A Conversation With Melissa Febos, Author of Abandon Me
By Editor Brett Rawson
I discovered Abandon Me while researching shadows. I’m unsure how my search landed me on the Guernica interview with Melissa Febos, but those meaningful meanders through the digital wilderness have time and again tossed me into elaborate and necessary new worlds.
Febos writes the sonic: her work devours, outlining the shape of pleasure and pain, unveiling the connectedness of trauma and the threads of language that spin us in endless loops. It is in her story — a story of stories, a memoir or memories — that the reader will find, understand, and realize their own. The subtitle is appropriately the plural of a form — Memoirs — as her book is a collection of ongoingness.
Abandon Me will consume its reader in a raw portrait of the overlooked power of abandonment, and it will deliver you into new situations of thought. This work is a flash of light that looks like a blueprint, and each day, as we witness the extent of broken systems, it is texts and stories like these that we need in order to function; to understand impact in reverse; to avoid the damage we cause on those around us who we don’t completely see.
Below, you will find our side conversation with Melissa, as well as images from Collectively Speaking, our Seattle-based reverse book club, which featured Abandon Me and excerpts of other texts that are intertwined in essence.
THE SEVENTH WAVE: Is there a point at which we stop looking for stories, because we want to become one?
MELISSA FEBOS: I don’t know. I don’t think I ever stop looking for stories. Maybe that’s one of the benefits of being a reader, or what makes someone a reader: that hunger for stories and to make sense of things. But I do think, in a lot of respects, by the time we get to be adults, or even earlier, we already sort of settled on a story that we can live with. Or that we found one that gives us some relief, or feels comforting, and we sort of clutch onto that and become resistant to other stories. A little narrative perm wrap or something.
We find a place and say, this feels protective, I’ll just wrap this around me and hide in it when I feel threatened. So I do think that happens, to some extent, to everyone. In some ways, that’s what I was interrogating in Abandon Me: the story that I had held onto for a long time without realizing it and seeing what happened when I put it down to see what’s around. To see if it was actually a fit, you know?
There are also stories we’re given, and we don’t always have a critical distance from them. We took for granted everything we were given and, unless we make a conscious decision or someone else suggests it, I don’t think we ever do question it.
TSW: Right, until someone or something throws us out of orbit do we realize, wait a minute, I can exist out here.
MF: Exactly, and I also have to be careful not to condemn that process, because it keeps a lot of people alive.
Having a story that feels safe that makes sense of something is a really powerful resource, and our sort of letting go of it or discarding it depends on us having the psychic resources to confront what someone needs for the uncertainty that is underneath or the other scary narratives that might pop up.
I’m thinking about other people in my family, or people close to me, who in the past I might have judged for holding on really tightly to their stories of their childhood trauma or whatever, and I really sort of soften in my age because I realize that it’s working for them. That it’s helped them survive it, through it into a life, you know? It’s not for me to say if someone should let go of their story.
TSW: That reminds me of what you wrote near the beginning — “I had no story to make sense of it” — and whether a story is an actual story or perhaps another person that helps you make sense of a pattern of your life.
MF: When you don’t have a story to make sense of something, I think you just traipse around it. It’s hard to be oriented around anything else. We see it all the time. People will have a trauma or a wound or a shame, and if you don’t find a place to put it or make sense of it and shelve it in some way, then it becomes the thing around which the rest of your life and thinking is oriented. You can’t get away from it.
TSW: Could we ever not have a story?
MF: If you don’t have a story for something, the world will give you one. Culture will give you one; capitalism will give you one. It’s tricky to talk about it. Narrative facilitates communication: how do we tell another person about our wounds if we don’t have a way to contextualize them inside of ourselves? Like, here’s my pain. You can’t just present those things. We don’t even have words for them. We have to find a story to make sense of it: this person hurt me in this way because of these factors and this is how I dealt with it. You have to build that. And if you don’t, I think it can become a secret almost by default in some ways, which then has its own scary dynamic.
