By MacKenzie Brady
On Thursday, Oct. 8, the Rose O’Neill Literary House, in conjunction with the Sophie Kerr Series, hosted the second installment of the Living Writers Series with a reading by essayist Melissa Febos via Zoom.
“Febos is one of our best namers of feelings that are hard to reach and harder to know, and of the self that slips free of all of its names. In her hands, memory becomes a tool for interpreting and naming the self,” Dr. James Hall, associate professor of English and director of the Rose O’Neill Literary House, said in his introduction.
“It’s rare to find a teller of true stories who, in telling about their lives, fixes and re-fixes us in the stream of that telling. Who sees, in retrospection, a new way forward. Melissa Febos is that writer,” he said.
Febos is the author of the memoir “Whip Smart” and the essay collection “Abandon Me.” She has a second collection of essays, “Girlhood,” forthcoming in March 2021.
“Abandon Me” was taught in Dr. Hall’s Living Writers: Nonfiction course, which focuses on books by authors published in recent years. Some of these authors come to the class and discuss their work and answer students’ questions before the reading.
“It was really fun to, sort of, disappear into a conversation about craft for an hour this afternoon,” Febos said about being in the Living Writers: Nonfiction class. “Our conversation definitely informed, sort of, what I chose for my reading tonight.”
During her reading, Febos read two excerpts. The first was a few of the chapters from the titular essay in “Abandon Me,” the second was a few sections from a new essay from her book “Girlhood.” An excerpt of that essay, “The Mirror Test,” is forthcoming in the winter issue of The Paris Review.
Febos said that part of “Abandon Me” was her writing her way out of an experience she was still living while she was constructing a book. That experience was being in an intense, traumatic relationship.
“I liked to read that series of passages [from ‘Abandon Me’] in particular when I know I’m reading to writers because one of the sort of wonderings that plagued me as a younger writer was: Once I write about something, do I have to be done with it? You know. And, if I write a whole book about something, am I ever allowed to talk about it again?” Febos said.
“When some things come knocking, they don’t go away until you answer. So I let that material into that new manuscript and it turned into what I just read to you, which was sort of this re-analysis, this re-discovery of my own understanding of it,” she said, emphasizing that people are allowed to change their mind about what happened to them and allow it to mean something else the more they reflect on it.
After the reading, Febos answered questions posed in the Zoom chat, putting finer points on her writing and editing processes, how she determines which threads to keep in her essays, her relationship with truth in her writing, having emotional support when writing through and about trauma, using a journal as a record of what happens to her every day, and why she wrote about experiences as they were happening to her rather than waiting until she had the time to reflect on them.
The third installment of the Living Writers Series will be a reading by Hanif Abdurraqib on Tuesday, Nov. 17 at 6 p.m.
To register for Abdurraqib’s reading or see what other events the Literary House has planned, visit their page on the Washington College website.
Featured Photo caption: Melissa Febos reading from her book “Abandon Me”. Photo by Rebecca Kanaskie.