was, and how easily it made me connect with the raw parts of myself.
Melissa Febos: Kim, that’s exactly what I hoped for when I finished writing it. So, sorry. And thank you 🙂
Marisa: I feel that, too, Kim. Melissa’s writing sometimes feels like it is opening up emotional and creative wormholes that are terrifying (and also exhilarating).
Kim: Well, great! It’s beautiful, but I have to really take breaks and process. It’s hard work to feel all of what the book asks you to feel.
Melissa Febos: It’s funny, because I can only see right in front of me when I’m writing, you know? I never think of it as raw or personal or anything but where I’m at in the moment. But I can see it (sort of) after I finish. And that’s what they tell me.
Marisa: What were you reading while you wrote Abandon Me? And who are your literary influences? I know, that’s, like, the cheesiest question. But it’s a good question.
Melissa Febos: It is.
I was reading and re-reading a lot of the stuff that I bring into the book. And I took breaks where I just read novels, which are my pleasure, my first love as a reader. And I read the books that I teach, which are always the things that I love most: Baldwin, Maggie Nelson, Rebecca Solnit, Jesmyn Ward, Junot Díaz…
I read poetry. And a lot of essays. I was thinking a lot about what an essay is, and what it can be. I have stacks of essay collections next to my bed right now as I type this.
Marisa: What about music? Do you listen to music while you write, and if so, what music specifically for this book? I know you make a good playlist!
Melissa Febos: I always listen to music when I write! I basically make a playlist for every essay; sometimes it’s just one song, or three songs, over and over and over. I sort of find the emotional pitch of the piece, and then match music to it, and then the music becomes a shortcut to the feeling, so I can enter it and work anywhere: on planes, cafes, at work, the train…
I basically listen to music all the time, even when I’m not writing. I like to feel a pulse outside of me, you know? If you all go find me on Spotify, I’ll send you playlists.
Kim: You’re on!
Marisa: Yes. I don’t think I could live in the world without music, actually. I love writing and reading, but listening to music gets me through.
Melissa Febos: Marisa, did I send you my annual Valentine mix? Kim, if you email me I’ll send you the link.
Kim: Thanks 🙂
Marisa: Yes! I haven’t listened yet, though, because mostly my two-year-old controls the tunes around here.
Melissa Febos: I’ve been obsessed with music as long as I’ve been obsessed with books. It’s just not the thing I make; it’s a thing I love. So I guess it’s a hobby. I don’t think I could have a hobby unless it’s something I do while I write because writing takes so much dang time.
Marisa: I love when you write about tattoos, especially this: “The thing about pain is that it pins you to the moment, to your body.” And you already talked a little tonight about the importance of the body, and being present in it.
Melissa Febos: Yes! I just got tattooed the other day for the first time in a long time. It still hurts! And I still love it. You have to be present, you know?
Marisa: Yes! I love getting tattoos, because very few things make me feel so present in my body.
Melissa Febos: Maybe that’s why I’ve always sought out extreme experiences; it forces me to be in a moment, to face the fact of my existing in that particular moment, in my body.
Kim: And there seems to be something about the permanency of it. Like, they are tokens of where you’ve traveled emotionally, etc. So, in a way they are about the present moment and about reminding you what being present was like?
Melissa Febos: Yes. I think that’s totally right. I mean, I was talking to my mom this morning, and she was like, Melissa, did you get another tattoo? I thought you said that if you’d never gotten any, you never would, now. And I was like, that’s true. But I DID. And this is who I am now: this tattooed lady. So I’m just going with it. I guess I aspire (and largely succeed) at being that in all ways. Just going with the person I am, and have become. Finding and loving the beauty in it.
Marisa: Can we talk about the amazing cake your students baked for you? And then also, how being a teacher affects your work?
Melissa Febos: That cake was a fucking miracle.
Marisa: Did it taste good, too? (Melissa’s students baked her a cake decorated to look uncannily like Abandon Me.)
Melissa Febos: I felt so loved! With my first book, I was kind of incapable of accepting the love and attention and happiness of achieving something I’d wanted for so long. This time, I’d had a lot more therapy and experience, and could soak it up, which has been so sweet.
Melissa Febos: It DID taste good. I froze the top of it, like a wedding cake. So I can keep it forever. Or maybe eat it when my next book sells.
Kim: Was your tattoo related to the book coming out at all?
Marisa: Speaking of next book. Do you ever plan to work a novel or short fiction or poetry for publication? (I’m assuming you write in other forms for yourself, at least.)
Melissa Febos: Kim: It was related in the sense that I usually get the urge to get tattooed when something big happens. Maybe because I want to be present for it, to remember how it felt, what it meant. The tattoo is an Annie Dillard quote: “Yielding at every moment to the perfect freedom of a single necessity.” I love that line. I think of it all the time.
