Magic to Make Everybody React

A Conversation with Megan Stielstra on the Performance Essay and Why We Tell Stories.


Megan Stielstra is the author of the essay collections Once I Was Cool (Curbside Splendor, 2014) and Come Here, Fear, forthcoming from Harper Perennial. She’s a contributing opinion writer for The New York Times and her work appears in The Best American Essays, Chicago Tribune, Poets & Writers, The Rumpus, and elsewhere. A longtime company member with the 2nd Story storytelling series, she tells stories for all sorts of theaters, festivals, and bars including the Goodman, Steppenwolf, Museum of Contemporary Art, National Public Radio, and regularly with The Paper Machete live news magazine at The Green Mill. She currently teaches in the MFA Program at Northwestern University.

On February 5, 2015, Megan Stielstra visited the Writing House to give a Q&A and reading for Interlochen Arts Academy creative writing students. During her visit, The Interlochen Review editors Sophie Coats, Mickayla Noel, and Grace Montgomery sat down with her to discuss her new book Once I Was Cool and her process as a performance essayist.


Sophie Coats: My first question was about the title. I know your essay “Art of the Excuse” starts with the line “Once I was cool…” Why did you make that the title of the book?

Megan Stielstra: It came from the line at the end of the first essay. In front of my apartment there was this incredibly suburban boring mom, like the kind of mom that I would never ever, ever, ever want to be. I’m generalizing. I sound awful. I’m sorry—I love all you moms in your Gap logo sweatshirts and your helmet hair! I think you’re awesome!—but she was there and I was like, that is not who I can be. But I know that my kid—he’s seven now—is going to get older and he’s not going to think I’m cool anymore. That’s not the way we roll with our parents. I remember going through it with my parents and my parents are amazing, but there was definitely a phase where I was thinking you two are not anything at all. So I know that he’s going to hit that.

This is the reason why we have aunts and uncles. I don’t have any brothers or sisters, so I nominated certain friends. Knighted them, you know, swords on the shoulder. I called up my best friend Jeff and said, “This is your job. You have to tell him that once, I was cool.” He said, “You have to go write that down because it’s an amazing line.” I said, “You’re right, it’s fantastic.” So I put it on a Post-it note and it was up on the wall in my apartment for a very long time and, there you go. The title. But then I was walking around, and the grammar of it was bugging me. What I’d said aloud was once, I was cool. You have to tell him that once, comma, I was cool. I didn’t want a comma in the title, but if you read it without the comma it’s once I was cool. I was hearing it like, once I was cool I’d be able to listen to cool music, once I lose twenty pounds I’d be able to do this or that, once I read enough bell hooks then I can do this. A whole other list. So I wrote the other essay with that grammar in mind. It was one of the last essays to enter the book.

Grace Montgomery: Thinking about how your title came from sort of a conversation, the Los Angeles Review of Books said your prose “reads like something your friend needs to tell you right now.” I think that’s the most perfect explanation, but it makes me wonder about your process. When you’re writing do you think of it more as an essay or do you think about it like a rant?

MS: I think every piece is a little different. Now I sit down with the intention of the words just living on the page, which hasn’t always been the case. Many essays in Once I Was Cool were first written as performance pieces. I never expected them to be in print. So in writing them initially, for performance, I knew that there were going to be fifty or a hundred or five hundred or a thousand people right in front of me. It’s not that imaginary distance of somebody sitting in Interlochen, Michigan reading my book, it’s you are right here in front of me and I’m talking to you.

