MEGAN STIELSTRA IN OUR BAG, SWAG
If you've seen Megan Stielstra perform around Chicago or have been lucky enough to be in one of her classes then you know her to be a sorcerer of divine light. She is an awe inspiring writer and performer with the ability to transform the energy of a room with a single inhalation of breath, keeping you transfixed in the palm of her hand. Her writing is art, full of a poetic rhythm, color, love, and truth. You want to follow this artist, learn from this teacher, and have her explain the world to you. Megan Stielstra is one of the special ones, she is a magician.
I first saw her power at work a couple of years ago while attending Story Club: North Side. She read an essay about a chance meeting at a concert. The room got quiet, I'm almost certain the light changed color and suddenly we were all next to her in the Aragon Ballroom watching her life play out as if in real time. I instantly became a fan and threw myself at her at the end of the night. I was a stuttering mess, but she dealt with me the way she does all things, with full attention and care. I've been hooked ever since.
That night is what I thought of first when I asked Megan if we could talk about her latest book, The Wrong Way to Save Your Life, which comes out today (August 1). The gorgeous collection of essays largely explores fear, but also creativity, art, academia, family, and love. Her writing style braids time and themes together in such a creative and seamless way that you forget you're reading a book of essays. It's crafted with such artistry and insight it reads like a plush novel about Stielstra's life.
The Wrong Way to Save Your Life is breathtaking, and my husband and I were practically vibrating from excitement as we waited for Megan at a local hot spot in Roger Park. When she arrived we hugged it out the way friends are supposed to, but this time is special. We're incredibly proud of our friend and are so excited we get to talk about her beautiful new book.
You can spend time with a writer by hearing them perform their work on stages all across Chicago and decide you know them. Surely this talented person you admire had a straight and easy path. We forget life is messy and complicated. I'm always eager to learn how a person arrived at today, and that's what we discuss first.
"I went to Boston University to study journalism. I knew I wanted to be a writer but I knew I needed to make money, and in 1993 one could still make money as a journalist, or so I thought," Stielstra says. The classes at BU were huge lecture halls full of students and blue books and TAs, which wasn't for Stielstra. She started flunking papers, and felt stifled by their requests for her to write clear and short sentences. "I was doing my writing in my journal voice that I had been doing since I was 12," she says.
At the end of that first year she was pretty miserable, but notes that, "other things were going on at the same time. My parents were divorcing back in Michigan and I was in love with a boy back in Michigan. There were all of these other factors that we don't think about when we talk about a first year college student."
After that first year at BU she went to Italy for a year. "All I did was read fiction and poetry all the time, and that cinched the deal for me. I realized I was not a journalist." Funny, since she's now a contributing writer for the New York Times. While living abroad she was in love with a boy who wanted to come to Chicago once their time in Italy was done. She researched every school in the Chicagoland area and Columbia stood out to her because at the time its creative writing department was part of the school of fine and performing arts. "I'd never seen that before. Usually creative writing departments are an offshoot of an English Lit/Crit rhetoric degree. Columbia was a place that would treat writing like painting or theatre or dance." She was excited to talk about how to create writing instead of just critique it. It was a shift in focus she found radical. "I applied and they gave me a transfer scholarship." She finished her degree and then went on to grad school at Columbia because they had a combined writing and arts education degree.
She paid for college by serving pancakes at the Bongo Room, something she acknowledges is now virtually impossible for students to do. "I served pancakes for over ten years. I was able to pay off all of that education and live off of Bloody Marys and pancakes while I taught in places that didn't pay very well, or wrote for places that didn't pay. I was able to take care of myself while I tried all of these things. I am sitting here now because of that restaurant."
Megan has had success with both performing her writing on stage and writing for the page. There's this idea that being a writer for a live-lit/storytelling event is a completely different kind of writing than writing a book or some other piece of writing that isn't necessarily intended to be performed. Ask any Chicago writer currently involved in the storytelling community and you will likely get an impassioned answer on the subject. Is that something she worries about? Does she think of those things differently?
"We all tell stories all the time. That's what we do on first dates, that's what we do with our roommates and our loved ones. We sit there and swap stories. We all do it all of the time. I love that democratization of writing. I think there's this feeling that you must have an MFA if you want to be a writer and you must do these things. I would like to add to the chorus of FUCK THAT NOISE. We are all doing it all of the time. What you need is a library card and a fuck ton of work."
