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Megan Stielstra Interview with Reading Group Choices

Megan Stielstra makes us want to hang out with her even more by answering our questions about fear, parenting, and The Wrong Way to Save Your Life.

We absolutely loved talking to Megan Stielstra about her new collection of essays. We asked her about fear, family relationships, and her reaction to the presidential election and current climate.

Reading Group Choices: We noticed there were more essays that involved information about your dad, and about your relationship with your dad. Is that because you connect fear to him more to you than to your mom (due to his health and his experience with the school shooting)? Did you notice while you were writing that you wrote about him more than your mom? 

Megan Stielstra: Yes! Knock on wood—I don’t think about fear when I think about my mom. My dad’s life is inherently riskier and I worry about him. I’m sure this worry is influenced by him living so far away, his lifestyle so different from everything I know. And yet, if I flip the lens, I know he worries about me in the city, especially with the single story told about Chicago in our national dialogue. Much of our time on the phone is spent assuring the other that were fine, everything is fine.

That said—he’s happy! My mom is, too. I don’t know if you’ve had the privilege of seeing your parents happy. It feels very revolutionary to me.

I’m working on a longer essay right now about my mom and inheritance. Her mother—my grandma Isobel—has health challenges and I’ve been going back and forth to see them both in Michigan. The three of us are very close and I’m lucky to have that, these three generations of women to listen to and learn from. There’s a lot flying around in my head about what we pass down—our bodies, our stories, our stuff (my grandma collects china and I will inherit some of it and all I want to do right now is throw shit). There’s a lot of history that my mom and I are talking through. We talk through everything. When I was rewriting The Wrong Way, we were on the phone all the time. That part near the end of the book, about how she called the president of my university during the shooting at my high school to make sure I knew my dad was okay—I never knew she did that. I gave her an early version of “Here is My Heart” and she was like, Why did you think your dad was dead? They came to tell you I called, right? When I said they hadn’t, she was furious. Twenty years later and she wanted to hunt that dude down.

Another thought: there’s a quick part at the beginning of “Here is My Heart” where I mention melanoma. That’s in my body from my mom’s side of the family, and it’s coming up now in this inheritance essay. Our work is constantly in dialogue with itself; new context, new understanding. I tried to make the essays in The Wrong Way talk to each other—bringing up a question in one place that I answer in another. I’m interested in how this works on a larger scale, how our work tangles together to create the whole of a life. The Wrong Way continues stories in Once I Was Cool. Essays I’m writing now continue stories in The Wrong Way. They have to, don’t they? It’s all me. My life runs parallel to my pages.

RGC: This book was mostly written during the elections, and we’re just curious what an essay by you on fear would be like now post-election. Would you consider writing one? We’d love to read it. Which leads us to…

MS: So much of what I’m writing now is WHAT THE FUCK IS EVEN HAPPENING, repeated ad nauseam. It’s not work I’d show anyone, in part because it’s shitty writing but mostly because that’s not the contribution I want to make to our cultural dialogue. I want to talk about hope and action and fight and imagine and try and right now that’s hard as hell because I am furious, often stupefyingly so. I imagine, with alarming frequency, throwing my laptop into the sea. I imagine, with alarming frequency, throwing myself into the sea. I need to get that fury and mess and @#$*& out of my body so I can come back with writing that matters.

Right now I’m trying to be thoughtful about when I need to speak and when I need to listen. I’m reading creative nonfiction by women of color, by Muslim women, queer and trans writers, disabled writers. A few suggestions: Roxane Gay, Samantha Irby, Nicole Chung, Meredith Talusan, Melissa Febos, Melissa Chadburn, Porochista Khakpour, Esme Weijun Wang, Eve Ewing, Fatimah Asghar, Wendy Ortiz, Erika Sanchez, Sarah Hollenbeck, Sung Yim, Thomas Page McBee, Lidia Yuknavitch.

There have been times this year when I thought my writing might be of use: The day before the election, I wrote about what our votes mean in the world. When we lost the birth control mandate in the ACA, I wrote about trying to get my IUD replaced early. During Childhood Cancer Awareness month, I wrote a follow-up to “We Say and Do Kind Things,” about my buddy Sophia. All of those essays are about fear. Maybe every piece of writing is about fear. Maybe they’re about joy. We need both, I think.

Mostly, I’ve been touring with The Wrong Way, talking to people like all of you who were kind enough to spend time with the book, and I’m seeing how the essays in The Wrong Way speak to our current dialogue even though most were written pre-election. I was in St. Louis the week after the cop who murdered Mike Brown got off, and we talked about “What Belongs to Us.” I was in Vegas the week after the shooting, and we talked about “This Essay is Done.” I was on Sanibel Island after Irma. I’m going South next month. I’m in Chicago every day. I want the work to matter every day. I’m trying to figure out what that means.

RGC: What are you working on now? 

MS: Long-term: I’m working on a novel. It’s very weird.

Short-term: I’m on a deadline for an essay about what we should do with our rage. I’ve been going axe-throwing every week. I highly recommend it.

RGC: How did writing about fear make your own fears manageable? 

MS: It showed me that I wasn’t alone.