TSW: Toward the end, you wrote: “It’s a violent way to emerge. To tell a secret.” How hard is it for people to come to terms with the terms themselves?
MF: It’s funny because I get a lot of responses about being a memoirist or to my work that are along the lines, “Oh, you’re so brave,” or “You’re so comfortable sharing things that people don’t like to talk about,” and I think that most memoirists would actually claim the opposite. We write about them because they are so impossible to talk about. Or for the things that we don’t have a story about, writing is a way of creating and discovering one. It also just comes with sharing it. I write my stories and I know I am probably going to share them, but I write them because I need them. And I am sometimes reluctant to admit that. People are always calling them diarists. But I think that most memoirists or people who write about secret things are usually very private, secretive people. And that burden, it grows overtime. The urge to write your story is also one to sit it down.
TSW: Speaking of memoirists, I was curious about your subtitle, “Memoirs.” In your Guernica Interview, you said you were grateful to Bloomsbury for not asking you to turn your book into a memoir, a single narrative. Do people ask you about the difference between a memoir and memoirs? Do you talk to people about that departure in terms of craft?
MF: That was a real negotiation. As much as I believe in a narrative, it’s not a singular narrative. Sometimes it is. My first book was a memoir. It was one thread that I pulled out from all the major threads and told one stream of it. Abandon Me was not that. It was much more of a tangle, a constellation or mobile or prism. It’s much less linear than other memoirs. I actually wanted to have no subtitle. I wanted it to just say, Abandon Me. To not explain any sort of form for it and just let it be what it was.
I was relieved at how long I got away with that. But then the marketing department was like, let’s just call it a memoir. I said absolutely not because it is so clearly not that. And even from a marketing standpoint, if you say that, and then people pick it up and read it, they’re going to be disappointed because it does not read that way. And so I thought, essays maybe. But in some ways, that is a betrayal of the book, too, because all of those threads were so related and so tangled and in conversation with each other, that it had as much in common with a memoir as it did with a collection of essays that are full of different topics.
And so I thought of “memoirs” and it seemed somewhere in between them. There is a plurality to those stories and they also cohere in a way that is undeniable, and so much of what the book is about is about how the narrative is plural and entwined. It seemed like the most accurate word I could think of.
TSW: Was there a specific text you read in proximity you read to this that gave you influence or permission?
MF: Once it became to clear to me the book was going to be experimental or mixed form, hybrid, whatever you want to call it, once that fact emerged about it, I went and read all of the books that I thought might also be called that: I re-read Maggie Nelson, Eula Biss, and others.
I think a lot of people would be surprised how far back these traditions go. I went back and read those works to see what I wanted to do and what I didn’t want to do. Many grad students I’ve had have this resistance to reading things that are in the tradition or dissimilar to what they’re writing, as if they’re afraid those voices will overtake theirs. I think ultimately they’re afraid they will find that someone has already done what they are doing. But avoiding that experience just doesn’t prevents it, so I consider it my job to look at what other people have done and learn from it. To know if someone has already done what I am trying to do, so that I can either abandon it or find the ways in which my work is doing it anew. I also don’t prescribe to the idea that we can’t repeat some stories. I think it’s necessary to repeat a lot of stories — and it’s also inevitable — but it’s really important to look at what those stories are doing in terms of form, and to see what was possible and to note the ways I wanted to make different choices.
I think for me primarily, I wanted to the emotional vulnerability and depth of a memoir, and I also wanted it to be an exercise in structure and form and to be academic in certain ways. But I really wanted to go there emotionally. I didn’t want to backbeat the psychological elements or hide behind form.
TSW: That also sounds like a powerful message to students: not hiding behind form. Being able to understand the various forms to understand the medley.
