Megan Stielstra is that cool girl who taught you how to say the F word like you meant it and knew all the best music and constantly reminded you of the astonishing beauty of the universe. Her work is included in The Best American Essays 2013, Poets & Writers, The Rumpus, PANK, Other Voices, and elsewhere, and her story collection, Everyone Remain Calm, was a Chicago Tribune Favorite of 2011. She’s the Literary Director of the critically-acclaimed 2nd Story storytelling series and has told stories for all sorts of theaters, festivals, and bars including the Goodman, Steppenwolf, Museum of Contemporary Art, Neo-Futurarium, Chicago Public Radio, and regularly for The Paper Machete live news magazine at The Green Mill in Chicago. She teaches at Columbia College, Northwestern University, and the University of Chicago. We met in Chicago to discuss her new book Once I Was Cool, out now from Curbside Splendor Press.
The Rumpus: What’s the story behind this collection? How did it come to be?
Megan Stielstra: I was working four jobs, and trying to be a mom, and we were living in this little tiny condo that we couldn’t sell and were super tapped financially. I fantasized about a desk; a little space of my own. It was just after the recession and I felt this insane sort of whiplash between wanting more but realizing how lucky we were in what we had. We had the jobs. We had the home. We had the healthy kid. I was mind-blowingly grateful and mind-blowingly exhausted, and I made work in any little spare minute I could: on the train, the bus, the moments before a class started, waking up at 4 am for a few hours before the day started. Everything was scattered and all over the place, and the question was: how can you grab this moment and live it as hard as you possibly can? Right now I’m teaching this class and I need to be present. Right now I’m running this workshop and I need to be present. Right now I’m building a castle on the floor with my kid. I need to be present. I wanted the structure of the Once I Was Cool to reflect that: how we make work in whatever situation we’re in. We keep going. One foot in front of the other, one word in front of the other.
Rumpus: The collection says ‘Personal Essays’ on the cover. I want to ask you about essay versus story. What does that mean to you?
Stielstra: I like both. I write both. That said, until recently I’d always used the word story, or narrative, to describe my work. My first love is fiction, but it’s more than that. I think we’re hotwired for narrative. We have to know what happens next. I’m really interested in that psychology and how it influences literary craft: pacing, tension, structure. For over a decade I’ve been involved with 2nd Story, a personal narrative performance series here in Chicago, and our work uses many of the same literary techniques as fiction writing: place, character interaction, action-reaction.
But then, last fall, this magical thing happened: I was sitting outside my son’s kindergarten class, waiting for him to put his rainboots on, and I got an email saying that one of my 2nd Story pieces was going to be included in The Best American Essays. So many things happened then in my head: joy and gratitude and disbelief and WTF and champagne STAT and yes, you have to wear your rainboots, it’s raining outside and then, later, after everyone was asleep and I was able to sit quietly, I remember thinking, Wait—Essay?
The next day, I got my hands on Phillip Lopate’s wonderful anthology The Art of the Personal Essay, and—I’m not sure how else to say this—I studied. And I’ve been studying: Lopate, Baldwin, hooks, Didion, Dillard, Hemon, Eula Biss, Dinty Moore, Hilton Als, Kiese Laymon, Roxane Gay, Leslie Jamison and and and. It’s such an enormous, historied word—essay—and I figured I should have an understanding of what it meant, for literature and for me; the varieties of form, and hybrid forms. It was like a whole new world cracked open, like I’d found this secret treasure, which is crazy because of course I’d read essays before, and written them before, but this was the moment when I fell in love.
Rumpus: It’s very obvious, reading this collection, that many of these essays were written to be performed. You can hear the voice, and the breath, in the way the lines scan. But what about the first essay in the book? It seems so gleeful about the fact that it’s in a book. It has little chapters! And footnotes!
Stielstra: I was trying to figure out, in print, how to do an aside. I do them in performance all the time; you’re in the middle of the story and you pause and say, “Okay, in order for you to really get this, I need to explain this other thing.” When I was adapting the performance versions of the essays in Once I Was Cool into print versions, the question was: how to give necessary information in a way that doesn’t take the reader out of the story? My friend, the writer Elizabeth Crane, uses footnotes in really interesting ways, and I know that she’s a big reader of Rick Moody, so I read their stuff and tried to figure out what the hell they were doing. It was really fun, actually. Did you use the word “gleeful”? I definitely felt gleeful.
