I sometimes wonder if I should include certain details about my life in poems. When in doubt, I test the detail with this question: Will it serve the truth of the poem? It would be petty to add something simply to shock a reader, decorate an action, confess something or hurt someone through my writing.
Hearing a story about Whip Smart, a memoir by Melissa Febos, on NPR’s Fresh Air last year, my first thought was it couldn’t be anything more than a series of shocking stories. How else could the story of a professional dominatrix enter into literature? The more I listened to the interview, however, the more intriguing and thoughtful the book sounded. Of course, I was also curious about the simple details of a life of a dominatrix. What could be more different from my own life?
I read Whip Smart over the course of two days, since I very truly couldn’t put it down. It was fascinating. Melissa Febos offers insight into her experience from the perspective of a woman searching to find balance and a path through our very human, everyday existences. She poses questions about power, femininity, feminism, gender roles, independence, and other issues that we all grapple with differently in different settings. Febos explores, answers, and then answers the questions again when the situations change.
If I were 18 again and packing for my first year at Smith College, I know that I would have tucked this book away along with Catcher in the Rye and everything by Sylvia Plath. As an adult, it is exciting to read a mature exploration of not only a loss of innocence, but a regaining of humanity.
For more on Melissa Febos, visit her author website. There are links to her publications, readings and interviews. There’s even an excerpt from Whip Smart. I was happy to learn that she’s not only a graduate of the MFA program at Sarah Lawrence College, but also teaches there.
Are you working on a memoir and struggling to decide which details to include? If you are in the D.C. metro area, you might consider registering for my upcoming Memoir Writing Workshop at Politics & Prose.