MF: Exactly. This has probably been true for all of literary history and trends in forms, but a lot of times, as I have been teaching for over a decade, I saw when mixed form or experimental new nonfiction influences get to my student, and they’re like, “Ohh, I wanna write in vignettes.” Everyone wanted to write in vignettes. And I spent a lot of time harking on the fact that it’s not a shortcut. You don’t get to eschew transitions or cohesion. You can’t just transcribe your notes and call it a finished manuscript.
It is actually more work in a lot of ways, because you have to do that labor in the space. You have less room to do that labor. It’s not that you can supplant content or form. There is no shortcut, just like everything in life, but certainly in art. If you want to use unconventional forms, you have to find unconventional ways to work those conventions. It’s not easier, but that’s what is exciting to me. There are opportunities in trying to find new ways. Sometimes you can crack open new pockets, or find a way to say something in form that you can’t articulate in explicit language.
TSW: Right, maybe you’ve been stuck in one form, and a new on allows you to locate the vein of the voice.
MF: I totally agree. And this is again analogous in life. When we have a lot of scripts or formulas for something, it’s so easy for us to follow the script and not remain really present in the discovery of it. But if you are inventing a form, you’re awake in the process, and the more awake we are in the process, the more opportunity there is to discover something new in the story or surprise ourselves.
TSW: Talking about mixed form, the first seven chapters ranged 12 to 33 pages — four took place in the teens, two in the 20s, and one in the 30s — and in total, those seven chapters are less pages than the final one, which bears the name of the book and sits at 174 pages, compared to the collective 130, and so I am curious, how did you stitch it together, be it in terms of timing, intention, or serendipity? What came first, and what comes last?
MF: That was not a part of my plan. That was totally a surprise. I wrote the shorter essays, not entirely in the order they appear, but surprisingly not far off. For the first essays, I wasn’t sure they were a part of the book. There was so much overlap in them that I couldn’t really imagine them existing together in the same book. But at a certain point, I realized I was just circling around a story, rather than moving straight through it.
The title essay, I thought, would be long-ish, but not even necessarily the longest in the book. I thought it would be about 40 pages. Once I had written the other seven essays, I could see the way that they added up in little jigsaw pieces, and then I could see what was missing. At one point, I cut them all up and tried to put them back together, which was a disaster. I was so glad when it didn’t work. I worked so hard to establish the integrity of each essay and so to break them apart didn’t make any sense. But then I was at a residency and I was writing the final essay, and it just kept going. I crossed the 40-page mark and I was like, I barely got started. When I crossed the 100-page mark, I stopped thinking about it because it was terrifying. I had no idea how this was all going to go together, but I just kept going, because the essay understood where it needed to go.
I can’t think about it in a pragmatic way, I have to spill it out. I couldn’t believe how long it was. When I finished it, I felt a small crisis. I couldn’t think of any essay collections where more than half the book was a single work. I thought maybe I should break it up. Should I have it in three pieces? Should I make it intersitchal and between the other essays? I tried a bunch of things, but it really didn’t make sense in any form. I often think of it as the first seven as being these little islands and the final essay sort of filling in all the gaps. It was a sweet surprise and very different from everything in the sense that it was revealed to me as I was writing it.
TSW: I am always curious to hear when titles surface. It comes at the end, but when did it come to you?
MF: The title came to me before I wrote any of it. That is totally unlike how any other title has ever come to me. Usually for me, the title is the last piece. I can’t know until I am done and I know what the essay or book is. But Abandon Me was the opposite of that. I was in the beginning and also middle of experiencing what I wrote about; the primary relationship I describe in the book. I was in the early part of that and I was a disaster. It was so painful. I was in my apartment crying, like every other day, and it just came to me. And I thought, I am going to write a book about this and it’s going to be called Abandon Me.
I wrote it down on an index card and I stuck it on a kitchen wall where it stayed for a year or so after that. I don’t think it was a premonition. I think it was a decision and a wish that the pain I was going through would be something I could subject to the alchemical process of writing a book; that I would be able to make sense of it; that I would be able to apply narrative to it; that I would be able to make something useful out of it because it was so painful. It was one of the clearer examples of the way that that writing works for me in my life. The way that my psychological process — my process of survival — is really entwined with the process of writing.
