Last Tuesday, March 29, Binghamton University welcomed writer Melissa Febos in a new installment of the Distinguished Writers Series. This series was established during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic and is hosted by the Binghamton Center for Writers, with a mission to bring nationally and internationally recognized writers to BU. Apart from Febos, this year’s series had included Ada Limon and Adrian Matejka. Their readings can be seen in full on the Binghamton Center for Writers’ Facebook page.
According to Amazon, Febos “is the author of the memoir, ‘Whip Smart: [The True Story of a Secret Life’] (St. Martin’s Press 2010), and the essay collection, ‘Abandon Me: [Memoirs’] (Bloomsbury 2017), which was a Lambda Literary Award finalist, a Publishing Triangle Award finalist, an Indie Next [List] pick and was widely named a best book of 2017.” Her third essay collection, “Girlhood,” a national bestseller, was published by Bloomsbury Publishing on March 30, 2021. Her newest work, a craft book named “Body Work: The Radical Power of Personal Narrative,” was published by Catapult Books on March 15, 2022.
Tina Chang, director of creative writing and an associate professor of English, and Leslie Heywood, a professor of English, introduced Febos and her works and welcomed her to the University. The center of this visit was Febos’ live reading from “Girlhood,” which she announced was illustrated by Forsyth Harmon, which is the first time she collaborated with an artist and certainly not her last. She picked an essay named “The Mirror Test,” which she said is one of her typical “unmanageable heart-wrenching 50-page thing” essays.
“The Mirror Test” started with a short etymology of the word “slut” — a sloppy woman who’s a poor housekeeper — and Febos weaved it into a memory of a pool party in middle school where she was slut-shamed. It became less about reading and quite more about remembering. In parts, she paused, looked down as if to center herself against the overwhelming emotion that the writing brought.
The Q&A session, moderated by Heywood, started off with Febos expanding on one of her quotes: “I have observed that we bring the best of ourselves to writing and that publishing brings out our worst.” She described the corrosive and exhausting process of publishing a book, which she went through twice in two years.
“I generally try to firmly steer myself away from attention-seeking, or trying to manage other people’s impression or thought about me, trying to think of myself as a brand, or even really thinking about what other might be thinking about me or my work,” Febos said. “When I treat myself as a commodity, I feel soulless.”
She continued on to the nature of self-branding and the generational beliefs of “selling out,” which had changed tremendously within this decade. One attendee asked about how to include a personal anecdote and the process of choosing one. Febos said that there is one that feels more right than others and that she encourages her students to work with the first thing they thought of, to take the memory and excavate the meaning that is there that resides beneath the consciousness of that memory.
The Q&A ended with her talking about handling rejection from publishers, especially letters that expressed their shock and pessimism in sales for her memoir “Whip Smart: The True Story of a Secret Life,” which got her to a point of giving up trying to publish it. She overcame it with the help of her therapist, and now she would still continue to write even if no one would ever publish them again.
“Melissa’s story is her own and at the same time every writer’s story,” Chang said. “It really causes one to dig down deep, to ask oneself, ‘Why am I doing this if the rest of the world doesn’t recognize it?’”