Like the human heart, Megan Stielstra’s third essay collection, The Wrong Way to Save Your Life, is made up of four parts. The introductory essay serves as the vena cava for the book’s themes—memory and assumption, love and fear throughout her childhood, her twenties, her thirties, and in the present moment. We watch Stielstra grow while her essays examine the anatomy of memory, the physiology of place, and the ways love, loss, politics, and privilege, create (or negate) the avenues in which we navigate the world. Each essay—whether it’s about a shooting at her high school or going into labor, dissecting deer hearts or the entanglement of systems of power—pulses with urgency and rhythm that reminds us how we are alive.
I first encountered Stielstra’s work in 2013, when she was my creative writing professor at the University of Chicago. It was my first exposure to Junot Díaz and Dennis Lehane and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. I learned to read closely and to listen, and I left that class with a notebook full of frantic scribbles on narrative strategies and book suggestions, but also the sense that every voice has a value and a home.
In May, I sat down with Stielstra at her home in Chicago. We talked about fear, privilege, and the intersection of politics and everyday life.
The Rumpus: I hate to bring this up, but can we talk about the Trump administration? Has this affected your writing process, especially given that one of the major themes in The Wrong Way to Save Your Life is fear?
Megan Stielstra: I wrote a draft of the book the year before he ran for office and I revised it the summer leading up to the election. It was definitely—let’s say a mindfuck.
Rumpus: Why did you choose to interrogate fear?
Stielstra: Every essay in the collection answers the question, What do I do with my fear? If it stays in you, that’s when the ugly things start to happen. So I tried to get it out of me, to look at it, really look.
For example, there’s one called “Here is My Heart,” about my dad and my fears about his health. I dissected all these deer hearts because I didn’t want to confront that fear, and that turned into the essay. Cheryl Strayed has this line I love: “Behind every good essay there’s an author with a savage desire to know more about what is already known.” I wasn’t trying to come up with a solution to the fear. I wanted to understand it. I wanted to find the right question to ask. If it’s Why does my dad keep going up the mountain?, then the answer is simple: He loves it. For me, the more interesting question is, What do I do with my fear?
Rumpus: When was an especially shitty and amazing and complicated part of your life?
Stielstra: I have a son. He is amazing, but the first year or so after his birth was really difficult. I didn’t have the language of postpartum depression, but that’s what it was. When I started coming out of it—when I was able to look back and sort of interrogate what had happened—I was really surprised at how afraid I still was. I was second-guessing myself as a parent, a teacher, and a person, and then I thought, Jesus, what a privilege it is to not have been afraid all of the time. Who was I before this fear? I was really thinking through what that meant and I knew it was something I wanted to explore.
Rumpus: In “What Belongs to Us,” you write about your ongoing discussion on fear, privilege, and motherhood with your friend Dia, who is an educator and a mother like you, but who is a queer woman of color. You write, “My heartbreak is a puddle compared to the ocean you swim every day.” Can you explain that?
Stielstra: You know that famous line, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself?” I don’t believe that it applies to everyone. A black mother afraid for her child in our world is not her being afraid of fear; that’s her being afraid of a long history of systematic violence towards people of color in this country. As a white mother, I need to think about the part I play in that, and what I can do to make it better.
Rumpus: I am a lighter-skinned woman of color whose parents emigrated from Iran—a country that has had a tense relationship with the United States historically and currently. I feel like this combination gave me an intense pressure, necessity, and even desire to assimilate. As an adult, I see that the choices I made growing up have enabled me to navigate white spaces where I am “appropriately ethnic” in a way that makes me privileged. What can I do?
Stielstra: Write about it. Talk about it, if that feels right for you. Read women of color who are navigating those same spaces. I’ve learned a lot reading Eve L. Ewing, a poet and educator from Chicago. Something she said that really struck me: Acknowledging our privilege is no longer radical. What’s radical now is action. I’m thinking through what that looks like for me. So, maybe think about what it looks like for you.
If you are a person with money to kick around, donate to local community programs. They’re responding to the needs of people in their area and including those people in conversations about what those needs are. It’s frustrating when an organization goes into a community like, I am here to make your lives better! but doesn’t know anything about the people, their fears, their goals.
If you don’t have money to donate, that’s okay! Are you a lawyer? A graphic designer? Do you work in the healthcare industry? Can you volunteer? How can you use the specific skill set that you have? I’m thinking of the lawyers who rushed to O’Hare to protest the Muslim ban because, in that moment, that’s what was needed.
Rumpus: Another prominent theme within your essays is the body.
Stielstra: I’m interested in how the body lives in a text, especially writing creative nonfiction. If I feel hurt, if I feel discomfort, if I feel despair, I take that feeling and I hold it and I try to imagine other people in other bodies and what they go through on the daily. This is empathy. Connection happens through the body. Memory happens through the body. Literature is the bridge.