It usually doesn’t happen that way. I think there’s always a part of me that’s happy to step into a more observational, writerly place in my mind as a way of getting relief from an intense experience, but it’s never quite as clear as that: agh, this is so painful I need to think about it like a writer and write some emotional missives. But it was very clear in that moment. I wrote the early essays in the book and I didn’t think they were a part of that book. It wasn’t until I was five essays in that I thought, oh, this is Abandon Me, I am writing it, this is it. I just stuck with it the whole way. I don’t know, there’s something really comforting in that. That there was some why that cleared it’s room and said, here it is. I’m thinking when you go on a hike and there are these little markers painted on a rock: “No, over here, over here.” You know?
TSW: That speaks to me. While I was back inside my childhood home, trying to write and understand it, a lot of was unfolding in real life. I was thankful to my mentor at the time, who helped me zoom out, and understand it was difficult to be a surgeon at the same time a part of me was the patient. Maybe the writing I was doing was not the writing to heal but the writing to get certain things out. It is nice to be reminded that there are different shapes to our stories, especially as they continue in real life.
MF: Absolutely. I’m really grateful I’ve always had the instinct. I think this comes out of a really early experience journaling as a kid. My first book, I was not a memoirist. I felt that I should be writing fiction, but I was having a really intense life experience, and so I just designated a notebook: I am just going to take notes on this experience because that’s what I know to do when something big is happening and I don’t understand it yet. And that happened all the way through the experience of Abandon Me well before writing the book. I was just taking notes. When I started meeting my birth father, or the early parts of that relationship, I was documenting and taking notes. If there was a conversation or event where I felt something that felt momentous, I just took notes.
TSW: How important is handwriting to your process, craft, or creativity?
MF: Probably not very. I’ve been typing for so long and I think it’s so much faster. I’ll use whatever I have at my disposal. If I’m driving and I have ideas, I’ll record myself. I’ll keep notebooks everywhere so I can scribble things down. I think the early notes for most of the things I write are handwritten because that’s what I always have with me. I guess now, a lot of times, I’ll type them in my phone. I still always have a notebook and almost everything I write arrives out of a list I’ve made in my notebook. But I’ll just use whatever I have.
I think in early stages of my thoughts, it’s important to get the words out as fast as possible. I have a terrible memory, so if I’m transcribing an event, or if I’m writing dialogue, it’s really just a ticking clock before I forget things, so typing is the fastest way to transcribe before I lose my thoughts.
TSW: I have this obsession with unwords — any word that begins with “un.” I circle each one when I read a book. There’s something different between words that begin with dis- or un-. It’s a little more willing, more energetic almost, and I found a lot of yours intriguing: unqualified, unselfish, unavailable, undivided, unreasonable, unlovely, undressing, unutterable, and those last two stuck out to me. There is specific reason we need those words at those times, and it seems like those words, these unwords, tap into the unconscious and gives silence a little bit of love.
MF: So interesting. As you were talking, I was thinking about using that prefix and finding a different word. It feels kind of onomatopoeic almost. Like the prefix un is the sound of a “u,” which is so open, almost as if you’re undoing the verb. You’re really sort of peeling it open in some way, taking something away but it really feels like you’re undoing it. That’s funny, I an only think of unwords to describe what unwords do, which makes sense, right?
Abandon Me is adjacent in some way to the unwords. One, to the phonics of it — uh-bandon and uhn-do — it has a similar sound. And I think it has a similar meaning also, where Abandon Me could’ve been Undo Me. It has the things I love about the word abandon. It feels like an undressing or an undoing or a reversing of something.
TSW: I think it also points to something your book seems to say: understanding happens in reverse.
MF: I definitely think that. The experience I describe to most of my students about the process of writing about my own experience is very much one of understanding in reverse, because they don’t know about it before they reach it, and it’s inevitable that the experience we end up writing about are often experiences that are impossible to be fully awake while they are happening because they are too much.
