Megan Stielstra is a force of nature. Her essay collection Once I Was Cool was named one of the best books of 2014 by both Chicago Magazine and the Chicago Reader. She’s legendary in the Chicago live lit scene for both storytelling and her work curating stories and performers as literary director of the critically acclaimed 2nd Story. But it’s her enthusiasm—for story, for people, for life—that makes her writing pop and sizzle, surprising the reader with unexpected and intense emotion.
We sat down over Moscow Mules to talk about live storytelling, the books on her shelves, and her writing process. “What a mind-blowing privilege it is if a reader spends their time in your book. . . . I want my work to mean something for them—I want it to be challenging, I want it to be engaged, I want it to connect. I recognize the gift of time is enormous.”
TQ: You have a lot of current books—Cheryl Strayed, Leslie Jamison, Roxane Gay—a lot of the books that are happening right now. And then you’ve got classics—Kafka, Steinbeck.
MS: I’m always packing that copy of Kafka’s Diaries. Every other sentence is about how I’m feeling today, and you’re like, Thank God it’s hard for other people! [Laughter] I think that’s not something easily remembered, we think that maybe this is just difficult for me, like, I’m not good enough, or I’m not ready for this, as opposed to the wider community of “you’re making art and all of us are trying to figure it out.”
TQ: Do you write every day?
MS: I do, I do. Primarily in the morning, but you know, I have a day job downtown, so I have a commute on the train, so a lot of it happens on the train.
TQ: On your phone?
MS: I do it longhand in a Moleskine notebook. During the week I can’t be precious about it. I would love to live the life where I have ten hours a day to write, or I will hit 3,000 words before I’m done today, but that’s just not where I’m at, I work nine to five, I have a little kid, and I want to be fully engaged with him, I don’t want to be down on the floor building Legos and at the same time be in my weird book about suicide, that’s not for him and our time together, so I try to separate those things out. But where I’m at right now is during the week 500 words a day and they’re a mess. And I don’t know what they’re going to be or what they are, they just come out. And then Saturday is my day to sit and look at the work. So instead of Saturday being my writing day and me sitting down and here’s the blank page—
TQ: Which would be terrifying.
MS: Right! Instead, here’s raw material, and it’s like you already have the building blocks of work. So I’ll say to myself, all right, I have this piece due at this time, what out of the mess I made will fit, and how can it connect with that audience? I do a lot of performance work, so sometimes it’s performance stuff.
TQ: Do you have books that you read about performance, or is it something that you learn by doing and by watching people? Or do you read books on acting, directing?
MS: I learn it by listening to podcasts and primarily by watching people. The Moth, Risk, and certainly 2nd Story, but I’m biased about that, I think it’s the best.
TQ: I had to stop listening to 2nd Story and The Moth on the way to work, because, you know, I get up at six, I’m getting ready, getting the kid to school, pushing things forward, and the next thing you know, I’m in this terrible emotional state because I’ve been listening to these heartbreaking and beautiful personal stories, and then I just want to create all day and think about feelings, but I have to go to work.
MS: Oh my god, how do we separate ourselves as people who make the work, and people who drink the work and live in the work, and then our whole other life that doesn’t have to do with the work, except it does because then we make work out of it? I mean, all of it is tangled together in really lovely ways, but it’s still kind of this compartmentalizing type of mind game, which I think is a skill set for trying to be a working artist in some way.
I had amazing writing teachers, who not only taught me my craft, but also taught me how to learn it, how it’s about attacking the bookshelf. My teachers were never, “This is how you must do dialogue,” but rather, “Let’s find out how fifty writers have done it, let’s examine that, let’s talk about it, and see what works best with the piece you’re working on now.” I was super grateful for that.
For me it’s been the same thing with performance. Through 2nd Story I worked with directors from the Goodman, Steppenwolf, Victory Gardens, Next, the Neo-Futurists, and theaters all around the city who have put in considerable effort to make me have even the slightest idea of what the hell I’m doing, and I couldn’t be more grateful, especially because that work is so connected with my literary work. I think back to your question, are there things that I read for it: I think it’s less about things that I read for performing, but more what do I read to figure out how to adapt the performance back into text. So, say you read “The Tell-Tale Heart” by Edgar Allen Poe, and you’re sitting there alone, but your body is shaking, you want to jump up and down and yell—how does he accomplish that on the page? Writing is chicken-scratch on a piece of paper, that man has been dead for a hundred years, how is he controlling my body right now?