So often in conversation, you know the person you’re talking to is thinking, how can I check my phone? So you naturally do things to get back their attention. What are those things? Same in literary technique. Like, you see people—watch your teachers for this because they’ll do it—they’ll be talking and all of the sudden they switch into direct address.,This and this and this with Chaucer and this is what YOU ALL need to know about Chaucer. It’s talking to people directly. I’m really interested in those techniques we use when we’re naturally telling a story, or naturally having a conversation. How does that translate into work on the page? I could totally geek out and list all the short stories and essays where you can see those techniques. Junot Diaz, who’s one of my favorites, he’ll say, “So all stories start this way; Nilda was my brothers girlfriend. She had a chest out to here.” That’s conversational and you see that in first person narrative fiction and you see it in the narrative essay, too. I think that’s fascinating. Poe, too. You read “The Tell-Tale Heart” and you sit there and you hold the book in your hands and your body is shaking. How is he doing that! To our bodies? Words—they’re chicken scratches on a piece of paper and he’s making our bodies shake! It blows my mind! I want to do that! I work with a storytelling series in Chicago called 2nd Story and we have these conversations all the time: how does the performance translate to the page?

Mickayla Noel: I need to work with you. I’m trying to do what you do except in poetry form.

MS: Because you’re a slam poet. My god, the history of that work! Slam poetry has affected not just the way that I perform, but also my ideas about social justice, my understanding of history, of culture, how the world needs to crack open, how we need to look at stories outside of our own understanding and our own identity groups. Slam poetry is huge for me. Also, I’m from Chicago. My old condo, the one from Once I Was Cool, is right by the Green Mill where the poetry slam started. Hanging out there has been huge.

MN: In the opening of your book, Once I Was Cool, you have a quote from Margaret Atwood that talks about how we tell stories and that not all details are told the way that they were originally perceived. I wanted to know, do you think that how we tell stories is a betrayal to the reader or yourself if it’s not told exactly how it happened or exactly how it should?

MS: This comes back to my work with 2nd Story. I believe in being really up front about the contract with the audience and that’s why I put the quote at the top. One of the things I’m trying to say is Hey, everything that you read in here is not 100% verbatim. Like that thing that my boyfriend said to me twenty years ago. I didn’t write it down in the exact word order and carry it with me all these years, and memory isn’t an exact science,.But I care about that contract with the audience. I care about honesty. That’s what you’re going to get when you join me. Many of these stories were first written to be told in bars. I was a bartender for many years. You sit down and you hang out with your friends over a glass of wine or beer or a cup of coffee and you’re telling stories. There’s an extra ten feet that the hero had to jump over. You’re never like, “You guys, last night at the party there were nine people.” No, there were three hundred people and you all got totally drunk and wound up naked in the pool even if you were just a little tipsy and you only put your feet in. I think there’s a truth to the form of that exaggeration.. There’s a contract with the audience when you sit down with The Washington Post or The New York Times. The reputation of those particular publications come with a contract that what you’re going to get is thoughtful, researched, cited, double-checked, fact-checked work. When you sit down with The Onion, there’s another contract. What you’re going to get isn’t true, but it’s trueee. I always ask myself, when I’m approaching a publication: what is the contract that’s been set up? I want to be respectful of that. If you sit down with my book, I want to let you know what you’re going to get with just me vs. my work for the The New York Times.

SC: You’re really honest with your work in general. Is there ever a time when you’re writing as a nonfiction author that you think about who’s going to read this or how much truth do you put in it? How do you deal with the sacrifices of what you want to keep private and what you want to tell the world?

MS: I think there’s a difference between the practice of writing and the choice of if and when and how to share it. I will write anything and everything. It’s me. It is mine. It is me putting it out of myself so I can look at it. It is never, “I am writing this thing that I can give to this fancy publication.” I’m just putting it out of me, and then I decide if what out of the messbecause it’s always a messwhat do I want to take, to make work from, to contribute to a dialogue that’s happening in the world. There are a lot of things that I’ve written that I’m not going to share. Sometimes because I don’t understand it yet, or because it’s connected in someway to somebody else, and if so there’s a whole other set of circumstances that come out of that. If it’s somebody I really care about, then we’re going to have a discussion. I’m going to say, hey, I wrote this. What do you think? Can we talk about it? If the conversation goes well, then it’s, what would you think if I rolled this out in the Times next week. Then they say no—if they’re someone sacred to me and they say no—then I’m going to respect that. The relationship is more important to me. But I can also go perform it.

