Megan Stielstra is the author of three prose collections: Everyone Remain Calm, Once I Was Cool, and The Wrong Way to Save Your Life: Essays, named the 2017 Nonfiction Book of the Year by the Chicago Review of Books. Her work appears in Best American Essays, New York Times, Believer, Poets & Writers, Tin House, Longreads, Guernica, Rumpus, and elsewhere. A longtime company member of 2nd Story, she has told stories for National Public Radio, Radio National Australia, the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, and in all sorts of theaters, festivals, classrooms and bars. She teaches creative writing in Chicago, and via Zoom, in your living room. Northwestern University Press has just reissued her first two collections.
After living in four states during the past year and a half, Stielstra and her thirteen-year-old son are sheltering in the Chicago home of Sarah and Scott Zematis, awaiting a September move to their new place. Stielstra’s 2017 essay “We Say and Do Kind Things” describes supporting the Zematises during their three-year-old daughter Sophia’s cancer treatment. (Stielstra and Sarah Zematis also performed the essay). Stielstra said receiving shelter from the Zematises now illustrates how the roles of giver/receiver must remain fluid. “The rug got pulled out from under me and my friends showed up in force,” she said. “They welcomed my son and I into their homes. This is how we make it through: we take care of each other. We are all we have.”
This interview was conducted via Zoom on July 11, 2021, and was supplemented by an email exchange. The conversations have been edited for length and clarity.
A couple of minutes into the interview, a nine-year-old girl came into the Zoom frame, politely asking permission to write on an iPad—it was Sophia! Stielstra wants readers to know Sophia’s been stable since 2017.
Barbara West: I realized that, as I was prepping for this interview, I appreciated your encouraging words in “An Essay About Essays.” You tell us it’s OK to write from a place of uncertainty, and you invite us to join in “dialogue about what it means to be a human being in this crazy, mess of a world.” But do you have any particular advice for me, today, as an interviewer?
No…no, I just want to talk to you. I want to talk about what the books meant to you and what that might make me think about with my work going forward.
OK. So, we’re talking about two books reissued just now by Northwestern University Press: Everyone Remain Calm, a collection of short stories, often in a magical realist style, written largely during your self-funded-by-bartending “sabbatical” year in Prague, 2008-2009. And Once I Was Cool, a collection of personal essays, many of which come out of your performance work with 2nd Story, Paper Machete, and other performance spaces. A number of the essays in Once I Was Cool illustrate, or hint at, the actual events of your life that inspired the stories in Everyone Remain Calm. Other essays talk about your process as you were writing them.
How did these books come to be reissued at the same time?
When the press that put out Once I Was Cool went under, I got a call from Parneshia Jones, the executive editor of Northwestern University Press, asking if I’d be interested in working together on a reissue. In my memory, a disco ball dropped down from the ceiling and the room became a dance party, but in actuality I held it together and was, hopefully, very professional. Parneshia is a force in literature in this city and this country; working with her and her team was a dream. In subsequent discussions, I told her about my first book, Everyone Remain Calm, a story collection that came out on a digital imprint in 2011. She said, “So you’ve never held the book in your hands?” I said no, and she said, “I think you need to.”
To what extent have these stories and essays changed from their first publications?
Not a ton changed. But they benefitted from very thorough and dedicated copyediting, especially for Once I Was Cool.
Everyone Remain Calm had gone through that already with Emily Schultz atJoyland, who’s a brilliant writer in her own right. I like it when my editors are smarter than I am.
That’s very handy.
Yes, and I’ve been very fortunate to have different editors at all stages. We can also blow up what the editorial eye even means. Long before these books were in print, a lot of that work was vetted through theater directors and Chicago audiences, people who would come up to me after shows and say, “You pronounced my neighborhood wrong,” letting me know what the hell was up.
So these are essentially the same stories and essays that were published in 2011 and 2014. It’s not like you said, “Then I was too young, I see that differently now.”
But I think this is interesting to talk about because I wanted to. First of all, I wanted to say to my ten-years-ago self: “Oh Megan, don’t do that!” But this idea of narrative distance, where we’re writing from, it changes the meaning of the story. So I think of these as portraits of my younger self. I wanted to be honest about who I was.
And, in a way, Once I Was Cool already did that. Once I Was Cool went back and re-told some of those stories. So it makes sense to let Everyone Remain Calm…remain.
(Always the teacher) Oh…that’s a really good line, Barbara. You should bookmark that.
A thing that I want to say, and I’m going to be very cautious as I build this sentence…I am going through a divorce right now. So, to re-read many of the essays, especially in Once I was Cool, about that time where I was very much in love…it hurt. It hurts.
I keep thinking that ten-years-ago me will be really happy that I left the text alone. Because right now I’d be making that decision to alter it through the lens of pain and that isn’t a way that I should be approaching the text.
So…to be making new work about the now, while editing that older work, was a…bit of a ride. And all along, I was doing both of those things with a child sitting next to me in Zoom school. And also working and teaching full time.
I would like to be part of the chorus of writers who are trying to blow up that myth of a writer sitting at a computer and it being financially easy. ‘Cause that is not my story.
