A Road Map of Grief: A Conversation with Melissa Stephenson about accessing memory, narrative devices, and balancing dual timelines in memoir.
After graduating from Interlochen Arts Academy, 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, Narratively, Barrelhouse, Mutha, Blackbird, Ninth Letter, Hippocampus, Lit Hub, Ms. Magazine, and Waxwing. Her memoir, Driven, was released by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in July of 2018. She lives in Missoula, Montana with her two kids.
On October 17, 2018, Melissa joined Interlochen Arts Academy Creative Writing students for a master class and reading. Interlochen Review editors Sophie Paquette, Cookie Dutch, and Yanna Cassell sat down with her for a conversation about her memoir, Driven, accessing memory, narrative devices, and balancing dual timelines in memoir.
Sophie Paquette: The chapters are organized by car and chronology. How do you use vehicular motifs as a tool for arranging the memories? In what ways did this framing mechanism influence which details you decided to include?
Melissa Stephenson: When I started writing this book, I wasn’t trying to write a book, I was just trying to write little flash pieces. I had small children and that’s all I felt I had time to write; something that, in stolen moments, whether it’s naptime or whatever little bit of free time I could find, something I could begin and end in a compressed time frame because I had so little time to write and eventually these little flash pieces, I ended up with 200 pages of them, and my kid’s dad kind of said, I don’t know, maybe you have a book. And I said, no, I don’t think I’m a person who can write a book, it can’t be a book. Over time, I realized there probably was a book there—in the larger narrative that I was having trouble telling, the larger trauma narrative of losing my brother. Whenever I tried to write directly about that, it just didn’t work. Anyway, through one of the shorts about the very first car we had that we bought new off the lot, a Volare, I tripped upon the idea of organizing the book by the cars that we grew up with. Once I was able to do that, I made a list of all the cars, put them on note cards, and laid them out as a timeline and then further down the line realized I could include other transportation devices whether it’s a cruise boat or even a trailer then I could see the framework of the book and the cars actually were the shaping device, or vehicle that allowed me to start that larger story at the beginning and tell it all the way through.
SP: In using that vehicle, were there any memories that felt relevant, but strayed too far from the memoir’s structure for final inclusion in the book?
MS: Yes, there’s a lot on the cutting room floor. I took the long way to writing a book because I’d never done it before. Maybe I taught myself to write a book by actually doing it over a long period of time; but when I look back at some of those initial short pieces, the flash pieces, there’s many of them that have been published on their own but never made it into the book once I found that shaping device and once I really zoomed in on everything in the narrative needing to link back to cars and/or the relationship between my brother and myself. There were so many little darlings that I thought were moving important moments but didn’t belong in this book, so I had to let them go.
Cookie Dutch: You play around with time and pacing quite a bit in this book: some chapters depict years of your life, while others take place over the span of a few days. How did you determine how much space to allocate towards various moments throughout your life, and how do you think pacing influenced the narrative of the memoir?
MS: The pacing was a struggle, really once I had a complete draft I knew there were pacing issues, especially with the first third of it, I think it’s a very ambitious thing, and not something that I set out trying to do, but it’s a very ambitious thing to write a memoir that tries to cover an entire childhood in this first quarter. In the beginning the pacing was very slow, with exposition and backstory and many characters, so it took me a long time to find the moments that were the most important, and I think it’s the fiction writer in me that was able to zoom in and really stick to those key scenes. Many of them were interactions between my brother and myself, that was one of the criteria for which scenes I would go into detail with and which scenes would be cut. To be able to zoom into one really specific moment, and then zoom out and cover a few years in a paragraph, and then zoom into another one, that’s something that came with a lot of time and revision and always keeping in mind: What’s the underlying thread that’s tying all these scenes and moments together?
Yanna Cassell: Did you ever have trouble getting into the right headspace for your childhood and teen years, and was it a struggle to stay true to the voice of your younger self?
