Hey there, Jen Pastiloff here. I’m the founder of The Manifest-Station! Welcome to the newest installment- The Converse-Station: A place where writers interview writers. Today’s interview is between Elizabeth Crane (my good bud) and Megan Stielstra.
If you are a writer and have someone you want to interview or have a pitch, please email Angela Giles.*
Megan Stielstra is my friend. Megan has a badass collection of essays out now from Curbside Splendor called Once I Was Cool, and she has sixteen or five jobs, something like that, as well as a husband and a kid and a dog, but I would advise against asking her how she juggles it. She juggles it like I juggle approximately a third of what she juggles, shit just gets juggled, and sometimes things drop, and that is why we are friends.
MEGAN STIELSTRA: We should interview each other.
ELIZABETH CRANE: Yaaay! Yes I would love that. Can my first question be “Remember that time we read together at Danny’s and it was my first reading ever and I asked you how I knew you and you said something like ‘I probably served you pancakes’?”
MS: I did serve you pancakes! I served pancakes to all of Chicago at some point! You know what my first question would be?: “Remember when I accidentally came with you to that reading that was actually your first date with your husband and we ate s’mores?”
EC: Ahahaha! Yes. You read with me and blew the doors off the place! That was the time I learned the important life lesson never to follow you at a reading. It may also have been the reading that I was almost uninvited from, but I’m not sure.
MS: It was in Oak Park, right?
EC: No, Bucktown.
MS: Are you sure?
EC: Bryan Charles read with us.
MS: I’m talking about the s’mores one.
EC: Ahahaha! Oh yeah, that was Oak Park, and it was a ZZ Packer reading.
MS: Of course it was. This shit is gold for our interview, btw. Two semi-autobiographical writers can’t remember anything like ever.
EC: Okay, so I am very bleary from house-hunting right now but I think I may be able to loosely tie that to my second first question (now that we’ve confirmed that you were indeed there with me and my future husband on our very first date) which is about the first piece in your new collection of essays Once I Was Cool, because it involves buying an apartment, and being a grown up vs. being cool, and I thought I would have gotten to the question part of the question here very soon, but I’m trying to make it not be about me, and I realize that just may not happen, so fuck it. Here’s what I’m thinking and then maybe you’ll tell me what you think about that. One of the things I love about the piece, about all your work, is your willingness to be honest – and I mean honest – on the page, for everyone to read – as you might be sitting with just me at the Bongo Room over six different kinds of pancakes and a plate of egg whites. In this case, the piece is about making a decision to buy an apartment essentially based on it being next to the Aragon and having a turret, as you say “just before the market crashed”. The Aragon figures in heavily in terms of what it represents about your youth, and so there’s this sort of note that if you live next to the Aragon that will be the coolest thing ever, which in some ways it is and in other ways it isn’t, and you get really beautifully into this transition from youth to adulthood and what you gain and what you lose (and kind of a lot of other things too, how did you do that, make it about so many things in a good way?) which is where the idea of coolness comes in. I could probably talk endlessly and boringly about what I think cool is and isn’t, not that I’m the arbiter of coolness, but there are different ways to be cool, and I just think ok, clearly Megan is still extremely cool, even though she no longer wears black eyeliner and isn’t 27, although you kind of always will be to me, and I was just looking at all the hip young people in Bushwick the other day thinking like, ok, yes, cool enough, but I actually think I’m cool now in a way that I never was when I was young. Er. And I know it’s not because I wear anything very cool. (Or not cool – do you know what I mean?). I got onto skinny jeans like a week ago and now the kids are back into high-waisted jeans which no I can’t. This really has nothing to do with us buying a house after all. Phew. But also – can you tell I don’t interview people very often? Can you extract anything from the essay I just wrote here about myself that might be question-like?