Rumpus: At multiple points in that essay you tell the reader, “Put this book down!”
Stielstra: My kid and I are starting to watch all the movies his dad and I loved when we were little: Neverending Story, E.T., Star Wars, Princess Bride. And there are things that happen in all of them that he might find scary, or sad, or want to talk about. Or maybe I want us to talk about them. So we have a deal: at any point, either one of us can hit the pause button on the remote control, and we’ll stop and talk, and then fast-forward or rewind if necessary. Like when the ant dies in Honey, I Shrunk the Kids—that one needed some discussion.
It’s a feeling I get all the time as a reader: I need to pause this for a second and talk about it. I need to set this down and think about it. I wanted that feeling for Once I Was Cool: Hey. Put the book down. This is a thing we should think about. This is a thing we should talk about. This is a thing we should do something about. I wanted people to put the book down and say, “I can do this! I can stop what I’m doing and put some words on the page and try to discover something about myself or the world that feels too enormous to work through all alone.”
Rumpus: So I went through the 2nd Story audition process earlier this year, which involves multiple rounds of revision, and by the end of the process I had basically found a way to totally invert my piece. Which I loved! I loved that discovery process. How often does that happen to you? Where you write something and then go, this is a completely different thing than I meant to write?
Stielstra: God, all the time! There’s an essay in the book called “Those Who Were There,” about a hot second when I lived in a tent on Martha’s Vineyard. I started writing it for a series called Funny Ha-Ha, and I kept going with it afterwards because I really, really needed to laugh. At the time, we were trying to climb out of some bullshit, and I remember thinking I’m going to write the most ridiculous thing possible, just to give myself a break from the %*&[email protected] That was the intention. But during the writing, I stumbled into some questions about memory. I walked around with those questions in my head. They were stuck there, in a good way, and all of a sudden I was writing to figure out… not necessarily the answers, but why the questions mattered. That happens all the time: you start writing one thing, and you end up in another. Maybe that’s the one you were supposed to be writing all along.
Rumpus: Do you have pieces where you’ve felt totally done with a subject? Like, I’ve said my piece. That’s all I had to say about that.
Stielstra: Sure. I’ll think, Okay, done, drop mic, move on to the next, and then a few years later I think, Okay, now I’m seeing this in a different way, I want another crack at that experience, because it means something different to me now. For example: when I was twenty-two, I was in a relationship that was… let’s say less than safe. If I tell that story from the vantage point of myself at twenty-two—which is very different from my voice now, at thirty-eight—that story is about he didn’t mean it, he loves me, he was tired, it’s my fault. If I tell that same story from myself at twenty-five, it’s a revenge story: I will go to his house, I will burn it to the ground. If I tell it from twenty-eight, when I met the guy I ended up marrying, it’s a story about how our past relationships affect our current relationships, and if I tell it from me now, it’s I have a son, I’m trying to raise a man, how do I raise a man to not be THAT man? That’s four entirely different stories. They have the same content, but they’re different. The voice of each is different, the realizations are different, my life experience and my outlook is different, and I have to really ask myself: what exactly do I want to say with this? What do I want to put out in the world? What conversations do I want to be a part of, what kind of contribution can I make to the dialogue?
Rumpus: Some of these essays read like master classes in the very best way—not essays so much as discussions of writing and craft. How does teaching writing affect your own work?
Stielstra: At this point, they’re totally tangled together in the loveliest of ways. I get to sit around all day with writers talking about stories; how we craft them and connect with them. I hope that we treat each other as fellow artists, as opposed to me as the teacher being some all-knowing expert. I’m not. I’m in the thick of it; all of us are. What I know is how to tackle my bookshelf, to keep my ass in the chair, to try the same scene in ten different ways until I find the one that works. Fuck writers block—try it another way! Try, try, try. In the classroom, I’m the one who pushes you to keep trying, the one who puts deadlines on you, the one who says, Oh, this is hard? Come on, let’s go, the answer’s over here, in the library. Let’s fucking find it. We all need that, sometimes; but I hope that by the end of your time with me, you can be that person for yourself.
Rumpus: “Dragons So Huge,” a story about—among other things—the moment your friend and fellow storyteller Bobby Biedrzycki hit rock bottom and how you helped to save him, is told in your two voices, and you bounce the narrative back and forth between you. On paper, it completely knocked me out, and I can only imagine the impact it has as a live performance piece. What made you decide to include it in the collection?