We have to sort of shutdown to get through them. And in many ways, the urge to write about them is the urge to recover; the things we couldn’t think or feel or understand while something was happening. But I think we have this fantasy that we’re going to write about just the things we remember and make them beautiful, and just think about it, but actually, it’s much more exoriating than that. My students will come in with work — and I’ve had this experience multiple times — it will be the version that they remember or that they prefer, and it will be a partial story. I’ll have to explain to them you actually have to go back to the experience and find the things you couldn’t feel or think or understand at the time, and then you have to mix those things in with the things you remember, so it becomes this psychological and emotional detective work.
That can be harrowing, because you have to feel all the things. You’re safe now because you’re not in the experience; you can stop writing whenever you need to; you have access to resources you need to withstand those experience. But you have to go find them, insofar as you want your book to me conventional and true and a demonstration of fully experiencing and understanding something that happened to you in the past, which I think is one of the goals of writing. But you have to walk backwards through your own experience in order to collect those understanding.
TSW: In the acknowledgements, you said writing this book made the dark visible, which can be a lonely thing, but that you weren’t alone. I came to this book just after reading Olivia Laing’s Lonely City, and in one part, she says if we aren’t being touched, language is our closest form of contact. On page 91 in Abandon Me, you write: “Being reached for is a frightening thing. Being touched sometimes is painful recognition that one exists.” I think about the solitude we require, but also the solitude that isolates. How does Abandon Me approach the simultaneity?
MF: I think writing is a strange process in that it includes both of those experiences. It is an urge for both of those experiences. I think that’s part of why the title of it, the theme of abandonment, is so central, because on the one hand, I needed to abandon myself to the story and really dive into these experiences and my memories, and I could only do that alone. But at the same time, it was driven by a deep need to find companionship in lonely experiences, and that is, I know from a lot of experiences, the ultimate goal of writing a book about something: to find community in your most lonely experiences. There are so many people and they have certainly found me as a result of writing this book.
TSW: I’m curious about your relationship with social media. I’ve had my extreme swings, from being in the dark for years to running a state-wide social media presence. How do you see the utility of these platforms? Are they autobiographical outlets? Do they turn “experience” into “reconnaissance”?
MF: I have a really mixed relationship with social media, which I think most do. There’s a small group of people who feel enthusiastic about it, but they are small and select, and I am not among them.
In many ways, I have benefited and seen value in social media. The times when I have felt isolated from my community, or had a job where I had to live far away from my community, it was integral in my remaining connected to people. And I was grateful to it for that. So it has facilitated connection for me in a real way in the past. I feel careful here, because I don’t want to speak for other peoples’ experiences, but for me, there’s not a lot of cross-over between what I write about autobiographically and what I share online. It’s not a place for that kind of presentation. What I write about is vulnerable. It doesn’t feel useful to share my more vulnerable and complex personal experiences, because what occurs on the surface — the quicktake of those things — are never the truest ones, and they’re never the ones through which I will forge a truer and lasting connection with another human being.
For me, I share my vulnerable, personal, deep experiences as a way of connecting with other people and as a way of making sense of my own experience, and that kind of connection and that kind of sense-making requires time and thought and patience, and social media is not a tool that depends upon those qualities. So I do struggle when I see people throwing out raw, personal stuff because I think, you’re not going to get what you need, or it’s unlikely to me you’re going to find the connections that those parts of you are longing for through that quick exchange with unselective person. It seems like those feeling sare deep, but that expression is superficial, and so is the response you’re going to get it. I struggle with that.
Sometimes I see other writers doing that, or even just the hot-take or the quick response to things, and I think, oh my god, the only way I get to my real thoughts about something doesn’t happen as quickly for me as other people, and sometimes I think, write an essay about it and take the time to digest those thoughts and feelings, even your opinions. My opinions are not reactive, you know? I think they need to be fully-digested thoughts, so I do struggle with that a little. The status update or the tweet takes the place of more thoughtful response to something.
