At this year’s Wordstock, Chicago essayist Megan Stielstra will be in town to discuss her new collection of essays, The Wrong Way to Save Your Life. The Mercury sat down with Stielstra ahead of the festival to talk writing, our country’s current political hellscape, and what she’s going to do once she gets to Portland. (Spoiler alert: It involves a puppy.)
MERCURY: You’re both a writer and a performer. Can you tell me how one influences the other?
MEGAN STIELSTRA: In Chicago, the literature and performance communities are entangled in wonderful ways. While tending bar to get through school, I started to notice that work is people telling you stories all day. I was really into it, so I signed up with this storytelling company called 2nd Story. Oral storytelling and the writing we’re doing on the page are intertwined.
Why is the essay a great writing form for you?
I just really dig that the word “essay,” and its origins. It means “to try” or “to experiment.” It allows me to just make a fucking mess. You try out an idea—take a question or a fear or a passion, and try to figure out why it is that. There is a power in taking your heart out of your body and putting [it] on a piece of paper and sharing it with someone else.
You have a sense of positivity in your work. Is optimism important to you?
Yes! For me, optimism is part of imagining the world we want to live in. I think about this a lot as an educator. I want to prepare students to change it, and make it the world we want to live in. Our capacity for imagination has to be greater than our capacity for fear. Do I have my moments where I want to launch myself off the fucking roof? Yes! Every day! But what are my coping mechanisms? I’m going to read and learn and try. It’s important.
What was different about working on this book compared to Once I Was Cool, your first collection of essays?
This book is a lot more political. I had my kid, and we want the world to be better for our children and everybody’s children. All of the cities, and all of the country, and all the countries.
Do you have plans for where to visit when you’re in town?
Yes! My friend Amy Martin lives in Portland. We went to sleepaway arts camp [together] and she’s my oldest friend. To have someone you love that much live on the other side of the country can be really hard, so I’m excited to see her and sit on the other side of a bottle of wine with her. And she just got a puppy.
So, all of that, and also Powell’s.