MS: It could definitely be a challenge to get into that space, I relied on old pictures often, a lot of old Interlochen pictures for sure. Another thing that helped me was reaching out to some of my old friends who knew me, whether it was back in Indiana or at Interlochen. Similarly with my brother, many of his friends who knew him during periods of his life when I might've been away or in close contact, they were really helpful getting me into his culture and his mindframe, and filling in some logistic blanks that I had. The opposite could be true, too. Sometimes I’d get so into a part of the book and then once I was really in it, it was hard to come back down to Earth at the end of the day and go downstairs and make dinner and play legos and get back out of it.
SP: With this in mind, I think some would consider Part One of the memoir a coming-of-age narrative. I was wondering if before writing you had any thoughts about the tropes of this genre—were there aspects you wanted to avoid, or elements you wanted to transform and use productively?
MS: That’s interesting, I wonder if there’s any I wanted to avoid. I know that I love coming of age stories, the bildungsroman, as they call them. My favorite is the artist’s coming of age story, and I loved as a young adult, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce. You know, back then you got the sense that these books were autobiographical but they were put out there as fiction and that’s kind of the classic artist coming of age story. So I knew that that’s the type of story I wanted to write. I think I fooled myself into writing that story by telling myself that I was writing about someone else. I don’t think I could’ve sat down and said ‘I’m going to tell my own coming of age story.’ I didn’t feel my own story had that kind of value or worth. So I duped myself into being productive by my motivation being telling my brother’s story and then, of course, it’s my story as well.
CD: The memoir explores a lot of high-context subject matter, such as a your time at Interlochen, or the specificity of your childhood and family dynamic. How did you find a balance between keeping your reader informed while also leaving room for associative leaps and the reader’s participation in the text?
MP: I think one of the most difficult things was zooming into this Indiana childhood. You know, the things you grew up with, your family culture, makes sense to you, and it’s not until you get to a place like Interlochen and you’re talking with other people and you realize: wait, not everybody has a mamaw. In fact, they don’t know what I’m talking about. Or whatever it might be, I’m sure you have your own examples. So an interesting thing was making these decisions about the things that I would explain. I’m sure most people read the entire book and don’t know how to say say mamaw, for example. So, what information do I give in order for people to be able to access this culture that I grew up in, and what do I just leave out there? I really tried to just write, especially the childhood stuff and Interlochen culture, as honestly as I could, but first drafts, I really needed outside readers to zoom in and tell me where they were lost and had no idea what I was talking about. Feedback from others who were outside those cultures, that was key for me in knowing where I needed to explain a little bit, or what was interesting to them that I might go into greater detail about, and what I could let fly on its own.
YC: Your book handles topics such as mental illness and self harm among other sensitive subjects. How did you go about conveying this in a way that avoided gratuity while still communicating the weight of these topics?
MS: I like that question because it implies that I did that, which is a compliment. It’s interesting that I feel compelled to talk about these things, because they’re not things that I talk about in my normal life, they’re not things that I would say I even enjoy talking about. Yet the part of me that’s compelled to sit down and write is also compelled to find a place on the pae for these narratives that we don’t like to talk about. I know I feel comfortable as a reader bonding with other people’s written narratives, things that they may not talk about face-to-face. So I really just tried to stay true to the facts. It’s an odd thing to write about someone you loved. In the case of my brother, he’d tell these funny stories, and when I would write them down they’d sound alarming, but my family was laughing. Then I would try to capture on the other hand, we were laughing, we were normalizing this, and the older narrator comes in and is able to say, looking back I could see those were signs of mental illness, but growing up I didn’t really know that. So trying to balance both of those truths: the experience that the younger narrator went through, that you often don’t have the understanding why you’re self harming or why you feel weird when your brother tells this story, then bringing in the knowledge the older narrator has to be able to make sense of those things.
CD: Throughout the book, when talking about your creative writing, you mention both the poems you wrote during your time at Interlochen and receiving your MFA in fiction from Texas State University. You also mention adapting anecdotes about Matthew as basis for fiction. Besides these adaptations, did you also ever write nonfiction, or have an inclination that you were going to write nonfiction in the future?