There are aspects of literary craft that I think feed into that kind of voice, and I’m interested in that, like what does it mean in repetition or italics or how we use periods or pacing. I remember being really into A Light in August by William Faulkner. In that book Faulkner can go for nine pages without a period, and it reads slowly. Then one of my favorite writers is Hubert Selby Jr., and in Last Exit to Brooklyn, one of my favorites, he goes for nine pages without a period, and it’s quick. So if you really study it, both of them, Faulkner uses two or three or four adverbs and adjectives in front of every verb or noun. Selby doesn’t use many, so Selby shoots through it, but Faulkner is a rickety old wagon wheel, and sometimes, if he really wants to slow you down, he uses “and” instead of commas, so rickety and old and brown, and all of a sudden you’re slow. And to think, oh, okay, cool, let’s try it, like I’m going to write this paragraph with 500 adverbs in it, or I’m going to write this without any, and see what works for the story. So when I’m performing, that comes out naturally, like when you speed up and slow down, when your volume is up, when your body moves. But when you’re reading my book, I want you to hear that, I want you to hear that pacing.
TQ: Did you perform most of the essays in Once I Was Cool?
MS: Most of them were performance pieces. And then I went back and listened to recordings of myself performing and I said okay, what am I doing here with punctuation?
TQ: With your voice?
MS: Yeah! Like, the pause that just happened— is that a comma, is that a period, is that a new paragraph, or is that a full-space break? What did I just do in that pause? For me, those things are connected, my ear and how I’m dealing with the text on the page. But just as I’ve had performance teachers, you have teachers in literature who show you how to do all that stuff. Margaret Atwood has this great story, “Rape Fantasies,” where the narrator is telling a story out loud, and she’ll say things like, “And then I did this and then I did a little head roll like this.” And that’s the text: “I did a little head roll like this.” And you know the character is doing something, but you don’t know exactly what she’s doing, but it doesn’t matter.
TQ: Right—because you’re filling it in.
MS: Exactly. And that’s the way someone would speak out loud, so how is she doing that? And how is Junot Diaz doing that?
TQ: I think one of the things that’s so powerful about storytelling is the energy that’s created in the room. When I read your book, one thing you really do so well, is that it has its own energy. The text itself has its own life source, which isn’t always what you experience reading essays.
MS: A big thing that I’ve taken from live performance and tried to be thoughtful about in print or on screen or in text is that I’m not making this work to exist in a vacuum. I’m not writing to put it in a box under my bed. I would like it to be read, I would like to contribute to dialogue in some way, I would like the work to be of use in the same way that reading has been so useful to me in becoming the human being and the parent and the teacher and the wife and the friend that I’m trying to be every day. I read a thing that makes me see the world in a better way, I read and experience things that have nothing to do with my tiny bubble of the universe and that crack something open for me, and I think I can be better because of it. I like to think of the work being a contribution in that way, and if the mess that I wrote during the week isn’t a contribution in that kind of way, it’s not going to be shared yet. Maybe not shared ever, but certainly not shared yet. For me, there’s a differentiation between the writing and if and when to share the writing, but I never sit down and start writing, thinking, “This will be a big deal” and so on, because for me personally, that’s a whole lot of pressure that I don’t have time to internalize at this moment. Maybe if I was in a position where I could just sit down and face the page every day, that would be one thing, but there are not enough hours in the day for me to be dealing with a lot of bullshit.
TQ: You show up and do the work.
MS: What a mind-blowing privilege it is if a reader spends their time in your book. There are so many books out there. Think of all the times you’ve been in a library or bookstore, and you pull a book off the shelf, and you read the first paragraph, and then you put it back. I’ve done that so many times. I’d like my work to be the one that you keep. Honestly, not because I’m giving a thought about you spending thirty dollars on a hardcover edition. It’s because I wrote the work to engage in some way, so if someone is going to spend time with my work, I want my work to mean something for them—I want it to be challenging, I want it to be engaging, I want it to connect. I recognize the gift of time is enormous.