Melissa Febos: Yes, I do! I actually have some fiction coming out in the LARB literary mag next issue. And I wrote a novel after Whip Smart was published, and then abandoned it for a few years. I came back to it in 2015, and I think I’ll go back to it again. But nonfiction is my form. I’m married to it. But I do love fiction. It’s harder for me to write, though. Much slower.
Marisa: When did you start writing? And was it nonfiction from the start?
Melissa Febos: I have been writing as long as I can remember. It’s the only thing I ever saw myself doing (except maybe being a therapist, sometimes, in addition to writing—and teaching, of course). But I didn’t write any nonfiction until grad school. I was scared of it. I thought one had to be super informed and have super concrete opinions about things that wouldn’t change. Ha!
Really, I think I had a lot of internalized sexism. The stuff I wrote about in that P&W essay. I thought it was gross to ask for people to read my own story. But it turns out that my stories are the best stories I’ve got. And that I’m allowed to change my mind. And that, in fact, I figure out what I think by writing nonfiction.
Kim: And probably, the writing wouldn’t be nearly as impactful to the reader without the questioning.
Marisa: We’re coming up on the end of the hour. A couple more questions for you, Melissa. You mention briefly your discomfort with feeling angry, that aside from your adolescence, it’s not an emotion you experience. Has that changed at all? Are you angry in the wake of Trump’s election and inauguration? And/or is that a different sort of anger than the emotional, personal anger you are—I think—getting at in the book?
Melissa Febos: Ohhh good question.
Marisa: Anger is something I’ve spent a lot of time talking about in therapy 😉
Melissa Febos: I have gotten more in touch with my anger. I did as a result of some of the experiences I wrote about in Abandon Me, and certainly post-election. I figured out that it wouldn’t make me self-immolate. In fact, if I let myself feel it, then I can harvest that energy and use it for other things. It’s like I had these layers of sadness and anxiety and detachment coating my anger, and when I peeled them away, ANGER. But under the anger were other things: grief, compassion, a different kind of sadness, frustration. And ultimately, forgiveness. Mostly of myself, but other people, too.
There’s so much energy in anger! In all of our feelings. When we suppress them, we waste more energy doing so. But all of it can be used for art, I’ve found.
Marisa: I think the way you are able to articulate these reactions and processes you go through is what makes your writing something that reaches out and grabs readers, gets inside our heads.
Marisa: Who/what are you reading now? Aside from the stacks of essay collections and books on essay as a form?
Melissa Febos: I think that’s the job of the writer, right? Not to introduce new ideas or feelings, but to name the ones we know most intimately but are afraid of speaking, or don’t have the words. That’s what I find most powerful anyway.
Marisa: YES! Especially around subjects that aren’t often discussed. And at times like these, politically speaking.
Melissa Febos: I just read this book of poetry, Bestiary, by Donika Kelly. It’s amazing. And I’m reading Lidia Yuknavitch’s new novel. I highly recommend both.
Melissa Febos: What else are you guys reading?
Kim: I appreciated the anger on page 184-185 of your book when you mentioned the skepticism in the mental health field about historical trauma. I think about that all of the time in relation my family background as well, and I think it should be so intuitive how true it is.
Melissa Febos: RIGHT?? It’s so obvious. It makes me really mad, actually, that that’s even a question.
Marisa: Ooh good excuse for me to plug our next book. I don’t get a lot of reading time, so right now I’m reading for March Book Club, Julie Buntin’s Marlena.
Melissa Febos: Ah! Yes, I have it and am excited to read it.
Kim: I’m reading the book club selections, and a book my therapist recommended about the neuroscience of practicing letting the good stuff in.
Marisa: I worry about historical trauma as a mom, in terms of what I might pass along to my son.
Melissa Febos: What’s that called, Kim?
Kim: The Neuroscience of Lasting Happiness, by Rick Hanson.
Melissa Febos: Ah, Marisa. I think it’s unavoidable. But the legacy that I got from my parents is part of my life’s work, and I think that’s always true. And part of it is this incredible love and resilience. So I wouldn’t change a thing.
Melissa Febos: That sounds up my alley, Kim. I’m going to look for it.
Melissa Febos: Okay you guys, I need to go to bed. My book party is tomorrow!
Marisa: Thank you all so much for hanging out in this 1997 AOL-style chat room with The Rumpus!
Melissa Febos: I loved this! Thank you for reading my book!
Marisa: You’ve got dancing to do, girl!
Kim: LMAO. Thanks for writing it, it meant a lot to me. 🙂 Goodnight!
Melissa Febos: Love!!! Sweet dreams!!!
Photograph of Melissa Febos © Deborah Feingold.