A List of Fears: Megan Stielstra and “The Wrong Way to Save Your Life”

Talk with Megan Stielstra about the art of writing essays and you’ll end up in a conversation about the art of living instead. It’s not a change of subject, just recognition that, in many ways, the activities are interwoven on the most intimate of terms. “The thing about creative nonfiction,” she says over the phone from Chicago, where she lives with her husband and young son and teaches writing at Northwestern, “is that our experience runs parallel to our pages.” I know exactly what she means. How do we make art out of a life we are in the midst of living? “The biggest question,” she acknowledges, “is the stopping point.”

Stielstra is referring to her new book, The Wrong Way to Save Your Life, a collection of loosely linked essays that add up — bit by bit — to a memoir. The title comes from a reader’s comment on a piece she wrote for the New York Times about a fire in her building; the implication is that she somehow responded incorrectly. But who’s to say, Stielstra wants to know, what’s right or wrong? And how can we help doing it our way when we have no choice but to make it up as we go? This, of course, is what the essayist does. “We have to get into it,” she writes in the introductory pastiche that opens the book. “Throw it against the wall, stand back and take a good close look. It’s ugly: heavy, dark, and centuries in the making. You might want to move on, to turn it off, watch something else, but wait — look again. Look closer. How was it made? When was it made? What was happening when it was made? What are you going to do about it? And when are you going to start?”

The Wrong Way to Save Your Life covers material that will be familiar to anyone who has read Stielstra’s 2014 volume of essays, Once I Was Cool. (She’s also the author of the 2013 short story collection Everyone Remain Calm.) Both of her nonfiction books revolve around the rigors of work and family, the question of identity, the challenges of being an adult when there are no road maps, and we slip from one moment to the next without any clear demarcation between where we’re going and where we’ve been. The echoing, she says, is “absolutely intentional; I wanted the essays in this book to talk to one another, which led me to think about how this book might talk to the last one, or to other essays I have written.” To highlight that intention — while also developing a kind of narrative spine for the project — Stielstra divides The Wrong Way to Save Your Life into four parts, each of which begins with a fragmentary meditation on a decade (ten, twenty, thirty, forty) of her life. “It was a happy accident,” she says about the structure. “When I started, I didn’t expect the book to be connected.” At the same time, the device allows for what she sees as a necessary double vision, a tension between present and past. “I’m interested,” Stielstra explains, “in narrative distance, in tracing how, as I age and live, my experience changes my perception. I’m interested in always telling the truth but also in telling you how I am telling you, in trying to be honest to who I am as I am writing, but also to who I was.”

As an example, look at the stunning “Here Is My Heart,” which anchors the opening section of The Wrong Way to Save Your Life. After her father has heart surgery, she starts dissecting deer hearts in her kitchen, as if by exposing the mechanics, some sort of deeper meaning will be revealed. “I tried to explain: blah blah metaphor blah,” she writes, when a friend asks what she is doing. “Randy waited patiently as I talked myself in circles, finally arriving tipsy at the truth: I’m afraid he will die. I’m afraid of the truth. I’m afraid for his heart.” The condition of his heart, as it turns out, proves less of a threat than Stielstra has anticipated; but the fear, once summoned, never goes away. Indeed, fear is a central motif of the collection, its métier, we might say. The book begins with an epigraph from Ben Okri: “Stories can conquer fear, you know. They can make the heart bigger.” There it is, love and terror, the conflict we cannot resolve. “The book began,” Stielstra recalls, “as a list of fears. I thought it would be five pages long. Sixty thousand words later, I called my agent.”

This is hardly new territory for her; “Channel B,” selected for The Best American Essays 2013 and republished in Once I Was Cool, highlights Stielstra’s fear of becoming a mother and her experience with postpartum depression, material that emerges in the new collection as well. “I hadn’t been aware of the constant buzzing,” she says, “until my son was born, but once I became aware, it was everywhere. I was unhappy at my job, but I was scared to leave. And when the building caught on fire, it was the greatest moment of fear ever. I wanted to write about it. I still want to write about it.” The trick, the transference, is that in addressing her own most vivid fears and emotions, she gives voice to everyone’s. “This is what happens,” Stielstra points out, “when we write personal essays. The works connects to others through ourselves.”

Such a process has to do with empathy, which is, as it has ever been, a key factor in how narrative engages us. At the same time, she wants to push it further, beyond mere identification into proximity. One word that comes up often for her is shame, not as an impediment, but rather as something that must be faced, and to the extent that we are able, overcome. “Enough,” she writes, “of shame — I’m done with it.” Another is privilege, which she explores throughout The Wrong Way to Save Your Life, invoking her students, family, and friends. In one of the book’s most powerful sequences, she remembers being asked, during a college writing class, to define her attitude toward her work. “If your writing is political,” her teacher told the students, “stand against that wall . . . If it doesn’t have anything to do with politics, stand against the other wall.” Stielstra opted for the latter, explaining, “I write love stories.” A gay student and a woman of color, standing at the opposing wall, responded that they did the same. “To this day,” Stielstra writes, “I struggle to explain what happened in that moment. All of the clichés apply: lightbulb, lightning, ton of bricks . . . It was the first time I’d considered how a person could be perceived differently based on their identity.”

This is not about guilt and it’s not about lip service, but consciousness instead. Art, Stielstra wants us to understand, can alter us, yet we must be open to the process, not only as observers but also as participants. “It’s interesting,” she suggests, “how hard it is to talk about privilege when, really, it’s responsibility. It’s overwhelming when you first discover systemic discrimination, systemic racism. There was so much I didn’t know. But in learning about it, it’s not possible not to be fundamentally changed.” Again, Stielstra cites her audience: “I have to earn it,” she says of their trust. On the one hand, this refers to her roots in spoken word; she has been affiliated for many years with the Chicago storytelling collective 2nd Story and debuted many of her essays from a stage. More to the point, though, is that notion of conversation, of collaboration — literature as an endeavor shared by author and reader, the art of writing essays and the art of living once again. “How does how we’re telling play into what we’re telling?” Stielstra wonders. “I have to be transparent in how I interrogate these issues. So much of writing personal essays means making space for someone else.”

Photo of Megan Stielstra by Joe Mazza – Brave Lux