In shimmery, lean language, Melissa Stephenson has produced a stunning memoir, Driven, which is about cars, death, life, and ultimately, momentum. It’s a book that is miraculously full of heart, yet without a sliver of sentimentality. I can’t stop recommending it. Over a week, Melissa graciously let me email her questions one at a time. As soon as she answered one, I’d send another. In this interview, you’ll find some of the most thoughtful, generous, and wise responses, both on craft and on living. Her words are evidence of why I’ll be returning to her memoir again and again and again.
Shannon Perri: Driven plunges the reader into your grief by beginning mere days following your brother’s death, yet it’s not until the middle of the book that we find out how your brother died. How did you decide what to reveal and when?
Melissa Stephenson: Many of the decisions about what to reveal (and when) happened in revision. It wasn’t until the third or fourth draft of the book that the prologue existed, and that’s the section that starts the story with a narrator who is neck-deep in grief. The problem I kept running into in early drafts is that the first section of the book moved slowly. It’s the section that covers childhood and, by nature, tended to get bogged down in exposition. Once I added the prologue, the childhood scenes had a sense of direction and tension that they had lacked early on. Revealing the grief, backing up to tell the story that led up to the loss, then taking the reader through the trauma felt like a more effective narrative structure. It also felt like a way taking care of the reader, as if to say, “Hard stuff is going to happen, here are the stories that show how we got there, and here is what finally happened.”
SP: I loved the prologue, and it certainly adds a propelling tension for the reader. In fact, the memoir makes many daring (and successful!) structural decisions. For instance, between the beginning chapters, you inject imaginings of what your brother might have been experiencing on the day of his death. Later, you include short, yet gut-punching paragraphs that ponder on the infinite directions you or your brother’s life could have taken. I’d love to know about your process in constructing the many pieces of this book.
MS: The “August 6th” sections between the beginning chapters were the last pieces of the book to fall into place. I added them on final revision, for much the same reason as the prologue. I’d been nicely challenged by my agent to think about how to add momentum to the first part of the book. After years of writing Driven, I drafted those sections in a single day, as soon as the idea came to me to tell the story of August 6th from my brother’s imagined point of view. It’s odd, but writing those pages felt more like channeling than working, and it made for one of the most fluid and fast experiences of my writing life.
The little “Consider This” paragraphs in the last half of the book came to me on the first draft and remained fairly unchanged through the many revisions. I drafted them in one day as well, much like the August 6th sections. I was actually on fellowship at Vermont Studio Center, and we had had open studios the day I wrote those sections, having no idea what they were. I printed them all on a piece of paper, cut them up, and set them on my desk for people to read and see and move around. That’s what gave me the idea to place them randomly, throughout the second half of the book.
I think the “August 6th” sections exist on some level to balance out the “Consider This” passages. The poet in me craved other voices, and other ideas, coming in to break up the more linear narrative and broaden the perspective.
The book started as a series of memoir flash pieces. (Here are a few that ended up on the cutting room floor: https://blackbird.vcu.edu/v17n1/nonfiction/stephenson-m/index.shtml.) Two years later, I had over 100 pages of these shorts but had no idea how to hang them together, as a book. I knew I needed to write about my loss, but any time I tried to write about my brother, my words fell flat. I couldn’t do it. While writing a piece about the first car our family bought new off the lot, the idea to write about cars came to me. Once I began doing that, the basic narrative of the book was born, and I was finally able to tackle the harder parts, about Matthew, using this shaping device.
As for revision, it’s what made this a book. I didn’t think I could write a book, but I managed to drag myself through what Ann Lamott would call a “shitty first draft.” My main challenges in revision were structuring the narrative, and figuring out where to add and where to cut content. I started out with a braided timeline, which eventually shifted to a mostly chronological order of events. Some drafts were up to 90K words long. The final is around 70K, I think. Ultimately I learned how to write a book by writing this one over and over, with feedback from some great beta readers, an amazing agent, and a ninja of an editor.
