by: Gina Frangello
I feel what could be described as an inappropriate amount of pride in Megan Stielstra. Stielstra was a student (not my student) in the Fiction Writing Department of Columbia College Chicago when I was just beginning my teaching and editing careers, and at that time, the nearly-a-decade age difference between us seemed, as it does with very young people, enormous. Still, it was already clear that Stielstra was a storytelling powerhouse. Just get her into a room—an auditorium at Columbia’s fabled “Story Week” or the dark basement of a bar—and she would, with her words, her voice, her sheer physical energy, bring the house down. I once saw her tell a story while “Living on a Prayer” blared in the background, and what would have, in the hands of just about anyone else on the planet, seemed potentially ridiculous, instead was transformed into a live wire of emotion (albeit not one devoid of intentional comedy). To hear Stielstra on a stage is to recall Cixous:
She doesn’t “speak,” she throws her trembling body forward; she lets go of herself, she flies; all of her passes into her voice, and it’s with her body that she vitally supports the “logic” of her speech. Her flesh speaks true. She lays herself bare. In fact, she physically materializes what she’s thinking; she signifies it with her body…she inscribes what she’s saying, because she doesn’t deny her drives the intractable and impassioned part they have in speaking. Her speech, even when “theoretical” or political, is never simple or linear or “objectified,” generalized: she draws her story into history.
I was, at that time, editing Other Voices magazine and was honored to publish a very early story of Stielstra’s (was it her first? Dear Reader, let’s say it was her first!), which was about The Incredible Hulk. What I mean to tell you here is that Stielstra was—and is—a force of nature. Not quite a magical realist, not quite a stand-up comic, not quite a spoken word poet, not quite an actress, she embodied—in nakedly revealing essays and short stories—all of these elements seamlessly.
I don’t remember how long ago it was that Stielstra invited me out to First Slice Café in Chicago to pick my brain about…more or less how to be a woman, a mother, and an artist simultaneously, while also teaching, while also caring about the world outside the “room of one’s own” to which writers were supposed to aspire. Stielstra was the wild antithesis to such an ideology, her work and life utterly and unabashedly intertwined with community. I know my daughters—now poised to enter college—were still quite young; I don’t think my son was yet born. If I had any wisdom to impart to Stielstra, it was probably nothing more complex than Don’t stop. The danger for women, for mothers, as I saw it then and now, was usually the Stopping. If I had anything of use to say to Stielstra, I hope it was keep telling stories. It was, I hope, don’t let anyone convince you that you need to be more like a man—in other words less interconnected—for your work to be ‘important.’ What I hope I said more than anything else is don’t let anyone convince you that abandoning your art for the sake of taking care of others is what makes you selfless or a good person, because your art—because stories—take care of the entire world when we need it most, and are as much a gift as any other form of nurturing and love.
In the years since then, Stielstra has gone on to publish a book of short stories (Everyone Remain Calm) and two essay collections: the break-out Once I Was Cool and now much-buzzed and acclaimed The Wrong Way to Save Your Life. She put one of the largest storytelling collectives in the country, 2nd Story, on the literary and theater map. She is raising a young son who is smarter than most of the people running our government. When my own life was coming unraveled a few years back, and I went to Stielstra and sat on her porch and asked her advice, I know the unconditional support, both personal and literary, that she offered me felt as much like coming full circle as anything ever has. There is nothing quite like the feeling of seeing a young writer you once mentored grow into the kind of mentor you wish you had had yourself when you were young, and still haven’t outgrown. There is nothing quite like the feeling of seeing a once-promising young woman bloom not only into being one of your favorite storytellers, but also one of your favorite humans.
If you don’t know how incredible Megan Stielstra is yet, where have you been hiding? Read her words, which she was generous enough to share with us here. I promise you that you will fall in love.
The Coachella Review: The overarching theme of your essays is fear and the overcoming of inaction due to fear, which is very different from eradicating fear itself, which is impossible. Your essays seem to echo very much the old wisdom that bravery isn’t a lack of fear but acting with consciousness and trying to do act and create change despite fear. Right now, we are in a climate where women are, in unprecedented numbers, overcoming an entire human history of fear to launch a revolution of naming sexual predators. Can we talk about how this is a direct response to the Trump presidency, and how this “starting now” from thousands of women touches on so many issues raised in The Wrong Way to Save Your Life? How do you feel about this current movement? And where do we go from here?