I have a lot of shame around this struggle to balance writing and finances because I don’t keep up with current events, I hardly read. I’m a wound care nurse, I cut people’s toenails. Being an only parent from the start, when my son was born twenty-four years ago, I worried I was going to neglect him if I kept reading. Even now, I still don’t participate in most cultural discourse. I justify it by saying I take care of people’s bodies all day long, a wide range of bodies.
First of all, thank you for cutting our toenails, saving our lives, and holding our hands when it hurts. I can say this for the next million years, and I know how hard it is to do it: but if I can beg you to just put that shame down. It’s too heavy to fuckin’ carry. We have too many other things to do, me and you.
You also have to be living. If you want to be a writer, you get to be one forever. Sometimes that means big chunks of time where you are not building sentences because you’re living the experiences that you’re going to build the work out of. So drop the shame about it. MORATORIUM ON SHAME. (Put that in all caps.)
OK I will, I will (laughing)!
My favorite thing, when the works entered the world for the first time, is that they made other people want to sit down and write their stories. And that is always my greatest hope, that it will make people understand that their own stories have value.
A thing that makes me a little nervous is that a work of art freezes time. Often people will interview me and they’re surprised that I’m not the woman who was unable to get up off the floor after her baby was born. And I’m like “Y’all, that was thirteen years ago!”
It’s not like “Shazam, that was over.” It lives in my body, I work on it every day, right? Taking care of our mental health is a discipline. But we get to change and grow.
So this leads me to a question: We tend to talk about gender identity in the context of trans or non-binary people, but I’m a cis woman and I’ve been noticing how I’m continually working on my gender identity. At first I thought, well, I’m nearly six feet tall—I grew up having to wear boys/men’s pants because they were the only ones that fit. I got used to having pockets that keys didn’t fall out of.
But a close friend of mine, also in her fifties, relatively petite, extremely pretty, well-dressed, straight, cis—she’s also working on her gender identity.
I saw a lot about this in Everyone Remain Calm. There are men with muscles “pushing out of their shirts like baseballs,” a “thick chest to lean against,” and wielding guns and power tools. On the other hand, you write about men with “emotive hands,” “wearing Birkenstocks and Fimo clay beads,” and “looking forward to jury duty.”
And then your female characters are working on their gender identity too. Shanny in “Shot to the Lungs and No Breath Left,” is “treading water in testosterone,” with all those men in Alaska. And we have the “Indestructible Woman,” at Coney Island, like a female version of the Incredible Hulk. Penny in “The Boot” got desperate and “put on some godawful lacy underwear” and later, “too much eye makeup.”
Certainly I grew up with…a lot of dudes. And I grew up with a lot of guns. My father’s a big hunter. I love how who he is complicates our stereotype of hunting and gun culture.
And part of it is also that Everyone Remain Calm is about my twenties. So much of that was just about attraction. And that’s what I was wanting in the bodies I was tangling up in. And I’ll put a little asterisk here and say: We are allowed to…evolve and expand that desire… But, if I’m being honest to the girl I was, you’re getting descriptions of biceps like softballs because that’s a thing I got excited about.
I’ve always been thinking about what it means to have grown up as a girl in a very masculine-presenting space. But now, me at forty-five, would question that sentence, right? Growing up as a girl doesn’t mean I have to be growing up as non-masculine-presenting.
There are so many writers whose work has inspired and challenged my thinking on gender: Alex Marzano Lesnevich, Gabrielle Bellot, Adrienne Rich, Audre Lorde, Danez Smith, Meredith Talusan, Thomas Page McBee, Atom Atkinson, Joshua Jennifer Espinoza, Akwaeke Emezi, Jordy Rosenberg, H. Melt, and Melissa Faliveno, among others, and the many writers I’ve worked with in traditional and nontraditional classroom spaces who celebrate the multiple intersections of identity and community
For you and me, both raising sons, I’m appreciating how you make a case for the unreliability of both those extremes—masculinity and anti-masculinity. You’re navigating that geography. Showing us how guys can go rabbit hunting just because they’re trying to impress their future father-in-law, while being deeply reliable and “kind, gentle” men who love “kids and puppies in a very non-sappy kind of edgy, DIY sort of way.”
I think that raising a son affects all of this as well. I am a white, cis woman raising…as of what we know right now, (well, we know he’s white)…a cis child, and that is my most important feminist act right now.
Back to Everyone Remain Calm, here’s a moment when I got angry at you: in “The Boot.” It turned out that Henry, the guy Penny was visiting in prison, meeting for the first time (after much corresponding and a little talking on the phone), wasn’t the “beefcake” across the room that she wanted to “climb like a tree.” Henry turned out to be the little guy at her elbow. She wasn’t attracted to him, even after their passionate correspondence. I appreciate you giving Penny permission to have the hots for whomever she has the hots for, even if it’s not p.c. But I got mad that Penny didn’t recognize Henry’s voice.
I went so many rounds on that story. I wanted her to end up with Henry, ‘cause he was good. But Penny, that woman, was about desire at that particular point in her life.
It felt to me at the time that just being able to talk about a woman wanting to fuck somebody was (and still is) pretty radical. To just be able to say, “I would like to climb that person like a tree and I do not want to talk to them.” I say this now as someone re-entering the dating world after seventeen years.