SP: That’s fascinating that by focusing on cars, you were able to get to the heart. Coming at the loss sideways helped you access the subject in a way that feels, ironically, head on.
Your memoir is honest, yet nonjudgmental, about both yourself and others. You examine your parents, your ex-husband, within the context of their own lived experiences. How did you walk that line with such grace? Or do you think it’s an important line to even consider?
MS: I think that’s an incredibly important line to consider, and it is one of the harder parts about writing memoir for me.
My ex-husband is a writer too, and he believed this story could be a book long before I did. I do remember calling him at one point during the first draft, though, and telling him, “I’m sorry. You’re going to have to be in here because you were with me when all this happened, and there’s no way to tell the story honestly without you.” He was (and is) totally understanding about that. In fact, when he read a draft and had the chance to give feedback, I remember him marking a line about him gaining weight when I hiked the Appalachian Trail, and he commented, “You can just say it– I got fat.” His good humor and support for the story at the cost of his own privacy are acts of grace as well.
My mother and father have been equally supportive of my writing, all of my life. I’ve always written the hard stories. I’ve written things about them that hurt. I did agonize over one final line in the book about my mother but finally decided it was central to the story. It belonged to the book. Both of them answered questions while I was drafting, but only this spring did they read the book. They were entirely supportive.
In her podcast “How to Write a Kickass Essay,” Ann Hood talks about not writing to mythologize anyone, or to get revenge. She says that putting the simple facts about a character out there, without judgment, allows the reader to draw their own conclusions, which is far more powerful than having a narrator tell readers what to think. For me, memoir is about self-awareness, not judgment. No one’s feet should be held to the fire more than the author’s. (I feel like maybe I stole that thought from Mary Karr’s The Art of the Memoir but I can’t find the line right now.) Whenever I sit down to write, I’m trying to answer a question, for myself. The hard part for those close to me is that the experiences we share often spark the questions. I try to have compassion. I try to imagine their best possible motivation in any given circumstances.
SP: The scene in which you describe your brother’s dead body at the mortuary was one of the most beautiful, sad, yet dignified renderings of up-close-and-personal death I’ve ever read. As someone who has seen several loved one’s dead bodies, I was incredibly moved. You did not treat death as something grotesque or unworldly. What was your process in writing this chapter? Do you think time has shaped your perspective on that memory?
MS: What you say about not treating death as something grotesque– My brother is the one who taught me that. There’re snippets of it in the book, but he always had a kind of reverence for and fascination with the physical vessels we travel in. The many tattoos were one branch of that tree: the body means everything, the body means nothing.
This is the one chapter that, after so many revisions, still chokes me up if I try to read it out loud. I’m glad you mentioned it, and I’m glad it stands out because it is, for me, a kind of before-and-after hinge in my life, and I wanted it to feel like a dividing line in the book as well, in tone, style, and structure. It is also one of the few of those original flash pieces (originally titled “Body”) that made it into the final manuscript more or less intact. Including this in the book was less about revision and more about placement.
That chapter is about trauma, and the excruciating, life-changing, exquisite nature of it. Trauma destroys us and transforms us. The transformation is in the rebuilding. But specifically, in that moment with my brother’s body, I have never been so present. I couldn’t take us backwards, and I had no dreams or plans or desire for life going forward. This made for the single most vivid, alive, and sacred experience of my life. So often we don’t get to say goodbye, but I did. The older I get, the more grateful I am that I had those final moments with his body.
On time– That memory does feel as distinct yet distant as some of my earliest childhood memories. When I first drafted it, it felt much closer. I did what I do when writing about any emotionally charged moment from the past: I stuck with the details branded into my senses in a way that still feels present– the red carpet, the white sheet and gauze headdress, and that last tattoo.
SP: In the book you write, “Everything dies, disintegrates, lets go. The trick is to lean into this ending, meet it with awe instead of fear.” Do you think we live in a death-avoidant culture–particularly when it comes to death resulting from violence or mental illness?
