by Leslie Lindsay
Raw, bold and ravishing memoir loosely hinged on the concept of fear.
~MEMOIR MONDAY|ALWAYS WITH A BOOK~
WRITERS INTERVIEWING WRITERS
Book of the Year Award, Nonfiction, Chicago Review of Books, December 2017
Best Books of 2017, Chicago Public Library, December 2017
Best Books of 2017, Chicago Magazine, December 2017
Best Books of 2017, Heidi Stevens for the Chicago Tribune, December 2017
2017 Favorites, The Rumpus, December 2017
Best Nonfiction of 2017, Vol 1. Brooklyn, December 2017
Best Books by Women in 2017, Bustle, November 2017
Great Essay Collections of 2017, Book Riot, November 2017
Finalist, Book of the Year, Nonfiction, Chicago Writer’s Association, October 2017
Is it instinct, or distinct? I am not sure and I think both apply in THE WRONG WAY TO SAVE YOUR LIFE by Megan Stielstra (Harper Perennial, 2017). Here, we dive into so many topics that are forbidden at the dinner table: feminism, the perils of academia, the writing life, postpartum depression, childhood cancer, motherhood, sex. And fear. There’s so much fear under these words, it’s palpable. These essays–or stories–snapshots, however you want to define them are bold and powerful. They are not to be taken lightly, although the writing style is light and loose and at times, humorous.
THE WRONG WAY TO SAVE YOUR LIFE is structured around the concept of fear, but this is not overt. You don’t this as you are reading, not necessarily. Stielstra takes her life and breaks it down into decades lived, small sections for a particular year of life. You might have a dozen ’19s’ because all of these stories happened when the author was 19.
I was in awe. They are meaty, visceral, real. There’s an authenticity here that I don’t think I’ve found in any other writing,
And I was inspired—mostly in part by structure—the perils and pleasures of writing about one’s life.
But first, please join me in welcoming the lovely and talented Megan Stielstra to the author interview series.
Megan, this collection—can we call it a collection—is ravishing! I mean, that deer heart?! I am a former R.N. and not the blood-and-guts kind; blood kinda weirds me out. I have to say, I felt a little green reading some of these descriptions, but I think that just means you did your job. What inspired this?
I had called my dad in Alaska a few days after he had heart surgery and he was in the mountains hunting. The week before, he’d been med-evac-ed down that same mountain, his life in question. I was furious. Actually I was terrified, but anger is easier than fear. I started the essay with a question—why does he keep going up the damn mountain?—and got stuck immediately. He goes up the mountain because he loves it. Essay over, end of story. The better question—the one I chased for the two years it took me to write the thing—was what do I do with my fear of him going up the mountain?
That ended up being the guiding question for the whole book: What do I do with my fear?
I know there are writers reading this right now. Maybe some of you are stuck. It’s useful for me to ask myself if I’m asking the right question. Maybe that can be useful to you, too.
I was thinking about his heart, and mine, and my son’s. The DNA we carry in our bodies. The memories we carry in our bodies. And what our head makes of all of it. Twenty years of writing and teaching and I’d always engaged with the heart as a metaphor. As a lifelong big game hunter, my dad engaged with the organ itself, blood and veins, pump and muscle, knives in his pockets. When he was trying to explain his heart condition to my son, he drop-shipped us a box of deer hearts to dissect to see how they worked. I got… a little obsessed. I cut up hearts for another two years. Got pretty good at it (later I did the same thing with axe throwing and anger; trying to figure out an emotional response through committed physical action).
For me it’s an example of trusting the process. Something that came out in the writing was a shooting at the school where my dad worked in the Nineties. It pushed him to move to Alaska. Writing about that experience helped me reconnect with a friend from that time, a brilliant writer herself. Her work inspires the hell out of me and talking with her helped me wrestle with all sorts of baggage from that time in my life.
My point: writing isn’t just building sentences.
“When Megan Stielstra writes you can actually feel her beautiful heart pumping blood through every sentence.”
—Samantha Irby, Meaty and We Are Never Meeting in Real Life
If I were to say THE WRONG WAY TO SAVE YOU LIFE is graphic, how might you respond?
I’d say thank you.
I was writing about fear. We intellectualize it, sure, but at its core, fear lives in the body; breath, gut, muscle, bone.
Let’s talk structure for a bit, because this can be sneaky, wiggly little creature. Sometimes we have the best intentions with structure, and then it starts to fray. Did you think about this before or after you finished your first draft? What’s a draft for you, anyway? And do you find the structure morphs?
For me there’s a difference between the practice of writing and the choice of if, when, and how to share it. I write every day, and it’s a holy mess. No one will see it but me.
I live in Chicago, where the literary and performance communities are tangled together in all sorts of delightful ways. Much of what I publish was worked out on a microphone in front of a hundred or so Chicagoans; the best, most demanding of any audience. I don’t have to worry about my dad in Alaska reading it, or my kid ten years into the future. I can be really honest and see what works. Those spaces make me brave. I can tell right away by the response if the work has value and then I take it home and consider what it would need to have that effect on the page; structure, scene-building, narrative distance, etc.