MS: I know exactly what you’re asking and in order to answer I have to go into a whole other thing first, so stick with me—I’ll bring it all back around in a sec. Have you read Nilda by Junot Diaz? It’s brilliant for a thousand reasons but what I love most is that story it’s really telling isn’t the story you’re being told. What it’s really about is the death of the narrator’s brother, but the narrator isn’t the kind of guy who would talk about something so personal, so heavy, so emotional, so instead he talks about Nilda, this super-hot girl he’s sort of totally in love with. It’s pretty amazing. I’ve read it again and again, trying to figure out how Diaz pulled that off. What is it about audience, voice, tense, point of view—what is it about craft? I knew I wanted to try that same structure, but you need the right components: the one story and then the other story and the reason why you’d tell one over the other—shit. This is already getting messy. Let’s call the brother Story A and Nilda Story B. We get Story B instead of Story A for Reason X, right? Right. So—and here’s where I bring it back around—when I was putting the essays together for Once I Was Cool, I decided to try it. At the time, I was writing about losing our condo. We sunk everything we had into it right before the recession, and then everything crashed and we were fucked. And then we got pregnant, which was so joyful and amazing and perfect but also terrifying when you’re locked into a mortgage you can’t get out of. I had pages and pages of research about the economy, about what it meant to be “underwater,” about the American Dream insofar as buying property and owning property, but it just felt so goddamn… I don’t know. Dry. Sad. Beaurocratic. And then I thought, look: the whole real estate end of this thing, the buying and selling and mortgage and assessments and banks calling every day and lawyers and lawyers and lawyers—that’s Story A. What if, instead, we’ll tell Story B, which for me was the music, living next door to this legendary rock club, moving through my life via a that soundtrack. Story A felt… adult. Adult in all the negative connotations of the word. Story B felt… well, for one thing, it’s certainly more interesting. But it also fit into what I wanted to do with the whole collection, which is examine what comes after the whole coming of age thing, when you realize there isn’t some magical day when everything makes sense, like BANG POW YOU’RE A GROWN UP.
EC: Okay, yes, that all makes sense to me, for many reasons. a) I feel like dry, sad and bureaucratic is what comes out every time I try to write nonfiction and is therefore why I always end up going back to fiction, even if there might be autobiographical material in there somewhere, and b) what it means to be a grown up is still something I don’t quite get. In my mind, the real grownups do the grownup things effortlessly and without any sort of angst or confusion or regret, even though there’s a corner of my mind that recognizes that nobody really feels that way, except for maybe who. Helen Mirren. I bet Helen Mirren had the opposite problem, where she was a kid and she was just like, when is my body going to catch up with my psyche. I wonder if this feeling is also sort of particular to our generation. I think you’ve captured this really well in all the pieces in the book, this sort of difference between what we thought adulthood would be versus what it is – making a decision to bring your brand new boyfriend to Prague with you for a year, on the surface seems super impulsive (and also something I would totally do), but you also make it clear to the reader that you knew it was absolutely right, and we get that, and we get that being an adult doesn’t necessarily mean making decisions that appear safe to – whoever. Our parents? I dunno. Yours seem so unbelievably cool the way you write about them here, that they were probably always like, Sure, that new tall guy is hot! Go for it, Meg! The piece, “My Daughter Can Read Just Fine,” also from the book, tells me so much about the Megan I know, while also depressing the hell out of me when I think about any kid not being given exciting books to read at school. I wonder if you’ve ever talked to them about whether they feel like grownups.
MS: I think I’d read my eleven-thousandth coming-of-age novel and was like, Great, awesome, we came of age—now what? I’m interested in adulthood. Like, is there a specific moment where you felt like one? That you’d, like, arrived? I remember signing the paperwork for the condo thinking, This is it. My name on the document and all the lawyers and developers and associations and bylaws that went along with it and then, years later, after the recession and the job loss and the mortgage like an anchor around our ankles, I remember thinking—no, knowing, a gut-punch to the chest kind of suredness—that I’d failed. I’d failed at being a grown-up. And honestly, I’m not afraid of failure, gotta put it out there if you’re going to get anywhere and every other goddamn thing you see on posters with kittens at the dentist, I believe that shit, like, have you read Zadie Smith’s essay FAIL BETTER? That’s my jam. But it’s like, if I’m going to fail at something, I better have a clear understanding of what that thing is, and adulthood? What is that? I had these discussions with myself, I was crazy, I was Gollum in LOTR, I was like, let’s interrogate this: Grown-up. grown-up, grown-up, grown-up. I started asking people, my friends and students, I crowd-sourced that shit on social media and I got so many different answers: job, relationship, kids, marriage, divorce, a certain tax bracket, a certain retirement fund, a certain paycheck, a kind of stability, a kind of peace, a kind of ease, turning eighteen, twenty-one, thirty, god, thirty!—there are all of these TV shows and movies where the woman turns thirty and stays in bed all day ‘cause she’s so totally depressed: she was supposed to be married by now, to have had kids by now, to have an MBA and a split-level ranch and a handheld mixer and when can we fuck that noise? It’s cliche and dangerous and boring and untrue and can we prettyplease tell a different story or two or five? The kind of stories where things are messy and confusing and embarrasing and what the fuck am I even doing? That’s what I wanted Once I was Cool to be about. How I tried and failed and fell on my ass and got up to try again.
