Great piece in the Toronto Review of Books about social media and short fiction, mentioning Everyone Remain Calm.

“The recent work of writer Megan Stielstra is an emblematic example of the hybridity that characterizes new short work infused with online elements. Although Stielstra is based in the U.S. her debut book, Everyone Remain Calm, was published by an alliance between two Canadian entities, Joyland and ECW Books. The book is only available electronically, which lends visibility and a means of distribution that flout international borders. In the collection’s captivating short story ‘I Am the Keymaster,’ Stielstra’s protagonist uses a distinctly digital mechanism—Craigslist—to approach a thoroughly corporeal problem—a need to secure affordable birth-control pills.”

“I read your book. It gave me a boner.” – Samantha Irby

I am in love with Samantha Irby. I wrote her a fan letter one time but I was too shy to send it. Sometimes, though, I hate her pretty, shiny guts ’cause she writes this stuff at her blog Bitches Gotta Eat that makes me pee. Like, in my pants. I’m saying that aloud on the internet. She makes me pee in my pants and then I spend the whole day with wet pants, cursing Samantha Irby and her hilarity and profundity and spot-on truth, seriously, this girl is so honest that the rest of us should immediately attend therapy and work out the things we’re not admitting, an unexamined life is not worth living, right? Right? Anyhow, I got to meet her last month at The Paper Machete and I was all, Samantha, I love you, and she was all, Talk louder, I can’t hear you over this bourbon I’m drinking, and I was like, Sometimes you make me pee, and she said, There are diapers for that, and I was like I am going to JCPenny to buy one of those heart necklaces that crack in half and you give half to your best friend and I’m going to give half to you, and she said, Or we could just make out? and I said, OMG yes.

It was awesome.

And then, then, then she wrote to tell me that my book gave her a boner, which is totally the best review I’ve ever got in my whole life except for the time I asked my friend Amanda from 2nd Story to blurb my book and she wrote, MEGAN STIELSTRA POOPS GLITTER.

That was really nice, too.

Everyone Remain Calm is an Editor’s Pick on CBS Chicago’s Best New Chicago Books! Also, this review is so nice I might die. Thank you, Mason!

“Those who know of Chicago author Megan Stielstra are probably more aware of her 2nd Story readings: amazing theatrical readings that are usually held at Webster’s Wine bar. Check them out. Megan’s performances are intense, composed of a powerful cadence of speech and strong storytelling you won’t find anywhere else. Somehow she has bottled the presence of her performances and sprinkled a little bit on each story contained within Everyone Remain Calm. Each story has a presence that is similar to the intense Megan Stielstra sitting a few feet away from you on a stage telling you a really good story. So check it out.”

I am interested in how different people define the same word.

In another lifetime, I had a Critical Thinking teacher who tried to explain the difference between denotation and connotation. “This,” she said, pointing at her desk, “is the denotation of the word desk. The connotation of desk is how we all individually feel about desks.” She paused, letting that sink in, and then asked, “How do you all, individually, feel about desks?” There were sixty-some of us in this class, all college freshmen. I’m gonna go out on a limb here and say that, at the time, desks were not a primary focus of significant emotion response. Sex, maybe. Money. Grades or jobs or fear or art or all sorts of crazy things. Think back to yourself when you were a college freshman. What did you think about? Me?: my folks were splitting up, my boyfriend back in Michigan was seeing another girl, and I shared a 10X10 dorm room with a girl looped on esctasy three nights a week, I’ll tell you what, desks were the last thing on my mind!

sidebar: this all happened over a decade ago. Now, I have very strong feelings about desks, primarily A) I don’t ever want one in a classroom because pedagogically I find that it unecessarily divides my students and I and B) I’m dying to have one in my house so I can have a place to put all my shit. Right now, it’s everywhere, and I can’t ever find what I need, and my poor husband, he’s got to contend with my paperwork all over the place, and also my kid is at that phase where he wants to draw spaceships on everything, which is awesome except that now there are spaceships on my teaching contracts and time sheets and student work and story ideas and lesson plans and tax forms and schedules, and, yes, I know you’re thinking Get the kid some paper, whydon’tcha? and I promise you, he has it! He has every art supply you can possibly imagine! But why would anyone want to draw on paper when they can draw on the bathroom wall? Or Daddy’s web designs? Or mommy’s… everything? Also: last week, at his school, one of the little girls did orgami for show-n-share and now my kid is convinced that paper is for folding, not drawing, so my tax forms are now little birds. Which is actually pretty cool—birds are way more interesting than tax forms. Also: I’ll never again be able to think of taxes without thinking of birds. Which would mean that birds are now my connotation of taxes! Huzzah! Right back to the point!