Megan Stielstra: I keep thinking of this poem by Muriel Rukeyser:
What would happen if one woman told the truth about
The world would split open
The Access Hollywood tapes came out a little over a year ago. My eight-year-old son came home from the playground and asked what pussy meant. He asked why anyone would want a man like that to be in charge. He asked why I cried when I read my students’ essays, and I told him a partial truth: “The writing is so good it makes my heart hurt,” because the full truth was too much to bear: the majority of them were writing about sexual assault, memories they’d been carrying for years or months or minutes brought screaming back into the forefront of their lives. I’ve been teaching creative nonfiction for twenty years, and I long ago lost count of the young women and queer and gender nonconforming people who have trusted me enough to put their hearts on pages and hand those pages to me saying please, please, please don’t tell because they don’t trust the systems that are supposed to—not protect them. We shouldn’t need protection. We should be able to walk down the street or into the classroom or boardroom or bar or park or grocery store or anywhere without needing a bodyguard or a wing person or a knife in our goddamn pocket, and I am one hundred percent behind sharing our stories whenever and however it feels right to you because I believe this is a vital part of the messy, complicated, deeply personal and ongoing healing process and, like we’re seeing now, systemic change that is desperately long overdue.
I keep thinking of this speech by Janet Mock:
Telling our stories is a revolutionary act.
We were supposed to have class the day after the election. I emailed my students and said they didn’t have to come, but I’d be there if they wanted to join me. They did. All of them. There were two guys and they each brought in something for the women in the class. Thirteen cupcakes. Thirteen flowers. Their first thoughts were of these thirteen women and the stories they’d written about assault. That moment, on that day, was important for me in thinking about why I keep writing and teaching. Stories matter. They help us see each other.
I keep thinking of this tweet by Zerlina Maxwell:
I 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.
I’ve written through some of my own stories about assault in The Wrong Way to Save Your Life. Others I’ve written just for live readings, because, for me, there’s a safety in performance; I don’t have to think about certain ex-boyfriends or colleagues reading it wherever the hell they are now. Others I’ve written about and no one has seen it but me. Others are still locked up in a dungeon in my head because I’m a woman in fucking America and this shit hurts. I’m thinking about how we take care of ourselves. I’m thinking about raising a son. I’m thinking about male entitlement and my own accountability: I recently found out that a friend of mine has been accused of assault by multiple women. I’m dealing with my own rage and devastation around this but I want to say unequivocally that I believe these women, and I stand with them, if they’ll have me.
TCR: Possibly my favorite passage from your book reads as follows: “I’ve always engaged with the heart as a metaphor: a desire, a thing to survive, to heal from or shoot for. Now I know there’s nothing more real. We walk through the world at its leisure. We’re here at its mercy and with its blessing. At some point, we have to ask ourselves how we want to live.” For me, that last line in particular was everything. It’s everything. I don’t think a day has gone by in years that I haven’t felt like I was making that decision—how I want to live—renewing that decision.
MS: That line was one of those Holy Grail-sort of writing moments where the words are a complete surprise. You see them appear on the screen while your fingers are typing and it’s like, This. This is what I have spent two years and 30,000 words trying to find. It’s from an essay about me and my father; he’s a big game hunter in Alaska, and he has a heart condition, and he’s up in the mountains for weeks at a time and I’m down in Chicago freaking out about his health. I started the essay with a question: Why does he keep going up the mountain? which I abandoned immediately because it was boring as hell. He goes up the mountain because he loves it. The end. Essay is over before it begins. A better question—one that gave me something to dig in to—is this: What do I do with my fear of him going up the mountain? In the end, that was the question behind the whole book.
What do I do with my fear?
That’s what we’re all trying to figure out, right? What do I do?
Quick sidebar: if you’re stuck right now in your own work—banging your head against the wall because it isn’t working and you want to gauge out your eyeballs—it might be useful to consider: Am I asking the right question?
I was already dissecting deer hearts at that point (those of you who haven’t read the essay are like what in the hell). I wasn’t sure why yet, but it felt right, and to my dad’s credit, he went along with it. He supports me completely, even when I’m doing things that are batshit crazy. I’d text him that I needed more hearts, and he’d FedEx them frozen to Chicago, and I studied all these charts and diagrams trying to figure out how they worked, and then I’d cut them up and write about it. And in the process, I figured out a few things about the heart as a metaphor and the heart as a throbbing, pumping organ that allows me and you and those we love to, quite literally, live or die.
