Two Books for the Frozen Sea: A Conversation with Megan Stielstra
Megan Stielstra is a beloved writer across the nation, but especially in Chicago, where she writes, teaches, and performs. She’s the author of Everyone Remain Calm, Once I Was Cool, and The Wrong Way to Save Your Life, which was chosen as the 2017 Nonfiction Book of the Year from the Chicago Review of Books. Her work appears in Best American Essays, New York Times, The Believer, Poets & Writers, Tin House, Longreads, Guernica, The Rumpus, and elsewhere. A longtime company member with 2nd Story, Megan is a storyteller who has told stories on National Public Radio and in bars. (“So many bars,” she told me.)
I met with Megan in her apartment on a day warm enough for open windows and iced coffee to discuss her new double rerelease of Everyone Remain Calm and Once I Was Cool. One of the most exciting aspects of reading these two collections together is experiencing where and how the subjects overlap in the different genres. For instance, in the story, “One One-Thousand, Two One-Thousand, Three” in Everyone Remain Calm, the protagonist, Eliza, faces a menacing threat while skinny-dipping in a quarry. In the essay, “The Right Kind of Water,” from Once I Was Cool, Megan reveals how she used research to bring this story to life: by sitting in the bathtub for five hours to observe exactly how the body changes during prolonged exposure in water. The lengths Megan goes in her research is a hallmark of her work. For “An Axe for the Frozen Sea,” which appeared in The Believer, she threw axes for a year. Her research passion is a testimony to her dedication as a writer, and her prose reflects it.
The poet Mark Doty writes, “Our metaphors go on ahead of us.” Fitting then, that an actual three-dimensional anatomical heart—the very one that graces the cover of The Wrong Way to Save Your Life—sat perched above us in her kitchen. No other metaphor better encapsulates how Megan writes and lives. Knowing her first as a teacher, I’ve experienced how she celebrates the stories each person brings to a writing workshop and the care with which she handles the affairs of the heart. If, as Kafka implores, “a book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us,” then Megan Stielstra has given us one for each hand. We talked about how Megan composes stories and essays that make readers feel like they are right there with her.
The Rumpus: In the spirit of Matthew Salesses’s Craft in the Real World, I’d like to start by finding out if there are questions that you’d like me to ask of your work.
Megan Stielstra: Can we talk about fiction? Everyone Remain Calm is a short story collection, and [when I was writing it], fiction felt like the truest genre. I always come back to the moment in Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Márquez where Florentino Ariza runs into Fermina Daza, the love of his life, on the arm of her new husband, and he imagines all the different ways this man will have to die. When I first read that scene, I’d just ended my first relationship. My first love. Imagining him with someone else was devastating and I identified fiercely with Florentino. Those feelings were so true! I wanted that same connection with a reader so I made these weird stories, all of them starting with what truly happened to me but then I’d think, What if this went sideways?
An example: in the story “Professional Development,” I go to the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) conference for the first time with my mentor, Randy Albers. The character is named Megan. AWP is AWP; Randy is Randy. In real life—what Tim O’Brien calls the “happening-truth”—I was on my way to meet him at a jazz club, walking through the French Quarter. God, what a magical place. At some point there was a marching band behind me; I turned left to get to the club, and the band turned left. I turned again, and the band followed.
I wondered—and full disclosure: I was a little tipsy—what would it look like for this marching band to follow me from New Orleans to Chicago? That’s a much better story than Drunk Girl and Band Walk Same Route, and a pretty great metaphor for a young woman trying to figure out the balance between work and fun. The “story truth” as opposed to the happening truth. I love how fiction can open such possibilities.
Around that time, I got involved with 2nd Story, a storytelling collective in Chicago that I’ve worked with for twenty years, and we were asking big questions about truth in storytelling: What is the contract with the audience? What does it mean to tell a true experience in a way that feels truthful? I had all of these ideas about fiction as truth, but coming at these questions as an educator really cemented the ethical responsibility of nonfiction. I’m working with writers who are wrestling with trauma, death, loss, illness, disability, all sorts of profound questions. The commitment to happening-truth truth is vital.
Rumpus: Had you already completed these stories from Everyone Remain Calm when you started working with 2nd Story? Or were you working on them simultaneously?
Stielstra: There are a few stories in Everyone Remain Calm that I first performed for 2nd Story. They are true; they happened to me. I didn’t push them into the “What-if” realm; I stayed in the “What-is.”
Thank you for the opportunity to find that phrasing—”what if”/”what is.”
You can see how the two books—one fiction, one nonfiction—are in dialogue with each other. There’s a story in Everyone Remain Calm about a girl, Eliza, skinny-dipping in a quarry. A bunch of drunk frat boys appear and want her to stand up so that they can see her naked. That’s true. It happened. “Happening-truth” happened, and it’s an experience I’ve been writing around for most of my life. It was—Jesus, it was awful. I just finished reading Girlhood by Melissa Febos, one of my favorite essayists and human beings. To see her digging into the things that happen to us when we were girls that we carry as women is incredible. Enormous.
