Megan Stielstra’s new essay collection, The Wrong Way to Save Your Life, is a guidebook to living in troubled times. I found myself putting the book down to draw out the time I had with it. Each essay is urgent and impassioned, unique and universal, a reminder we’re not alone.
Jaime Rochelle Herndon: Your other book is also an essay collection. How did you come to essay writing?
Megan Stielstra: In high school I was the kind of geek who cut class to hang out at the library. I’d sit on the floor, reading Tolkien, Atwood, Virginia Woolf, but the kicker was Richard Wright’s Black Boy. In chapter 13, the character of Richard gets a library card for the first time and, in reading novels, he’s able to understand people who are different than himself. There I was, a sixteen-year-old girl in super-sheltered, small-town Michigan, having this profound connection with an adult man in the Jim Crow South. It was the first of many stops in an ongoing dialogue I have with myself about the enormity of our world and my own responsibility and privilege within it.
I went to college to learn how to write like that. I went to grad school to learn how to teach others to write like that. I paid for all this school behind a bar, and it was there that I started making connections about the craft of storytelling; how the literary techniques I learned from Kafka and Morrison and Didion were so similar to those my customers used after a Bloody Mary or two or five: structure, tension, exaggeration, world-building. This is a necessary plot point to the story of me and the essay; I didn’t start off writing them for the page or the screen. I wrote them to tell out loud. I’m biased as hell, but the storytelling scene in Chicago is second to none. I work with a collective called 2nd Story—we are educators and directors and producers who support people of all ages, backgrounds, and skill levels in writing their own stories and performing them live.
I’ve done that work for years in both traditional and nontraditional classroom spaces. I really love it. There’s this poem by the Chicago writer Coya Paz that I think about a lot:
The work is enough.
I feel grateful I am able to do it,
that every day I wake up to a job I love,
a privilege afforded the very few and I am wise enough now to know it.
Honestly, I wasn’t thinking about what would happen with my own writing. And then one of my performance pieces, “Channel B,” was published by Roxane Gay at The Rumpus (xo Roxane), and then selected by Cheryl Strayed for the Best American Essays (xo Cheryl), and from there, things started to move. I am grateful for the support and generosity of those two writers—and others, too—who showed me that my work had value and challenged me to make it better. I admire how they move through the world, kicking through doors and then turning around and saying to the rest of us, “All right, let’s go. Come on. Step up.” I want to follow their example. “Let’s go,” I’ll say. “We need you.”
JRH: I loved the reading list in the back—it reminded me of the Ani DiFranco line “every tool is a weapon if you hold it right.” What are your top 5 must-reads, and why?
MS: Oh my god. There are so many things I want to add to that list. Knocking it down to five reads is impossible. Can I say the first five that come to my head?
- “River of Names,” by Dorothy Allison. I saw her read it live when she toured with Sister Spit. We were in an old church and I’m not particularly religious, but God was there, for sure. It’s from her short story collection Trash, and she wrote an essay in her book Skin about how she wrote it. And while we’re on the subject, she gave a craft lecture at Tin House on place that blew my mind. Required reading for writers, I think. It’s in The Writer’s Notebook. And I love her novel Cavedweller. And Bastard Out of Carolina. Fuck, just read everything she’s ever written.
- Tacked up on the wall of my office is a quick piece by Kiese Laymon called “We’re Not Good Enough to Not Practice.” I read it every morning. It’s the asskick I need to keep working. I found it after finishing his incredible collection How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America. This is me waiting for his memoir, Heavy, coming out next year.
- I’m rereading Gabriel Garcia Marquez right now. His work is magic. I need some magic. Maybe you do, too. Yesterday I finished “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings” and now butterflies are flying out of everything. Butterflies in the dishwasher. Butterflies in the coffee. Butterflies in the dog food. My favorite novel is One Hundred Years of Solitude. Each sentence is a symphony.
- My favorite essay is “The Fourth State of Matter” by Jo Ann Beard. That piece guts me. I’ve learned so much from it, especially the complexity of narrative; on the page, sure, but more so in our lives. A single event is no single event. It touches everything. Even the stars.
- The Breakbeat Poets, an anthology meant to “expand the idea of who a poet is and what a poem is for.
JRH: Your essays have various forms—numbered lists, fragments—is there one that feels instinctual to you? How do you decide?