MS: Absolutely. One of the biggest motivations for me in writing this book was to shake the shame and silence I felt around my brother’s death. Talking about Matthew after his suicide made people uncomfortable, which drove me to a new level of grief: I’d lost my brother in real life, and I’d lost him in story. The way we try to protect ourselves against bad things by ignoring them in this culture is toxic. It increases isolation, which leads to depression, which leads to suicide and/or other acts of destruction and violence. I knew on a gut level that the silence around his suicide was toxic, but it took a long time for me to process my loss and find words for the story.
No matter the circumstances of death, it’s the great mystery that brings life into sharper focus– a rite of passage that gives our lives gravity. Death transforms the living as well. It’s my instinct to have reverence for that, to lean in, to pay attention when the door to whatever comes next swings open, and to honor those who passed on by speaking of them, and listening to the stories of all those who have loved and lost.
SP: What I appreciate about your book is how, despite it fully embracing the agony of grief, there is so much hope. Your book reads as a celebration of resilience, as a rallying cry to persevere and trust oneself. Pain is awful—sometimes unbearable—but life isn’t stagnant. You write, “I will tell [my children] about suicide, how we owe those we love our participation in the world, and how we owe our future selves the chance to live through those dark hours.” We can feel so stuck, whether by grief or depression or a difficult transition, but your book, to me, suggests: keep going. The car motif strengthens this theme. While writing, was this a message you consciously had in mind? Also, were you born an optimist?
MS: One of the hardest parts of writing this book was getting started, mostly because I felt I had no message. This meant I’d be taking readers to a difficult place with no promise that they’d find something worthwhile at the end. I’ve since learned this about my process: I always know the story I want to tell, but any larger message is something I discover through drafting and revision. I’m grateful that my past self was willing to take the risk of writing this story without knowing what it was she had to say about the events, and I’m grateful to hear that you, as a reader, found hope in those pages. Because that’s what I ultimately feel, even on dark days.
Growing up, I’d say I was definitely more of a brooding, restless character. But I wanted to see things and go places, and there is a fierce kind of optimism in that desire. In high school I got into some trouble and had to see a counselor. During our first meeting, I recall that counselor asking if I’d ever considered suicide. The question shocked me. I said, No. She said, Really? And I said, If things get that bad you could always walk to Texas. (We were in Northern Michigan.) She found my answer amusing, but it was and is my gut response to pain– movement. When I found myself, years later, already in Texas and in pain over my brother’s death, I remember thinking, Where am I going to walk to now?
As I get older, I realize loss is a Personal Growth Opportunity. I don’t wish it on anyone, but when it comes for you, you can either choose rigidity and repression, or you can lean in and do the work.
I’m also big on mantras these days. Like asking myself, What is this pain trying to teach me? Or this one, which came from my physical therapist: You’re not broken; You’re just stuck. Or Rilke: No feeling is final. Simple phrases like this comfort me and offer some perspective in moments when life feels like a house of mirrors.
SP: There is so much more I could ask, but you’ve already been so generous with your time and attention. So I will end with this. Is there anything you’d tell your younger aspiring writer-self, if you could?
MS: Always listen to your gut, and beware of those who try to talk you out of it.
Your voice is as worthy as anyone else’s, no matter how loud they talk.
Everything you hope to find in others– men especially– you have to find inside yourself.
Endurance is 90% of writing. While everyone else hangs out in bars, talking about writers and writing, put your head down and do the work. Let it be wild. Let it be bad. Let other people talk smack about it. Just keep going.
Melissa Stephenson earned her B.A. in English from The University of Montana and her M.F.A. in Fiction from Texas State University. Her writing has appeared in publications such as The Rumpus, The Washington Post, ZYZZYVA, and Fourth Genre. Her memoir, Driven, was published in July of 2018 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. She lives in Missoula, Montana with her two kids.
Shannon Perri holds a master’s degree in social work from the University of Texas and an MFA from Texas State University, where she teaches in the English department. Her fiction has appeared in Joyland Magazine, fields, Fiddleblack, and elsewhere. She lives in Austin and is at work on a novel set in Big Bend National Park.