Tag Archives: Megan Stielstra

Chicago Live Lit Makes Books

Hotshot in the audienceIt’s a scene we all know. Some young hopeful needs a major pep talk backstage, because tonight, there’s a hotshot in the audience, someone who could catapult you to stardom overnight. Usually, the young hopeful is a wannabe movie star or rock star and the hotshot is a famous critic or music producer. But live lit has made it possible for us to imagine a future in which writers are discovered by publishers not just in slush piles, but also in bars, cafes, libraries, bookstores, and even concert venues. Whether or not this is even more improbable than the rock star fantasy, public storytelling is a great way to develop your writing chops—and it can sometimes lead to publication. Just take a look at these local kids who made good. Here are five books that grew out of live lit in Chicago.


BARE-KNUCKLED LIT: THE BEST OF WRITE CLUB | Edited by Lindsay Muscato and Ian Belknap | December 16, 2014

Bare-Knuckled LitI’m a religious fanaticism survivor. The church I grew up in, it was of the “God-hates-fags” variety and I’m a better, happier person for having escaped it. But there are things I missed: the ritual, ceremony, fellowship, and passionate language that can sometimes lead to a sense of spiritual transcendence. More than a decade later, I still felt the loss—until Write Club. For me, this live lit series is like church, only without the bigotry and intolerance. And Bare-Knuckled Lit, well, maybe I won’t go so far as to say it’s the Bible, but it’s a damn good book.

In it, founder, host, and “overlord” Ian Belknap lays out Write Club’s genesis story, rules, and mission in the introduction, training the unversed: each installment has three bouts of two opposing writers on two opposing topics. But, unlike most real ministers, Belknap quickly steps aside to share the pulpit with some of the best “combatants” who have graced the Write Club stages of Chicago, Atlanta, and San Francisco, each presenting a short, lucid, and compelling persuasive essay. Leaving out the photographs, sidebars, and pull quotes one might expect from a book about such a raucous, popular show, Bare-Knuckled Lit makes it clear that, in the end, like church, Write Club is about beliefs—only, the ones we figure out for ourselves.

— Reviewed by Alba Machado


UGLY GIRLS: A NOVEL | Written by Lindsay Hunter | November 4, 2014

Ugly GirlsPerry and Baby Girl are fake-ass thugs. They blast tough music; they joyride through their double-wide, poverty-saddled rural town in a stolen red Mazda; they are teenage girls who aim to raise hell.

Let me put it out there: as one of the nerdy, stay-in-at-night good girls these two despise, I was ready to hop in the backseat and blaze off after Lindsay Hunter’s partners-in-crime. But Ugly Girls is not a glorification of the wildchild days. This debut novel from one of the founding hosts of the now-defunct Quickies reading series struck me, beyond all else, as a study in claustrophobia, where every environment has its own chokehold—from prison walkways to truck stop donut stands to quarry drops—and each character rides out flight-or-fight instincts, looking, not always hopefully, for a way to get free.

The prose combines gristly fragments and vicious dialogue; Hunter writes with a clammy realism and tough, punchy swagger I ate up in two sittings. She doesn’t deny it; the ugly girls are headed for disaster. But knowing that made the final lap of their race no less of a heartbreak—a violent, upsettingly abrupt ending that left me feeling, like Baby Girl, perturbed, itchy, and disgruntled. And maybe like I ought to try sneaking out my bedroom window some night.

— Reviewed by Jess Millman


ONCE I WAS COOL: PERSONAL ESSAYS | Written by Megan Stielstra | May 20, 2014

Once I Was Cool with BordersThere’s a certain intimacy inherent in this collection of personal essays. Honed, perhaps, from Megan’s time on the stage, where she stands, or sits, as comfortable as silk. But also in the way in which she opens the compendium of her life to show strangers: “This is who I am, and this is how I got here.”

For period of time—I don’t know how long it took to read Once I was Cool, I read slow, reread multiple essays, did everything in my power to prolong the experience of this book—I had this partner in crime. I was the passenger in the journey of her life. The Robin to her Batman, except with pants. The short-round to her Indiana Jones, except slightly taller, by like an inch—seriously I am so short. Megan made me feel like an important fixture in her life. This almost seems absurd to type, but the blend of her voice on the page with the structure of each essay made me feel as if we had always been friends.

After the last page had been read and the book was shut I found myself a little heartbroken.

— Reviewed (again) by Scott Eagan
(for his full review, see “The Power of Story“)


MEATY: ESSAYS | Written by Samantha Irby | Released October 1, 2013

MeatyI’m always a little confused whenever I read that Samantha Irby, Bitches Gotta Eat blogger and live lit performer, has only a cult following. That’s because I feel like everyone I know is a fan of Sam’s. But maybe I’m just lucky in my friends.

Irby wrote Meaty, a hilarious and poignant collection of essays in 2013 that is still cracking me up this year. I was turned onto her blog by fellow LC staffer, Alba Machado, a few years ago, and that was it for me—every week I hit up BGE for Irby’s multi-hued (and often ALL CAPS) posts covering everything from “manecdotes” to reading lists (she’s as much a hermit as a charmer).

