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‘The self-care is the writing’: Women essayists destroy clichés at the Festival of Books

"Vulnerability is hard for everyone to bear, and I think people are frightened," says Maggie Nelson,
Maggie Nelson, who joined Melissa Febos, Meghan Daum and moderator Dinah Lenney for a panel on “Feminism and the Personal Essay” had a lot to say about the topic, including the panel’s title.
(Harry Dodge)
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“I have a problem with the word ‘brave,’” said the writer Meghan Daum during a panel Sunday at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books. “People who face down a harpoon for Greenpeace are brave.”

“Writing about f— is so bold!” cracked Melissa Febos, most recently the author of “Body Work: The Radical Power of Personal Narrative.” They were onstage with the writer Maggie Nelson and moderator Dinah Lenney to discuss “Feminism and the Personal Essay” — a title about which they also had a few bones to pick.

Febos expanded on the theme of sexual frankness with an anecdote about a woman coming up to her at a reading of her first book, “Whip Smart,” a memoir about her experience as a “junkie professional dominatrix” (her own description), who asked, “aren’t you ashamed?”

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After Nelson, whose most recent book is “On Freedom,” read the explicit sex scene that opens her celebrated book “The Argonauts,” moderator Dinah Lenney asked, “Is it deliberate, to make us sort of sit up, the writing of that scene?”

“You know, I came of age in the AIDS era, being absorbed in the work of queer artists like David Wojnarowicz,” Nelson said. “I’m much more prudish than most of my friends. I don’t see my work as a breakout or brave — I see it as part of a lineage.”

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Before it even began, the panel was an exercise in anxiety over language. “When I got this panel assignment,” the moderator Dinah Lenney said, “I thought, ‘Oh God, now I have to define feminism!’”

But parsing this language — the way personal writing by women is categorized and named — is actually feminism in action. “I realized, I don’t have to define feminism,” Lenney said. “I just have to ask you three how it comes to the page.”

Febos picked up the thread. “I get so tired of my students’ work being described as ‘domestic’ or ‘women’s writing,’” she said. The phrase she uses in “Body Work” is “navel-gazing.” “It’s really the crudest form of sexism.”

Melissa Febos explains the power of memoir in her new book, "Body Work."
(Beowulf Sheehan)
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As the panelists discussed the limitations of labels, the sound of the USC marching band shook the walls of the room. For all three writers, who also teach, their students’ ability to write freely is also an inspiring challenge — never mind that said students (and readers) often ask how writers like them can write so ruthlessly about themselves, friends and family.

“Putting the art first can get really patriarchal,” Febos said. “I put art at the top of my priorities, but then I was chastened by experience. I hate to say it, but it’s really trial and error.”

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Lenney asked if the writers consider the audience in their writing. “My first fidelity is to literary art,” Nelson said, “I’m really more interested in form. How does it sound? What does it look like on the page?”

Febos unearthed — and then contradicted — the inherent assumption that a reader is a critic waiting in the wings. “I imagine the most loving reader.”

Questions from the audience were also focused on language and identity. One attendee asked, “How do you center yourself in your stories, particularly as a white writer, without wanting to center yourself (and your experience) in the world?”

“You have to make the work first,” Febos said. Lenney concurred: “You can’t censor yourself. Don’t censor yourself in the first draft.”

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Another audience member stood up and asked, “What self-care tips do you have when writing about trauma?”

The panel paused. Then Lenney leaned forward and with a casual confidence, summarized the heart of the matter. “The self-care is the writing.”

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