Rumpus: Part of the value of writing personal essays, to me, is that you can make connections between memories you wouldn’t have noticed otherwise and part of the value of reading personal essays is seeing those echoes and parallels in other people’s work. In your essay, “Thirty, or Come Here Fear,” you write about being abroad in Prague and being surrounded by so much anti-Bush media that his reelection in 2004 had seemed impossible. This sounds eerily similar to what happened with the Trump election. How can we break this cycle?
Stielstra: A phrase that I’ve heard a lot recently is, “I’m shocked, but I’m not surprised” or, “I’m enraged, but I’m not surprised.” Trump is doing all the things he said he was going to do. None of this should be a surprise. Anger and fury and depression and desperation and fighting: yes. But surprise? No. We learned these lessons long before Bush in 2004. We’ve been learning them since this country was founded.
How to break the cycle? Jesus. Can we start by examining how we teach American history? Who decides what stories are literature and what stories are history? Whose stories are being told and whose are missing? A thing that I find really alarming is how textbooks are being written. There’s one in Texas that describes slavery like, Black people coming here to work. That is a violent erasure of our history, our cruelty, and the truths we need to reckon with if we’re ever going to move forward.
Some really profound work done by the Chicago activist community is the fight for reparations after Jon Burge. He was the CPD’s police chief for years and had a black ops torture group. The activist community fought for curriculum about Burge and what he did to be written for Chicago Public School students. So, not to erase it, but to say, “This happened. It can’t be swept under the rug. It can’t be hidden from our history.” The fear that people of color have of police officers in this city and all of our cities is not unfounded.
Rumpus: One of my students wrote a research paper on history curricula in the United States and something that blew my mind was her thesis statement. She described everything as narrative, but that one is privileged as history. Weight gets added on based on power and that determines what’s in a textbook and what’s in the margins.
Stielstra: Have you heard “The Danger of a Single Story” by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie? She says it’s impossible to talk about stories without talking about power. I went to an education conference a few years ago and the keynote speaker was a professor at Harvard. He totally fit the stereotype: elbow patches and crazy white hair and little spectacles. He was talking about how much he loved Wikipedia and all the educators in the room, like, gasped. He talked about how Wikipedia is something that can be written by everyone, whereas the encyclopedia was written “by guys like me.”
It made me think about the green leather encyclopedias we had when I was a little girl. If you wanted to know something, you went to the encyclopedia. It was fact. It was The Book, same as you don’t question The Bible, right? But now, with the democratization of the Internet, you can look up anything and can get like 30,000 ideas about it. It’s tough, because you have to go through so much information and verify what sources are true, but it’s so much better than when it was just one source written by all the same white, straight, cisgender men.
My husband is a curator on the Internet. He goes through hundreds of thousands of art pieces and makes choices. If you ask him about his background, he’ll talk about growing up in Texas and going thrifting every weekend with his mom, weeding through tons of stuff to find the one great thing. As we move forward as educators, I think we need to teach that. How do you examine multiple sources, and then test and try and analyze and collect and interpret data to find out what’s really true?
Rumpus: Your work is populated with a rich array of characters deeply rooted in a sense of place—Humboldt Park, Logan Square, Michigan, Prague—so when I read it, I am reminded of a novel.
Stielstra: I went to college for fiction. It’s my first love. I think it is very easy to see that in my work. I heard Aleksandar Hemon speak last week and he was talking about how there weren’t genre distinctions between “fiction” and “nonfiction” in Bosnian, his native language. He described it like this: “The medium is language and how it can contribute to public space.” That felt so right to me.
For me, there’s a difference between the practice of writing and the choice of if and when and how to share it. I write whatever I want to write however I want to write it, but when I determine a home for the piece, I’ll rewrite with a really conscious eye for genre and venue. Is this fiction, creative nonfiction, commentary? I care very much about being true to the audience. Amanda Delheimer-Dimond from 2nd Story taught me a lot about this. She’s always asking, “What’s the contract with the audience?” For example, if you’re reading the New York Times, there’s an unspoken contract that what you’re reading is true and fact-checked. If you’re reading The Onion, there is the contract that the event didn’t actually happen, but it’s still “true” in a satirical sense. It always has to be you—your own voice, your interests—but I can fit that into any form.
Frank Chimero has an essay with this beautiful line: “Once the work goes out into the world, it doesn’t belong to you anymore. It belongs to the people who carry it.” So this work isn’t mine to categorize anymore. Which is a little bit terrifying because it’s my life.
Rumpus: In your collection Once I Was Cool, you write about your mortgage, the Great Recession, motherhood and postpartum depression, falling in love and being in love. And we see these subjects pop up again in The Wrong Way to Save Your Life. How do you know when it’s time to revisit a theme and what do you learn each time you encounter or re-encounter it?