I’ve written a lot about postpartum depression, and to this day I get emails from women who’ve just given birth, trying to understand what the hell is happening to their bodies and their heads and their hearts. I get emails from the men and women who love them, too, wondering how they can help. Jesus, we need each other. If me being open with my fears, my mistakes, my bullshit can be of use to someone who’s standing where I was standing, not knowing if they can get up off the goddamn floor; if they can see me now, here, fighting, trying; if they can know that yes, youll make it through and out and up

That’s everything.

RGS: Since your book was released, “#Metoo” has led many on social media to face their fears and help us see how pervasive sexual harassment is in our culture. What are your thoughts about how this moment can help us move forward toward a society that values women as humans and not as objects?

MS: I am thinking of this poem by Muriel Rukeyser:

What would happen if one woman told the truth about
her life?
The world would split open 

I am thinking of this speech by Janet Mock:

Telling our stories is a revolutionary act.

I am thinking of this Tweet by Zerlina Maxwell:

I just want to send words of support to all of my fellow survivors. This is a difficult, albeit necessary moment in our culture. I hope everyone is taking care of themselves. <3

RGC: What fears do you have for your son?

MS: As I type these answers to your questions, I have one eye on Twitter to see if the GOP tax bill passes. I am terrified of this bill, for my kid and your kids and everyone’s kids.

The immediate, practical fear: I am a part-time college teacher; my husband is self-employed. We’re lucky to support ourselves doing what we love, but neither of our jobs come with insurance. We’ve been able to make it because of the provisions under the Affordable Care Act but now, I don’t know what we’ll do.

The fact that I’m sitting here worrying about healthcare for my child makes me want to set everything on fire. We should all want to set things on fire. Nine million low-income children are about to lose their insurance because Republicans are letting the CHIP program lapse. If this deathtrap of a tax bill passes, billions will be cut from Medicaid. My buddy Sophia is five years old and fighting a bitch of a brain tumor, along with 175,000+ kids worldwide who are diagnosed every year. If insurance companies are allowed to set lifetime caps again, many of them could max out by the time they’re ten years old.

Look: this is personal. This is my family. But I want to be a person in this world who cares not just for her family, but everyone’s families. Not just my kid; but everyone’s kids. Kids who are sick. Kids with incarcerated parents. Kids at the mercy of gun violence. Kids at the mercy of state-sanctioned violence. Kids fleeing violence in Syria, in Gaza. Queer and trans kids.

RGC: Why aren’t the footnotes read in the audio? And, another audio question: Why did you only read part of the audio book? Only one person “read’ with the audio book, but played a section of you reading at our meeting. Everyone commented how you have such a great audio book voice! 

MS: My publisher made the decisions about the audiobook. I loved being a part of it!

I do audio work professionally in Chicago, often in collaboration with theatre companies. One piece that may be of interest: my friend Sarah and I performed “We Say and Do Kind Things” together for 2nd Story. I’m so glad the piece lives in her voice.

RGC: The Trump era has brought us into politics stoked by fear and mistrust. Can we learn anything from unpacking fear and finding a way to unravel what has brought us to this moment?

I think fear and mistrust have always been here, depending on who you are, but certainly the dial seems to have turned up all the way. It’s so loud. It’s screaming.

I want to say, Of course, we need to unravel and look at how we got here so we dont go here again! but the truth is that history has repeated itself again and again.

I think what we can learn is what we can do to help. Where can claim responsibility? I am responsible for how I raise my son. For his education. For my own education. For the education of all the writers who step into my classroom. I can donate and vote and yell and keep going. I can stand up when other people can’t.

When I look at my fears, I want to come back with action.

RGC: You write, “If we’re going to make it, we have to look at the fear. We have to get into it. Throw it against the wall, stand back and take a good close look.” Working through fear in writing seems to have given you a focus on the things that matter most. It is bold and inspiring! What advice can you offer to others who want to use writing as a tool to uncover fears and live in the light?

MS: One of my favorite writers is Lidia Yuknavitch, and she talks often about how our bodies can’t carry trauma. “But,” she says, “the page can. The page can carry it.”

My advice is this: there’s a difference between the practice of writing and the choice of if/when/how to share it. Start writing just for you. Don’t worry about whether or not it’s good. Don’t worry if [insert name of person who you’re scared will read it] will read it. anyone will read it. It’s your’s. Get it out of you. You have to get it out of you so you can see it. Trust me: the page can carry it.

Also: get a library card.

RGC: We kinda loved your friend Pete. What was the color of his grief? We wanted him to be OK. Is he?

MS: I love him, too! He runs an art studio in L.A. and is married to the love of his life with two rad kids. I saw him this past October when I was there for a reading. His beard is shorter but otherwise he’s the same as I remember.

In my memory, the paint on his walls was black. But if he were here, he would say there are many different shades of black and I need to be more specific. And I would tell him to shut up. And he would laugh and get me a beer.

RGC: You do a brilliant job of unpacking the heart as a metaphor, but then realizing how real the heart is. You write, “we’re here at its mercy and with its blessing. At some point, we have to ask ourselves how we want to live.” This phrase appears a few times in the book. How has writing this book helped you decide how you want to live?

MS: I’ve decided to choose kindness over fear.

Some days that’s hard. It’s hard today. But then I read your questions. They made me think of an essay I love by Frank Chimero with this great line: “Once the work goes out into the world, it doesn’t belong to you anymore. It belongs to the people who carry it.”

Thank you all for carrying my work. Thank you for reminding me what matters.

Read more about The Wrong Way to Save Your Life and find other great author interviews on the Reading Group Choices blog!