Writing this essay was an exercise in trusting my gut. I had no idea where I was going, let alone how it would end, which at the time felt terrifying because usually I write from accepted pitches where I’ve already thought through the angle and word count and intended audience and and and. I kept thinking of this line a teacher would say to me in grad school: “I don’t know what I think until I see what I say.” I tried to find its source, and—forgive me—I’m going to geek out for a second:
O’Connor: “I write because I don’t know what I think until I read what I say.”
Faulkner: “I never know what I think about something until I read what I’ve written on it.”
Albee: “I write to find out what I’m thinking about.”
Mailer: “I don’t know what I think until I write it down.”
Mantel: “I have no idea what I’ve written till I read it back.”
Didion: “I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear.”
And my personal favorite: Season 7, Episode 20 of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Sunnydale’s gone to hell, the Apocalypse is hours away, Buffy’s thiiiiiis close to giving up but then Spike shows up to give a pep talk and profess his undying love:
BUFFY: What are you trying to say?
SPIKE: I don’t know. I’ll know when I’m done saying it.
TCR: What has been the hardest moment of reckoning for you with embracing your transience and, instead of reacting to that with nihilism or despair or carelessness, instead deciding with deep consciousness how you want to live?
MS: I do react with nihilism and despair and carelessness. I do hide in bed with the cover over my head. I stare hopeless and zombie-like at Twitter, and drink too much, and cry my face off, and go to the axe-throwing place down the street, and then I get up and get moving because I have shit to do and a kid to raise and people to show up for however I can.
The first few drafts of everything I’m writing right now is WHAT THE FUCK IS EVEN HAPPENING, repeated ad nauseam. I don’t show that work to anyone, in part because it’s shitty writing but mostly because it’s not the contribution I want to make to literature, to our cultural conversation. 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 stupefying 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.
When I ask myself how I want to live, I come back with this: kindness over fear.
The hardest thing is when I fall short of expectations or fail to, let’s say, walk my own walk. Some books that have helped me in these moments: Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay, The Misfit’s Manifesto by Lidia Yuknavitch, Abandon Me by Melissa Febos, Love and Trouble by Claire Dederer, and Cheryl Strayed’s Tiny Beautiful Things. They give me space to fuck up. We need more stories like that, more books and films and television and space for all people, I think, but women especially, to be complicated and imperfect and idealized and up on a goddamn cloud. I will fall off the cloud. I will fall off the pedestal. I will fall on my ass and then I will get back up because right now, I can. There have been times—I’m thinking specifically of the first few years after my son was born, when I was on the ground with postpartum depression—that I could not physically and mentally get up. Other people got up then. They fought and taught and tried and helped. I can do that now. Others can’t, for their own unique reasons. They have to take care of their families, their health, or it’s straight-up dangerous for their bodies in our current political climate in ways it isn’t for me with the various privileges I have in this world so I will get up, I’m up, I’m here.
Jesus, we need each other. We’re trying to remake the world.
TCR: You write about your young friend Sophia, who is very sick, and I was kind of thrilled to hear that the most frequent interview question you get is “How is Sophia?” Empathy runs more deeply in people than we often cynically think, but also, we know from actual scientific studies that literature increases a person’s capacity for empathy—that reading literally makes us feel more deeply, widely, and inclusively. How is Sophia?
MS: Sophia is five and a half years old now and fighting a bitch of a brain tumor. Since the book came out, I’ve received hundreds of emails from people asking about her health. Thank you for reaching out. Thank you for caring about this little girl and her family who I love so very much.
You can read more about her story here, and I wrote a longer follow-up essay for Tin House during Childhood Cancer Awareness Month. The truth is that only four percent—four percent—of federal dollars spent on cancer research goes to childhood cancers. These kids, with their not-yet-fully-developed bodies and not-yet-fully-developed brains, are being treated in ways that have only been tested on adults. Sophia just finished a fifty-two-week regiment of Vinblastine, a chemotherapeutic that was isolated in 1958 for Adult Lymphoma. And no one knows what’s going to happen. Not with the tumor, not with the side effects. And then there is the current instability of health insurance in this country, which could be a death sentence for anyone, let alone our kids.