Stielstra: There’s a moment in that story that I’ll never forget. I’m sitting on his bed, and I call him, and I’m furious. All these hard things I want to say are running through my mind, and when I get his voicemail, I catch myself and instead tell him that I love him. It was later—years later—that I learned he’d been standing on that L platform, thinking about jumping, and he listened to that voicemail. The enormity of it takes my breath away. It’s so easy to get lost in our heads, in our own experience, forgetting about what’s happening to other people in the next room, or the next neighborhood, or city or country or community. What are they going through? How do our words or deeds lift them up or crack them open? What if I’d let loose on his voicemail? I’ve played it over a thousand times in my mind, especially when I want to let out anger or frustration on someone. I try to catch myself. I try to pull back.
I wanted to include this story in the collection because it’s an experience that changed me fundamentally. I can feel the memory in my fingertips, turning that doorknob and expecting to find him there; the guilt of everything I might have said, but didn’t. It’s a reminder for myself about the kind of person I’d like to be. I also think that having both our points of view on this experience allows the piece to connect with a wider audience. You get the vantage point of a person at the bottom of their addiction, and the vantage point of a person who loves them. Addiction is a huge, true fucking dragon, affecting the lives of those down in it and those who love them. A story rarely belongs to one person; there are other players, and the story becomes theirs, as well. This one belonged to both of us, and to the readers and listeners who’ve been there, or are there, or will be there.
Rumpus: The idea of audience is something that you keep coming back to. There are moments where you’re addressing the audience, there are moments where you’re in the audience, like with the ecstasy at the opera, or where you’re part of the audience but not actually in the audience, where you’re sitting outside the Aragon listening to music. So who is your ideal audience?
Stielstra: It’s different depending on where I’m at in the process. At first, it’s just me. There’s no way I could get into it if I’m thinking about other people. For example, “Channel B” started because after my son was born, in the fog of it, I wrote down one thing every day that I would accomplish: Today I will make the bed. Today I will walk the dog. Today I will read a poem. At that time, it had nothing to do with I’m writing a complete movement about postpartum depression that I will submit for publication—No, it was all fucking survival. It was for me. Just me. It wasn’t until years later, when my son was three, that I started thinking about how I might be able to contribute to the dialogue or, in the case of this particular subject, the lack of dialogue. What does Toni Morrison say? If you can’t find the story that you need, you have to write it?
Rumpus: “If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.”
Stielstra: Yes. Postpartum depression—depression, period—is one of those things that we don’t talk about. Why? Shame? The hell with shame. Let’s get into the muck of it. Let’s write it. I knew I needed some support, so I called up 2nd Story’s Director of Programming and asked him to book me for a show. In part, it gave me a deadline, but it was so much more. That company is my family. They challenge me to climb a little higher. To just… be better. In part it’s that sense of That person just nailed it, I need to step it up. Someone shows up with a story that’s so fucking good, you can’t even handle it. You want to run off and write. You want to top them in some way, and then they’ll want to top you, and it’s this lovely sort of back-and-forth, of healthy competition. But also, if someone moves you, you want to return it. Give back the gift.
Rumpus: It seems like one of the primary questions, if not the main through line of the book, is the question of straddling borders. You’re in these very small spaces, but you’re always moving from space to space, it’s this fragmented thing, and all your constructions of self are around that idea of constantly moving between spaces and identities—writer vs. mom, teacher vs. writer, teacher vs. student, reader vs. writer, performer vs. writer, Young Megan vs. Adult Megan—
Stielstra: That’s a thing that I was really interested in. We read stuff all the time about “coming of age,” and those stories are fascinating and necessary and huge because oh my god, what a mindfuck of a time in our life—
Rumpus: Your teen years.
Stielstra: Your teen years, your early twenties. There’s so much whatthefuck. And I remember being in the thick of that, all young and dumb and free and I had this idea that one day I’d wake up and like, shazam! I have it all figured it out! Where did that idea come from? It’s so fucking wrong! I’m thirty-eight years old now and I still feel as far from “figured out” as ever. The difference is that now it’s okay.
Rumpus: And now you know that no one does. That’s the secret.
Stielstra: It’s a relief, actually. Think about it: what would you do if you did have everything figured out? You’re done learning, you’re done living, you’re done being surprised—how fucking dull.
