Melanie Gibson was an independent woman with a good job, multiple college degrees, and a condo in the trendy part of town. She also had a few mental illnesses, a minor substance abuse problem, and rotten relationship skills. She was nearing a total mental breakdown and needed a good kick in the pants, literally and metaphorically.
As a last desperate means to save her sanity, Melanie turned to a nearly forgotten childhood activity: the Korean martial art of taekwondo. To her surprise and delight, she discovered her childhood taekwondo instructors’ Grandmaster operated a taekwondo school a few miles from her home. She restarted her training as a white belt and quickly learned that taekwondo had much more to offer than just learning how to kick and punch.
In taekwondo, Melanie felt like she had a fresh start in more ways than one. She found an inner peace she’d never known before, a sense of community, a newfound confidence, healthy relationship stability, and a positive outlook on life. The kicking and screaming she was doing in class quieted the long-suffering kicking and screaming in her mind. Funny and frank, Kicking and Screaming: A Memoir of Madness and Martial Arts (She Writes Press) is the story of Melanie’s life-changing journey from troubled, lost soul to confident taekwondo black belt.
Here’s the interview:
- Where did you grow up /live now? I’m a native Texan and have lived here my entire life. I was raised in Snyder, a small west Texas town between Lubbock and Abilene. I moved to the DFW Metroplex in 1997, first for college and then I stayed for work. I lived in Denton while in college (incidentally, I was also born there), worked in Irving for about a year, and finally settled in Fort Worth. I love Fort Worth. It’s a nice mix of Western charm and high-class arts culture. If I had to leave Texas I’d want to live in New Mexico or Arizona. I’m still a west Texas girl at heart and love open spaces and big skies.
- As a child, what did you want to be when you grew up? I loved to draw when I was a child, especially cartoons. I wanted to be an animator for Disney or an artist for MAD Magazine. I did theater in high school, and every spring when we did one-act play competition I drew a MAD-like cartoon parody of our play.
- What is your education/career background? I didn’t know what I wanted to be when I grew up. I loved the arts, but I had a nagging sense of breadwinner responsibility. I needed a steady job to support myself. After several major changes as an undergraduate, I ended up with a degree in English with a minor in dance and went straight into graduate school. I tried journalism for a semester and didn’t like it, and then I discovered library science. Halfway through my master’s degree in library science I fell in love with medical libraries (the UT Southwestern medical school library can do that to you). I worked at a hospital library for several years in a large healthcare system. It was a great job, but opportunities for long-term career growth were limited. I worked on an MBA while I transitioned to the training and development department in the same healthcare system. I’ve designed live and online training, taught workshops, led orientations, done team building and coaching, and more recently I’ve been doing work related to change management and diversity, equity, and inclusion.
- When did you first realize you wanted to be a writer? Or what first inspired you to write? The artist El Greco is credited with the quote, “I paint because the spirits whisper madly inside my head.” That’s why I write. I never wanted to “be” a writer or author, even though I do quite a bit of writing in my day job. I started my taekwondo blog (Little Black Belt: http://littleblackbelt.com) and later wrote the memoir because I HAD to get all the insights, ideas, and life lessons out of my head. Martial arts are so rich in emotional and mental growth and discipline, and I translated that into essays on my blog and the story in my memoir with the hopes that they could comfort, inspire, and make a connection with people…and to simply get the words out of my head so they’d stop “whispering madly” and distracting me.
- What do you think makes a good story? A good story answers the questions of “What if?” and/or “What’s next?” and keeps readers on the edge with the hunger to have those questions answered. As a memoirist, I had to craft the events in my life into the construct of a good story with character-building, scenes, suspense, conflict and conflict resolution, and well-written dialogue. I’ve seen memoirs that basically say, “This happened, and then this happened, and then this happened,” and they’re very boring. That’s how life often plays out, but it’s up to the writer to make their own experiences interesting and relatable for other people.
- How does a new story idea come to you? Is it an event that sparks the plot or a character speaking to you? I still keep up my taekwondo blog as an accompaniment to my memoir, so subconsciously I’m always looking for anecdotes related to martial arts training, or sometimes a non-martial arts incident or concept that can be used to relay an idea or lesson. I’ve written blog posts from things I’ve learned about knitting from my mom, and from my brother, who is a professional musician.
- Is there a message/theme in your memoir that you want readers to grasp? The main message is that there is hope for people who are in a difficult place in their lives, whether it is mental illness, which was my struggle, or other adversities. Growth and redemption are possible. It’s also a message of self-reliance and self-accountability. We can rely on other people, processes, and resources to an extent, but we may also need to make some adjustments in how we respond and act to see long-lasting change. I kept waiting for a relationship or some turn of events to save me, and I finally learned to save myself.
- What was one of the most surprising things you learned in creating your book? At some point, in order to end up with a well-edited finished product, I had to detach in a way from what I wrote and see it as something that other people would read. Seeing the “pages” (internal layout of the book) was a jolt to my brain. Once I got over the excitement of seeing it as a book I began to see it objectively in a way that a new reader would. No one can read my mind, so I had to make sure the writing was clear and precise. That helped me catch errors and rework the writing to have more finesse and appeal to the “end user,” as I’d say in the corporate world.
- On a Friday night, what are you most likely to be doing? I’m very much a homebody. My partner and I love to eat. Every Friday we’ll order something delicious from a food delivery app, and later we’ll watch a movie or TV show we’ve been bingeing. It takes us a long time to finish watching anything because we have to pause and offer our commentary on what we’re watching. Then we exercise the next day to make up for all that eating!
- What do you like to do when you are not writing? Taekwondo is my main hobby. I’m a second degree black belt and will test for third degree black belt once I’m recovered from knee surgery and back on track with regular training. I am able to practice at home as I recover. I also play classical guitar, swim, and love to read.
- Who are some of your favorite authors? The memoir that made me fall in love with the genre was Intern by cardiologist and writer Dr. Sandeep Jauhar. I’ve since followed his writing online. Christopher Moore has written some of the funniest and smartest novels I’ve ever read. I’m also getting into Adam Nevill’s horror novels. I’m a memoirist, but comedy and horror both evoke something deep in me, and I’d like to try either of those genres if I ventured into fiction. Jhumpa Lahiri is my all-time favorite writer; she is the master of making the everyday lives of ordinary people memorable and touching. She can describe a person jotting down a grocery list in such a beautiful and poignant way I’d want to cry.
- What’s the best writing advice you have ever received? The number one piece of writing advice was from my project manager at She Writes Press: read your work aloud as you edit. That changes the game entirely. You hear the rhythm of the words and get a more objective perspective. And you can catch so many mistakes you’d miss if you were skimming it. The second best piece of advice was from Stephen King in his book On Writing: just write and get your crummy first draft out there, and then edit later (and edit ruthlessly). That mindset helps me when I’m stuck on a work project and know I need to produce something quickly to then fine tune.
- What is the one book no writer should be without? On Writing by Stephen King
- If your book was turned into a movie, who would you like to play the main characters? My book is a memoir, so casting the role of “me” would be interesting. I’ve been told I look like Scarlett Johansson and Hillary Swank. I think Imogen Poots has a similar nose to mine, and she did a pretty good job of beating people up in The Art of Self-Defense. That’s not a bad start. Many interesting things have happened in my life since my story “ended” in 2015, so maybe I could get a Netflix series out of it!