I wasn’t able to write about that day in the quarry as nonfiction at the beginning—it felt safer to hand the memory to a fictional character. [In that story,] I was trying to imagine how men could be better than those men were. That’s still something I strive for. I’m raising a son. I collect stories of men being kind and good, and in the moment [in the quarry], I wanted one of those guys to step up and stop the other ones. If there are guys reading this interview right now—show up. Step up. I was sixteen years old. I was naked, I was alone, I was completely vulnerable. I couldn’t save myself. You need to do it, you need to stop the other dudes. If you’re in the room, if you are in a place of power, then it’s on you.
When I was writing that [story], I was trying to focus on the good in people. I would probably write that piece very differently now—I’m more jaded. I see the ugly as clear as the beautiful. But between writing the fictional version in Everyone Remain Calm and whatever version I’d write right now, there’s an essay in Once I Was Cool about the research process for the fictional version of the story. That was another way to approach the “happening truth” in a way that felt safe. I wrote about the research because when I was trying to write the [story], I couldn’t remember what happened to my body when it was underwater for so long.
I got into the bathtub, sat there for hours, and observed how my skin wrinkled. It was… Jesus, it was ridiculous. I think I say that in the essay.
Rumpus: Yes, when I read that, I was inspired by your dedication to the research process. When you were sitting in your bathtub, were you thinking about what you hadn’t written about yet?
Stielstra: Yes, for sure. I heard the editor Sari Botton speak recently, and she talked about what it means to write “bloodlessly.” I really loved that. Part of art-making, the craft of the work, is honoring how we feel about the experiences we’re writing about and the other human beings involved in the story. Writing about trauma, for me, is asking, How do I tell the truth in a way that is honest to who I was at that time?
I’m currently reading Deborah Levy’s trilogy, The Cost of Living, Things I Don’t Want to Know, and Real Estate. The covers don’t identify the genre as memoir or essays but “living autobiography.” Levy talks about how she’s writing from inside of the storm, not from the distance and reflection that we find when the storm is over. I’m interested in where we are writing from and how that influences the craft. Call it research, call it experiential research, call it living the work, I don’t care what you call it. It’s about trying to process the experience and figure out what we want to say about it at this particular moment in time.
My last book [The Wrong Way to Save Your Life] is a personal essay collection about fear. I went on tour when it came out in 2017; what a wild fucking time to be talking about fear. The essays gave us an in to a deeply uncomfortable and necessary dialogue about sexual assault, climate change, shootings, criminal justice, whiteness, and responsibility. That’s what art can do. It’s a bridge into complicated conversations. If we’re going to move forward as a country, we’ve got to dig into that complexity, that discomfort.
Rumpus: Speaking of opening doors for conversations, your essay, “Channel B,” opened many about postpartum depression. There is such an immediacy in that essay. How close to living through that experience were you to the writing of it?
Stielstra: I wrote that essay at Ragdale, an Arts Foundation in Lake Forest, Illinois, that I love so very much. My son was four, so I was three or so years out from the [postpartum] experience. I’d written thousands of words during that time but hadn’t tried to publish anything. Writing is always about survival, but at that particular time in my life, language is what saved me, quite literally, from launching myself off the roof. I will never forget this: I was at my local bookstore, wandering around, touching books, and the bookseller handed me The Chronology of Water by Lidia Yuknavitch.
The first sentence is: “If the great river of sadness that runs through all of us has ever touched you then this book is for you.” I read that book and it split me open. I left the following week for Ragdale. It was my first time away from my son. I was devastated and guilt-ridden and thrilled and relieved, and on my last night there, I wrote “Channel B,” an essay about stalking my neighbor with a wireless video baby monitor to heal from postpartum depression. Not long afterward, I was a visiting writer at Eastern Illinois University. Roxane Gay was teaching there at the time; she heard me perform it and asked to publish it.
That essay isn’t just me. It’s Roxane, who saw that the work had value; it’s Cheryl Strayed, who chose it for the Best American Essays; it’s the independent bookseller who put Lidia’s book in my hands; it’s independent booksellers around this country who see us, really see us, when we walk into their stores looking for joy or escape or education or clarity or, in my case, a reason to keep fucking going.
Thirteen years later, women still show up in my inbox who read that essay and saw themselves in those sentences. I’d like to thank them.
I’m here because of you.
Rumpus: Going back to the difference between story-truth and emotional truth and the idea that fiction gave you safety: Do you feel that your fiction gives you access points that you don’t have in your nonfiction? Or is it more that fiction gives you the release of imagination and metaphor?
Stielstra: Both. My decisions about telling something as fiction or nonfiction have more to do with the human beings in my life than they do about literary craft.
But even as I say that out loud, I wonder if it’s true. I’m working on a novel right now. There’s a lot in there that’s true—”happening-truth” true—[but] I would not put the word, nonfiction, on it for all sorts of personal reasons. [Fiction] allows me to take those truths in different directions, into different places than the actual lived experience. Magical realism. Speculation. Fantasy. Imagination.
