Welcome to Writerhead Wednesday, a weekly feature in which a brilliant, charming, remarkable author answers three questions about her/his writerhead…a precious opportunity for looky-loos around the world to sneak into the creative noggins of talented writers and (ever so gently) muck about.
Way back in the day, Megan Stielstra was a student in my “Intro to Fiction Writing” class at Columbia College in Chicago. She was a freshman, and even back then, she kicked ass. She was smart, savvy, uber creative, generous, supportive, intrepid on the page. A natural storyteller with voice oozing from every pore.
She still kicks ass, and today I’m super happy to report that her first collection of short stories—Everyone Remain Calm—will be released as an e-book later this month.
The Scoop About Everyone Remain Calm
In this debut collection of stories, Megan Stielstra will explain the following in revealing detail: how to develop relationships with convicted felons and 1970s TV characters; how not to have a threesome with your roommate; the life and death nature of teaching creative writing; and what happens when discount birth control is advertised on Craigslist. Witty, tough, imaginative, and hot-blooded, Megan Stielstra’s fiction and first person reporting are the missing links between Raymond Carver and David Sedaris.
“Here’s the thing about Megan Stielstra: she has a profound understanding of where we all go in our minds, and the unique ability to turn it into a story that sounds like your new best friend is telling it to you. You know, the kind where you’re going ‘Oh my god that totally happened to me’ or ‘It’s like you see inside my head’ until she gets to the part where there’s suddenly a marching band following her down the street or she’s sleeping with the Incredible Hulk or having a three-way which is the part where you go ‘Okay that didn’t happen to me but damn, why does it still seem like it did?’ Megan Stielstra brings it to the party and rocks it.” ~ Elizabeth Crane, We Only Know So Much
“Everyone Remain Calm is a rarity: a bold, imaginative, and cunning collection of stories. Spanning a wide variety of styles, forms, and tones, the language here is unapologetically inventive and often humorous, while the sentiments are deeply heartfelt. Ms. Stielstra’s inimitable voice is a fiercely unique creation.” ~ Joe Meno, The Great Perhaps
“Stielstra writes beautifully and kinetically. Her work possesses a rare aural quality, no doubt the result of spending so much time onstage, or even in front of a classroom…. in Everyone Remain Calm, she gleefully tests the boundaries of the short-story form.” ~ Time Out Chicago
“When Wade Del Dallas put his fist in my eye on our third date, my dad went after him with a .375 Holland and Holland magnum.” (from “Shot to the Lungs and No Breath Left,” the 1st story in Everyone Remain Calm)
And now, Megan’s writerhead…
1. Describe your state of writerhead (the where, the when, the how, the what, the internal, the external).
At this point in my life, writing is more about time than space. I have three jobs and a three-year-old. I’m trying to market one book that I dearly love and finish another that’s got me so distracted I keep missing El stops. Last night, on the way home from teaching a 6:00-10:00 class, my writerhead was in Prague in the late 1960’s with a sixteen-year-old waitress deciding to sleep with her customer—a leader in the Communist party—in order to get out of the country. How ridiculous and terrifying and necessary is that scene when she takes off her clothes in front of him, what does she think about this swanky hotel room—a kind of opulance she’d never imagined—and here’s this man, so much older, so ugly, so desperate himself, and as her dress hit the floor I heard, “Next stop—Howard!” I was eight stops past my house. It was 11:30. I was exhausted. But the writerhead was so, so good—so really, who cares?
I’m going to admit something here, and don’t laugh, ‘cause I feel lame even saying this: my fantasy life, right now, involves a desk. No, not sex on a desk (although that’s fun, too!); rather writing on a desk. Having my own space, my room of one’s own. I think of wallpapering it with corkboard so I can pin chapter arcs to the wall and just… look at them. Just… think. Right now, since I’m always coming from somewhere or on the way somewhere else, I jump into writerhead when and wherever I can. I write in coffeeshops, 2nd Story’s studio space between rehearsals, in the car in front of my son’s school, in the school library before or after class, on the kitchen floor. Every night, before I go to sleep, I copy the messy notes I wrote all day in a longhand journal into the computer, and then, during longer stretches of writing time on the weekends, I see how those notes fit into the overall scene or story. I think of how Flaubert would copy whole sections from his letters and notebooks into his fiction—that’s what I’m doing.