Writing out loud is one of the million things she might try to make a story effective. She blends genres and all sorts of theories and writing styles to communicate as part of her process. This weaving and blending really makes her writing stand out and shine. When reading her work or seeing her perform her own writing on stage I always find a moment where I am dazzled by her craftsmanship. Her writing is exciting, and I love going on the journey with her and can't wait to see how she will surprise me.
"For several years I taught a novel in stories class. I taught Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson and A Visit From the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan." In those books are ten or so stories that are connected. How are they linked? It might be through character or theme or place. "I wasn't initially thinking about how my essays would do that. For some reason I separated fiction and creative non-fiction in my head."
Here comes one of those surprises I was talking about...
When Megan was finishing the book Beyonce's Lemonade was released. (Megan and I pause here to honor our love and devotion to Beyonce and I may or may not have actually peed my pants.) Right before the album came out she released the song Formation, which Megan and I both agree has the single greatest line of all musical and lyrical history (until the next Beyonce album). Which of course is, "hot sauce in my bag, swag."
Megan tells me there's a quick clip of the bat she uses to beat everything up and the bat actually says "Hot Sauce." It was a moment of realization that the hot sauce in her bag is not a jar of hot sauce it's a baseball bat that she uses to kick everybody's ass with and maybe there's also a jar of hot sauce but whatever. "That for me made the connection back to all these literary texts that I taught with connections and how one song in an album speaks to another song in an album. How does one short story speak to another short story? Oh, wait! I don't have to put everything in one essay. One part of one essay can speak to another part of another essay and I can move things around. I don't have to tell this all chronologically."
How does she do that? "There's a lot of post-it notes on the wall and a lot of going back and checking dates." She had to break down her life year by year by year and that research really helped the book to begin to come together.
At first she wanted to write a lyric essay, a sort of list essay with brief instances. She wanted a chronological list of all of her fears going back all the way through her life until today. "For some reason I thought that would be a quick essay, but then 60,000 words later I thought WOW this is the whole book." Once she made that discovery Megan felt that since she's 40 she'd break that original essay up into four sections that would be led by one of these "lists." The other three essays in each section would then be a piece around the same general age in her life or connected thematically.
"I learned a lot about how we can figure out structure. We figure it out through the writing. I had all sorts or pre-plans and pre-outlines of how this was going to be structured and what it's gonna look like. None of that existed at the end. I figured out the book by writing the book. You figure out the work by making the work."
How long did it take? "The book was slightly terrifying because I sold it before I made it. That had never happened to me before. I wrote a proposal for this book and that's where it began. From that acceptance I took about a year and a half in the writing and then about six months in the rewriting." Interesting that Stielstra would work on a book about fear and complete it during what many would consider to be the worst presidential campaign in our lifetime. "I turned in the final version of the book on November 1, 2016. I did my rewriting during the summer of 2016, so the election really affected everything."
She realized that when everyone was reading the book they would know who won the election, and she did not and would have to complete it before everything would be decided. "I'm used to writing and getting an immediate response. It's the first time I had to wait like this from November until right now." She even asked her editor if she could wait and write the intro to one of the essays after the election. The editor said she could do that, she could wait, but would she really want to. They decided it would be more interesting to look at fear in the lead up to the election last summer and what that really felt like.
All this fear talk made me wonder if fear is what Stielstra always writes about, or if fear was something she wanted to dissect for this particular project. "Probably. I haven't exactly thought about it that way. I think it's different when you enter a project very intentionally. I walked into this project with a pitch. I am going to write personal essays about fear. I was coming at it from that word." She was attracted to the idea of how we unpack a word, and was influenced by The Empathy Exams by Leslie Jamison. "Empathy was a question she was looking there and then also something like Bad Feminist and how does each essay get at feminism in all sorts of direct and abstract ways. I'm interested in that concept for writers in general. What is a concept you want to unpack?"
"Without giving it any of my deep staring at the wall for long periods of time thought about it, yeah, of course we're writing about fear all of the time, even our stupid hilarious rip-roaring stuff. I think all of that gets at it."
I'll tell you what does not scare me, I am not afraid to tell you that The Wrong Way to Save Your Life is one of my favorite books. Megan Stielstra is definitely someone I admire and look up to and think of as a guide. This book is bigger than all of that gushy, excited and proud friend stuff. I'd be pestering my friends and family to buy and read Megan's new book if I lived a million miles away and hadn't watched and admired her for years. Just know that when I tell you she is a sorcerer of divine light and goodness, I mean it. Don't be afraid. The Wrong Way to Save Your Life is magic, just like my friend.