I want to thank you for how much you looked at and enjoyed guys’ asses in these two books. I need to do more of that.
Please, look at all the asses, Barbara!
OK, I wrote that down. But, in the meantime, let’s talk about what else you’re doing now, what is the Civic Media Fellowship?
It’s through USC’s Annenberg Innovation Lab, supported by the MacArthur Foundation. Fifteen of us—storytellers, media-makers, journalists—collaborated on Zoom twice a week for a year to have our point of view, of what media can accomplish, blown up and expanded. We had different experts come in. Tricia Hersey, who runs the Nap Ministry, spoke to us, also the writer Jonny Sun. As they put it, it’s about how to “create and harness media that connects with communities, inspires action, builds civic capacity and helps sustain social change.”
For me personally, it came at a really wonderful and necessary time where that kind of financial support made a huge difference for my son and I. So often we talk about the art that was created and not the artist who was supported. A fellowship isn’t just about a product, but it’s about a human being, an investment in that human being. And what it said to me, at this particular moment in my life, is your work has value and we want you to keep going.
When I read about it on your website, I assumed it was you being a resource for others. Thank you for showing me my assumption—as a consumer of your work, I was thinking, “What is Megan putting out?”
Of course. Also this past year, I was on a Shearing Fellowship in Las Vegas, through the Black Mountain Institute. There I also did a class for the Las Vegas community. I had university students, but also some from the entertainment industry, on furlough, and a couple attorneys, on the front lines offering legal defense to activists and people who were homeless. Figuring out how you can tell your stories to a wider audience.
I cannot talk about my current life without talking about the memoirists that I work with during year-long classes through Catapult and Story Studio Chicago . Folks in four different time zones, across the country. To have work showing up in my inbox every week, how people survived and kept moving, growing. That saved my life.
I also teach at Northwestern. It’s that same kind of feeling, but condensed into a term.
I’m working on two bigger projects right now. A novel about how women care for one another. And then I’m working on a memoir too, about the last year and a half of my life.
Around New Year’s, I was talking with one of the people in my Civic Media cohort and she said, “What’s one word that you would use to describe 2020?” And I said, “Survival.” And then she said, “Great, you did it. And…now I’d like you to dream a little bigger.”
That’s language that I spend a lot of time saying to other people. It was real nice to have somebody say that to me. I’ve written hundreds of thousands of words this past year and a half and they are not ready for anybody else, but the “dream bigger” thing, now, is making that happen.
Well thank you. I also want to thank you for the extensive references you provide us of books, podcasts, TED talks, songs, albums. One of your lists inspired me to share it at church camp this past week. (Even though I’m a Buddhist, I attend a Christian camp every year.) I did some performing, but mostly I was hiding out, reading your books and apologizing about being antisocial. But at campfire one night, I read from your footnotes for “The Domino Effect.” Quotes from Cheryl Strayed and Toni Morrison about making conscious choices about our participation in a capitalist economy, and how we can use our freedom and power to empower others. It fit right in with our camp themes.
I need you to do one more thing for me, write this down. You just said, “I’m a Buddhist, but I go to Christian church camp every summer.” Write down that sentence. Because I would read that essay, Barbara.
Done! I want to wrap up by talking about that “Spectrum” exercise from your long ago creative writing class—for whom you give ultimate credit to Guillermo Gómez-Peña and Roberto Sifuentes. The classroom is emptied of furniture. One wall is designated “My writing is political” and the other wall, “my writing is not political.” You start out placing yourself against the “not political” wall, explaining that you “write love stories.” Then your gay friend positions himself at the other wall, saying “I write love stories.” In that “lightbulb, lightning, ton of bricks” moment you suddenly see the impact of identity. Your teacher asks where you want to be and you literally walk across the room to stand, with your friend, against the opposite wall.
Where I’m at right now is, “All of the work is deeply political.” I mean this conversation that you and I are having: we’re two women talking about writing. A few months back a wonderful Egyptian writer and feminist Dr. Nawal El Saadawi passed away, and I was thinking about this, because the first text of hers that I read, back when I was in college, was Memoirs from the Women’s Prison which she wrote in prison. And she was in prison for her writing. Just the fact that you and I get to engage in this conversation about work is profoundly political. All of my work, not necessarily on the page, but in education, is sitting in spaces with people and talking about stories and what they can accomplish. That’s where revolutions come from, right?
Barbara West‘s work-in-progress memoir, What the Others Are Here For (And What If I’m One of Them?) uses mis-rememberings of Edward Scissorhands to explore tension between Christian/Buddhist directives to “help others” and her 12-step program’s directive to “focus on yourself,” and stop bothering everyone else. She’s the author of a collection of poetry and prose, “…and I felt the simple sweetness of me,” (2017). Her work has appeared in the American Journal of Nursing, Shambhala Times, Flying South, Full of Crow and others. Her performance videos have won awards in festivals around the world. Although she descends from Pennsylvania Dutch activists; she lives in Davis, California, and works as a wound/ostomy nurse. She has published nonfiction in ACM.