Stielstra: I think part of it is your gut and part of it is the world. For example, the day after the election, I called my doctor to replace my IUD because I was afraid about what was going to happen to birth control and women’s healthcare. I knew it was a very long and complicated process, but it was important. I knew I wanted to write about it. I knew in my gut.
That was in November and now it’s almost June. This morning I woke up and I read the articles about how Trump’s administration is moving to roll back the birth control mandates set up by the Affordable Care Act. After I took my kid to school, I came home and pitched the story. It’s not quite as easy as, “AHH! It’s happening in the world, I’ll write it!” but I do think that some of the most incredible writing that I have read these past couple years has been an immediate response to something happening in the world, even though the piece itself is about so much more. One example would be Kiese Laymon’s essay in Lit Hub about sexual violence. It’s huge and complex and beautiful and challenging in all sorts of ways, about a long and devastating history of violence and how that lives in all of us. But when you go to that essay, the picture at the top is Bill Cosby.
He published it the week Cosby was in the news after all the women came forward, but it’s not some twenty-four-hour news cycle sort of a thing; instead, it was, “Hey. We’re going to freeze this moment in time and how this affects actual lives.” It’s not statistics; it’s not an untouchable celebrity court case; it’s about actual lives.
Rumpus: In the essay “We Say and Do Kind Things,” you write about your friend Sarah and her daughter, Sophia, who is currently battling cancer. How is Sophia doing?
Stielstra: Sophia just turned five, and she’s fighting, along with the 175,000+ kids worldwide who are diagnosed every year. We know that statistic, right? We know the numbers: too many. I’m learning more and more about the need for childhood cancer research, which receives only 4%—four fucking percent—of federal research dollars. Sophia is being treated with drugs developed in 1958 for adult lymphoma. And if this lifetime limit horseshit comes to pass, she’ll max out before she’s ten years old.
I want to rip down the sky. I want to go to med school. I want you to see this little girl, how she dances everywhere, and loves the Cubs, and carries avocados in her pockets so she can have guacamole at a moment’s notice, which tends to play out at very inopportune times but her mother, Sarah—my beautiful fucking warrior of a best friend—is like You want guacamole? I’ll make you guacamole. That is a thing I can do.
That’s the question for all of us, right? What can I do?
I can help with the kids, and, when she lets me, get Sarah out of the house and out of her head. I can read and donate and vote for people who support public health policies that protect our children. I can shine whatever light I’ve got on mother-writers telling their family’s stories through loss and hope and grief: Michelle Mirsky at McSweeney’s, and Chicago writer Sheila Quirke. And I can write my face off which, yes, fine, is not going to cure cancer, but what if? What if someone reading this, right here/right now, just inherited a million dollars and decides to help? What if some senator hears me yelling across the Internet and is like, huh, maybe I shouldn’t vote to cut the insurance that funds a five-year-old child’s lifesaving chemotherapy? What if enough people reading this storm the town halls of their state representatives? Jesus, we have to try; this is my family.
But even if it wasn’t—I want to be a person who cares not only about my family, but everyone’s family. Not just my kid, but everyone’s kids. Kids who are sick. Kids with incarcerated parents. Kids at the mercy of gun violence. Kids fleeing violence in Syria, in Gaza. Queer and trans kids.
Rumpus: You mention throughout the essay collection that you were and are blessed with a village of many other writers, educators, friends, and family members who have supported you over your career as an educator, or adjusting to motherhood, or just finishing a writing piece. Do you have any advice for young writers who are just starting out?
Stielstra: A lifetime or two ago, in a creative writing class, there was this guy. I liked his work. I liked how he talked. How he gave feedback, asked questions, and listened, really listened. So many people use the time when someone else is talking to figure out what they’re going to say next. We had coffee, and our conversation gave me ideas. Sometimes, when I didn’t want to write—too tired, shitty day, maybe instead I’d drink beer and watch The Simpsons—I’d think of him. I knew he was at the computer, reading, working, so I went to work, too. I didn’t want him to show me up. He lit a fire under my ass.
He pushed me to be better.
All this is to say: Who are the people that challenge you? That push you to be better: better artist, better parent, better friend, better human being on this planet. Hang on to them. Make stuff with them; a magazine or a movie or a band. Fuck, make a salad. A lifetime or two ago, after that creative writing class, that guy and I stuck together. We swapped work for years. Still do. I just gave him edits on his second novel. He gave me away at my wedding. He’s my kid’s godfather. When I was in the final stretch of this new book, the real bang your head against the wall, second-guess yourself stuff, I sent him texts every day that said I HATE WRITING.
And he’d text back: TOUGH SHIT.
There’s your village.
Author photograph © Joe Mazza