I 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.
The first-ish draft of this review centered almost exclusively on Megan’s use of memory, which I am in awe of. Christine Sneed, author of Little Known Facts, once said—and because I’m paraphrasing here I’ll add—something to the effect of: While physically we experience time linearly, our emotional presence does not. This is an idea so thoroughly embraced by Megan that almost all of these essays, in some way, has a memory or collection of memories, sometimes distant, sometimes near, which affects the now of the piece. I imagine the shape of those essays is a spider web. The memories rest in the access points between the radial and spiral threads, and the now of the essay—the fixed point in time in which the essay is being told—is the center. When the web is stimulated it creates a vibration which oscillates to the now. A few of the strongest examples of this can be seen in essays like “I Bop,” where we are transported into Megan as a nine year old singing “I Bop” into a whisk, and three little words spoken by her mother carry on with her. Or in “It Seems Our Time Has Run Out, Dr. Jones,” when Megan ends a long standing relationship with Indiana Jones because she’s getting married. Or in “The Walls Would Be Rubble,” where she looks at the idea of abortion from different access points in her life. I could go on. I have notes. So many notes. But…
Here’s the other thing: I wanted to dissect Megan’s use of memory because I wanted to know how it worked. I am a writer—as are all the people contributing to Literary Chicago—and as a writer I have this compulsion to understand how things work in fiction, nonfiction, film, whatever. But that’s just one aspect of this book.
So I find myself working a different angle. Something I both admire and envy about Megan Stielstra: how brave she is, how fucking fearless she is with her writing. It’s one thing to reveal yourself in fiction, buried among make believe characters, and quite another to do it in nonfiction where there’s nowhere to hide. Remember that not everyone in the world is nice. And Megan’s not just showing us the sunny bits with happy endings like in “82 Degrees” when she finally gets together with her husband, Christopher. Also on display are mistakes and those darker moments like in “Wake the Goddamn World” when in Prague Megan was not the hero of her own story. When she could have stopped something but didn’t. Because she was in foreign land. Because there was a language barrier. Because she was human. It is so unbelievably hard in our very guarded lives to be vulnerable…
Here’s another thing: sometimes stuff just sorta falls into place. That quote from before:
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.
There was a reason I was drawn to that. Of course, I didn’t know it at the time. I had to lead myself there. This was the place I hadn’t wanted to go. But fuck it. I’ll do it anyway. I’m going to talk about the essay that made me lose my shit. I’m going to talk about “Channel B.”
This is an essay, in part, about postpartum depression, about being shut in, but also it’s about healing. Keep in mind the only things I knew about postpartum depression prior to “Channel B” was that Brook Shields said she had it, and Tom Cruise said it didn’t exist. Here though, in this story, there were certainly parallels between our experiences, mine and Megan’s. Her child was born in 2008 in the middle of a very long and cold winter. In 2013 my son was born right before a very long and very cold winter. Like her husband in the story, I was busy. A full-time grad student. A full-time worker. Sleep deprivation during those first few months was pretty much the status quo. When Megan wrote:
I was scared to sleep—The Baby might suffocate. I was scared to go outside—The Baby might freeze. I was scared he wasn’t eating, wasn’t latching, wasn’t gaining, wasn’t doing what the books had said he would do.
I saw that reflected in my fiancé, Shaelene. We had those discussions. We lived through that. Then there’s the part that made me break down:
I looked in the mirror and wondered who that girl was looking back. I was unbrushed, unwashed, and wearing the same yoga pants and empire-waist shirt every day. We all have things about ourselves that we know to be true, and suddenly I couldn’t remember any of them. I couldn’t write. I couldn’t laugh. I couldn’t connect with my friends. I couldn’t see myself.
I felt like, for the first time, I had this window into the interiority of Shaelene’s mind during those early months after our baby was born. After reading “Channel B,” after being moved by it emotionally, I felt like I could empathize with Shaelene.
Story—when done well—grants us the power of empathy.
I gave it to Shaelene to read. I know it would make a better story if I had been there when she read the essay, but this isn’t fiction, and I wasn’t. I was working. She also cried. More than once. She told me after: “That was me. Step by step. I was there. That was me.”
Here’s the last thing: Once I Was Cool offers something for everyone. Megan will make you laugh. Maybe cry. You can stop in and just appreciate the architecture of each essay—I swear the opening essay, “Stop Reading And Listen,” has a pulse—and if you’re looking for more, Megan will give you twenty-nine opportunities to slip into her skin and experience life through her eyes. She’ll give you the power to empathize. And as a reader I can’t think of any greater gift than that.