I first met writer, performer, and teacher Megan Stielstra in the summer of 2007 during my performance audition for 2nd Story, a Chicago-based live storytelling series for which she serves as literary director. In the years since, she and I have worked together as performers, as producers, and also as co-editors of Briefly Knocked Unconscious By A Low-Flying Duck, a multi-author anthology of highlights from that series. Her essay collection Once I Was Cool was recently released via Curbside Splendor, and she and I sat down at a bar in Chicago’s South Loop to discuss her book, her craft, and the philosophies informing both. What follows is a condensed version of our conversation.
(Disclosure: I passed that audition. Megan was the one who told me.)
As you have noted in the back of this book, a lot of these pieces were originally written for performance with various live reading series, while others were for more literary-oriented pursuits. When you are starting something—when you are at the genesis of a piece—how does the medium affect your approach?
Here’s the deal: when I’m performing, I have ten minutes. Tops. Sometimes that’s five minutes, sometimes that’s three minutes. Sometimes I can stretch that to twelve—if I talk really fast, although that should be a big secret, because whenever I work with people who are performing I make them stop at ten minutes. I think that that kind of editorial eye is vital, and it’s something I try to teach my students to deal with all the time: can you have a ten-minute version of this piece? Can you have a five-minute version of this piece? Can you have a 1,500-word version of this piece or a 3,000-word version of this piece? I think those are skills that we need to have as writers.
That said, with most everything that I do, [it’s] me editing myself before I’m even speaking. I have performance versions and print versions of pretty much everything. I’m thinking of the essay “Wake The Goddamn World,” about Prague: if I were to read the essay aloud that is in the book, it would probably read between twenty minutes and half an hour. But I have a nine-minute “reading” version of that piece. And that’s the case with most of the work.
This is, for all intents and purposes, your third time putting together a story collection. Having been down this road before, what was easier this time around—or what was harder?
This is the first time that it was all personal essays and all truthfully about me, and what was hard was that I’m a little bit sick of myself right now. My first collection [Everyone Remain Calm] was [partially] fiction, and then my next collection was personal essays from a variety of different people who I’ve been privileged enough to work with, but this one was all me and all my own brain. So much of the process of this book was staring at the wall and thinking, Do I want to tell people that? Or, What am I trying to say with that? Or, Where’s my wine? There was much more staring at the wall with this one then there ever has been before.
There’s also more anxiety with the release of it, which I found surprising. I think a lot of this, again, comes from that performance background: you’re used to getting up in front of people—just for one night. You do it one night, and it’s out there, and it’s this amazing, profound, connective experience that can only happen with live performance in a theater or whatever space where it’s just you and the fifty or a hundred or five hundred people there at any given time, but this . . . it’s out there now. It lives. What will people think of me? And do I care? I don’t know, because I’ve never really had to ask myself those questions before.
In “The Talk,” you address having the conversation with your friends, your family, your husband, about your writing about them—which is to say, having that conversation with adults. But you also write a lot about your son. There’s nothing bad per se, but do you think ahead to him as a 14-year-old, or a 22-year-old, and how he may come to look at his early years being made public?
My son is now six, and I think in some ways I look at this whole book as a . . . I don’t know if it’s a love letter to him, or maybe an explanation to him in some ways, but I did have him in the back of my head as I was writing these pieces. And I always do, especially when I’m writing about him. But now that’s he six, and has a lot more agency, I’ve started asking him if it’s okay to write about this or that.
That said, he has become a bit of a minor celebrity on the internet. Ever since he first started talking, I’ve put conversations that he and I have up on Facebook. I can post on social media that I just got a book contract, and fifty people will like it. If I put up something that kid says, five hundred people will like it.
Maybe the musings of a six-year-old are more immediately relatable.
Yeah! Everyone says things like “I love your kid and I want to adopt him!” Well, you know, I’m not posting the temper tantrums. I’m not posting the bullshit to the internet—which is an interesting twist to how we shape our lives for social media. This conversation is being had around what we look like physically a lot, but it’s not really happening around parenting. We put forward the lovely, easy, funny, witty stuff, but not the stuff that’s difficult. And what kind of impression does that give people about parenting?
And now that he’s older, I’ve started asking him. I’m biased, because I’m his mom, but he’ll say something brilliant—
And of course those are your genes at work.
[laughs] Totally. I made him—from scratch. I built him.
But you know, he’s not just mine anymore. He’s not this little blob who’s totally dependent on me—he’s becoming his own person, so I’m trying to think now about what that means. So many of the essays in the book were written when he was none and one and two and three years old, and six is a different ballgame. He has some things to say, so now I’ll ask him. He’ll say something brilliant, and I will say, “Hey, can I tell the internet that you said that?” Or I will say, “Can I write an essay about that?” And so far he is saying yes. He will not always say yes. And then I will stop.
