20 Questions is a Q&A interview series with musicians, authors, and everyone in between, celebrating experiences both shared and individual in the messy game of being human.
Melanie Gibson was an independent woman with a good job, multiple college degrees, and a condo in the trendy part of Fort Worth, Texas. 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, Gibson 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, Gibson 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. Her memoir, Kicking and Screaming: A Memoir of Madness and Martial Arts—out everywhere now—is the story of Melanie’s life-changing journey from troubled, lost soul to confident taekwondo black belt.
I had the chance to get to know Melanie for the latest edition of 20 Questions, where she told me all about Kicking and Screaming, hiding in plain sight with mental illness, the best way to overcome an addiction to toxic relationships, and why Gordon Ramsay’s yelling calms her down—among other things.
Did you always know you wanted to be a writer? Did you pursue any other career paths before settling on writing?
I wanted to be an artist, mostly a cartoonist, before I developed my writing talent. Then bills and rent happened. I didn’t know I wanted to write a book until my late thirties and got my first book deal at age forty. I’ve been in the healthcare industry for nearly twenty years with roles as a hospital librarian, corporate trainer, and learning designer. I’d love to write full-time.
What time of day are you most inspired?
Early afternoon after I’ve gotten some things done during the day and before I wind down in the evening.
If you could pick one author that’s inspired you the most, who would it be and why?
Dr. Sandeep Jauhar’s Intern made me fall in love with the genre of memoir. Memoir is a way to share a common human-interest story while showing a unique slice of life most of us would not otherwise experience. That’s what I hope to accomplish with my memoir about combining something common (mental illness) with something very specific (taekwondo).
Favorite book of all-time?
The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri.
What’s the most challenging part of writing for you?
I’m dabbling in fiction, and it’s been a difficult transition from the ease and comfort of writing personal essays and stories about things that have already happened to having to build people and storylines from scratch.
If you could have one writer, dead or alive, to compose your obituary, who would it be and why?
Oscar Wilde. He’d make everyone laugh while they’re crying over my death.
Your memoir, Kicking and Screaming: A Memoir of Madness and Martial Arts, deals largely with the theme of hiding in plain sight with mental illness. How would you describe the current progress of dismantling the centuries-old stigma associated with mental health and what are some key areas our culture still needs to work on?
The stigma against mental illness is still very real and very pervasive. A good thing that came from the pandemic was the recognition of the importance of caring for our mental and emotional health. That’s opened the door for a conversation. There’s still much work to be done, but it seems society is more receptive to understanding mental illness.
The best book you’ve read in the last year?
Ringu (Ring) by Koji Suzuki. I’d seen The Ring movie (American adaptation of the Japanese novel and movie) when it first came out and was so scared, I never watched it again. After the garbage year of 2020 I decided to face my fears and watch it again. I ended up loving it and reading all the books in Suzuki’s Ringu series this past spring. I still have nightmares about it though.
Favorite song to get your blood moving?
“Gasolina” by Daddy Yankee. You can really only drive fast or work out hard to that song. It’s not a song for chilling.
As a writer and artist, what would you say is the best way to rest or decompress?
I’ll watch anything with Gordon Ramsay. The louder he yells the better I feel. Plus, his love and appreciation for good food is infectious.
What’s one piece of advice you would give to someone looking to beat an addiction to toxic relationships?
Make peace with being single. It truly is better to be alone than to be in an unhealthy relationship. If you find yourself in a new and better relationship, be aware that you’re probably carrying some baggage and insecurities from the bad ones. Have regular open and honest conversations with your new (and better) partner about how you’re feeling.
Favorite social media app?
What’s your current read?
Revival by Stephen King.
Favorite movie of all-time?
Goodfellas. I even mention it in my memoir a few times.
As you discuss in Kicking and Screaming, people seeking to change their lives don’t magically transform over night. How does this apply to martial arts as well as in life?
When we want to see change in our lives, we tend to get impatient. We know where we want to be and don’t want to wait and go through the difficulties, time, or tedium to get there. In martial arts you don’t become an expert overnight. Good technique takes years of practice, trial and error, and application. Even when you get to black belt or higher levels there’s always something to learn and refine. The beauty of transformation is what you learn as you go through a change.
The most adventurous thing you’ve ever done?
Climbed a pyramid in Mexico and nearly got lost from my tour group. So, the most adventurous and most stupid.
Hardcover or paperback?
Paperback. I can squish it against my pillow when I’m reading with one eye open, trying to stay awake to see what happens next but ready to drift off at any moment.
The most expensive thing you’ve ever shamelessly splurged on?
Knee surgery…just kidding! I’ve upgraded my home with a new master bath shower and fancy digital AC/heating system. Those are boring adulting things, but they’re pretty fabulous.
One thing that’s been keeping you sane throughout the COVID-19 pandemic?
Humor! I binged Tiger King along with everyone else.
What can we expect to see next from you?
There have been a lot of changes in my life since I got my first degree black belt in 2015 – personally, professionally, and of course with martial arts. I’m living through some of those big changes right now and, memoirist that I am, I can see another book forming from my new life experiences. I’d also like to try my hand at fiction in either comedy or horror. I love those genres because they get under your skin and into your mind in ways other genres might not.
Follow Melanie Gibson on Twitter and Instagram, and buy her memoir Kicking and Screaming: A Memoir of Madness and Martial Arts wherever books are sold.