MS: I got my first glimpse into creative nonfiction right at the end of my time at Interlochen. My senior year one of my mentors, Michael Delp, taught a class in creative nonfiction. I can’t say that I’d read that much creative nonfiction, but when I took that class I wrote an essay called Vision Quest, which is kind of appalling now— I think it was cultural appropriation. We’d been reading a lot of Barry Lopez and creative nonfiction from various cultures, so I wrote this essay that I read at my senior reading. I could sense a power there, an ability that seemed to bring out what I loved most about poetry, since my poetry was mostly narrative. When I went to get my MFA, I had been so steeped in poetry, I wanted to take a university level creative nonfiction workshop but at the time, there weren’t a lot of programs for MFAs in creative nonfiction. I wanted to learn more about how to handle narrative so I went and got an MFA in fiction. Then I quit writing for a while, and when I came back it was all creative nonfiction, which brings together what I love about fiction and poetry.
SP: In part one of your book, Matthew appears intermittently. How did you balance writing about your own life and struggles, as well as those of your brother? In writing scenes in which Matthew was not explicitly present, did you find that his influence still informed these memories?
MS: I feel like most of my childhood was defined by his absence. He was such an admired and loved member of our family, but he was also quite elusive. The older he got the more elusive he was, and I would say those childhood memories where I was doing things alone were true to the experience of growing up with him; I was always keenly aware of his absence, that he was off doing probably more exciting, social things, while I was more of a loner who read books and hung out on her own. Those moments seemed to balance pretty naturally, the times I spent alone spoke to my relationship or lack of relationship with him. I’d say the most of the work I had to do on the childhood stuff was pruning, including only the most important moments of the narrative for the reader.
SP: Throughout the book, there are several pop culture references in relation to Matthew—compared to Fonzie, Keanu Reeves, James Dean, and his friend group compared to both “lost members of the Beastie Boys” (27) and “a real-life video to every John Cougar Mellencamp song on the radio” (44). How do see these references operating, and what did you hope to illuminate about Matthew’s character through their inclusion?
MS: My second creative nonfiction writing teacher, Chris Offutt, told us never to have pop culture references because they’re so fleeting. And I think that’s good advice. It’s something I kept in mind when including them. As I was beginning to write the little flash shorts that would lay the groundwork for this book, I was reading my dear friend Domenica Ruta’s memoir With or Without You, which is a beautiful book. She’s maybe five years or so younger than me, and the title is a U2 reference. She had a number of pop culture references in the book, and I really enjoyed them. Once it came time to write the main narrative of Driven I just liked those little bench marks of our childhood— I liked the idea of people who grew up in the similar time frame swooping in and remembering what it was like to read the JC Penney catalog or watch Family Ties. I didn’t feel like a lot was lost if you didn't know exactly those shows. You might still get the gist of oh she was hanging out watching TV flipping through catalogues the same way my daughter now goes online and bookmarks clothing that she likes.
YC: How was it trying to detail Matthew’s life when you have your own image of him as a brother while an outsider’s views of him as a troublemaker, and then at times his own view of himself as “white trash.” Was it difficult to balance these voices and views?
MS: That was one of the hardest things about writing this book. Two things about his character: number one, we’re not the same person—that’s what this question is getting at, I think—we’re not the same person to all of the different people we meet. Trying to capture all these different sides of his character, which were really complex, was tough. The second thing: trying to capture charisma on the page is incredibly difficult. I was trying to tell a story about someone reading a book like Redneck Manifesto, then also describe how someone is the type of person that, even when they are telling an off-color joke, can walk into a room and command everyone’s attention and make them laugh. Capturing his character was of utmost concern for me. I wanted to portray him as honestly as possible. That was something that came over time, with help from other readers, too. I would send it out to my ex-husband, or one of Matthew’s friends, and get little details back like: “Oh, this is good, but do you remember that whole time when he was driving around and he had dead animals, roadkill, in the back of his truck? That was weird.” And I’d think That was weird. I’m gonna put that in there too, just to try to give a fuller picture.
CD: In the italicized entries between chapters, imagined scenarios are presented with immersive detail and emotional complexity. How did you navigate the ethicality of adopting Matthew’s voice in these moments, and how does this relate to the discussion of fact versus truths?
