Speaker Spotlight: Megan Stielstra

Megan Stielstra is the author of Everyone Remain Calm and the Literary Director of 2nd Story. She tells stories in all sorts of theaters, festivals, and bars, and her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in The Best American Essays 2013, The Rumpus, PANK, Make Magazine, f Magazine, Other Voices, and elsewhere. She teaches writing and performance at Columbia College and The University of Chicago, and her essay collection, Once I Was Cool, is coming spring 2014 from Curbside Splendor.

 Megan gives plenty of great advice for writers, including the importance of trusting yourself, your bookshelf, and the Chicago audience. Stielstra - close

CWC: What exciting new projects have you been working on?

I have an essay collection coming out next spring so mostly I’ve been rewriting, which in this case means staring at the wall thinking, What am I saying? Am I saying what I want to say? What DO I want to say? Where is my wine? I’m tackling this book with Curbside Splendor, and have been reading through their catalogue. It’s so gutsy and intelligent and diverse—Samantha Irby, Chris Terry, Amber Sparks, Victor Giron, Michael Czyzniejewski—plus imprints in translation, horror, and experimental forms. I feel like I need to step it up to be a part of what they’re doing. I need to climb higher.

I’m also a company member with 2nd Story. We’re currently finalizing our 2013-2014 season which features tons and tons of new storytellers, and the honesty in what these people are sharing blows my mind. It’s this constant, lovely sort of pressure, which for me is a really good thing.

CWC: There is probably a reading series or live lit event every night of the week in Chicago. What tips do you give a writer who wants to transition into performing?

One of the many things I love about storytelling is that it’s such an accessible art. We tell stories a hundred times a day: on first dates or job interviews; to get through something difficult; for basic human connection. Telling a story on a stage or on a mic demands that same kind of intimacy and connection. You want a tip?–Trust yourself. You’re already doing it. And Chicago is such a great place to get involved! We’re happy you’re here! We want to hear what you’ve got! We want to learn from you!

The best thing, I think, is to go to these events and see what makes each unique and special and profound. Get to know the audience and what makes them unique and special and profound. Some of my favorites: 2nd Story, The Paper Machete, Write Club, Reading Under the Influence, Guts & Glory, Grown Folks Stories, Sappho’s Salon, Proyecto Latina, Story Club, This Much Is True, The Moth, The Kates, Real Talk Live, and Story Sessions. (Curbside Splendor throws a hell of a party, too!).

CWC: In your opinion, what is the most important element in crafting a story?

When I’m banging my head against the wall ‘cause I can’t figure out how to craft what I want to say, it’s a pretty sure bet that the answer is on my bookshelf. You want to craft something good? Study the craft. I have this line of Faulkner’s on a post-it note: “Read everything—trash, classics, good and bad, and see how they do it. Just like a carpenter who works as an apprentice and studies the master. Read! You’ll absorb it. Then write. If it is good, you’ll find out. If it’s not, throw it out the window.”

If the question had asked for the most important element in telling a story, I’d have said honesty. But crafting a story?–For me, it’s reading.

CWC: A lot has been said about the pros and cons of getting an MFA in Creative Writing. As a professor at both Columbia College and The University of Chicago, what kind of student thrives in MFA programs?

I don’t think there’s a certain kind of student. All of my students have been different: different lifestyles, different backgrounds, different reasons for writing. Some, at eighteen, have lived harder and deeper than I ever imagined; some, at thirty-five, are still searching for the thing that makes their blood boil; some, at sixty, have been waiting all their lives to write what they’ve experienced or imagined. What we share in common is that our lives have been profoundly influenced by stories. Many of the students I work with are there for that sense of sharing, that sense of community. Others are there because they want the time; three years with just you and your writing. Others are after the deadlines. Still others want to teach, so they need the degree. Everyone has their reason.

The first thing I’d suggest is to find the right program for you. People talk about “The MFA” as though it’s the same thing, taught the same way everywhere, and that’s simply not true. What is the curriculum? How is it taught? What do you have to read? How is your work treated, how is feedback given, what are the expectations and demand? You’ll be giving this program your precious time, your hard-earned cash, and, most importantly, the gift of your voice. You get to ask questions. You get to check out the community you’ll be joining and see if it’s one you’d like to be a part of.

CWC: Tell us why the Chicago literary scene is amazing.

Kindness and support is the big one, I think. My friend and co-conspirator, Khanisha Foster, says it really well in this video for Theater Communications Group: “If you don’t think you’re a writer, come learn with me. If you don’t think you’re a performer, come learn with me.” Chicago wants to read—and hear­—your stories.

At the 2012 Chicago Writers Conference, Megan Stielstra read an early morning love letter to Chicago lit and was part of The Chicago Live Lit Scene panel.