The problem with writing a profile of Megan Stielstra is that she’s already done most of the work herself. Once you read her two essay collections, Once I Was Cool (Curbside Splendor) and The Wrong Way to Save Your Life (Harper Perennial), you’ll know where she was born (Alma, Michigan), what her parents were like (kind, loving, and supportive, even after the divorce), her hopes (love, understanding, great writing), her fears (the mortgage, her father’s death, the bigotry and violence that emerged with the rise of Donald Trump), her interests (books, theater), her crushes (Pete, Todd, Dave) and love affairs (the college boyfriend who followed her to Italy, the future husband who followed her to Prague), the most dramatic events of her life (like the time her apartment building almost burned down), and the more mundane ones (like the slow, inexorable process of losing a job that she loved).
Stielstra’s essays aren’t just about herself, though—they’re also populated by her family and a constellation of longtime friends, plus what appears to be the world’s greatest Realtor. She writes about all these people with the same honesty and scrutiny she applies to herself, but also with deep love and admiration. We asked some of them what it was like to be a character in her stories. Here’s what they told us.
Darcy Stielstra, Megan’s dad
Some of her essays are easy and enjoyable to read. Often I want to call her and say, “You can’t say that. It happened differently, honey.” And she’ll say, “Dad, this is my recollection.” I’ll say, “OK, I understand that,” but there are things I’m long in the tooth in and she’s not, and I want to correct her. Especially the hunting and fishing things. I took her out early, but she never got hold of it.
She had a story about when I took her pheasant hunting, and she had herself with a shotgun with a scope. You don’t hunt pheasants with scopes. In her book, she had a boat I built with some friends that are more talented than me, and she said I had a wood stove in the boat, and the notion gives it a real Alaskan kind of feel. But you would never have an open flame in a boat. That would be inordinately dangerous. Propane would be OK. But you would never find an open flame. A couple of other little things. And she, I think, more to pacify me than because it had any tremendous appeal to her, made the change in the final rewrite.
Some of her writing I find unsettling, I guess because I’m a loving dad and you have some natural inclination to protect your little girl, even when your little girl’s 40. You want to always be stepping in that direction, and because a lot of her writing, even when she doesn’t identify it as her, is often her recollecting an event. Even if it isn’t her, I put her there as I’m reading. And that’s where the unsettling thing comes in: “Don’t go this direction!” Or “Call your dad! He can race up there and rescue you.” Those tendencies I would love to ascribe to every loving father, or mother as well, are quick to take hold. She’s always one to say, “Dad, don’t read this one.” We’re quite close and find it easy to talk to each other and enjoy each other’s company immensely. Unfortunately I live in Kodiak, Alaska, and she lives in Chicago.
I love my daughter very much, and I recognize her as a unique talent and the progression of that talent I’d like to take credit for it, but the truth is, from the get-go, from the earliest moment, she was flapping her own wings. Even when I took her to kindergarten, I took her to her first day, and we pulled up to the school and I started to get out. She said, “Dad, you don’t have to come, I know where to go.” She turned and started skipping down the sidewalk toward the school. I sat there watching her go. I didn’t take her hand and I didn’t go with her, and that seems like a fitting descriptor of who my daughter has always been, before that moment and ever since.
Randy Albers, Megan’s former teacher and colleague
Megan came to the Columbia Fiction Writing Department in the mid-90s. I saw a young woman intellectually curious, hungry to learn, very smart, and very animated, with a barely contained energy that left her shifting in her seat, ready to move. She wanted the world, and she wanted it now. Megan’s particular strength lay with her desire to rip the cover off her talent, push the limits of what might be possible. She reveled in hard work and grew more patient, more able to let stories simmer and reveal their wisdom.
Her career at Columbia College almost exactly paralleled my own as chair, and images rise easily from those years. She knocks on my open office door, offering temporary relief from memos, and we launch into talk about a piece of her writing, the intricacies of point of view, a problem student in her class, music, books, academic and national politics. I see her the night before a writing conference joining Lott and me on the balcony of a New Orleans club, the Dragon’s Den, where the great drummer, Stanton Moore, is driving a beat through the thick night heat.
Yes, we’ve shared much since that first undergrad class. I am asked what it’s like to see myself in The Wrong Way to Save Your Life, and I have to say that I often feel as if I am more on the page than I really am. Her account of that time of struggle when I pulled a copy of Kafka’s Diaries off my bookshelf to share the last lines he wrote during his dying—”You too have your tools”—or of the literal/metaphorical deer heart dissections, including her list of lessons I’d taught her, all make me sound a bit too gurulike when really I am content to take my occasional place along with so many others in Megan’s narrative.