TSW: I like that thought about the response it elicits. Does it satisfy the impulse to share? Does it aid in that process of healing, but then again, is that what the person was seeking?
MF: It reminds me of a lot of my dominatrix clients. They would have a fetish that was based on a childhood trauma, sometimes unacknowledged, and they would want to enact the fetish, but it didn’t treat the trauma, which doesn’t mean the fetish is pathological or bad or anything, but it was insatiable, so they would always be needing to come back. Sometimes I would want to say to them, who are you talking to about the root of this because the loneliness that surrounds it is not going to be treated by the enactment of this sort of more surface-level system of it, and I say that without judgement for the privateness.
TSW: Abandonment becomes a liberation for you, but do most people associate the word abandon as a positive process?
MF: I think there was a very clear pleasure for me in the nuance of that word and the definition because the first definition is to be abandoned. It’s a passive thing, it’s a thing that is done to us, it’s an undesirable thing. It is the great fundamental fear that we have in relationship. But the other meaning of it, to abandon oneself to something, it’s not passive. It’s active. You’re making a decision and it has a completely different connotation. To abandon yourself to something means to be impassioned. To give yourself to it willingly and with pleasure, and it has this joyful connotation, right?
And then I think there is this other facet to it, and I think this is really sort of ingrained in why I thought that was the right title before I had even written the book, because this feeling of being abandoned and the fear of abandoned acutely, it’s so painful. If it ends up being worth something incredibly valuable, let it be worth something so much that I would ask for it. Let it be worth so much to me in the end that I would demand it of someone. Abandon me, so I can go through this experience, so that I can reap the rewards that are on the far side of it. And so I think all three of those things were operative and why it felt so perfect for the book. I wanted it to be equally about all of those things.
Melissa Febos is the author of the critically acclaimed memoir, Whip Smart (St. Martin’s Press 2010) and the essay collection, Abandon Me (Bloomsbury 2017), which The New Yorker called “mesmerizing,” and was a LAMBDA Literary Award finalist, a Triangle Publishing Award finalist, an Indie Next Pick, and named a Best Book of 2017 by Esquire, Book Riot, The Cut, Electric Literature, The Brooklyn Rail, Bustle, Refinery29, Salon, The Rumpus, and others. Her second essay collection will be published by Bloomsbury in 2020. Her work has been widely anthologized and appears in publications including The Believer, Tin House, Granta, The Kenyon Review, Prairie Schooner, Glamour, Guernica, Post Road, Salon, The New York Times, Elle, The Guardian, Vogue, Dissent, The New York Time Book Review, The Chronicle of Higher Education Review, Bitch Magazine, Poets & Writers, The Rumpus, and Goodbye to All That: Writers on Loving and Leaving New York.
Febos is the inaugural winner of The Jeanne Córdova Nonfiction Prize from LAMBDA Literary, the 2017 recipient of The Sarah Verdone Writing Award from the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council, and her essays have won prizes from Prairie Schooner, Story Quarterly, and The Center for Women Writers. She is the recipient of fellowships from the Bread Loaf Writer’s Conference, Virginia Center for Creative Arts, Vermont Studio Center, The BAU Institute, Ucross Foundation, The Barbara Deming Memorial Fund, Lower Manhattan Cultural Council, Ragdale, and The MacDowell Colony.
The recipient of an MFA from Sarah Lawrence College, she is currently an Associate Professor of Creative Writing at Monmouth University. She serves on the Board of Directors of VIDA: Women in Literary Arts, the PEN America Membership Committee, the Advisory Board of The Rumpus, and co-curated the Manhattan reading and music series, Mixer, for ten years. She curates literary events, teaches workshops, and speaks widely. The daughter of a sea captain and a psychotherapist, she was raised on Cape Cod and lives in Brooklyn.