She worked with Curbside Splendor on the raucous and bittersweet array of personal tales, including “My Mother, My Daughter,” the devastating story of caring for her mother from a young age. Meaty’s the culmination of years of shocking and awing on her blog and taking her incisive storytelling on the road: Irby has slayed at Write Club, and founded her very own live lit show, Guts & Glory, with Keith Ecker. It’s also raised the bar on personal narratives.

— Reviewed by Danette Chavez


BRIEFLY KNOCKED UNCONSCIOUS BY A LOW-FLYING DUCK: STORIES FROM 2ND STORY | Edited by Andrew Reilly and Megan Stielstra | Released November 12, 2012

Briefly KnockedIf I had to pick a Chicago reading series for my first-ever live lit experience (and I sort of do), it would be 2nd Story. Hands down. No other series better prepares its writer-performers for a show. Committed to the mission of “building community” and using stories to “connect people to one another,” members of its large staff work for up to four months with each storyteller, editing content, directing delivery, and coordinating sound and music. And the care and attention each story is given is as apparent in this collection as it is at their shows and in their podcasts. This is personal narrative at its best.

Although I might be somewhat biased here, since scanning the table of contents gives me a this-is-your-life-in-Columbia-College’s-creative-writing-program-so-THANK-YOUR-LUCKY-STARS feeling (thank you, STARS), this line-up would impress the hell out of anyone who follows the Chicago literary scene: Once I Was Cool’s Megan Stielstra, The Bradbury Chronicles’ Sam Weller, Bedrock Faith’s Eric Charles May, The Temple of Air’s Patricia Ann McNair, and a number of others who have made names for themselves as inspiring teachers and powerful live lit performers. But even if these names mean nothing to you, these stories, they’re ours, they’re the stories of what it means to be human. Inside each of them, you’ll see, there’s a story of your own waiting to be discovered. That’s why they call it 2nd Story.

— Reviewed by Alba Machado

RELATED VIDEO

Ugly Girls Author Lindsay Hunter Reads at the Hideout,” Chicago Magazine 

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The Power of Story
by Scott Eagan

Once I Was CoolI have an admission I’d like to get out into the open before moving onto Megan Stielstra’s wonderful collection of personal essays, Once I Was Cool. I know the author. I mean, we’re not besties or anything. There was this time, not so long ago, when I decided, on a whim, to take a class taught by Bobby Biedrzycki and Megan Stielstra called Story and Performance—an experience I hold as one of the high points in my pursuit of an MFA degree at Columbia College Chicago. (Bobby makes a very powerful appearance in Once I Was Cool, in the essay “Dragons so Huge.”) For fifteen weeks I got to learn from Megan, while being exposed to fragments of this collection. Of course, I didn’t know it at the time. And every so often, as I read this book, these small moments would sweep in and leave me with this sense of familiarity, because I heard a part of the story, like with the first line to the essay “Those Who Were There.” Or like with this striking bit of insight on the nature and importance of story, which I highlighted then promptly wrote down in my journal:

Story—when done right—can help you find yourself in others, share realities that can’t possibly be real, and show a person or people a world that you never before imagined.

Here’s the thing: writing, like anything else in life, is a process. Even this review—the approach of which is a bit unorthodox, but who the hell says a review needs to be orthodox—is part of a process. A presentation of my opinion on Once I Was Cool with the intent to persuade—totally the case with this book—or dissuade—not the case with this book—the reader. But, and this is the important part, I need to first understand why I think Once I Was Cool is so good. Is worth both your money and time. Accomplishing that is not just about pinpointing the things that I liked, or admired. It’s also about the distillation of the work into those themes that resonate the strongest with me. And sometimes that can be tricky. So I’m going to walk you through the process I underwent in order to find those themes. Continue reading

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Performing Stories, Rather Than Just Reading Them
by Alba Machado

Page and StageA lot of people who know how to write a good story don’t know how to tell a good story. If you are Toni Morrison or José Saramago, then sure, there’s a good chance your audience will hang on your every word no matter how lifeless your delivery may be, its adoration assured by your tremendous body of Nobel prize-winning work. But if you are a relatively unknown writer taking to the stage in search of a wider readership, your words alone will not be enough. Minds will wander. Smiles will be empty. Applause will be merely polite. After all, when you are reading to an audience that is physically present, you are reading with your entire body—your posture, movement, gesture, facial expression, eye contact, tone of voice, inflection—and if you are just standing there and dictating lines from a page, then on some level you are conveying boredom and lack of conviction. You are saying, “I don’t care about this. Maybe you shouldn’t care, either.”

This Sunday, June 8th, at the 30th annual Printers Row Lit Fest, you can walk from one tent where an author is reading to another tent where an author is performing and you can easily gauge each audience’s level of engagement. There’s no contest. At the former, there is silence and stillness, maybe an occasional nod. At the latter, there is gasping and laughter, cheering and chills. And at the RedEye tent, you can start to discover why. That’s where The Encyclopedia Show’s Robbie Telfer, Story Club’s Dana Norris, and Guts & Glory’s Keith Ecker are talking to RedEye, Metromix, and WGN Radio’s Amy Guth in a panel discussion entitled “Page Meets Stage: How to Use Performance to Enhance Your Writing Career.”

“People who are at live lit are not there to see a specific writer,” says Telfer. “They’re not Joyce Carol Oates-ing it.”

Continue reading

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