One of the greatest pleasures for a teacher is to see a former student succeeding, thriving. After resisting for many years, I finally let Meg talk me into doing a story for 2nd Story during the opening night of our Story Week Festival of Writers, with the promise that, as literary director, she would help me through the process. I journaled toward an idea, scribbled scattered thoughts, and finally drafted something like 53 pages—for a ten-minute reading! I cut, chopped some more, got it to maybe 20. She read it, patiently asked some focusing questions, and sent me back for another rewrite. Three or four more drafts, a day with the band to set it to music, and we were ready to go. The performance went well, and I realized how much I owed to my former student—student no more, now teacher of the teacher.
J. Adams Oaks, Stielstra’s friend and her son’s godfather
Megan and I have been writing about each other for more than 20 years. Like a brother and sister, it’s often a competition because we’ve experienced so much of life together, so when we witness a magical moment or hear a spectacular story, we claim dibs—”That’s mine,” I’ll exclaim, and Megan will say, “You have six months to use it or it’s mine.” Much to our friends and family’s annoyance, we also have been known to simultaneously scramble for our journals to jot down a moment rather than just live in it.
We’ve even written the same story unknown to each other from our separate perspectives. We’d started writing the stories separately about when we first became friends and started hanging out. So when Megan was looking at publishing her collection of short fiction called Everyone Remain Calm, she asked me if it would be OK to include a version of us playing our game called Oscar and Veronica. I said, “What? You wrote that as a story too?” Of course we’d both written it. The [online magazine] Nervous Breakdown published both of them (hers and mine). But from then on, we confer with each other before publishing.
I wouldn’t be half the writer I am today without Megan and an infinite roll of white butcher paper. She is the guardian of my journals, the carrier of my tears, the witness to the secrets I deem worth baring. When it comes to our words and emotions, our passion and growth, she is the pushmi to my pullyu. We’re lucky to have found each other. And, man, is she lucky to have so many others worth writing about so gloriously.
Amanda Delheimer Dimond, artistic director of 2nd Story and Stielstra’s son’s godmother
Being written about feels a bit like looking at a photograph of yourself. You have a memory of where you were and how it happened, and then there’s this outside perspective on it that you can look at and examine and juxtapose and compare it to your own. And that, to me, is part of the delight of it: seeing how somebody else perceives that same moment you were in, or how they internalized it or how it affected them.
I think the essay that always blows my mind the most is about the period of time when Megan had postpartum depression. At the time, she wasn’t calling it that, and none of us had a sense of what was going on. But there are moments that she mentions again and again where it felt to her like I swooped in and saved her life in some way. And really all I did was take the baby and be like, “Hey, go take a shower.”
It was such an enormous thing to her, and it makes me think—one just never knows how the little tiny things that you do can have the most life-changing impact on somebody else. You might never see that person again, but it feels particularly meaningful, I think, to have some of that reflected back to you by someone who . . . well, in many ways, Megan and I grew up together as humans and as artists.
One of the real blessings of being friends with Megan specifically is that she sees the world through these lenses of love and justice. None of us are perfect people. I’ve never been nervous about being written about by her, mostly because she approaches the world with such a huge heart.
There are some writers who are like, Well, it’s my life and I’m going to write about whatever the hell I want. And there are some writers that feel very much like part of their job is to bring people along, that if they do want to write about them, they know that it’s happening and are able to—not necessarily change things—but have an impact on how their story is told. She’s very conscious of the fact that yes, she is telling her own story, but there are parts of those that are other people’s stories. And it’s very important that they feel like their stories are represented that is true to the way they want to be represented.
She comes to everything as an educator, also. I think it is that educator lens that gives her a real commandment to approach the work not just as an end, but as this larger process of all of us being lifelong learners and trying to figure out who we are walking through the world and what our unique role is in all that.
Dia Penning, Stielstra’s coworker at the Equity Collective and the mother of her nephew
Megan Stielstra is my best friend. Which means that we often wear the same dresses from Nordstrom Rack. In fact, I’ve been known to buy two just in case she can’t find it at the one in Chicago (I live in Oakland, California.) We are sisters that ended up in the wombs of two different moms, seeded by two different dads; but sisters, nonetheless. For close to 25 years, she has been writing about our relationship, how it affects her growth, my growth, our kids, our understanding of race, local and national politics, teaching and learning, and things as basic as where to buy bras.