That performance is just me and the audience for one night and it doesn’t travel anywhere else. I don’t have to worry about my dad reading it, my ex-boyfriend in New York reading it, my son twenty years in the future reading it. It’s just me and the audience. An example: there’s an essay in Once I Was Cool called the “Walls Will Be Rubble.” It’s about pregnancy tests, and includes a conversation I had with a woman with the opposite political view. There’s one version in my book and I don’t specify who that woman is. Later, at Interlochen tonight, I’m doing a reading and I’ll read the actual version. The individual that it’s about—well it’s about me, but she  plays a part in it—I didn’t think she’d want it to be in print. I wanted to be respectful. There are some things that I’m not going to write while certain people are walking this earth. Let me rephrase: that I’m not going to publish.

You’ve got to write it. You’ve got to figure out your own heart.

GM: You also have discussed in your bio reading Richard Wright as a teenager and having this huge formative moment where you thought this is why we tell stories. Especially on this, not about privacy, how has your perception of storytelling changed since that moment, or do you think it has?

MS: Long pause while she considers her answer. (Laughter) So if you haven’t read it, that book  is a gift. I highly recommend it. Much of it takes place in the Jim Crow South and Richard Wright gets a library card, he’s in the library, he’s reading novels, and through reading fiction he understands people who are different than himself. Specifically, he references race and gender; being able to understand his white boss and his aging mother. It was this crazy meta moment. I grew up in a very small town in southeast Michigan, very sheltered. I remember sitting on the library floor reading this book and I’m connecting with him, with Richard—it’s magical what writing can do in that sense—I’m this sixteen-year-old small town girl connecting with an adult man in the Jim Crow South. To have the world crack open and to start seeing things in ways outside of your own little tiny view is vital. Fundamental. It’s why I wanted to study literature. That’s why I wanted to study writing.

My B.A. was in writing, but my graduate work was in the teaching of writing. There are so many diverse voices that need to be heard. So many more than exist in traditional publishing. That’s one of the reasons why I think what’s happening on the internet is so profound, so much more democracy as far as the voices that are being centered and given space. I wanted to help get stories into the world. We can be publishers, we can be producers, we can be teachers, whatever feels right for you. When we started 2nd Story there were four or five of us in a bar and now it’s a company of forty people and we’ve worked with three hundred others. We’re in community groups, schools. All of that is with the hope of arming people with the skills they need to write their own stories, for the page or for performance.

MN: We first read your work in Dave’s [David Griffith’s] class and I was blown away by the fact that, taking aside your writing and your ability, the way you wrote and the tone was considered an essay. How were you able to keep the conversational tone that would translate to a younger audience as not your boring, typical, classical essay structure?

MS: There’s an essay in Once I Was Cool about postpartum depression called “Channel B.”  I wrote it for performance, not for print. Well, actually, I wrote it because I was trying to heal, to get through the day. When I did sit down to make something I’d want to share with others, I wrote it to perform, and honestly, I felt better about the world ‘cause I put it out of myself. Then I did another reading and Roxane Gay happened to be there, who is a brilliant writer and editor and you should read everything she’s ever written ever. The fact that I got to work with her as my editor is one of the most profound experiences I’ve ever had. I think she’s changing the face of the literary world and I want to be her ninja backup in a dark alley in any way that I can. Okay, so anyway, she saw me perform and asked me to send her something for The Rumpus. I sent her “Channel B” and six months later, I was picking up my kid from pre-school and I got an email saying that Cheryl Strayed had picked it for Best American Essays and WHAT THE HELL? Like... what do you even do? It was just breathtaking and crazy and after I celebrated and bounced all around I was like, Best American Essays? Essays? What?

I’d never used the word ‘essay’ to describe my work. I’ve always used ‘story’—I identified as a storyteller. Francine [Harris] and I were talking about this the other night; it’s really fascinating. What words do we use to identify ourselves? I can say: I am a woman, I am a mother, I am white, I am an atheist — I don’t know, I may not be an atheist. And look, right away there we begin to doubt, think through, consider. All of these words are complex and have different connotations: I’m a poet, I’m an essayist, I’m a storyteller.