When I made The Wrong Way to Save Your Life I was reading a bunch of lyric essays and messing around with fragmented and braided narratives. In the back of the book here’s a big list called “Tools or Weapons” of all the essays and art that guided me in the writing, but here’s your takeaway: I read and tried and fell on my ass and read more and tried more and dissected a bunch of hearts and got on a bunch of microphones and read and read and read and kept going even when I wanted to launch my laptop into the sun.
Here’s what else is going on this book: politics and social culture. Yep. I didn’t think it would be there, but it was. A lot. And I was nodding my head and thinking, gosh, this book was published in 2017, and yet there are lots of parallels between ‘then’ and ‘now.’ We tend to have short memories and romanticize the past as being ‘great, just fine,’ but that’s not always the case; there are cracks and fissures. What might you say to that?
I have taught memoir for twenty years. People put their hearts on a piece of paper and hand those papers to me. Their stories have effected every corner of my life; how I think, write, parent, teach, vote, and throw my body in the street.
My work is political because all writing is political, but also because I am political.
With the breath left in my body I will fight for you and your goddamn beautiful complicated hearts. Thank you for trusting them with me.
Before we go, I think we need to talk about postpartum depression. This is a big thing in the world, and important to me—that’s the kind of R.N. I was—a psych nurse. And raising kids…it ain’t easy. Trying to write and raise them, that’s not easy, either. Can you expand a bit on those topics, maybe some advice?
I shy away from giving advice; to parents, to writers, anyone. We have such deeply unique lives and experiences, and something that works for me may not for you. That said: for me, writing about postpartum depression specifically and scary stuff in general has been a gift. Hard as hell, yes, but it got those feelings out of my body so I could see them and understand what I was dealing with. It got them into the world, my one small contribution to a greater cultural and political dialogue that we need to dig into on a policy level: affordable and accessible health care and mental health care.
Above all else: writing about it has showed me how not alone I am.
You are not alone in this: the hard stuff and the joyful stuff, the up-all-night worrying and the paralyzing, on-the-ground fear and the inexplicable, indescribable joy. I see you crying in the kitchen. I see you laughing on the sidewalk.
I’ve been there and I see you and you are not alone.
Megan, this has been so great. Thank you, thank you for taking the time. Is there anything I should have asked, but may have forgotten, or anything you’d like to ask me?
The designer Frank Chimero has this line I love: “If the thing you make goes anywhere, it’s because other people carried it.”
Thank you for carrying this book with such care, Leslie. And for making this space to talk about language and stories and why they so desperately matter in this beautiful mess of a world.
For more information, to connect with Megan Steilstra via social media, or to purchase a copy of THE WRONG WAY TO SAVE YOUR LIFE, please visit:
but I did find some similarities between THE WRONG WAY TO SAVE YOUR LIFE and also WIVING (Caitlin Myer), meets SMALL ANIMALS (Kim Brooks) as well as the work of Cheryl Strayed meets Jenny Lawson (FURIOUSLY HAPPY).
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Megan Stielstra is the author of three collections: Everyone Remain Calm, Once I Was Cool, and The Wrong Way To Save Your Life, winner of the 2017 Book of the Year Award from the Chicago Review of Books. Her work appears in the Best American Essays, New York Times, The Believer, Poets & Writers, Longreads, Tin House, and elsewhere. A longtime company member with 2nd Story, she has told stories for National Public Radio, Museum of Contemporary Art, Goodman Theatre, and regularly with The Paper Machete live news magazine at The Green Mill. She teaches creative nonfiction at Northwestern University and is a mentor editor with The OpEd Project supporting women’s voices in public discourse.
She is a 2020 Shearing Fellow at the Black Mountain Institute in Las Vegas and a 2021 Civic Media Fellow with the Annenberg Innovation Lab at USC.
ABOUT YOUR HOST:
Leslie Lindsay is the award-winning author of SPEAKING OF APRAXIA (Woodbine House, 2012) and former Mayo Clinic child/adolescent psychiatric R.N. She is at work on a memoir. Her writing has been published in Pithead Chapel, Common Ground Review, Cleaver Magazine (craft and CNF), The Awakenings Review, The Nervous Breakdown, Ruminate’s The Waking, Brave Voices Literary Magazine, Manifest-Station, and forthcoming in The Family Narrative Project (FNP) and Semicolon. Her photography was featured on the cover of Up the Staircase Quarterly in May 2020, other photography in Another Chicago Magazine (ACM) and Brushfire Literature & Arts Journal; poetry in the Coffin Bell Journal. The 2nd edition of SPEAKING OF APRAXIA will be available this fall. Leslie has been awarded one of the top 1% reviewers on GoodReads and recognized by Jane Friedman as one of the most influential book reviewers. Since 2013, Leslie has interviewed over 700 bestselling and debut authors on her author interview series. Follow her bookstagram posts @leslielindsay1.
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~UPDATED, 2nd EDITION OF SPEAKING OF APRAXIA coming soon from WOODBINE HOUSE!~
recently completed: MODEL HOME: Motherhood, Madness & Memory
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[Cover and author image courtesy of M.Stielstra and used with permission. Artistic image of book cover designed and photographed by Leslie Lindsay. Join me over on Instagram for more like this @leslielindsay1 #alwayswithabook #amreading #bookstagrammer]