Seeing our relationship reflected on the page can be confusing. Since two people experience things in different ways, we have memories that overlap but are not identical. When I talk to her about my fears, it’s always halting and filled with self-doubt; I cry a lot, and cuss a lot. In her world—I am strong, I have the answers, I ask questions so that others can find out about themselves. Megan writes autobiographical fiction—there are sometimes memories that never happen, but become part of our story anyway. I have moments where I have to ask, Did that really happen? Do I really take on the world in all the ways she believes I do? Am I that patient? Am I as good of a mom as she thinks I am? Can I be the puddle inside and still be the person she sees me as? And, the way she sees me . . . in her mind I am six feet tall, I wear stilettos, I dance on pool tables, I can disarm people with my eyebrows, and I do it all with flawless makeup and tattooed shirtsleeves. Megan makes me look GOOD.
Honestly, I am happy to have her version, made-up or 100 percent real. Megan makes me a better version of myself. Actually, she makes everyone a better version of themselves. The way she develops characters takes the essential kindness of that human being. She uses lessons that we all learn, sometimes hard and sometimes joyful, to create an even more beautiful person. In her writing, I see myself the way I wish I could be—parenting at 3 AM, when a workshop participant claims racism doesn’t exist, when my mother uses my pain against me—the way that Megan shapes my humanity makes me want to do better.
Sarah Zematis, Stielstra’s friend
I often think, “What did I do to deserve Megan in my life?” She will tell you that I saved her when we met but it was most certainly the other way around. Meeting Megan changed the course of my life. I thought I was just an ordinary mom. But Megan saw me and my hunger for something more. She showed me that I had a voice. That my thoughts mattered and that I had power when I put them on the page.
Friends are a reflection of yourself. The good, the bad, and the ugly. Sometimes they can be like the fun-house mirror and you want to run because the vision isn’t pretty. But sometimes you find the friend that reflects the best parts of you. And, if you are truly lucky, she can be a magic mirror that helps you see how you aspire to walk through this world. When I met Megan, her grace and beauty pervaded my soul. This is the friend you hold on to with both hands.
When I read Megan’s essay “We Do and Say Kind Things,” her perspective on this chapter of my life brought me to my knees. Again, she put me in her sights and saw me. My daughter’s cancer diagnosis two and a half years ago was impossible to comprehend. I went through each day in a fog, one foot in front of the other. What we didn’t (and couldn’t) know, is that diagnosis is just the beginning. It comes in waves, kind of like sinking in quicksand. There are pauses where everything stops and seems like it may be OK. Then, a sudden shift and you find yourself sinking again. Each time the sands feel like they will swallow me whole, there she is. My lifeline, holding out a guide rope so I can surface and rise.
Stephen Hnatow, Stielstra’s Realtor
I think people go into real estate for two different reasons. Some become a Realtor because they continually transition in and out of professions. They think that they can make money easily. And it’s definitely possible to make money in this industry! I think the best brokers are those who go into this profession with the intention of service, though.
So when I hear and read an essay written about me by a past client that is being published into a book, I can’t help but giggle. It’s beyond the best client testimonial one could ever receive, no? It’s nice to know that a period in time a couple years ago still has a profound effect on someone whom I grew to admire and love. I was unaware of any financial hardships outside of the short sale process. I prefer not to involve myself in my clients’ personal lives so I can focus on the task at hand objectively.
So on days when I want to murder myself with alcohol,
after an Annette Bening in American Beauty kinda day where I find myself cleaning up after people who aren’t my children, I will remember moments like this when I was appreciated on this large of a scale.
That this hard work that is often never-ending with zero days off means something to someone. Because over the years, it’s easy to forget that it’s not about you.
Lott Hill, Stielstra’s friend and former boss who was ordained on the Internet to marry Stielstra and her husband; he and his husband are helping them raise their son
Megan sees the best in the people she loves. I’m not talking about that rose-tinted-spectacles-got-me-blind-to-your-flaws kind of thing. Trust me, she’s always paying attention. She can see the flaws! No, with Megan it’s some kind of superpowered laser vision that gets to the core of what is good, what is working, what is taking her attention. Did I mention that she is paying attention?
Anyone who’s ever taken one of her classes knows what I’m talking about. Megan is that teacher who is so in-the-moment present that students sometimes wonder if she can see into their heads. She listens intently, focuses completely, observes compassionately, and sometimes seems informed by unobservable forces. “There. That!” She’ll say, pointing her finger at the journal in a student’s hand, “Jot that down. Get down what you just said and go home and write. That’s the first line, now go write the story!”