Rumpus: And what you know as an adult that you don’t know as a teenager is that it keeps going. Even if you have one day where you’re like, I got it. I’m good. I’m doing it right. Then the next day you’re like fuck me, I totally screwed this up.
Stielstra: Totally! There is no magical moment where everything comes together. So when I was putting all the essays together into the book, the question I kept coming back to was: what comes after the coming of age? What does it mean to be an adult? I tried to remember, when I was a little kid, like first or second grade, what I thought about adulthood. What did I think about adulthood when I was a teenager? What do I remember now about being young? There’s an invisible line between me being younger and me being older, so looking back from one to the other side, what were things I thought? Like the essay “Kick MS:” I remember so clearly my own elementary school teacher bursting into tears in the bathroom, and I didn’t know why. And that’s again where we get to make decisions about craft. I could have gone on about that for pages, speculating about what had happened to her. But the fact is, it was waaay too confusing to process at the time.
Rumpus: And when you’re little, you just move on, where as an adult you have all this context, this scaffolding, this empathy that you don’t have as a kid.
Stielstra: Right. Right! So then I had all these pieces. Here’s the piece that happened in Italy; here’s the piece that happened in Prague; here’s the piece that happened in Chicago. And a friend of mine who was looking at everything was like, you know, someone who doesn’t know you will have no idea how all this shit fits together. And I was like—well, fuck. Do I have to go back through every piece and give contextual information about where I was then? And this gets back into what is the difference between writing a single essay and making a collection of essays, where they can all speak to each other.
A few days after that well, fuck moment, a student of mine tagged me in a Facebook conversation that a group of students were having about how much they disliked Kafka. In the comments, he’d written: “Megan loves Kafka! We should ask her why.” And I was like, I can’t even begin to explain my relationship with Kafka over the past two decades on Facebook. And that was when I got the idea for “Under Our Climbing Feet They Go On Growing.” I could explain the movement of my life—here’s when I was in what place and why—through the lens of this particular writer that shaped me in so many particular ways. Back to the whole audience thing: I wrote that essay for those students. Are y’all reading this? Thank you. Now put down this interview and go write some stuff.
Rumpus: One of the first times we met was at the Hideout when you were performing, and afterward I told you some random anecdote and you said, “There’s a story there!” And pretty much every single time we’ve hung out since, you’ve stopped me at least once and said, “There’s a story! I want to hear more of that story!” It’s like you have an internal dowsing rod for finding stories. Is that an innate quality, or is it something you’ve developed over time? Were you always a water witch of stories?
Stielstra: The next time you go to a bar to hear some music, watch the bartenders instead if the band. If the bartenders are into it, if they’re kind of nodding or dancing as they pour, you know you’re hearing good stuff. The bartenders hear music every night, over and over. It’s the good stuff they react to. That’s what it feels like for me. All of my jobs come back to story in some way—telling them, trying to write them, reading them, talking about them, writing about reading them. It’s not just that I hear them all the time—we all hear them all the time, I think—it’s that I have to be so tuned into them. It’s my job(s). So I try to pay attention to my own reaction as an audience member, the stuff I’m nodding or dancing to, the stuff where I’m like omg what happens next! and I always tell the writer that because I think that sort of validation is important. It’s how we help each other. It’s part of the process. It’s the most immediate form of feedback: hey, I’m connecting with that idea. Write it down. Use it. Make something.
Rumpus: Here’s my last question: What is the secret heart of this book? I stole that line from Karen Russell.
Stielstra: I love her. The secret heart?
Rumpus: Yeah. Instead of talking about themes, she talks about the secret heart of a story.
Stielstra: Since the Best American Essays came out, I’ve gotten so many emails from women who’ve recently had babies and are in that messy place of not understanding themselves. I’ve gotten emails from the men and women who love them, too. Everyone’s just trying to figure what the hell is happening. That’s what “Channel B” was—me trying to figure out what was happening. Me writing to understand myself again. Me reaching out across the void. And those emails—those are a kind of reaching out, too; this desperate need to know that we’re not alone. That’s the heart of it. That’s why I watched that mother on the monitor, and now, in “Channel B”—and hopefully, if I did my job right, all of the essays in the book—I’m the woman that you’re watching. I’m trying, I’m fucking up, I’m making a mess, I’m crying and living and writing my way through it. I like to think of all of us in a football field or something, just sitting in the bleachers and seeing how many of us there are; all of us trying to get through, to make it, to be a part of something bigger than ourselves.