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Melissa Stephenson's White-Knuckled Ride To Heartbreak And Back

Jun 14, 2018

From a lineage of secondhand family cars of the late ’60s, to the Honda that carried her from Montana to Texas as her new marriage disintegrated, to the ’70s Ford she drove away from her brother’s house after he took his life (leaving Melissa the truck, a dog, and a few mix tapes), to the VW van she now uses to take her kids camping, she knows these cars better than she knows some of the people closest to her. Driven away from grief, and toward hope, Melissa reckons with what it means to lose a beloved sibling.

Driven will be released July 24th. Pre-order it here or from the retailer of your choice.

Driven by Melissa Stephenson

The following highlights are from a conversation with Melissa Stephenson about her book Driven: A White-Knuckled Ride to Heartbreak and Back. Click to listen now or subscribe to our podcast.  

Sarah Aronson: How are you most like your brother Matthew?

Melissa Stephenson: Oh, I always think about how I’m so different than him. We’re both very empathetic. I think that’s something that runs from my father to my brother to me and to my son. We’re little empaths and we can kind of smell and absorb other people’s emotions.

Matthew sounds like a character. The book is dedicated to him, and he committed suicide in 2000. As I was reading, it’s true, you spend much of the first part of the book explaining your differences. Why was this important to you to establish that from the get-go?

Our differences?

Yeah.

I think growing up I had a basic insecurity and I looked to him as the kind of person I should be or wanted to be. He was a bright light and I was a little introvert, a little peculiar, and on the edges of things. So I really looked to him as a sign of who I wanted to be without realizing we all come into the world with different gifts, and maybe just owning what we’re given is the way we shine. But I didn’t get that when I was little.

Sure. And you call yourself “petit tornado.” What did this look growing up?

Much like my own daughter—that has come back to roost in my life, for sure. I was a big feelings kid and I was very driven. The things I wanted I wanted very intensely and I was a pot that boiled over regularly. Not so much with anger, but shame or hurt or upset, whatever it might be. I was a kid who had to vent her emotions and everyone would know how I was feeling in those big feeling moments.

There were times and scenes when I felt almost protective of you as a child and in thinking about the craft of writing, how does a writer learn to write both honestly about themselves—particularly about their flaws—but without making themselves pitiful or repulsive to the reader?

I think part of it is, as an older, more mature person, being able to look back at your younger self with both clarity and compassion. So for me to look back with the knowledge that I have now and be able to cast that on my former self and look at myself as a child much the way I look at one of my own children now, and to bring my compassion to it is key, and to have the wisdom of the adult narrator is key. But also just trying to stick to the facts, stick to the details. Put those experiences out there without judgement and then the reader is able to make their own decisions.

What was the process of trusting your memory and also that you could write your way through this book, because it’s emotional. . .

Yes. I’d say it took about three years for me to accept that I was writing a book and to have the confidence to think that I could write this book. From the moment he died I knew there would be a book one day, if I could bring myself to do it, that would be about him and about me. This book essentially. For years I couldn’t touch that material. And then I actually started writing this when I was working, ironically for Harcourt the publisher, for their textbook division, and things were slow. The economy was crashing in 2008, I believe, and we had all this time where we needed to look busy, so I started to write these little flash creative nonfiction pieces. I could write these tiny little memories—a lot of them have been absorbed in this final draft—but I couldn’t sit down and write a narrative about my brother’s death. That was overwhelming. It wasn’t really until I latched onto—I knew I needed a shaping device of some sort—and I thought if I can’t tell the whole story, and I’ve written 200 pages of these little memories, what could I write about? Oh, cars.

What would you offer, in words or in sentiments, to those who’ve lost loved ones or friends to suicide?

I read a passage in a book by Glennon Doyle recently called “Love Warrior,” and the little passage was “Grief is love’s souvenir.” I keep that in mind. Sometimes grief feels like a failure. Sometimes missing someone who on some level didn’t want to be here can feel like a failure. I’d back up and unpack that, and say people who kill themselves don’t necessarily not want to be here. And so to be kind to yourself, and to know that grief is the cost of love. And loving someone is never a failure.

About the Book:

A searing memoir about one woman’s road through heartbreak to hope following the death of her troubled brother, told through the series of cars that accompanied her.

Growing up in a blue-collar family in the Midwest, Melissa Stephenson longed for escape. Her wanderlust was an innate reaction to the powerful personalities around her, and came too from her desire to find a place in the world where her artistic ambitions wouldn’t be thwarted. She found in automobiles the promise of a future beyond Indiana state lines.

From a lineage of secondhand family cars of the late ’60s, to the Honda that carried her from Montana to Texas as her new marriage disintegrated, to the ’70s Ford she drove away from her brother’s house after he took his life (leaving Melissa the truck, a dog, and a few mix tapes), to the VW van she now uses to take her kids camping, she knows these cars better than she knows some of the people closest to her. Driven away from grief, and toward hope, Melissa reckons with what it means to lose a beloved sibling.

Driven is a powerful story of healing, for all who have had to look back at pain to see how they can now move forward.

Melissa Stephenson
Credit Adrianne Mathiowetz

About the Author:

Melissa Stephenson earned her BA in English from the University of Montana and her MFA in fiction from Texas State University. Her writing has appeared in publications such as the Rumpus, the Washington Post, ZYZZYVA, and Fourth Genre. Driven is her first book. She lives in Missoula, Montana, with her two kids. Driven can be pre-ordered here.