A Book That Can Save Your Life: An Interview With Author Megan Stielstra

How does it feel to put your heart outside of your body? And how do you do it—literally or figuratively? By going under the knife of cardiothoracic surgeon? By having a baby that you know will grow up in a volatile world? Or simply by writing down the way you feel on a piece of paper, where anyone can read it?

In her new collection, The Wrong Way to Save Your Life, Chicago-based essayist and storyteller Megan Stielstra interrogates the moments in life when we feel most exposed to fear—and if we’re lucky, when we might just receive the grace to be brave, or to admit what we love, or to laugh our heads off at our own foolhardiness over a drink with a friend at a bar. Her work spans everything from the deafening terror of a school shooting to the gnawing anxiety of an adjunct professor who’s not sure she can afford to pay the rent. But the real heart of Stielstra’s project is her commitment to the idea that while fear won’t save your life, we can certainly save each other, and maybe ourselves—and we can use words and books and vigorous, intentional listening to teach us how to do it.

Keep reading for our interview with Stielstra about the privilege behind our fears, the immense responsibility of teachers, why women are dominating the personal essay genre and her upcoming appearance at Bookfest St. Louis cohosted by Left Bank Books.

Why did you decide to write an essay collection about fear?
After the birth of my son, I kind of hit the ground with postpartum depression, and a thing that surprised me about the experience was how scared I was all of the time. I don’t know if that’s the nature of moving through depression or the nature of having a child in the world, but it really surprised me, because I hadn’t really been a person who allowed fear to dictate my life choices. As I started to unpack that a bit in my brain, the privilege I had kind of blew me away: that I was a person who’d been able to walk in the world without fear. It’s something that I wanted to interrogate in myself.

I work with a storytelling series called 2nd Story—I actually teach workshops with them, but this time I attended some with other facilitators, and it was in there that I just all of a sudden realized, ‘Wow!’ Here are thirty things I’m scared of! I’m scared of my dad dying; I’m scared of saying the wrong thing in conversations about diversity and equity; I’d recently had this huge experience where our house had caught on fire and I’d had to run out in five minutes, and obviously that was terrifying. I started turning all of those things into personal essays.

And then as I finished the initial draft of the book, we entered the 2016 presidential election. It was a very interesting and terrifying time, at least for me personally, with the way that I walk through the world and my place in the political sphere. I started to look at the world in a whole new way. I filed the first draft in July of 2016, and when I got my editorial notes back, I rewrote it from the end of the summer to the beginning of the fall 2016.

So that’s sort of the story of the book. And then of course, there were a few moments leading up to it that were really important. I had an essay about post-partum depression called Channel B that Roxane Gay put in The Rumpus, and then later Cheryl Strayed picked it for Best American Essays. Those were two moments that really changed my work. Those two steps, and those two particular writers who I respect so much—them seeing me made me think, ‘Okay, I’m in this game now.’ Doors start opening, and you have to decide if you’re going to walk through them. One thing that those writers taught me is that when you walk through those doors, you turn around and look at everybody else there and you say, ‘Some on everybody, let’s go, come with me. This needs all of us.’ So I try to live up to their faith in me.

So while the collection is ostensibly about fear, it’s not really about fear itself; often, you vault straight across fear to tackle the bravery required to confront something that scares the hell out of you, like our country’s lack of common-sense gun control. Or you’ll dig into the root of fear, like the extraordinary, instinctual love that guides what you grab when your house is burning down. What led you tp focus on fear’s precursors and aftershocks in these pieces?

I’m going to take this over to the left and then bring it back around, so stick with me.

I’ve been teaching for a really long time, and I love, love, love that work. So what I do for a living, and essentially what I do is read the stories of people who are young and grew up in the city: people who are young and queer, young and black, young and female—those are the primary demographics that I’m working with. So if you’re hearing people’s stories every single day—and this isn’t statistics that I’m reading about in the newspaper, these are real human beings, sitting across from me—and if you’re reading these stories about how, say, young black people are afraid of the police in their own neighborhood, that becomes even more real. These are people who trust me with their work. They put their heart on a piece of paper and then they hand it to me. That is a mind-boggling responsibility. Because first, they have to put their hearts outside of their bodies, and then, my job becomes to ask them if they’re ready, and if they feel safe, putting it out into the world, for a reading audience, to do something with it. That’s a thing that I try to think about a lot when I sit down to write.

Thinking in terms of how fear steps into action—well, everything has to step into action, right? So for instance, I am white, and so much of our dialogue is talking about how white people need to acknowledge their privilege. And that’s obviously important, but what are we going to do? Awareness and acknowledgement is one step, but what’s happening beyond that? That’s where responsibility comes into play.

There are so many different levels to this stuff. When I was postpartum, the fear was such a debilitating thing—how do I get up off the floor? Well, now I’m up off the floor. Let’s do some shit. There were people when I was down there, they were doing, and acting and yelling, and screaming, and teaching, and helping. Nobody can do any of this stuff on their own. So now I’m standing up, at least for now, until it cycles back around.  

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There’s a fantastic essay in this collection, Here is My Heart, where you cope with the news that your father’s having open heart surgery in an odd way: you get some deer hearts and actually perform open heart surgery yourself, in your kitchen, to see what it’s all about. Later, your young son wanders up and asks you what you’re doing, and you tell him you’re writing an essay. It’s sort of a cliche by now to say that an essay is open-hearted, but it seems fitting here, both because it’s literally true, and because the piece seemed like it was about excavating your own vulnerability.

