Newcitycover

#20 For years Megan Stielstra has been injecting the Chicago lit scene with a pizzazz that belies an incredible emotional power. She’s a founder of the venerable 2nd Story reading series and a frequent topnotch reader at live lit events all over town—one of which saw her opening for The Jesus Lizard. Her students at Columbia College and the University of Chicago know her as a warm yet dogged teacher who cares about more than what they put on the page. But Stielstra’s been invading the page in a big way with a piece in the “Best American Essays 2013,” and of course, her full-length essay collection, “Once I Was Cool,” recently out from local press Curbside Splendor. This Time Out Chicago review of her short story collection, “Everyone Remain Calm,” says it all about Stielstra: “Her work possesses a rare aural quality, no doubt the result of so much time on stage, or even in front of a classroom.” The Rumpus editor Gina Frangello adds, “Her voice is so palpable, so immediate and vibrantly alive, it feels as though she’s standing right in front of you.” 

The Chicago Tribune on Once I Was Cool. I am floored.

“[...] Stielstra’s ‘Once I Was Cool’ isn’t just edgy, funny, surprising, a ricochet of wow. It’s practically actionable. The words reach out from the page. They direct us to look, to think, to ask. Here, for example, is the wife and new mother exhorting us to find the pretty blur of our own eyelashes. True, Stielstra is at Symphony Center on Michigan Avenue with three doses of ecstasy in her blood. But she’s found beauty, and she thinks we can find it too: ‘I got hyper-aware of the layers of mascara on my eyelashes, like I could see these feather-like things flying in the air when I shut my eyes. It’s crazy. You have to try it. Like, seriously. Shut your eyes. Now open them, slowly. Look at the light, do you see swirls? Like a Fourth of July sparkler?’

Or here she is — still deeply alive, still in it for the thrill — exhorting her readers toward niceness. Niceness. Yes. That’s the cool girl’s word. She thinks it matters. She suggests that we all can do better. We probably can: ‘Listen. Let the person you’re talking to finish their sentence. Don’t use the time they’re talking to figure out what you’re going to say next. If someone is being a jackass, step up. … Be honest in your assessment, be authentic in your language, but be nice.’

Stielstra’s prose is appraising and educational, if we can agree that “educational” is a sexy word. (Educational is a sexy word.) She is a Kafka scholar, a performance artist, a multitasker, a woman who writes her stories while sitting on the bathroom floor as her toddler sings invitations for play. She’s the kind of mom who shows up at school events not with the baked goods but the juice — and feels bad enough to tell the tale.

She is a fan of the essay, but not the kind that typically gets taught. She is a writing teacher and a writing appreciator; she has assembled a list of things that must be read. She likes footnotes, she wields footnotes, she succeeds with footnotes.

She is funny. She is tough. Her Dad taught her guns. Her mom taught her books. She’s not even going to try to pretend not to be head over heels for her super tall husband and her superhero son.

She’s kind of a romantic, if you want to know the truth. The kind who did a lot of crazy things once and still, today, likes to curse a lot, except when her son is around.

Also: She’s big on joy.

Also: She knows her own privilege, which is to say that she thinks we should be counting our blessings, too.

Also: If I were a young person who wanted to learn how to write, I’d sign up for her classes at Columbia College Chicago to hear Stielstra say things like this: ‘Here’s the power of a story: someone hands it to me like a gift (I imagine it wrapped in shiny paper with the bow, the handmade letterpress card — the whole nine yards). And in that gift, I find parts of myself that have been missing, parts of our world that I never imagined, and aspects of this life that I’m challenged to further examine. Then — and this is the important part; the money shot, if you will — I take that gift and share it.’

Come on. She’s good.

She’ll make you laugh, she’ll make you think, she’ll make you nicer, at least for an hour. Are you a new mother? Are you in love? Are you trying to write? Are you juggling a thousand things at once? Do you have a personal history you still can’t quite believe or a friend that came way too close to dying or a tumor that wouldn’t have been found had it not been for the baby that you had? Make some room for Stielstra.”

I talked with my friend Claire about the questions I’m trying to ask myself about the part I play in diversifying literary events and projects, and I then I upchucked all sorts of things that are making me cranky (specifically how I am pissed off at salad) and I got to throw some love at a student of mine and her kickass work with The New Lens Project.