It’s just the way Megan pays attention. She listens. She listens like few people know how to listen. I can’t tell you how many times over the years Megan and I have talked about listening. Listening as writers. Listening as teachers. Listening as students, as mentors, as friends, as citizens. Listening as a parent. What does listening look like? What does it mean to listen in different contexts? What does listening inspire you to do or not to do? How can you listen—truly listen—and not want to burn the whole fucking world to the ground? How can you truly listen and keep your heart whole?
Megan pays attention. She listens. She writes. She reflects back the very best she sees in those around her. To be in her life—to be loved by her—is to be heard and seen and written into the stories she tells. To be friends with Megan is to regularly have your best acts and aspects recognized and named and celebrated and, every once in a while, recorded for all of history in one of her brilliant essays.
Christopher Jobson, Stielstra’s husband
Being the subject of Megan’s writing wasn’t something I particularly thought about until the first time I heard my name spoken out loud in a story she’d already written early in our relationship. Of course she’d run the whole thing by me, probably several times, but sitting in a bar with an audience of 100 people and realizing the Primary Topic of This Story Is You, Christopher, from the blond storyteller standing onstage was a little overwhelming. This was followed immediately by the realization that if things worked out, this might happen a lot. Like, a lot a lot.
In those first few months and years we had dozens of conversations as she checked in with what’s OK and what’s not. It happens less frequently now because we’ve established clear boundaries and I trust her completely. Megan is extremely thoughtful about the people she incorporates into her work and she often involves them in the process. Still, I always react to hearing stories about me for the first time.
Sometimes I’m deeply affected by whatever she’s written because she brings into clear focus an event I’ve long since forgotten and/or completely repressed. Other times I remember things from a different perspective—not in a way that makes either one of us wrong or right, but it’s illuminating to see where our memories diverge or how we interpret things differently. Just kidding, Megan’s always right, I have a horrible memory. But to be clear, there’s never been a time when she’s handed me a draft and I’ve said “Megan, what is this, I have no idea what this means, who are you even, I wouldn’t even know how to break open an ATM using only a cupcake.” So yeah, we’re generally on the same page.
The most significant thing is that while plenty of random, scary, or just mundane things have happened to us over the years, she still manages to capture it on the page in a way that’s completely engrossing and entertaining, even if it involves something I’m intimately familiar with. I’m right there along with the rest of you, flipping the pages thinking, OH GOD AND THEN WHAT DID I DO?
Caleb, Stielstra’s son
I love knowing that my mom writes about me because it means she loves me, she probably writes about that too. But I don’t like it when she gets up so early in the morning. She needs to stay asleep so she’s healthy. Also: there’s no right or wrong way to save your life.
Bobby Biedrzycki, a writer who often collaborates with Stielstra
About two years after I got sober Megan had an idea: “Maybe we should write the story together?” I shot her a confused look. “You know, the story,” she said. I was silent. She meant the story of my overdose and near suicide, an experience that shifted the direction of my life in every possible way. Something I wasn’t completely sure I was ready to write about. It was an event Megan was a part of in deeply personal ways. It was truly a shared experience. “Maybe we should write it, together?” she said.
And we did. We wrote and performed the story, “Dragons So Huge,” as a collaborative piece. It first went up live at a 2nd Story show, and then appeared in Megan’s book Once I Was Cool. It’s rare in the art of personal narrative that you get an opportunity like this, a chance to coauthor a shared experience. As nonfiction writers, so many of the stories we live and write are communal. But it’s uncommon that we actually get to put pen to page in community to write them. This process required that Megan and I explore our shared experience—a moment that unfolded over multiple days full of communal hurt and harm and wonder and awe—in really deep and loving ways. It was a transformative experience for us both, and it helped us make sense of something that had been living in us for two years. Throughout the process of writing Megan would ask me things like, “Is this cool to share?” Or “Is this how you remember it happening? Did that part feel the same to you?” What’s interesting about those questions is they are not unlike the questions Megan might call and ask me when she’s writing about me in a piece I’m not coauthoring.
See, what I wanted to tell you about was what it’s like to be written about by Megan Stielstra, but I realize I’ve mostly told you about my own experience. And how, through writing, Megan cared for that experience and turned it into art. But this is it, this is how I feel when Megan writes about me: cared for, a profound sense of trust and joy that our shared experiences are being transformed into breathtaking works of art. I mean, how does one really describe the feeling of being a fan, a coauthor, a friend, and a character all at once? I don’t know. Mostly, I think, one just says thank you. v