Yesterday, you read about Megan Stielstra’s book, Everyone Remain Calm. Today, Megan shares about life as a writer, and much more….
CC: You are a teacher, a Storyteller at 2nd Story, and a mother of a three year old. How do you balance all that, and how does “all that” inform your work as a writer?
MS: On a good day, I have all sorts of profound things to say about this. I’ll talk about my newfound respect for time: No more waiting for inspiration to strike. Sit down and make it happen. I’ll talk about journaling in quick spurts during the week, so when I have longer stretches over the weekend to work, the raw material is already there. If I’m feeling dramatic, I’ll bring up how Tim O’Brien wrote in the trenches in Vietnam, and if he can write while being shot at, I can find the time between class and rehearsal; deadlines and meetings; reading and building spaceships out of Legos. For sure I’ll mention how kickass my husband is: total hands-on dad, 100% supportive of my writing, this would all be impossible without him, and single parents today should be given lots of grants and wine and maybe a parade. Then—then—when I’m good and warmed up, I’ll tell you about my son. How perfect he is. How funny and strong and whip-fucking smart. How amazed I am that he’s mine. How I want to be better—for him and because of him—and how I think that means being better at everything I do: better writer, better teacher, better wife, better friend, better human being on this planet.
But on a bad day?—I’ll tell you how exhausted I am. How I don’t think I’m balancing anything, at least not with any sort of grace. God knows I try, but it feels like I’m only succeeding half the time. I want to quit all my jobs and be a better mom. I want to cut off my arm for an uninterrupted week to focus on my book. I want to mail my house keys back to the bank so my husband and I don’t have work fifty hour weeks to pay the mortgage. I want to sit down on the kitchen floor and cry, and then, once I’ve regained control over the corners of my mouth, I’ll jump up and get back to it, in part because I have to but also because I love what I do.
All of this informs my work as a writer because everything informs my work as a writer, be it the profound stuff, or the stuff that’s batshit crazy. For example: a few years ago, when I was paying for health insurance out of pocket, the company sent a guy to my house to get a urine sample. He sat on my couch while I peed in a cup. I couldn’t stop thinking about that. What was this guy’s life like? He went door to door to people’s houses and waited in their living rooms while they peed in cups. And then I overhead some students (not mine, thank God) talking about buying term papers online. And then I read this really amazing essay about The Help, and it posed some interesting questions about whether or not writers can write outside their race. And then I told a story for a benefit for two very good friends who are trying to adopt, and many of the grants available to adoptive families aren’t accessible to them as a same-sex couple. And then I was trying to figure out how in the hell to be a working mom. And then I got pissed off about the oil spill. And then I went to this crazy performance art piece involving a naked woman and leeches. And I can go on and on with all of these things that I see or read or live, and they get stuck in my head, and what do you do with all of it?—You give it to characters. You find the story.
From there, the million dollar question is how to get all of these ideas on the page, and that’s where I really luck out: all of my jobs involve story. I’m in constant dialogue about literary craft and creative problem solving with the college students and 2nd story storytellers I work with, and sometimes—often—always—the discussions we’re having in class lead to me figuring out how to craft my own work. Like, one day we were reading from Julie Orringer’s Invisible Bridge, and a student commented that when Andras first gets to Paris, he describes all the buildings by their size, and then, a few years later, after he’s taken all these architecture classes, he describes the same buildings by who made them, in what year, and what style. So how does the wisdom a character gains over time influence the descriptive language? I swear, my brain fucking exploded. That one comment about Orringer’s work got me so excited to get back to my own! And excitement is a deliciously contagious thing—my students can feel it and feed off of it in the same way I feed off of their comments and questions, and those comments and questions lead to more realizations and ideas, and this all happens to me twenty times a day. It’s awesome.
CC: What are you reading these days?
MS: I’m doing research for the novel I’m working on right now. So: 1968, Eastern European mail order brides, Billboard Top 100 circa 1980-present, selling term papers on the internet, and international adoption.
I read a lot of student work. My students this semester are awesome. They’re kicking my ass, actually; I’m doing my best to return the favor.
I read a lot with my son. Right now he’s into Symphony City by Amy Martin; The Incredible Book Eating Boy by Oliver Jeffers; Instructions, by Neil Gaiman; and DC Comics’ kids’ line, Tiny Titans. He’s obsessed with Tiny Titans.
I just started Murakami’s IQ84. Before that was Just Kids, The F***ing Epic Twitter Quest of @MayorEmanuel, The Family Fang, The Hunger Games—those books are like crack,— and Patricia Ann McNair’s gorgeous, gorgeous collection The Temple of Air.