Certainly, for me, that’s what that particular essay was about: grappling with heart disease, and my fear of losing my dad to that. But the question as I was writing became, what what do I do with my fear? We can spend all of our time being afraid for our loved ones, but the only life we get to live is our own. So what do we do? If all of us are walking around in the world carrying fear, we have to put our fear outside of ourselves so we can see it.

One of my favorite writers is Lydia Yuknavitch, and one of my favorite things that I’ve heard her say is, ‘You cannot carry it, but the page can carry it.’ Starting from the place of, ‘I’m getting this out of me, I’m going to write it down and it’s going to be shitty and I may not show it to anyone else, but I’m going to see what happens.’ And then if it’s interesting, you have a gut reaction of, ‘I’m onto something here, this is something big and huge and tangled and I need to figure it out.’

So much of my work in the past has been these ten, twelve minute performance pieces. My last book, Once I Was Cool, was all these short, tight, personal narratives. So working on this book felt like, ‘Oh wow—I can spread out here. I can make a mess here.’

A number of the writers you’ve mentioned—Roxane Gay, Cheryl Strayed—as well as the writers who appear on your book blurbs, like Eula Biss and Samantha Irby, are among the essayists I think of as really leading the genre right now, and it occurs to me that, coincidentally, they’re all women. I wonder if you agree that women are our most important essayists right now? If you do, why do you think that is?

I love this question. I think it’s huge and complicated and we should be talking about it all of the time. When you just said, ‘I wonder if women are leading the charge in this genre,’ in my head I was like, ‘Women are leading the charge in everything.’ All of it. Truly, I think we’ve been writing this way forever, and the only question is what is being published. When have we been allowed to be at the table? When have we been credited for our own work? We read about all of these great master storytellers, and then when we ask what were their wives doing, [the male storytellers] say, ‘Oh, my wife was my copy editor!’ Really? Was she your copy editor? Or, ‘My wife transcribes my work.‘ Was that really what she was doing?

I just wonder if we’ve always been here, and maybe now, we’re just more visible. I was reading the stats recently on publishing, and the majority of editorial positions are held by women, which is probably part of this. But specifically, the majority of those positions are held by white women, so that’s another question we have to ask.

I was also reading the transcripts of a panel the other day, and one writer on it—Sarah Gerard— was asked why women memoirists are often labeled “confessional,” and she said something that just—like, imagine me in my bathrobe in my kitchen reading this and giving her a standing ovation. She basically said, ‘My work isn’t confessional. To confess is to say something that you’re ashamed of, like you’re confessing a crime or a sin. I’m just writing about my life. I’m not confessing anything.’

That. Yes! I’m writing about the things that I experience. That doesn’t have anything to do with gender. That’s just being a writer. I think we’ve just always been here, and we’ve been fighting for our own stories, and our own bodies, and to represent our own lived experiences in literature. If I can be one of those bodies pushing on that dam to knock it over and let the tidal wave come, then yeah. I’m in.

Because there are so many voices that I need. Specifically, the essays I’m seeking right now are from essayists of color, from queer and gender non-conforming and trans writers, native American writers. Those are the experiences that I need to be able to understand in order to see the world in the way it truly is. And not just one of each, but like, five hundred of each.

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I’m interested in this idea that we need specific kinds of writing, that it’s a tool we apply to ourselves that does something to us. In literary nonfiction, we don’t always talk about writing that way, I suspect because we have an anxiety about our work being perceived as self help-y or flat. But you have a tendency to actually embrace direct address, to take your reader by the shoulders and tell them something. You actually give your reader exercises to interrogate their own fears, to get out paper and pen and make a list.

That comes directly from my oral storytelling background. In that environment, your audience isn’t some unseen person in a library in Alaska. Your audience is right there. So I learned really quickly [from listening to and performing in narrative storytelling events] that you hear direct address all the time because that’s how we speak, right? There have been several times even in our conversation when you and I have both said ‘Well, you know how sometimes you do this…’ and we do that because we’re speaking directly to one another. I want you to remember that as you’re reading. I’d like for you to sit with my book and hear me. I’d like you to hear, to put it in theater terms, my operatives and my beats, the pauses that I take and the different words that I accentuate.

I mean, straight up, I’m asking my reader to do some work. Everyone gets to decide whether they want to accept that or not, but that’s my intention; the same way that if I’m sitting across the bar from you, I’m gonna ask you to hear me, and figure out how this is connected to your own life, what this makes you think about. So I can say to you, for instance, ‘Last night I went to the bar and I did something dumb.’ Or I can say, ‘You know how sometimes when you go to the bar, you do things that are dumb?’ So now I’m making it so it’s not just about me. It’s about all of us. Or I can say, ‘Occasionally, when one goes out to a bar, one does something dumb.’ Each tweak gives just another little layer of distance. To think about how people use that all the time—how politicians use that, even—I think the act of talking about yourself, and writing about yourself, is connected to these bigger questions that really impact our world. How are we communicating with other people? How is my boss communicating with me? How are our leaders communicating with us?   

Also, your readers will have an opportunity to communicate directly with you if they attend Bookfest St. Louis on September 23rd.

Man, can I just say, I’m so excited for Bookfest! The space they have me in is a wine bar, which is so connected to the storytelling stuff I do. And it’s especially meaningful to do an event where all the brains and muscle and heart behind it comes from independent bookstore culture. These are my people. Indie bookstores supported me for so long before I had a book. We think, ‘You’re not a writer if you don’t have a book deal.’ If that were the case, I would have given up a hundred times. But I’m here because of places like Left Bank Books [co-presenters of the festival], and people who believed in the work, even before I had a book of my own, and let me know that it had value.

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