I’ve talked about this in every interview. You hand me a mic; this is what I’m going to talk about. I will write essays until my fingers fall off which, yes, is not going to cure cancer, but what if? What if someone reading this, right here/right now, just inherited a million dollars and decides to help? What if some senator on the fence over this deathtrap of a tax bill hears me yelling across the internet and is like, huh, maybe I shouldn’t vote to cut the insurance that funds a five-year-old child’s lifesaving chemotherapy? What if I shouldn’t vote to cut billions of dollars from Medicaid? What if I shouldn’t cut the CHIP program which supports nine million children? And what if—what if—enough people reading this storm the town halls of their state representatives? What if we explode the phone lines, so fucking sorry, Alexander Graham! What if we try?—Jesus, we have to try, we have to, this is my family.
But even if it wasn’t—I want to be a person who cares not only about my family, but everyone’s family. Not just my kid, but everyone’s kids. Kids who are sick. Kids with incarcerated parents. Kids at the mercy of gun violence. Kids fleeing violence in Syria, in Gaza. Queer and trans kids. Kids who need us.
TCR: How do you feel about the current sentiment I sometimes hear being expressed in these problematic times that writing isn’t the same as “activism,” and that writing fiction or memoir during this catastrophic moment feels “self-indulgent”? Acknowledging that social activism is a wide thing and in no way is being a writer mutually exclusive with other forms of activism, what is the relative importance of literature and art in politically tumultuous times when lives are at active risk all around us?
MS: For me, activism is fighting for policies that recognize our equal humanity. Literature shows us that humanity. We need it. We need it desperately.
I grew up in a very small, sheltered town in Southeast Michigan. The world came in through the library, the newspaper, the television, the radio. It came through Toni Morrison and Dorothy Allison and PJ Harvey and Venus and Punk Planet and a gazillion others. I am here—the woman and human and mother and writer and teacher and everything else I am—because of the stories that I’ve read and heard and lived. I’m grateful to writers for the work it took to share those stories and—this is really important—I’m talking about as-of-yet unpublished writers, too. I work in both traditional and nontraditional classrooms across Chicago and the artists in those spaces have absolutely influenced who I am, what I fight for, how I write and teach and parent and vote.
Think about the art and ideas we’ve missed out on because these young artists were told their work didn’t matter, that it was “self-indulgent”? It’s infuriating. If someone says that to you, you may tell them to go straight to hell. Better yet, save your energy and walk away from them as fast as possible. Surround yourself with people who show you that your work has value and, at the same time, challenge you to make it better.
Whose first drafts aren’t “self-indulgent”? Mine certainly are! And then I work my ass off to make it better. Real talk: you’ve got to put in that work. But don’t let anyone tell you your work doesn’t matter.
It does. We need your voice.
I keep coming back to Adichie’s Danger of a Single Story: “…show a people as one thing, as only one thing, over and over again, and that is what they become.” There is single story told about mental health in this country. There is a single story about motherhood. There is a single story about my city: our violence, but not the ongoing systemic racism that causes it; our violence, but not what local organizers and community members are doing to fight it; our violence, but not our joy. I hope my work pushes back. I hope you’ll read the many, many artists pushing back that together take us closer to the truth about these incredibly complicated and deeply personal topics that—as I sit here writing and you sit here reading—are being legislated by people who have no fucking idea what our experiences are and aren’t doing the work of listening.
The first thing an activist will tell you: listen.
Which is another way of saying: read.
Read widely. Attack your bookshelf. Do all the writers there look like you? Do they all have a similar lived experience or point of view? A question I ask myself on repeat: what voices are missing? In my personal reading, on my syllabus, at the tables where I’m sitting, in the classrooms and boardrooms I’m affiliated with? The last ten articles you clicked on social media—who wrote them? Where are you getting your ideas about what is true? Who else should you be reading to better see and understand our world?
This, for me, is literature as action. We need it along with everything else: voting and teaching and conscientious parenting and organizing and imagining and raising and ass-load of money and putting our bodies in the streets and, right now, calling our senators ten times a day and begging them not to kill us and our kids and our neighbor’s kids and everybody’s kids.
The place where I first learned about “everybody” was the library.
Gina Frangello is the author of four books of fiction, most recently Every Kind of Wanting and A Life in Men. You can read more of her work at www.ginafrangello.org