The truth is, I’m always in writerhead. All of my jobs involve story in some way—I teach creative writing, I teach teachers to teach creative writing, and I’m the Literary Director for the 2nd Story storytelling series—so there’s a constant dialogue about literary craft and creative problem solving with very passionate, talented, and diverse artists who inspire the hell out me and challenge me to go deeper and take risks. Last week in class, we were discussing the scene in The Things They Carried where Tim’s in the boat at the Canadian border, and a student commented that this was the first moment where we saw Tim being honest about himself. Up until then, he’d been describing the experiences and feelings of other characters, but it was this moment of vulnerability that really made him a fully realized character. Hearing this slammed me right into writerhead: What does it mean to fully realize a first-person narrator? When in my own work am I showing the character’s vulnerability? This sixteen-year-old girl in the hotel room in Prague—is she vulnerable in this moment? Or powerful? What would be a moment of vulnerability for her? I was so excited just then! And excitement is a deliciously contagious thing—my students can feel it and feed off of it in the same way I feed off of their comments and questions, and those comments and questions lead to more realizations and ideas, and this all happens to me twenty times a day. Quite frankly, it’s awesome, and even as I fantasize about my future desk, I wouldn’t change where I am right now. The ideas—of story, of how to tell the story, the writerhead—is my day-to-day, hour-to-hour, and while I can’t currently have Ass In Chair for six/seven hour stretches, I can get it in six/seven hour bursts—in the chair, in the classroom discussion, in my head on the el, back in the chair, in my head while I’m cooking, in my head on the tredmil, in my head at the theatre, in the chair, in the chair, in the chair.
The only time it really, honestly turns off? When I’m building super-ramps with my kid. I make a mean super-ramp.
2. What happens if someone/something interrupts writerhead? (a spouse, a lover, a barking dog, an electrical outage, a baby’s cry, a phone call, a leg cramp, a dried-up pen, a computer crash, etc.)
A few weeks ago, I was trying to finish a story—I was on deadline, which is great ‘cause you have to force yourself to finish but also awful ‘cause you have to force yourself to finish—and my three-year-old kept tugging on my pant leg. I kept saying, “Five more minutes, baby,” but it wasn’t five more minutes, it was five five more minutes, and when I finally looked up, he was sitting on the carpet holding a Hot Wheels car in each hand staring at me. “Am I now?” he asked, and I started to cry. I picked him up, rocked him on my lap, and cried. He didn’t know what was happening, and the truth is, neither do I. How do you do it? Be a writer and a mom and a wife and a professional and a friend and a human and all of it; I feel guilty and excited and fortunate and grateful and crazy.
I’m in the process of figuring it out.
I’ll always be in the process of figuring it out.
Last spring, Robin Black was featured on Writerhead Wednesdays, and in answer to this question she said, “I have been known to weep.” I loved that. I laughed my ass off because it’s so, so, so true. You weep because an interruption takes you out of the story—but sometimes, I need to be taken out. I need to be in the world.
Right now, this very moment, I’m writing this from a coffee shop next door to my son’s school. When I dropped him off today, he said, “Have good writing, mommy!”
I’m the luckiest girl in the world.
3. Using a simile or metaphor, compare your writerhead to something.
Writerhead is like Sookie Stackhouse on True Blood; she’s telekinetic, and is constantly, 24/7, hearing the thoughts of everyone around her all the time. It’s nonstop noise, an endless stream of voices. Sometimes writerhead feels like that, like I’m off in this fog and unable to be fully present in the moment. I’m trying to be mindful of this, trying to imagine that there’s a dial on the side of my head that I can turn up or down: all the way up and I’m fully committed to the story I’m imagining; all the way down and I’m fully committed to the story I’m living.
Megan Stielstra is a writer, storyteller, and the Literary Director of Chicago’s 2nd Story storytelling series. She’s told stories for The Goodman, The Steppenwolf, The Museum of Contemporary Art, The Chicago Poetry Center, Story Week Festival of Writers, Wordstock Literary Festival, and Chicago Public Radio, among others, and she’s a Literary Death Match champ. Her fiction and essays have appeared in Other Voices, Fresh Yarn, Pindeldyboz, Swink, Monkeybicycle, Cellstories, Annalemma, Venus, and Punk Planet, among others, and her story collection, Everyone Remain Calm, is forthcoming October 2011 from Joyland/ECW. She teaches creative writing at Columbia College and The University of Chicago.
If you’re smart (and I know you are), you’re going to want to tip your hat to Megan cause, well, she rocks! So pop on over to her web site (www.meganstielstra.com). Or give her a wave on Twitter (@meganstielstra) or Facebook.
Q4U Readers / Writers / Moms / Dads / Writing Teachers / Storytellers / Jugglers Extraordinaire: What’s your take on Megan’s statement that “excitement is a deliciously contagious thing”?