Or, more specifically, I will still write about it, because that’s what I do, but I won’t share it. There’s the work that we write, and there’s the work that we share, and I will write about anything. Anything. So of course I’m going to write about being a parent. It’s a part of myself that I’m trying to figure out all the time. But if this kid says to me “Hey, that’s my life. Please don’t share it.” I’m going to respect that, and I’m going to keep it on a very nice hard drive until he’s 25 and then I’m going to have the conversation with him again. I’m going to buy him some bourbon and I’m going to ask again: “Hey, where are we with this? What do you think?” And we’ll have that conversation again where he is at a place where that dialogue can mean something.
Do you find anything, be it quality, intensity, whatever, that acts as a personal line of demarcation—something that tells you whether a story is even worth telling?
Well, I’ll put it like this: I love the challenge. I love the challenge. “We have a show coming up about bees.” And then I have to sit there and think about what I can make related to bees. “We have a themed issue about blahblahblah.” Okay. That’s so exciting to me.
It’s an interesting thing about this world: to be able to try to find ourselves within all of these subjects. In high school, I was in this history class, and it was awful because we were seniors, we had all this senioritis and could not give a shit. I grew up in the Ann Arbor area, and we had a student teacher come in from U of M, and looking back on it now I see this as the day she just lost her shit—and as someone who went through student teaching, I’ve had those moments so many times myself, and I recognize them now. She started pointing to people around the room and telling us what would have happened to each of us individually if we had been living in Nazi Germany: what it would mean to the kid who was Jewish, what it would mean to the kid who’s African-American, and so on. And then she gets to me and starts talking about how blond-haired, blue-eyed women were drafted for their reproductive services and put into hotels where Hitler would let the SS run through and fuck them because he wanted to impregnate them and start his master race. And it hit me: Whoa. History. It was a huge connection to make. I mean, it was also incredibly problematic for all sorts of different reasons, but it was such an immediate personal connection to history.
So when literature is at its best, be it [nonfiction] or fiction or creative nonfiction, it’s finding ways that we are identifying with different cultures, different time periods, different people, and we are able to find ourselves within them in some way.
But what would make me give up on a piece? Nothing. Nothing. I would hit pause, though. There are a lot of things I started writing years ago, and then I stopped because I wasn’t there yet. Maybe I hadn’t lived enough yet, or I didn’t think my understanding of the craft was up to the task. There’s a lot I’ve gone back to, though. Ever since “Channel B” came out, a lot of people have said to me things to the effect of “I see this as your perspective on post-partum depression.” But really, this is just one five-page essay.
Post-partum is a bit more than a five-page concept.
Exactly. And what happened in that piece is very real, but I think there is more to it. A lot more. Some of it I’m dancing with in fiction, and I don’t know why that is. Is it because it’s safer to put it in fiction? That’s just how it’s coming out, and I’m going to trust that. But “Channel B” is not a particularly dark essay, because that’s not what it’s about—for me, that piece is about feeling really alone and trying to connect with somebody else. Post-partum depression is the avenue I went down to get to that.
Especially when we’re dealing with short-form pieces, two very valuable questions for us to be asking in the craft are “What happens in this piece?” and “What is this piece about?” And those are two entirely different things. What happens in that piece is post-partum depression; what it’s about is trying to connect with someone else when you’re feeling really alone. And that’s, hopefully, something that a lot of people can identify with. It’s not just the women who’ve experienced it. It’s not just the men and women who love them. It’s not just people who’ve experienced any kind of depression. Hopefully everybody in some way can have that moment of “I am by myself in this, and I don’t want to be.” Why do we watch reality television? Why do we read books? Why do we watch films? We’re trying to connect in some way, and that is what that piece was about: I felt really alone, and I wanted something. Someone.
And you didn’t run from the subject. The fear could’ve been its own line of demarcation.
I’ll write it. I’ll write anything.
No retreat, no surrender?
No. But whether I’ll share it or not . . .
Which goes back to the idea of things getting filed away.
There’s a line in one of those essays (“The Art Of The Excuse”) that goes “Once _____ is dead, I’ll write about _____.” I want to differentiate between the writing and the act of putting the writing out there. For me, putting it out there means publication or performance, and I think the reason I feel so insistent about this is I work with so many new writers who censor themselves and who deny themselves an understanding of their craft because they’re afraid of what the greater response is going to be. So I’m trying to create a space where you can write anything, or you can say anything, and you can understand yourself a little better because you’ve given yourself this little corner where you can put it outside in order to examine yourself.