MS: In Mary Karr’s book The Art of Memoir she has a chapter—and in Mary Karr style I’m going to mangle it—something like “The Contract Betwixt the Writer and the Reader.” She references the first sentence from the Harry Crews memoir, something like “My first memory is of my father, whom I never met, ten years before I was born.” Right there, he’s laying out the groundwork, setting the contract with the reader: You’re going to be reading a book written by someone who’s telling you that their first memory happened ten years before they were born. I really believe in this idea of the contract, you kind of set out the framework for your creative nonfiction. That’s different than lying. If you intend to lie, that’s a different kind of book—I’d hope the book would be about that, and that would be made clear. With the sections in the first half of the book that are in italics, that’s where I’m imagining the day that my brother died. I was very careful with the language in the first section to say this is the image I get based on the details left behind, this is how I imagine the last day. I would also say that what the emotional truth that gets at is this: many people who have lost someone to a sudden trauma are so haunted by those details, and trying to piece together that day. I hoped it would speak to that larger experience of grief, obsessing over the last moments that person experienced. I think that is something that is pretty universal to that kind of tragic loss.
CD: Were these italicized sections present in the early writing of this memoir, or is something you decided to put in later in the process?
MS: That came late. I think the August 6th sections were the last large content added to the book, and it really solved a narrative problem in that, no matter how much I revised, the first section still dragged ever so slightly. What the reader needed a sense of was the older self on the page, and the adults these two people would become, and the sense that we were moving towards a larger event. It helped seam together the two halves of the book: the older brother and sister, and the childhood sections, by giving little snippets of where we were going. I forget how it came to me—it was when the book had already been sold and I was working with my editor at Harcourt. My agent and editor had read what became the almost last draft. They noted that the first third was still a bit slow. Somehow the idea to write these sections came to me. As cheesy as it sounds, I wrote them all in one day (of course, I would go on to revise them) and it didn’t feel like my voice. I wrote those as soon as the idea came to me, and they came out very much as they are right now.
YC: There were a variety of formal changes, particularly towards the end of the book. I’m wondering what the significance of the “consider this?” sections is and why they appear so close to the end, along with the interspersing of Matthew’s lyrics?
MS: The “consider this,” came very quickly too, although those came on first draft. I was at a residency in Vermont, and we had open studios—which, you know, for visual artists is very clear: you just open your door and people go in and see what you’ve been painting. I was in a difficult place in the draft where I was just really worn down from waking up every day and writing a straight forward chronological narrative about death. That can be really exhausting. And if you’re getting exhausted writing it, probably your reader is going to need some kind of formal reprieve, too. As I was running one day after writing, the refrain “consider this” came to me, and all these different ideas about Well, what if one thing were just different? Would my brother still have died? Would that have changed everything? So I wrote those really quickly and cut them up, put them on my desk for open studios, and the next day I started sprinkling them into the narrative. As I drafted, I sprinkled them randomly because I think that’s reckoning with grief: if one thing were different, could all of this have been different?
Lyrics were all over to begin with. For legal reasons, I had to let go of the lyrics. You have to pay someone if you’re going to use more than a couple lines. The lyrics that I kept, I wanted the words to be meaningful in context, whether or not you knew the song. I also liked that the August 6th timeline ended halfway through the book, then the “consider this” picks up and is the other structural device that takes us through the end.
SP: Do you have any future projects you are working on?
MS: Too many! I joke that writing in all three genres is a great way to never finish one project. But I love it, and when I skip to a different genre, I get this sense of play back, as in, Oh, I haven’t written poems for a long time, I’m not supposed to be good at them. It releases me from the pressure of being a perfectionist. I do have a collection of poems that I wrote at the same time I was writing Driven, and I’m trying to get that out into the world. I have a first draft I’m revising of a short weird novel, and a collection of essays as well that I’m slowly developing.
YC: What do you currently drive?
MS: I think I need an intervention. I have two Volkswagen Camper Vans which I wouldn’t recommend to anyone. I have a 1984, the one in the epilogue of this book, that I’m constantly supposed to sell, then someone will want to come drive it, and they’ve never driven a stick before, and I’m like “Nope! It’s not going to happen.” Then I got the newer Volkswagen Camper Van to replace that—they stopped making them in 2003, so I got a 2002, so now we’re just stuck in this holding pattern with two Volkswagen Camper Vans, which is ridiculous.