Anyhow—desks were, at the time, not quite as ripe for connotation as some other words, words like love or race or faith. I remember, years after this whole connotation/denotation thing, reading One Hundred Years of Solitude and thinking about all the different connotations of the word solitude and how all of them were given to a different member of the (fictional) Buendia family:

You’re so brilliant that no one can understand you, so you’re alone.
You’re so beautiful that everyone’s intimidated by you, so you’re alone.
You’re so old that no one even sees you anymore, so you’re alone.
Your penis is so big that women are scared and men are jealous, so you’re alone.
And on and on.


sidebar: Dear Garcia Marquez I love you.

Anyhow—connotation. It’s mind boggling to think about how many misunderstandings I’ve had over the years because of differing connotations. On the flip-side, I’m in awe of what I learn by listening to the connotations of others; how much I’ve grown as a human being and widened my world view. I’ll listen to how different people—friends, artists, the guy sitting across from me in a class—define words like marriage and protest and illegal and and parent and education and life. Our connotations of these words shape our politics, our values, how we spend our money, how we love—and the thing that creates those connotations are our stories.

A few years ago, there was some big case in the news about parents who were seeking revenge for something that had happened to their teenage daughter—the clincher was, she didn’t want them to. She wanted it to just go away. I remember talking about the ethical implications of this over and over again: what was justice in such a situation? There’s another word with multiple connotations—justice. Justice for whom? For her, or her family? Did her parents have the right to move forward with something she didn’t want? I remember wondering why she didn’t want revenge. Or maybe she didn’t want the kind of revenge they were seeking—the legal kind. Maybe she wanted a different kind?

What exactly is revenge? When I wrote the story Shot to the Lungs and No Breath Left, I was thinking about my connotation to that single word. And—as often happens in writing—the story became about other things, as well: revenge, and the relationship between a parent and a child, and gender roles, and all this other shit that sort of surprised me, but hey—what the hell. This is what came out. It’s here, let’s examine it.

For over a decade, I’ve worked with a Chicago theatre director named Amanda Delheimer Dimond. She’s the Artistic Director of 2nd Story. She’s my friend. She challenges me to look deeper with every project, to really figure out what the hell I am talking about. I knew I wanted to make some sort of video for Shot to the Lungs, so I brought the story to her and the very amazing Kyle Hammon of KBH Media, whom I can’t suggest enough if you want to explore video/audio/multimedia in your own stories, personal or professional. The three of us got to talking about revenge, and we thought it would be intersting to ask some very different people to speak to their own connotations of the word.

I am grateful to Kyle and Amanda for creating a piece that digs into this question of how different people view the same idea, and what might happen if we take a moment to listen to each other. I am grateful to Ada Gray, Lauren Kelly-Jones, Nic Dimond, Aaron Stielstra, Jennifer Shin, and Coya Paz for sharing their time and their stories. I am grateful to a Faculty Development Grant from Columbia College for helping to fund this project, and to all of you for giving it a look and maybe a share.

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After my son was born, it was tough. I don’t mean the super-scary kind of post-partem, this was no Brooke Shields Down Came the Rain, but it definitely was something. I wasn’t… myself. So what I did was I started writing down one thing per day that helped me get by: Today I made the bed. Today I walked to the store. Today I built a super-ramp with my kid. As time went on, the things I wrote down got more and more ridiculous: Today I sold pee. Today I pocketed free sandwiches at a meeting for Organizing for America. Today I caught all these frogs in the creek behind the house and I kissed all of them and dammit none of them turned into a magic guy in tights who would save me from myself. Somewhere during all of this, the recession hit, and every day I’d read things in the news, all these insane things people were up against, and I’d imagine how they were getting by. How do any of us get by? I wrote a story about it called Times Are Tough All Over, and—as will happen when you share stories—people started telling me their own, the sometimes crazy, sometimes ridiculous, sometimes heartbreaking things they were doing to get by in these sometimes crazy, sometimes ridiculous, sometimes heartbreaking times. Hearing these stories had a profound affect on me: I laughed a lot, cried a little, and—most importantly—felt altogether less alone amidst the mess.

I hope that, in some small way, they might do the same for you.

My husband is a very kickass digital artist. I gave him some of the comments folks were kind enough to share with me, and he built a little place on the interwebs called Times Are Tough All Over. Read through them, see what grabs you, and, if you’d like, feel free to share your own.

No, it isn’t a solution to all the craziness that’s out there, but sometimes it’s nice to know you’re not in it alone.