MS: I’m most comfortable in straightforward narrative; scene-building, storytelling. That said—learning is discomfort. I wanted to kick myself awake, and for me, that means form, as well as content. Example: there’s an essay called “The Blogger’s Wife” that I tried to structure like an idea, how it starts in one place and ends up someplace else. I knew I was talking about the fear of judgement, of being scared to write something because of what other people might think, but the form let me go off in all sorts of directions: internet harassment, gun control, Chicago politics, our capacity for imagination, and Old Fashioneds.
Note: if you read an essay live about how much you love Old Fashioneds, afterwards like nine people will bring you an Old Fashioned. Please plan your evening accordingly.
Sometimes, my decisions with form have to do with the publication or performance series I’m writing for. Say, you write for the NYT and there’s a contract with the audience that this work is true, data-driven, fact-checked. You write something for The Onion and you know the thing isn’t true, but it’s true. You read those publications and you see the unspoken rules and you find yourself within them: this essay is fact-checked, this essay is 1000 words, this essay is batshit crazy, this essay is in the form of a satisfaction survey. I can write in all of these forms. What matters to me is being honest and transparent with the audience about what I’m doing, and why.
Other times, the decisions are pure gut. It’s not something I have words for.
JRH: In “real and imaginary ghosts,” you say, about PPD/depression, “the hell with shame. Let’s get into it, the beauty and the mess.” That was a beautiful and apt description of what writing does for me—it illuminates the beauty and the mess. It seemed to be a good description of your essays, too—touching upon subjects beautiful and messy. Did you have an underlying theme for the book? Were these essays ones you’d been working on, or were they written specifically for the book? How did you decide what to include?
MS: I came at this project to interrogate my own fear. Certainly my experience with postpartum depression played a part in that, especially because it felt so solitary, so lonely and secret and shameful. Why? I’m not the first person to talk about it, to write about it. I will keep talking about, writing about it. I don’t want any of us to feel alone. Fuck that. We’re here. I’m here. I see you.
The book started with an essay about our apartment building catching on fire. I can still feel that fear in my body, five minutes to get my kid out. It happened so fast. I can still feel it in my body, my bones. It’s the title piece in The Wrong Way to Save Your Life, and before that it was in the New York Times, but I wrote it first for 2nd Story. There’s something really powerful—for me, at least—to perform the work, having it live only in the present, this one night, this one moment. As soon as you publish it, it’s there forever. Anyone can read it. Your dad. Your ex. Your kid ten years into the future. I’m really grateful for the spaces I have to share the work out loud and get an immediate audience reaction. You know right away when you’ve got them, when you’ve lost them, what to cut, how to rewrite.
JRH: Who inspires you? What inspires you? What are you reading right now?
MS: The young writers in my classes. They’re working their asses off, many with full-time jobs and families, on top of a full-time course load, fighting for time and rent and tuition. I’m so proud of them. They’re fierce as hell. I get home exhausted at the end of the day and the last thing I want to do is write, but I know they’re at the page, writing their faces off, and if I’m going to stand in front of them, I damn well better be worthy of it. So I go to work. They light an incredible fire under my ass and I do my best to return the favor.
Mostly I’m reading their drafts, and the books we’re reading together for class this summer: Love and Trouble, by Claire Dederer; Hunger, by Roxane Gay; and We Are Never Meeting in Real Life, by Samantha Irby. I love her so much. I carry her books around in my bag and read them whenever I want to laugh or, like, hurl myself into the sea. My copies are shredded. Her work has saved me a thousand times.
I’m excited for new work by Rene Denfeld and Alice Anderson this fall. And I was lucky enough to read galleys of three forthcoming books that are breathtakingly good: Whiskey and Ribbons, by Leesa Cross-Smith; What About the Rest of Your Life, by Sung Yim; and Code of the West, by Sahar Mustafah.
Remember those names. Remember those titles. Hear me, book clubs of America?
Most importantly: my kid and I are reading A Wrinkle in Time. There’s this part where Meg’s father tells her she doesn’t have to be afraid to be afraid. I really, really needed that.
JRH: What would be the one thing, if you had to choose, you’d want someone to take away from your book?
MS: We have to look at our own fear. Get it out of our bodies, outside of ourselves, so we can see it and learn from it and try to make the bullshit better. The question behind pretty much all of my essays: What do I do with all of this fear?
JRH: What are you working on next?
MS: I’m working on a novel. It’s… very weird.
Jaime Rochelle Herndon graduated with her MFA in creative nonfiction from Columbia and is a writer and editor living in NYC. She is a contributor at Book Riot and a writing instructor at Apiary Lit, and her writing can be seen on Healthline and New York Family Magazine, among others.