Another series I work for in Chicago is called The Paper Machete. It’s awesome. You should come to Chicago—I will totally take you there. You have to be twenty-one though. (Laughter) It’s a live news magazine. It happens at The Green Mill, where the Slam is. Typically it’s about current events. I just did Gamergate there, for example. Anyhow, after the Best American Essays announcement, I called up the guy who books The Machete and said, “Okay, I want to get up and do a piece about what the hell is an essay?” because I don’t exactly know what one is, and he said, “Great, I’ll book you this Saturday.” [I said], “Actually can you book me in six months because I have some studying to do.”

I got this real great anthology called The Art of the Personal Essay, edited by Phillip Lopate, and that’s where I really started to learn the history of the essay. I mean, of course I’d read essays, and of course I’d written them, and of course I’d taught them, but this was when I fell in love. When I started to really think about the form and what it could do; hybrid in the sense that you can tell a story but still have the space to slow down and be thoughtful in that kind of expository way. So why do I call it an essay? For me personally, form exists to serve what I want to say. There are other writers who would not identify it in that way, but I come from a fiction writing background. It always started with the story. The piece I ended up telling at The Green Mill was “An Essay About Essays”; it’s in the Once I Was Cool.

GM: What’s it like transcribing a performance piece into an essay? How did that process work for you?

MS: First off, I take a pen up there when I perform. You can’t stop and take notes in the middle of a performance but you can talk, talk, talk, and then just make a scratch on the page and then right after, when I sit back down, I’ll look and wonder why I scratched the page right there. Oh, because that guy in the front row checked his cellphone so, I need to be more interesting right there. Okay, why did I check that place right there... because I needed more of a description of what that guy looked like, and then immediately after I make those notes to myself and then I go home later and I sit down and try to incorporate those rewrites. I do a lot of work with musicians,  so I’ll have bands or DJs and then when I’m trying to translate the piece back into an eleven-page story, I sit there and I’ll think, oh God, the band came in then, what did that do emotionally for the audience? Now I need to find the language in that moment. Or hey, you see that sentence? I need my readers to know that sentence is yelled. So what happens in terms of craft? Do I need italics? What do I need?

This where the studying comes in—you know? Attack your bookshelf and ask, how do these writers do it? How did Toni Morrison do it? Why do you yell those sentences and whisper others? I’m still trying to figure out the craft. It’s something that I’m trying to get better at. I’ll always be trying to get better.

MN: A lot of your essays are meant to be performed. Do you feel performing is a let go from the page?   

MS: Yeah, I think all of the work becomes that. We’re not making art in a vacuum, we’re not just writing to put it in a shoebox under our bed, we’re making it to try to connect. I think that as soon as I put it into the world, it’s not just mine anymore; like, here it is, this is yours, happy birthday. What do you want to do with it? Do you want to hate it, do you  want to love it, do you want to be excited by it, do you want to make your own stuff? If I had the magic to make everybody react to my work the way I wanted them to, it would be this:, I want to put down your stories and go write my own.

I get e-mails every week from mostly women who are in the thick of postpartum depression,, and often from the men or women who love them. They say, “Thank you, I get it now.” I still get e-mails from people who haven’t gone through postpartum specifically, but through depression in general. I’m so humbled by that. Let’s make this stuff real, let’s talk about things that are hard. There are experiences that we think will break us, and we put them out into the world and know we’re not alone.

SC: How does working with your students and seeing their writing affect your own writing? What do you learn from your students?

MS: Oh my God, they’re brilliant! I am so grateful, for a multitude of different reasons. For one, look at what you’re all doing! You’re putting your whole heart on a piece of paper and then handing it to a teacher. The thought that people trust me to be on the other end of that transaction is incredibly profound and so every week it’s constant reminders, all these people sitting there who are so brave, there is no way I can just go home drink a beer and watch The Simpsons. Like, let’s do it, let’s do the work. I think that they light a fire under my ass. So, that is one part of it; another part of it is we sit around with books and tell stories all day long. There’s no way that can’t spin the creative wheels in my head. Say I’m working on something and I hate it, it’s not going well, I’m hitting my head against the wall, and then I sit down with my class and we have this amazing conversation about ZZ Packer.

