The first-time author talks teaching and her new book, Everyone Remain Calm.
By Jonathan Messinger|
In her short story “Professional Development,” Megan Stielstra’s first-person narrator exudes: “I don’t care what you call it or where you shelve it or what it gets printed on, I just want the words, the ideas and the stories handed to me like birthday presents. I want to find my own feelings in someone else’s experiences. I want to live lives I couldn’t possibly have lived, exist in a reality that can’t possibly be real—that’s what a story can do.”
Fiction usually doesn’t abide such mantras, but Stielstra pulls it off because in Everyone Remain Calm (Joyland, $9.95), out October 1, she gleefully tests the boundaries of the short-story form, seeing what it can do. Take, for example, “Incredible,” the centerpiece of the book—Stielstra says it once shared its title with the collection—in which a young woman struggling through failed relationships finds a welcome lover in the Incredible Hulk, who waits beneath her bed. And though the book also has plenty of real moments—“One One-Thousand, Two One-Thousand, Three” features a young woman menaced by a group of boys while skinny-dipping in a quarry—there’s a restless energy to the collection. One gets the feeling that Stielstra is trying to tell as many stories in as many different ways as she can.
“Sometimes the more magical and far-out stuff, it feels more true to me,” Stielstra says. “I know that’s not the case for everyone. But for me, I just want to put stories out there and hope that people see themselves in them.”
That may seem like the animating drive behind any writer—to connect with readers, share stories—but for Stielstra, it’s a way of life. She helps students shape their own stories as a fiction-writing professor at both the University of Chicago and Columbia College Chicago, and she works in the latter’s Center for Teaching Excellence. She’s also the literary director for the monologue series 2nd Story, which encourages writers and nonwriters alike to craft their own stories into personal essays and perform them.
“My life has been completely and totally changed because of things that I’ve read,” Stielstra says. “And to think that someone could pick up the work of one of my students and have their life changed by that, is kind of a mind-blowing privilege.”
Stielstra—collector, curator and facilitator of so many stories—also 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.