17 / Call Yourself a Writer

How much does the Life TK audience know about being a professional dominatrix? That was one of the first questions my interviewee—the remarkable Melissa Febos—had for me when we recorded today's episode. I don't have that data, unfortunately, but it's a fair question because Melissa is the author of the amazing memoir Whip Smart, about the time in her twenties she spent as a college student and professional dom, one of the best books I read last year. Whip Smart is about so much more than the world of domming; it's about power, desire, control, and Melissa's struggle with drug addiction. Get it. Read it. Love it.

Also one of the best books I read last year: Melissa's powerhouse essay collection Abandon Me, which chronicles an emotional, intimate, fraught long-distance relationship she had with a lover, and her reconnection to her birth father. Abandon Me was named one of the best books of 2017 by Esquire, Refinery29, BookRiot, Electric Literature, The Cut, and more, and The New Yorker said that the "sheer fearlessness of the narrative is captivating." What I love about Abandon Me is not only does the subject matter invoke this incredible feeling of vulnerability, but also Melissa is a master of form. A lot of the essays are braided and the prose is amazing, dipping into religion, psychology, mythology, popular culture—this is a book that will turn you inside out emotionally and intellectually, and leave you wanting more.

So here's some more: Today Melissa and I are talking about the process of writing, how Whip Smart poured out of her—and how Abandon Me was different. Whip Smart started as a five-page memoir assignment for a nonfiction survey class, and when Melissa handed in hers, about her first session as a dom, her professor recognized she was on to something. Melissa was told to drop everything and write this book. "Anyone who finds the work they are called to do will recognize this feeling," she told me. "When I started writing that story, it just—it was writing me. It just came out. It wasn't easy, but there was an engine in me for it, and the story wanted to be told."

If you're wondering, like I did, whether Abandon Me felt just as urgent to write, it did—but it was different because Melissa was still living through some of the experiences she was writing about. She didn't know how the book was going to turn out because she wasn't sure, well, what she was writing to. "I just knew I had to examine it in order to move through it," she said.

As I often do on Life TK, I asked the million-dollar question: Did Melissa ever feel like giving up? Here's what she told me:

"Oh God, I felt like giving up yesterday. It's so lonely sometimes. I can't really speak for other kinds of writers, but because I'm writing memoir or work based on my personal experience, I spend a lot of time alone, re-living and examining the most painful, sort of incoherent parts of my experience. Which is a lot. It's not required. It's not even recommended for a lot of people. It's really painful. I have often wanted to give up. ... In my early twenties, when I had graduated college and I wasn't writing and I wasn't reading and I was an active drug addict working as a dominatrix, I was like, 'I feel so far from the life that I thought I'd be living, and from the person I am.'"

But how did she get through it? By getting quiet, she told me, and listening to the inner wisdom that's underneath the fear we all experience. "For me, even in those times when I felt incredibly hopeless, far from where I needed to be, if I got really quiet, I could hear it. It's like those moments when I was like, 'You have to get clean.' 'You have to quit this job.'"

One of my favorite parts of Whip Smart is when Melissa, wanting to use her degree, takes a break from domming and starts a new job working in editorial...and it blows, so she quits. You know I'm the A-number-one fan of hanging in there, but Melissa's confidence made me think twice about my "no quitting" policy. We talk about how she knew that job wasn't the right fit, and what she did after she left (dog walking, assistant to a really rich lady).

And finally, I ask Melissa for her advice for Life TK listeners. Keep going, and call yourself a writer even if you don't write for a living. "Tell people about your work, even if your heart is broken out of rejection, send it back out again," she said. "It doesn't feel good, it feels like the wrong thing to do, but we have to do it anyway." Listen below, or subscribe in Apple Podcasts or Stitcher.

This episode was produced by Erin McKinstry. Our music, from Blue Dot Sessions, is called The Zeppelin, Drifting Spade, and Vulcan Street. This interview was recorded with the help of Google Hangouts.