Q and A with Megan Stielstra, Author of Once I Was Cool
Tell us about your book.
It’s a collection of personal essays about what comes after the coming-of-age. I was thinking about adulthood. When I was a kid, what did I think it would be like? I remember being so sure that I would have “figured everything out,” like I’d wake up one morning and BAM—I got this! which of course couldn’t be further from the truth. The essays cover all sorts of topics: healing from postpartum depression by stalking my neighbor; running into an old lover at the symphony while I was on ecstasy; and walking away from a mortgage on a condo that I bought because of Jane’s Addiction.
Many of the essays in Once I Was Cool focus on the balancing act of being the working parent of a small child. Now that your son is a little older, how have things changed for you as a mother, a writer, and teacher?
It’s easier. I’m sure I just jinxed myself saying that, but it’s the truth. He’s in kindergarten now. He’s less interested in setting things on fire or running into moving traffic; he wants books, and karate, and to figure out how the world works which, for me, is really fun and fascinating and an ongoing sort of Jedi mind-fuck. Like, the other day, we were in the car—we just got a new (used) car ‘cause the old one was falling apart—and we had the radio on—the old one didn’t have a radio—and all of a sudden, from the backseat, he says, “Mom, do we have Xfinity?” and I’m like, “No, we have RCN,” and he says, “But Xfinity is better,” and I ask where he heard that and he points to the speakers. “The radio said so.” I realized, all of a sudden, that this is a kid who’s never heard or seen a commercial. At home, we have Netflix—no commercials.
We have Spotify—no commercials. He’s not on the internet—no commercials. Where would he have engaged with one? How would he have learned to question that unseen authority, that all-knowing voice-over? We have these discussions all the time around the books he reads, the movies he watches, the music he listens to, but advertising and art are not the same beasts. They require different lines of inquiry, ones that I wasn’t actively thinking about until that very moment, and I was like, Shit, yes, we need to be having this conversation. So we pulled over and talked about it. And god—what do you say? How do you explain capitalism for a six-year-old? I don’t have any idea; I’m re-seeing our world through the eyes of someone who’s still so new and trusting. I try. And his dad tries. And his manny, Ozzie. And his uncles. And his grandparents via Skype. This whole parenting thing takes a village.
Insofar as our day-to-day, everything has changed since the essays in Once I Was Cool, not because my son is getting older but because we got out from underneath the cash-suck that was our mortgage. We rent now. We pay half of what we were paying before. I swapped out four part-time jobs for one full- and one part-time, both of which I love. Holy hell, what a privilege—to wake up every day and go to a job that you enjoy. It’s not writing full-time, and of course I’d like more hours in the day to make art, but for now, this is good. This is fine. I write in the mornings, before my son wakes up. I go to bed at nine p.m. I am very uncool.
Have other things stayed the same?
I’ve trained myself to write a little every day. Like Isak Dinesen said: “Without hope and without despair.” Every day, I brush my teeth. Every day, I drink coffee. Every day, I ride the L and hug my kid and stretch out my lower back and read a little and write 500 words. Then, on the weekends, I have longer stretches of time to do something with those words, to take that raw material and find meaning, purpose, and a beginning-middle-end. I don’t mean to make it sound route or dull; once I’m into the words and the worlds they create, it’s goddamn magical. But in the middle of all this craziness, I’ll forget to breathe if I don’t get down on a yoga mat, and I’ll put the writing on hold if I don’t make time for it. That time is precious commodity. It’s the one thing that’s solely mine and I’ll guard it ‘til the end.
After the essay "Channel B" was included in Best American Essays 2013, how did things change for you as a writer?
Some doors have opened for me insofar as publication and I couldn’t be more grateful. I want to run through them as fast as I possibly can, but more importantly, I want to earn them. I keep reminding myself to slow down. The new work I make has to hold up on its own merit, not because of that one essay that I wrote that one time.
What inspires you, and more specifically, who are some of the newer writers you admire most? (Tangentially, you have an urgent, rock-and-roll, sing-your-guts-out style that's really engaging).
My students. They’re so fucking brave. Their work is so raw and honest and open. They’re figuring themselves out on the page—what they love and hate and want and fear, and this desperate need to connect and understand—and then they hand those pages to me. It’s a profound act of trust. I’m in awe of it, actually. I’m in awe of them. Also: they’re really good, so I’m constantly telling myself to kick it up a notch, to climb higher and work harder. They light a real fire under my ass. I do my best to return the favor.
Last week, I finished An Untamed State, by Roxane Gay, and I think I’m just starting to breathe again. And have you read Meaty, by Samantha Irby? There are essays in that book that are so laugh-out-loud funny you can’t read them in public ‘cause you might accidentally pee on yourself, and there are others that make you weep. Her range just blows me away. She’s like those opera singers that can crack glass on the high notes and hit rock bottom on the low.
I’ve just started A Life in Men by Gina Frangello and I want to call in sick in order to finish. Can that be a thing? Can we call in with OMG I HAVE TO FINISH THIS BOOK RIGHT NOW? I’m also excited for Wendy Ortiz’s memoir this summer, and Lindsay Hunter and Jac Jemc both have new books in the fall that I’m really looking forward to.
Many of the writers I admire the most are writing for the stage, not the page: Bobby Biedrzycki, Khanisha Foster, Malcolm London, Fawzia Mirza, and Coya Paz are a few, but there are many, many more in Chicago that I follow around like a puppy. If I try to type all the names, my fingers will fall off.
What's next, if you don't mind telling us?
After spending the past year writing and rewriting personal essays i.e. writing about my damn self all the time, it’s a relief to dive back to fiction. I’m working on a novel, this behemoth of a thing that begins in March 2003 when U.S. troops were sent to Iraq. A woman who works in an advising office at a city college gets off the elevator and there’s this endless line of eighteen-year-olds outside her door, all of them on the GI Bill, all of them needing to drop out of classes because they have to ship overseas. At the end of the line is the boy she’s been having an affair with. It goes on from there, following several different characters, up until December 2012 when troops were supposedly pulled out. It’s the biggest thing I’ve ever done, and I’m really excited and giddy and also sort of batshit crazy. All these years of working primarily in short forms—I have to retrain myself. I have to give myself little pep talks about how it’s okay to not finish something in one sitting. It’s okay that I don’t know where this is going. It’s okay to make discoveries, to shock myself.
That said, I’ll never have both feet out of the essay form. My building caught on fire last month, and I’ve been working on a piece about that. It feels so illicit, like I’m cheating on the novel. I’ll be performing it on July 30thwith 2nd Story, if you’d like to join us for a glass of wine or two or five.