ALSO: my parents are cool.
ALSO: I LOVE Helen Mirren. I didn’t know if I’d be able to pay attention to anything else you said ‘cause you were like HELEN MIRREN and I was like looks fast to the left: SQUIRREL!
ALSO: [this is the part where we have a complex conversation about fiction/nonfiction/autobiography/etc. but I think I am too tired and/or maybe too old so how’s about we call it a day?]
EC: Yes, that totally comes through in the book. Personally, I don’t know that I’ve ever had more than a moment when I felt like an adult. I think of all the milestones – many of which happened well into my thirties/post-forty, I might add – buying my first car, getting a book deal, meeting the right life partner/having a relationship that lasted more than a year with six breakups (that’s the same relationship, BTW, the right one and the longer than a year one, in other words if that’s fuzzy, until I was 40 and met Ben I had not really ever had a long-term relationship) but I’ll tell you my thing that always makes me feel most grown-up: when I get put up in a hotel for work. (Especially when it’s a really nice one.) Hm… maybe if I lived in a hotel for work I would always feel grown-up. Anyway, I haven’t read the Zadie Smith piece, but I certainly know that creatively, if the risk of failure isn’t there, my work is going to be boring even to me. (Wait, does that even make sense?) Life-wise, it also seems true. I’ve made big life choices being 99% sure they would fail in some way. But few regrets. I’ve worked hard toward feeling relatively free of that noise you mention, and I have it a good deal of the time. But not at naptime. At naptime I hear the noise and it says Get off your lazy ass, napper. And then I have to remind myself I published four books so I can go back to sleep.
Fiction/nonfiction/autobiography: I have many thoughts on this and it’s something I talk with about my students quite often, though I only teach fiction. For me in fiction, it all comes down to: Does it feel true? I have used/continue to use autobiographical material as it suits me, but have chosen to do so primarily in fiction because just the very idea that I can change things as I please, fully make shit up, works best for me.
But I’ll ask you a leading question: when you get asked about it, whether by people you just meet or know, or in interviews, as though autobiographical material is not only not legit somehow but that I, Elizabeth Crane, am the inventor of this practice (which, actually, well, that would be phenomenal, now that I think about it – Why yes, I was the first person ever to do this! Thank you for acknowledging my pioneering ways!), does it bug the shit out of you? Could we maybe just acknowledge that we’re curious, and just want to know, rather than diminish someone’s writerly skills because they started with material that interested them, drawn from their own life, rather than because they couldn’t think of anything else? I have that same curiosity, but it doesn’t diminish what I think of the work to know what is or isn’t true. Only bad writing does that.
I’m done now.
MS: Last year, I was on a panel called TRUTH IN STORYTELLING. Fact: the words TRUTH IN STORYTELLING were plastered behind us on a big video screen. The panel consisted of four men, all of them journalists, and me, a writer of fiction and personal narrative. The moderator got on the mic, welcomed the audience and said we were there to discuss the ETHICS OF NONFICTION. Fact: I wrote ethics of nonfiction in my journal. Then I turned around and looked at the words behind my head. Then I turned back to my mic. “I think we’re here to discuss truth in storytelling,” I said. He said something to the effect of ‘same thing.’ I said something to the effect of ‘uhm… no.’ It was a pretty frustrating conversation, mainly because it didn’t have to be. It could have been very rich, digging into the complexities of form, of point of view, of memory. We could have listened to each other; to have learned the different ways that very different artists approach very different projects for very different publications and productions. Instead we played defense/offense. There was a clear tone of There is One Way to Do This and Whoever Talks Louder Will Emerge Victorious. It was sad. Towards the end, he asked something about the concept of emotional truth. The guy sitting next to me scoffed. That’s when I lost my mind. I started talking about how Gregor Samsa didn’t want to go to work so badly that he turned himself into a bug, and how true that fucking is (fact: I don’t remember if I said fuck in the moment. My tone implied it, for sure, so I’m going to add the word into this retelling to capture a similar tone) (does this mean I have to call this interview fiction?) (does that matter?). I’d wager there were people in the audience, there for that panel, and I’d wager there are people reading this now, here, on Manifest Station, who really, really really don’t want to go into the office today. How big is that want? Could you turn yourself into a bug? Into a unicorn? Into a cloud and float away? I think those ideas are beautiful. I think they’re profound. I think they’re true. I got into Love in the Time of the Cholera, too; the part where Fiorentino sees the love of his life with her brand-new husband and starts imagining ways that the husband will die. That shit is so fucking true! It’s truth in storytelling! It’s digging into the human experience; it’s connecting me, a thirty-something woman in 2014 with lives lived years ago in Eastern Europe, in South America!