That said, I think our imaginations and fantasy lives are as vital to nonfiction as our lived experiences are. The things that happen in my head and heart are part of my real life. They’re coping mechanisms. They’re part of the healing process, how I move through the world. What matters here is transparency; how I communicate this with the reading or listening audience.
The writers I work with as a teacher and editor are writing through trauma, loss, pain, illness. It matters to me that, in my own work, I’m operating at the highest ethical level insofar as [telling] the truth of my lived experience. I write about postpartum depression because it lived in my body. I write about violence because I still see it when I close my eyes. I write about heartbreak because I am still fucking reeling––it’s an exposed fucking nerve. I’m interested in shared experience. I think honesty and transparency are connected to that.
Rumpus: Could you talk more about the idea of audience and how it enters your practice in the different genres you’re writing in?
Stielstra: There is a difference, for me, between the practice of writing and the choice of if and when and how to share the writing. I will write anything. I will write any goddamn thing. But nobody’s going to see it but me. From there, I make choices. You can feel it in your gut, like Hey, I’m onto something here. I try to honor that feeling in my own practice and to help other artists honor it, as well. It’s hard as hell. We doubt ourselves, and as an educator, I want to give you permission to trust yourself.
If [a piece of writing] feels like it’s working, I’ll ask myself questions: Why should this matter to somebody besides me? What dialogue is already happening about this subject and how can I contribute to that dialogue? and Where is this dialogue happening and what is the aesthetic of that place? I write differently for the New York Times, for The Believer, for 2nd Story, or the Paper Machete. There are different aspects of craft, voice, research, narrative, scene, word count, etc. that audiences of different publications and venues are looking for. All of this informs my rewriting process.
Rumpus: Do you write different versions of the same idea when you’re thinking about these different homes or audiences?
Stielstra: Yes, absolutely. An example: I wrote about my building catching fire for the New York Times. It’s a tight narrative—one-thousand words. I knew that I wanted that experience to be the last essay in The Wrong Way to Save Your Life, but it needed to be bigger than the Times piece. An essay does different jobs in different places. To end the book, it needed to tie together all the themes I’d been dealing with in the previous three hundred pages (no pressure!). The frame [I used for the book version] was a bartending game called, “What would you grab in a fire?” By then we’d already lost a house in the recession, so I was thinking less about objects and loss, because I’d already lost a place. In losing the second place, what mattered was the fear in my body, life-and-death stuff. The frame of “What would you grab in a fire?” meant different things to me at different times in my life, so in the essay, I could call back to myself at ten, twenty, thirty, and how I had changed, which did the work of ending the book.
Rumpus: There are amazing footnotes in “The Domino Effect” and “An Essay about Essays” in Once I was Cool that could be a creative nonfiction syllabus. I’d buy this book for the footnotes alone. You were writing this ten years ago, and the references are 2021-relevant and vital. It feels like you wrote it yesterday. The reference I didn’t find in the recent release that was in the original was a piece by Deb Lewis, “Darkness, Then Light.” Was that a decision to edit out?
Stielstra: Deb Lewis is a live storyteller in Chicago. I think she is the best writer in this city and the publisher who gets her book is going to be the luckiest goddamn human being, and then all of us readers are going to be lucky because we will get to hold it in our hands. The particular piece I reference is a performance piece. I don’t think it’s in print, but I’ve heard it live a gazillion times, and every time, my entire DNA is rearranged which feels so Chicago. So much of our storytelling is happening on stages and microphones in bars and theaters and public parks and weird backyard art parties. What Deb does with language and accessibility! By accessibility, I mean she is [talking about difficult topics] in a way that makes you want to keep listening, keep reading.
Rumpus: That is how your work feels to me—like I’m sitting under a waterfall after crawling through the desert. I’m standing under a waterfall reading your work, but you provide the snorkel to keep breathing.
Stielstra: Oh my gosh! I love that! Thank you for that image.
For me, that has a lot to do with [performing for] live audiences. I’ll ask myself, Am I letting the audience breathe here? My director at 2nd Story, Amanda Delheimer, who I’ve worked with for twenty years, always says, “Okay, let’s talk levity for a minute. Do we need to rest? Do we need to sit in this moment?” In theatre, it’s about operatives, beats, breath. In text, it’s about a period at the end of a sentence or hitting return so there’s a new paragraph. It’s about a space break, a chapter break, repeated language. Even on a [spacing and] punctuation level, it’s connected to pacing, breath, intention, and audience.
It matters, too, that this conversation you and I are having is for The Rumpus. It was The Rumpus that first published “Channel B,” which Roxane Gay heard aloud before reading it on the page. I wrote that piece to tell, not publish. I think the version that I sent her had my performance notes penciled in. To the people reading this interview who do performance work, please know that that work has value in literary spaces. Roxane lifted it up; then Cheryl lifted it up. I’ve had the great fortune to meet both of these women and when I tried to thank them for seeing me, both gave some deeply unique version of this: “Okay, great, but what I need from you is this: When doors open for you, as you walk through, you need to turn around and say, Okay, let’s go. Come with me. You need to take people with you. Do not shut that door behind you. Prop it open. We keep going, together.”
Photograph of Megan Stielstra by Jess Tschirki.