Two Blends of Memoir and Contemporary Analysis: Body Work and Trapped in the Present Tense

Melissa Febos’ Body Work: The Radical Power of Personal Narrative is both memoir and guidebook, and a meditation on what life writing does for us and the importance of it to women and underrepresented groups.

Febos is the author of several works of memoir and autobiographical fiction, and although I haven’t read her before, she’s extremely popular and highly praised. I can see why: the subject matter of her stories is incredibly raw while her writing is highly technically, stylistically polished — it’s a really impressive juxtaposition. She worked as a dominatrix and through a heroin addiction and an abusive relationship, so her memoir threads are emotionally charged, to say the least. It makes a strong backdrop for pulling out what’s meaningful — if squirmingly uncomfortable — from others’ stories.

One chapter titled “In praise of navel gazing” drives home the importance of excavating painful, traumatic events, from their need to be told, to connect with others who have experienced similar, and also for the health of the writer, with social psychology studies and experiments supporting the health effects of life writing exercises even after very short periods of doing them: “Expressive writing about trauma strengthens the immune system, decreases obsessive thinking, and contributes to the overall health of the writers.”

She also completely eviscerates the argument that confessional women’s memoirs don’t deserve the same respect and acclaim as men’s memoirs which cover similar “navel-gazing” ground: she says men can write about their daddy issues “incessantly” and there are even masterpieces among these, but “women and people of all marginalized identities” are discouraged from writing them and the broader reading public from reading them.

This meant so much to me, and her writing around this topic is worth the price of admission on its own.

She also ties in the social justice movement and identifies a link between the “resistance” against certain types of memoir and their significance in this genre, and the inherent political nature of many of these topics.

This will have massive appeal to anyone who might feel like their story isn’t worth telling or that no one would want to read their memoir, and gives a little shot of bravery if you’re hovering on the edge of whether to reveal something or not.

Some favorite lines (of many; Febos’ writing clearly deserves its accolades):

On the page, I undergo a change of heart, I return to the past and make something new from it. I forgive myself and am freed from old harms, I return to love and am blessed with more than enough to give away.

I had to walk back through my most mystifying choices and excavate events for which I had been numb on the first go-around.

published March 15 by Catapult
Shop used or new @ SecondSale.com

Colette Brooks’ Trapped in the Present Tense: Meditations on American Memory is a compelling, if at times confusing, collection of snapshot-style stories of some major American events with an emphasis on ephemeral moments.

Moving through chapters divided into the themes of shooters, soldiers, secrets, statistics, and snapshots, Brooks teases apart elements of headline-grabbing stories (Adam and Nancy Lanza, the Apache Baghdad airstrike video released by WikiLeaks) and the more mundane, while tying topics into a uniquely American framework involving war, weaponry, and collective national ideas of identity and memory.

Although the events are large-scale (US military presence in Japan in the Second World War), some of the players are smaller (from the author’s family) and it leads to a really interesting style of sort of-memoir, although kind of an unsatisfying one since the stories aren’t whole. Still, I loved seeing where each section was going, some stories were very moving, and I liked this sad but never maudlin, determinedly realistic but dreamily musing look at how time runs together and the special significance of small moments in a bigger picture.

It doesn’t feel like it has a big loud message to impart though, it’s a quieter, meandering type of thing. But if you like that, as well as a text packed with lots of accessible data and interesting trivia, it’s a great snapshot in its own right.

Although neither of these are memoir per se, they tie memoir-ish elements into bigger questions around storytelling, memory, how we frame events in a narrative, and what stories are important to tell. Divergent takes on this topic always feel so worthwhile. published February 8 by Catapult
Shop used or new @ SecondSale.com

I received advance copies courtesy of the publisher for unbiased review.

14 thoughts on “Two Blends of Memoir and Contemporary Analysis: Body Work and Trapped in the Present Tense

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      1. I bought Body Work on Audible and have been listening to it on my daily walks. It’s interesting and it’s nice hearing the author narrating her own work. I’m thinking about picking up some of her other books.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. I bet it makes a good one for listening to! I really hadn’t been all that interested in her other work until I read it and now I’m thinking of trying one her memoirs too. I wasn’t crazy about her essay in an essay collection I just read though, but I think her writing is so good in general to be worth it. Let me know what you think if you pick one up and which one you try!

        Liked by 1 person

  1. I gravitate to memoir-ish books. I just find people’s stories so compelling. And when they are tied in a respectable way to some other topic (that the author knows about and is not just doing personal rambling) I learn so much. These sound interesting, especially Body Work. Thanks.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. “She also completely eviscerates the argument that confessional women’s memoirs don’t deserve the same respect and acclaim as men’s memoirs which cover similar “navel-gazing” ground: she says men can write about their daddy issues “incessantly” and there are even masterpieces among these, but “women and people of all marginalized identities” are discouraged from writing them and the broader reading public from reading them.”
    I am not surprised by this, but it angers me all over again. They’re trying to keep us quiet you say? No change there. I’m not much of a memoir reader but this one is getting added to the list, both because it sounds interesting and also as a fuck you to anyone who tells anyone that they shouldn’t.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. This one is much less traditional memoir, more just her weaving her own personal experiences through ideas about writing and analysis of life writing in general. I think you’d like it — the social analysis was really on point, and it is completely ridiculous that women’s life writing gets written off navel-gazing or attention-seeking or whatever and men whining about daddy issues or addiction get the highest praise. Like it shouldn’t even need to be said, and yet.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Your point about men’s memoirs and women’s and other marginalised people’s is pertinent and interesting. Two very worthwhile and fascinating books here!

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  4. Body Work and Craft in the Real World are two books on writing that I’d really like to read even though I’m not interested in writing myself. They sound like they’re both really well done and address a lot of interesting topics around equity and racial justice that I’m interested in. I’m glad to hear that Body Work lived up to the hype for you 🙂

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