For over a decade, I’ve worked with 2nd Story, a personal narrative performance series in Chicago, and in the introduction to our anthology, our Artistic Director, Amanda Dimond, speaks really beautifully about these complexities. She talks about the contract with the audience. Say, if you pick up a copy of The Washington Post, there’s an unspoken contract that you’re reading factual, researched truth. If you pick up The Onion, you’re reading something that of course didn’t happen, but it’s still getting at a truth. If you come to a 2nd Story show, you’re hearing stories that were written and experienced by the tellers themselves. They were lived. They happened. That said, we’re telling them in wine bars, and one of the truths of stories told in bars is a natural sense of exaggeration, the extra ten feet that the hero had to jump over.
When I’m writing—writing the writing; not sharing the writing—I want to be true to the story. I also want that story to be interesting and meaningful and challenging to the reader. For me, an essay about Jane’s Addiction and the Aragon got closer to achieving that than an essay about assessments and emergency assessments. An essay about me ending my fantasized relationship with Indiana Jones got closer than an essay about me being scared of marriage. On the flip end, when I wrote Channel B, about healing from postpartum depression by stalking my neighbor with a wireless video baby monitor, it was extremely important to me that the piece stuck to the verbatim experience. But in that particular case the verbatim experience seemed more like I’d made it up than anything I actually could make up.
Anyhow, after the writing and trying and trusting my gut, I look at the work and made decisions about if and when and how to share it. Is this a performance piece? Is this a short story? Is it an essay? Where will I send it? What is my contract with the audience at the place I’m sending it? With Once I Was Cool, we named the collection PERSONAL ESSAYS. They are real. They’re my life. They’re me. And fact: I live in my head just as much as I walk in this world.
Long story short: I don’t know if the question bugs me as much as it makes me want to take a nap. But sometimes, like when I was on that panel—like now, maybe—I can hear the orchestra playing behind me and I want to stand up and sing.
You know, you and I met at the same time Messenger came out. Do you remember? We were super-tight super-fast, one of those magical here is my person! sort of friendships, and I can talk for a thousand hours about what it means to have people in our corner, to have that kind of support, but in this context—using our own lives in our work, using autobiography as a medium, as a sort of playground to get to a greater truth—you were a total game-changer. The whole collection hit me like a tornado—my copy is shredded. I’ve been over it so many times like HOW DID SHE DO THAT?—but the one that really cracked something open for me was “Return From the Depot,” where the narrator runs into her mother, who has recently passed away. Of course, she couldn’t actually run into her! But of course, she totally could! She could! She does! She did! We do! That shit is true, it’s true, it happens, it’s happening. You see that person who you love, who you miss. You don’t want to go to work today so you become something else. You see the love of your life with a new lover and imagine things that you’d never do in reality Part of it, too, is the voice of the piece; the narrator believing wholeheartedly in what’s happening and telling it in the same way they’d talk about going to the grocery story. It comes back, I think, to a thing you brought up in your second first question: being honest on the page.
And for just you and me, sitting at the Bongo Room over six kinds of pancakes and a plate of egg whites.
EC: Wow. I could say something grumpy about that panel you were on, but instead I’ll just focus on all these other marvelous things you’ve articulated, starting with the Gregor Samsa example, because exactly. And I like that you talked about being true to the story first. That’s a good way to say it. I’m never sure what a story will end up being about when I start, like you, I’m never even sure what it will be (lately, what I think will be stories turn into things that seem like novels) and if I am it’s almost guaranteed to change. This is part of what’s fun about it, the discovery. The Depot story, as well as Christina, both started as these little germy ideas of stories that came from my grief about losing my mom, and the loss was still so fresh (and maybe also her being such an incredibly huge personality) that it seemed completely unbelievable to me that she wouldn’t come back. Anyway, you’re very kind. How I do that is just that one day – the day I wrote the first story in Messenger – I finally stopped trying to write how I thought I was supposed to write (dullsville!) and just wrote how I’d really been writing the whole time. Secretly. Or in letters to people. I highly recommend it. I think you’ve been doing it the whole time.
Of course I remember! I remember coming into the Bongo Room after we’d met at that reading, and chatting for so long just standing there in the aisle even though you were working that day and probably had a pot of coffee in your hand, until we finally said we should have lunch, and then we had our first date at Hillary’s, and we sat in the back room for so long I think they may have put the chairs up on the tables. And then I got my first teaching job and you learned me how to be a teacher and told me what a C.V. was.