Okay. So I read this article a few years ago about how Americans should go on news fasts. We take in all this horrible stuff, so we’re probably walking around angry and depressed and hopeless all the time. While I understand the sentiment, I do get frustrated at the thought of not knowing what’s happening in the world. This is my world, and my kid’s, and our neighbors’, and everyones’, and I’d like to know as much as I can about what’s happening, which—for me—means reading all sorts of different sources but also brings up the whole question of how much truth are we even getting from the media? Is fiction a better alternative for truth? Anyhow: I’m trying to figure out the balance between the information I seek out to be an informed citizen, and the stories I seek out to remember what it means to be human in the first place. Right now, I’m into this anthology called The Impossible Will Take a Little While: A Citizen’s Guide to Hope in a Time of Fear. It’s beautiful, hopeful, tragic. There’s this essay by Sherman Alexie that kills me, about death and loss and hope and vibrators. It makes me laugh. It makes me want to set fire to things. It makes me want to change the world.
Day-to-day, I bounce around the internet, mostly online literary journals, writing websites, and culture blogs: The Rumpus, The Nervous Breakdown, HTML Giant, the This Modern Writer series at Pank, The Collagist, Small Doggies, The Millions, Guernica, Colorlines, Slate, Salon, Jezebel, Shareable, and, of course, Colossal (www.thisiscolossal.com)—full disclosure: Colossal is my husband’s site, which means he wakes me up at crazy hours to show me mind-blowing art and then I have insane dreams so I just stay up and make us coffee. It’s a huge source of inspiration for me, both the art he finds and the process by which he finds it. To constantly be creating and curating new content is a ton of work and dedication and love (right, Christi!?) and I’d love to say how grateful I am to the editors and writers of these online publications. As a member of your audience—I am so much the better for it.
CC: What advice can you offer writers on the rise?
And be aware of how you’re reading. Stick with me here for a second—my yoga teacher talks a lot about curiosity, not judgement (as in, “Your leg hurts being bent backwards over your head? Can you look at that hurt with curiosity, not judgement?”). I’ve started saying this a lot in my writing classes: curiosity, not judgement. Sometimes it’s hard to examine aspects of craft because we’ve been hot-wired to critique everything—and not the kind of thoughtful criticism that speaks to the artist’s examination of our world (I’m looking at you, Ebert), but the snap-judgement kind of Like/Dislike that we all hear twenty times a day: That movie sucked that album sucked that book was awesome. If you’re thinking That sucks, you’re probably also thinking, I don’t have anything to learn from this writer. So what if, instead of This sucks or this is awesome, we ask ourselves, How is this crafted? Third or first person? Past or present tense? How much character description and how is it given? Every story we read—hell, every movie we watch, every play and TV show and dance performance and comic book and opera and song, all of it!—has something to teach us about craft. This way, when you’re stuck with your own writing, sitting at your computer like How the hell do I tell this scene!—you have all sorts of tools to pull from. Forgive my French, but fuck writer’s block. Figure it out! The answers are on your bookshelf:
How is the first chapter of Moby Dick crafted?
How, in Until Gwen, did Lehane do that?
In Selby’s Tralala, there are no periods for like 9 pages and it reads like lightening. Same absence of periods in Faulkner’s Light in August, but the pacing is super slow. Why?
In Visit From the Goon Squad, she’s often in the future-perfect tense. How are you using tense in your work?
In Anna Karennina, we get that horse race scene told three times from three different vantage points: Vronsky on the horse; Anna in the stands watching Vronsky; Anna’s husband further back in the stands, watching Anna. F’ing genius! Can you give us the same scene from multiple vantage points? How does that heighten the telling?
Have you tried counting down a story in real time? Like on 24?
What’s the point of view in a missed connection ad on craigslist?
Grab your five favorite books off your bookshelf. How does each one begin? When is the moment in each when you—as the audience—know you’re hooked? What was the writer doing there?
And most importantly, how can you use this stuff in your own work?
A quick final thought: in Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet, there’s a line about how “a work of art is good if it has sprung from necessity.” That’s the best advice you can get, I think.
Thank you, Megan, for stopping by and giving us so much to read, to consider, and to carry into our own writing.
Megan Stielstra is the author of Everyone Remain Calm and the Literary Director of Chicago’s 2nd Story storytelling series. She teaches creative writing at Columbia College and the University of Chicago.