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The NWP Welcomes New Faculty Member, Acclaimed Essayist Melissa Febos

Melissa Febos, Photo courtesy The Wild Detectives

Melissa Febos, award-winning essayist and author of Whip Smart (St. Martin’s Press) and Abandon Me (Bloomsbury), joins The Nonfiction Writing Program faculty this fall. Here, she talks with EmmaJean Holley, NWP ’21, about rolling with the writing process, justice in and outside of the classroom, and first impressions — human and canine — of the Midwest.

EJH: Moving your life across the country in the middle of a pandemic must have been pretty intense. What has the transition to Iowa City been like for you?

MF: I lived in NYC for over twenty years, so there was bound to be some major culture shock no matter where I moved after that. I felt somewhat prepared for the differences here, at least intellectually—friends told me about how friendly everyone would be, how spacious the supermarkets, and so forth—but there was no way to be prepared for the reality, which has been surprising at every turn, mostly in good ways. Our dog is in heaven because it’s very hot and quiet here, there is a front yard and a back yard, and my partner and I are both at home constantly—all elements near the top of his personal hierarchy of needs.

EJH: Your fall seminar, Personal Bibliographies, is based around weaving research into personal narrative. What inspired you to design this particular class?

MF: When given the opportunity to design new classes, I almost always orient them around my own interests as a writer. I like the class to feel like a kind of lab, in which we are all experimenting, sharing experience and expertise. My work usually contains some combination of personal narrative and researched material, and figuring out my best methods of collecting, synthesizing, and sometimes building an entire essay around the research has been one of the most challenging and exciting parts of my process for a while now.

EJH: NWP students and alums have been voicing concerns lately about the need for better support for BIPOC students, resulting in the 10-point action plan rolled out last month. Beyond this plan, what do you see as the role of educators like yourself in making MFA programs more inclusive, supportive spaces for marginalized students? 

MF: I was thrilled when I saw that plan and read that letter. It made me even more eager to work with the students who wrote it, and to help enact the plan (and build upon it) with my new colleagues.

I could say so much about this, but most importantly, beyond the practices outlined in that excellent plan, I consider it my duty as an educator to be doing the earnest work of confronting and dismantling white supremacy, patriarchy, ableism, and transphobia (among other systems of oppression) in myself, the institutions that I engage with, and every situation that I enter. In practice, this varies from day to day and includes: meeting with my antiracism group, weeding ableist language from my own speech, engaging these issues in my own writing, protesting and other forms of activism, and being a good listener. That is, I need to be taking the kind of personal accountability that I hope to encourage in my students and their work. How else can I create a truly inclusive, supportive space for my students to learn in? It cannot be concentrated only in the classroom. I believe it is our job as educators to model the rigor of this work, and the humility it requires, for our students, each other, and the programs and institutions with which we are affiliated.

EJH: I know a lot of us in the program have been finding it more difficult to write these past few months, given the current state of the world. Do you have any insight to offer writers who may be struggling with feeling unproductive lately? (Asking for a friend.)

MF: I have two thoughts about this. First, I think it’s important to scrutinize our conceptions of “productivity.” I know that I’ve internalized capitalist ideas of production that are often counter (and sometimes toxic) to the ways that meaningful work is made. In the economy of my creative work (if we are going to use this suspect analogy), it’s not really useful at most stages of writing to measure my progress materially, in terms of word-count or pages written. Reading, rumination, brainstorming, interviews, and making lists are all fundamental parts of doing my best work. I’ve also found that these often feel more possible for me during times of turmoil than drafting.

Secondly, it’s been important for me to allow my focus to change. The essay I was writing before the pandemic might not be as urgent or possible now. I try to let my curiosity lead me. I had a whole list of essays I planned to write this summer and maybe two out of the ten felt like they had a pulse when May rolled around. But I also had some new ideas. I get stuck in my writing when I get stuck in my own ideas, if that makes sense. I have to be able to change my mind and change my focus, because to a large extent my work is a response to what’s happening in the world and the way that it interacts with my interior life. I’ve learned that I simply cannot write something that doesn’t feel interesting or urgent to me.

EJH: Your third book, Girlhood, comes out next year. What was the hardest thing about writing this book? What was the most rewarding?

MF: The hardest thing for me about writing a book is always…writing a book? It defies my best plans, refuses to reveal itself before it is ready, insists that I learn how to do things at which I am not already skilled, demands that I challenge my own most comforting narratives and grow as a thinker and human, and laughs at the idea of there being a shortcut or easy way. It is also rewarding for exactly those qualities.

– Interview by EmmaJean Holley, NWP 2021