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You may be forgiven for believing that if you’ve had a relatively ordinary, happy life—if you grew up in a middle-class suburb with parents who were kind to you and did not have any chemical dependencies, if you and your family have always been relatively healthy, if you have never lived through a war, if your personal identity has never been so out of synch with everyone around you that you’ve had to face violent retribution—that you have no business writing a personal essay.
Megan Stielstra’s new essay collection, Once I Was Cool, cheerfully disproves this notion. “Blood and guts and piss and shit?” she writes. “Sure, but joy and courage and hope and understanding, too.” Stielstra grew up outside Detroit with two loving and supportive parents. She made a few stupid but not life-threatening decisions during her young adulthood. But now, in her late 30s, she is married to a wonderful man named Christopher; they live in Chicago and have a charming and precocious son named Caleb, and, though she’s sometimes stretched for time and money, she loves her career as a writer and teacher of writing at Columbia College. (She’s also part of the 2nd Story storytelling collective.) This is the raw material that makes up these essays.
Stielstra’s voice is warm and bubbly, like you’re out together for a cup of coffee or maybe a beer. She’s eager to pass off what she’s learned, and, unusually for a writer, she’s a pure, unadulterated optimist. Her essays are short. It took a lot of them to make up Once I Was Cool, and the quality varies. In her weaker moments, she can come off as smug, too satisfied with her marriage and, especially, motherhood. (“People ask how I juggle it all, and what I want to say is, ‘Are you kidding? My life isn’t a juggle.’ It’s a fucking gift.”) Sometimes her arguments are obvious: it’s unlikely anyone who has picked up a book of personal essays will disagree with the notion that reading opens up your eyes to the world.
But at her best, Stielstra taps into the universal anxieties of early adulthood. She lays out her recurring themes in the two title essays. (Yes, there are two, differentiated by a comma.) “Once I Was Cool” is about the magical thinking you do when you’re forming a life: “Once I was cool, things would be easy. . . . Once I had a boyfriend, I would not be having sex with people I shouldn’t be having sex with. . . . Once I got a teaching gig, I wouldn’t have to wait tables anymore.” “Once, I Was Cool” is about Stielstra’s attempts to reconcile her younger self who went to see Jane’s Addiction at the Aragon Ballroom with her older self who is struggling to make mortgage payments on the condo across the street. Will anyone—herself included—remember when she was cool?
And then there’s “Channel B,” about how, during Stielstra’s lonely first winter of motherhood, a neighbor appeared on the second channel on her baby monitor, another isolated, frustrated new mother. Isn’t it good, she asks, when you learn you’re not alone in the world?