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Melissa Stephenson on the Daunting Task of Getting the Story Down

by Brendan Dowling on July 26, 2018

Melissa Stephenson’s powerful memoir, Driven: A White-Knuckled Ride To Heartbreak and Back, traces her relationship with her beloved brother, who died by suicide, by cataloging the various cars from her life. With extreme compassion and biting humor, Stephenson recounts her various relationships with family members, as well as the wanderlust that launched her from her small hometown in Indiana. Booklist stated that “readers of grief memoirs will especially want to seek this out, but so should anyone looking for a story of finding strength in oneself” and Rick Bass said that “Driven does the hard and wonderful work of exhuming the beauty from which disconnection and heartbreak is woven.” Stephenson spoke with Brendan Dowling via telephone on July 10th.

Your memoir is divided up into chapters loosely based around the car you were driving at the time. What made cars the perfect entry point to tell your and your brother’s story?

It was practical more than anything. I had taken a long time to come back to writing after a five year break from it, and I think part of that was feeling overwhelmed by this story that had happened in my life. I was a poet and a fiction writer, but I felt like I kept trying to write around it. I couldn’t really write around it, but I also couldn’t write directly about it.

For a couple of years I wrote all these flash memoir pieces that had to do with growing up in Indiana, but whenever I tried to write about the big event, or even my brother directly, I just drew a blank. The words just weren’t working. One day one of these short pieces I had been working with was about when we got our first, brand new, off-the-lot car, the Volare. As I was writing about that, the idea came to me to make a list of the cars we grew up with. Then I realized that the car story continued and was central to my brother’s death in inheriting one of his cars.

Once I started to write about the cars instead of trying to write about the trauma or the loss directly, I found that it was a shaping device that could get me through the narrative. The harder parts of the story then would fall into place naturally without me trying to look them directly in the eye.

It sounds like writing about the cars gave you permission to write about your brother?

It’s not too far from the idea that Anne Lamott talks about in her craft book Bird by Bird. She talks about trying to stay really specific in using a one inch picture frame. Don’t look at the big picture. What can you really see through a one-inch picture frame? I feel like the cars gave me that sort of zoom-in focus that kept me from being overwhelmed by the weight and magnitude of the larger story. If I could follow one car at a time that was manageable, whereas before when I sat down to write about the big event it wasn’t.

In writing this memoir, were there any memoirs you looked to for inspiration about how to tell your story?

There were certain memoirs that I did not read as I was drafting mine because I was aware of them and I was afraid that there would be too many similarities. Actually I read a lot of fiction while I was writing the memoir, maybe to keep other writers’ voices out of my head.

I’ve definitely been influenced by Mary Karr, especially Lit. Also The Autobiography of a Face by Lucy Grealy and then the book by Anne Patchett, Truth and Beauty, which reflects on her friendship with Lucy Grealy. Then probably the most significant ones that I read, one before I started my memoir and one during, were Joan Didion’s two books, The Year of Magical Thinking and Blue Nights.

I don’t think I’d encountered someone writing about grief like that. Reading The Year of Magical Thinking made me think, “Okay, maybe this is something that I could write about.” My fear was no one would be able to bear to read it, but I loved reading her book so that gave me the green light to try.

While the book is very candid about all of the painful elements of your brother’s life, it’s also very funny. How did you find the balance the humor with some of the darker moments in the book?

That makes me so happy, that’s the biggest compliment for you to say that. It definitely reflects the odd sense of humor that I grew up with in my family. I feel like a lot of that levity came with revision. It wasn’t something I was trying to force in there but once I had gotten down to the bare bones of some of the harder parts of the narrative I was a little desensitized to that myself and I was able to go in there and say, “Oh, there was this funny part and there’s this detail.” Actually my ex-husband was a great reader for me as far as just content and things that had happened. He was someone who’d also remind me little snippets, “Don’t you remember they played that terrible song at our wedding? You should put that in there!” So other people were able to help me see those moments as well.

As I went back and did the daunting task of getting the basic story down, part of the fun was going back in and fully sketching out those moments. You can’t have the dark without the light. They’re always both in there. It makes me happy to hear that element came out.

Throughout the book you have little paragraphs where you consider alternate timelines for you and your brother’s lives. Those parts are so poignant and moving. How did they find their way into your memoir?

I did one writing residency, a fellowship in Vermont, and wrote half the manuscript on that fellowship. One day there we were having Open Studios where people go around and look at artists’ work, and I didn’t have anything to show. Just that day, for some reason, I’d written all those “consider this” snippets and cut them up in little pieces of paper and had them scattered out on my desk. I realized, “Oh well, I’ll leave these out at least.” I didn’t know what they’d do in the book or where they’d go. Through the revision process they got juggled up. There are a couple of elements in the book that came all at once like that and pretty much stayed that way within the book. But those kind of came in a day. It was a little mantra that came into my head while I was working. I’m a runner so things like that will come into my head while I’m running. I think that kind of bargaining or guessing is just part of grief.

You interviewed a lot of your brother’s friends for the book. What was that research process like?

A lot of them were a little hard to find. My brother died right before any of us had cell phones, probably a year before our pictures started to be digital. A lot of his friends were like him, very analog type of people. Once I’d found them all, whether phone or email, everyone was willing to help me. But I could tell some people had wanted to talk about it. They were very ready to share information. Everybody very willingly shared information, but some people I could tell it was still hard for them. I could also sense the trauma in the details they were giving me, that this is stuff they carry around and don’t talk about much. There’s one person who actually witnesses his death and is with him in when he dies, and that’s the person who did me an amazing favor of rehashing that experience for me and helping me get all the details right. I don’t think that’s something that that person talks about regularly at all.

Your background is as a poet and as a fiction writer. What skills from those fields did you bring to writing your own story?

I went to an arts s high school and studied writing there. I studied poetry the whole time. As I was leaving, I wrote my first creative non-fiction essay.  My teacher, who was also a poet, slapped the last sentence and said, “See, now you know how to end something! That’s why you had to write all those poems!” I think what he was telling me was that when you know how to structure a poem and be very specific and bring readers to some sort of emotionally fulfilling ending, that’s great practice for prose as well. I feel like this thing that I got from studying fiction later in graduate school was just how to handle a narrative and make scenes. Those were things as a poet I didn’t really know how to do. They’re the parts of the book I enjoy the most, whether you’re in the middle of a wedding or someone trying to burn a tattoo off their leg, to be able to structure those scenes and handle dialogue and characters in a larger narrative.

What role has the library played in your life?

My brother and I grew up with teenage parents and we were not that well to do. Going to the library was at least a weekly event. My mother worked in our school libraries as well, so even though she didn’t go to college, even though we didn’t have much money, every week it was “Which books have you finished? Which books are you getting?” We had books all over the house. Some she would buy but most of them came from the library. In the piece that I wrote, it’s interesting looking back, my hometown has an odd history of mid century architecture that I didn’t realize was somewhat famous growing up. Our library has a giant famous sculpture in front. It was built in 1966 and has poured concrete honeycomb ceilings. It’s just an amazing building. I remember my brother and I going to storytime and when I visit there now, I still take my kids to that library. In Missoula we use our library constantly. That’s something I instill in my kids. We don’t need to own all these books, we can borrow these books and use these resources to explore.

This interview has been edited and condensed.