Here’s an example: we were talking about the voice in a story from ZZ Packer’s collection that was, as my student said, really whiny. How do you craft that? We broke it apart: it’s in the present tense and she doesn’t have any time to self-reflect. She’s in the moment. So, I start thinking about the essay I was working on, the one that has me hitting my head against the wall, and I think, what tense am I in? I didn’t know, I hadn’t even asked myself that question! So then it’s, what if I put it in the present tense? It’s about having sex with a guy who has a glass testicle, I was eighteen and that particular summer I was high the entire time. I was just dumb and high; what did my voice sound like? I need to craft that. It doesn’t sound like how I speak now. The gears start turning when you’re talking about stories.

Another thing I wanted to throw out here is the privilege of us being able to sit around and talk about stories. One of my favorite books is Reading Lolita in Tehran, I don’t know if you’ve read it, it’s amazing. There’s a female professor in Iran, all the women were let go from the university, and she and some of her female students got together at her apartment to talk about books, which was illegal. They had to sneak around to get there, to talk about Jane Austen, and to think we’re all sitting around and talking about a book... Imagine if we had to lie or hide. Think about all the change that has happened to allow that. Think that a whole hell of a lot still needs to change but just the fact we’re sitting here like this blows my mind.

GM: For me personally, what I think I appreciate most about your work is the fact that you’re so versatile in your artforms, you do performance, you do writing—as I grew up, I was a theatre kid too, so I constantly worry that I’m not going to be able to do both, and you’ve given me such permission. I’m wondering how theatre has influenced your writing and vice-versa?

MS: I remember thinking that too; “God, how can I do all of it?” I don’t think that’s the case anymore. Yes, you can do poetry and essays and creative nonfiction and you can get on the stage and form a rock band and record your own stuff and make your own podcasts, prose and poetry. If there isn’t a space or company that exists to do what you want to do in the world, then make it. It’s 2015 and the most amazing things are happening because we have great ideas and the guts to try.

There is an amazing poet in Chicago, Kristiana Rae Colon. When the uprising started in Ferguson last summer she worked with a group of artists and activists, Lost Voices, and they collaborated . She inspires the hell out of me, both in her activism and in her poetry. She’s making it happen. So can you: find your people, brilliant people who work their asses off, and challenge you. Before 2nd Story, I didn’t know anything about theatre, but I work with brilliant people and I got out of their way. I think the skill that we all need to be figuring out is collaboration, so, you go to the film students and say, “Hey, what can we make?”

GM: Are your goals as a writer and an actress mutually exclusive?

MS: I don’t identify as an actress. That’s an art form where you become someone else and in what I do I’m always still myself. I’m different versions of myself—myself at different ages, in a different moment—but for sure the theatre influences the literary. I learned how to breathe from directors, I learned how to live in the moment, and I think both of those two things have effected not only my writing but also how I walk through the world. Performance taught me to edit, too;.I was working with Will Davis on a piece that the Steppenwolf commissioned. Will said, “Great, read me a sentence!” I read the first sentence and he was like, awesome, let’s talk about that sentence. What’s happening in it, what does it move forward, what were you feeling at that time, how old were you at that time? We had an epic 45-minute conversation about that first sentence and then he said, “Great, read me the second sentence!”

I understood my own work better after that experience. That’s when art gets really exciting, I think. First, second, third draft. Then you put it down and leave it, slowly, and go out with your friends and dance, jump or run around. Just get away from it. Breathe. Connect. Live. Meet people. I don’t believe in that stereotype of a writer as someone who sits alone at their typewriter with their tequila and is so sad and alone. There is joy in writing! You are going to discover so many things!