The Irresistible Nature of Certain Kinds of Truth: An Interview with Melissa Febos

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Sarah Fawn Montgomery, Prairie Schooner's Assistant Editor – Nonfiction, recently interviewed Melissa Febos, winner of Prairie Schooner's second annual Creative Nonfiction Contest. Read on as they discuss the irresistable nature of certain kinds of truth, Montaigne, trying to say the unsayable, and more.

SFM: In her interview with Prairie Schooner, guest judge Lia Purpura said, “The essay is wildly capacious and inviting and open to invention—perhaps because it’s grounded in, a priori, a human’s singular experience of the world. That’s the promise the form makes, and it’s an intimate, exciting one.” Why does nonfiction appeal to you as a writer? What about the form—in this case the form of the essay—speaks to you?

MF: I find certain kinds of truth irresistibly compelling, and nonfiction turns out the be the best way for me to get at them. It is a capacious form, but also strict in its relationship to actual experience. That kind of box feels good to me: lidless, but boundaried. If I draw too thick a curtain of invention between me and my subject, it becomes easier to avoid the thing I came to write about.

The word essay comes from essayer, and Montaigne (who named it) thought of it as just that: an attempt. A try. I feel free to try things in essays, to follow my own questions. To chase down the things that most confound and hound and scare and call to me.  And I think the demonstration of this willingness in essays has a great value in a culture that worships the known, the defined, the singular. As Lia Purpura's generous words suggest, I think essays have the power to broach the universal through the very specific. It is an intimate and exciting process, and I think that helps to make it so for the reader as well.  That's what I hope for, anyway, in my own.

SFM: Your winning essay, “Call My Name,” moves between memories and etymology to create a lyric meditation on the purpose and power of naming. What about this subject matter compelled to you write the piece? What was the writing process like for you?

MF: Writing is always a process of naming isn't it? Trying to fit our mouths around the unsayable. To find the limits of things. I think there is always hope, and promise, and innocence involved in naming things (and people). It's a way of saying, simultaneously, this is mine, and also, this is apart from me. A name holds the essential impossibility of capturing anything in a single word. "Call My Name" is about how a word can't hold anything entirely, but, conversely, how a word can hold anything we give to it. I guess the same could be said of God, or love. 

I don't think any one subject compelled me to write the essay – I didn't know where it was taking me as I wrote it. Writing, especially essays, is always a process of discovery for me, but this one more so than most. It began as a little piece of a book I'm writing.  I didn't think it'd be more than a few paragraphs, scratching at the etymology of Melissa.  But behind that word was door, and then another, and another. It led me into it, into the word, and words of my history, my family, into depths I hadn't reached.

I tend to write pretty pragmatically, and quickly, from outlines. When it comes to writing, especially nonfiction, I believe in saying what you came to say, in as direct a way as possible. This essay was different. I could only see a few inches in front of me as I moved through it. It's truths approached me from different angles. It grew and shrunk, and grew and shrunk. It required more trust than most things I write. It was unsettling and invigorating to spent so much time in the dark of it.  

SFM: What projects are you currently working on?

MF: I'm working on a novel that's in middle drafts, about art and music and madness. A love story. And also a nonfiction book. A sort of memoir that grapples with the same content as this essay. And essays. More essays.

Sarah Fawn Montgomery holds an MFA in creative nonfiction from California State University-Fresno and is currently a PhD candidate in creative writing at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Her work has been listed as notable in Best American Essays and her poetry and prose have appeared or are forthcoming in various magazines including Confrontation, Crab Orchard Review, DIAGRAM, Fugue, Georgetown Review, The Los Angeles Review, North Dakota Quarterly, The Pinch, Puerto del Sol, Zone 3 and others.

Melissa Febos is the author of the memoir, Whip Smart (St. Martin’s Press, 2010). Her work has been widely anthologized and appeared in publications including Glamour, Salon, Dissent, New York Times, Bitch Magazine, The Rumpus, Drunken Boat, Hunger Mountain, The Portland Review, and The Chronicle of Higher Education Review. She has been featured on NPR’s Fresh Air, CNN’s Dr. Drew, Anderson Cooper Live, and elsewhere. The recipient of MacDowell Colony fellowships in 2010 and 2011, and a 2012 Bread Loaf nonfiction fellowship, Melissa has co-curated the Mixer Reading and Music Series in Manhattan for six years. Currently Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at Monmouth University and MFA faculty at Sarah Lawrence College and the Institute of American Indian Arts (IAIA), she is on the board of directors for VIDA, Women in Literary Arts.  She grew up on Cape Cod, and lives in Brooklyn.