Years and years ago, I lived with this guy Pete. He was in a punk rock band, and they would rehearse in our apartment late at night, and it was very . . . loud. They modeled themselves after Godspeed You! Black Emperor, if that gives you any indication. Anyway, there was one particular time when a very great friend of his took his own life, and Pete locked himself in his room and didn’t leave it for several days, blasting music really loud and didn’t answer any knocks on the door. He was a painter—and a very good one—and when I think about what art means to me, and what I want to accomplish with it, I think of his work. But there was finally a day where I came home and the door to his bedroom was open. I heard the shower running, so I went and stood in the doorway to his bedroom: he had papered his walls with flattened brown paper grocery bags, and had just painted all over them. Floor to ceiling, just really dark colors and violent strokes—it was an incredibly painful, aggressive thing to look at. I stood there staring at it, and he came out of the bathroom and said something to the effect of, “I needed to get it out of myself so I could see it. Could see what I was dealing with.”
More than anything, that moment describes what I think about writing. Not publishing—writing. I think we have to put it out of ourselves in order to understand it—the hilarious and ridiculous stuff just as much as the dark stuff. It needs to come out, and then we look at it. Or at least I do. So that whole demarcation idea is really about what I’m going to put out into the world. And a lot of times I try to put it out and it comes back with a big “Nooooo, not ready yet!”
So it’s less about yes or no and more about how much. Or how far.
How far. And when. I’ll get it at some point. I’ll get all of it at some point. I don’t know if I’ll call it an essay or not. I kind of reject the idea of it being about how big my balls are or how little I care. “If you were braver, you’d put it out there.” Well, maybe? Or, maybe there are some things in my life that are sacred and that I want to protect. Or maybe it’s that I’m still trying to work through what I think about something.
“Dragons So Huge” was written for live performance as a two-teller story with Bobby Biedrzycki, and was left in that format for inclusion in this book. What informed that decision?
When we’re dealing with the personal essay form, it’s necessary to ask: whose story is this? With that particular piece, the answer is “Both of ours.” That’s a story that Bobby has told on his own a thousand times, and it’s very much my story as well, but I felt like I needed his voice in it as well. When he tells that story by himself, that’s a story about addiction; when I tell the story with him, that’s a story about addiction and about the people who love someone who’s an addict. Both of those stories are enormous. And necessary, I think. But it doesn’t feel right for me to tell that one without him: it’s a story about someone hitting rock bottom, and I was there for it, but that rock bottom was his.
He becomes the expert witness, so to speak.
Right. It’d be like saying I wanted to tell you about this thing Andrew and I did, but in order to really explain how I felt about it, I need to explain how Andrew fucked up beyond belief. Is that mine? No—that’s yours. But a story doesn’t only belong to one person. Ever. It’s never just for one person, unless it’s a story about me locking myself in a room and sitting all by myself. Which is often not a particularly good story.
“Here’s the time I was sad.”
Other people play a part in all of it and, with that particular one, that was a moment that utterly changed Bobby’s life. That’s when he really started knifing some of those dragons. And that’s not something that I’ve gone through myself. I can’t begin to understand the day-to-day intensity of something like that, so his voice became a part of it. But it’s also pretty honest to how I work: I believe in writing as a collaborative process, and that is a piece that exemplifies in product what the process looks like.
You’ve mentioned elsewhere how much backstory some of these essays needed in order to make sense because they used the first-person format. Do you ever find the form working against you?
I said earlier that I’m getting sick of myself; I’m working on a novel right now and it’s in third-person, and it’s eight characters I’m following. So I could say a limitation of the first-person is that you’re only in one person’s head, as opposed to many—but that’s not completely right, because then you read As I Lay Dying and Faulkner’s in every single person’s head all of the time.
Francine Prose has this great book called Reading As A Writer, and there’s an essay in there about Chekhov. She talks about when she was teaching creative writing: whenever she would say to her students “This is a rule of writing,” she’d then read something that Chekhov did to completely bust that rule.
But the limitation I find with the first person is that, when I worked in it solidly for a year and a half, I personally and artistically needed a change. I don’t know if that change was as much about point of view as it was about me needing to be in a head that was not my own. I’m in my own head all goddamn day. And it sounds very profound to say “And I write these works in order to understand myself.” That’s true, but I also write fiction in order to understand myself, and you, and thirty other people I don’t always get or understand.
When I turned in the final draft of that book, I just thought, Fuck essays, I am out. I’m back into this novel. I am in my imagination. And then, very shortly after I had made that great declaration with the orchestra behind me, my building caught on fire, and I had to figure out what I was going to save from burning to the ground. And that’s an essay that I’m working on now. That’s something I find fascinating about the personal essay form: it collides with your life. I momentarily thought I had written all of my stories, because I had momentarily forgotten that every day I live.