I can send you a new copy of that book. I know a guy.
MS: omg that first story in Messenger. I didn’t know that was The Story for you. The one where you really knew you were on to something. That’s such a huge moment. Kafka talks about it in his Diaries, after he first wrote “The Judgment.” He was like, This is it. This is good. I remember feeling that way when I wrote the Incredible Hulk thing. This. Which for me had nothing to do with Oh look I made a potentially marketable piece of writing and everything about I can do this. Let’s keep going. It makes sense to me that “The Archetype’s Girlfriend” would be that for you. You can feel it in the reading. I remember having to put the book down after I first read it because my head was swimming and now, when I teach that story, I see the same reactions: Wait. You can DO that? How did she DO that? Can we read it again? Let’s read it again. And, over and over: I KNOW those women! That’s what we were talking about before: about writing what’s real. I know Sarah or Anya or Max. I know Jenny or Katie or Sue. I know Blue Girl and Charlotte Ann and the girl in “Christina” and the girl in “Howard the Filmmaker”and Howard the Filmmaker in “Howard the Filmmaker”and M. and the Daves and Apple Fowler and One Presumes That Sally is Her Name and Benecio Del Toro and Jean and Gordon and the you who’s hearing about Jean and Gordon and the you who will have sex with him right now and the you who takes naps—I actually went back to “You Take Naps” a lot while I was writing Once I Was Cool because of the questions it asks about age and adulthood and also it makes me laugh my ass off and sometimes/always/often we just need that—and the “you” and the “she” and the “her” and “him” and “I” and the “we” who unironically use ‘party’ as a verb. I know all of them. I don’t like all of them, or trust all of them—we wouldn’t have coffee together. They couldn’t babysit my kid—but I understand them. I know them. They’re real and complicated and hurting and hilarious and terrifying and real and, it’s just, well holy hell, Betsy, how do you DO that? I am trying to figure you out. I’m always trying to figure out what I read: the craft; how it’s structured, how the sentences are built, the choices that are made, point of view and character and pacing and a thousand other things. It’s one of my favorite things about this work: connecting the reading to the writing (and also the TV-and-movie watching. Did I tell you I wrote “The Walls Would Be Rubble” after binge-watching 24?) (and music, too. And theatre, and visual art) (connecting storytelling to the writing is what I’m saying) And coming back to what I was saying way, waaay before, about how I was reading Messenger when we met—getting to know you, the real-life person at the same time I was lost in your writing—it was sort of the first time I had access to the writer as well as the writing. Usually when I’m like, Holy hell [insert name of writer], how did you DO that? I can’t turn to [writer] and ask. I can’t email them or text them or take a bus to the Ukranian Village (or Austin or Brooklyn or wherever you’re living). I can’t ask them questions about the craft, or the process, or even just the… the living, like how do you take on the enormity of living as a working writer? I think about our conversations over the years and that’s how they go: 1) writing the writing 2) living the writing and then, ‘cause Lord almighty if all we ever talked about was writing we’d both go batshit 3) living, period, like close the f’ing laptop and get into it, the love and the loss and the mess and the fun and the trying and the failing and the friends.
P.S. The whole thing about how when you’re reading a writer all of the time, totally immersed in their voice, their sentence structure and diction and word choice and and and—that’s totally true. I mean, I can get into the run-on sentences like nobody’s business but it’s amplified times a thousand whenever I talk to you. I love it. I have to keep going back through the paragraph to figure out where I started a train of thought. To make sure I finish the train. And a couple of times I’ve had little conversations with myself like, Do I have to finish this one? Can I just leave it, dangling in the air, the beginning of an idea or a story that we’ll return to later, when we’re wiser, or have more time to sit still and slow and see how the words fit into our very own hearts.
EC: Yes, it was just like you say! You me and Kafka! I’d been writing since I was eight but that time I had the feeling, as I was writing it, and after, that it was good. And I didn’t know what I’d do for my next trick, but I did think, if I did this once I can probably do it again. It’s interesting to hear you talk about pulling the work apart, because I try to help my students look at how writers do things, but mostly, I don’t read that way at all. I feel like it wouldn’t be as fun. Though there are stories I’ve read again and again. Read ‘Pregnant Girl Smoking’ by James Boice if you want a lifelong exercise in how-did-he-do-that. But when I read that story over, it’s more like, maybe I’ll just absorb the lesson even if I can’t explain it. I remember taking film classes in college and for a long time after that movies weren’t nearly as fun, when I’d be thinking about how shots were set up and whatnot. It took me out of it. That said, of course, when I’m reading something that seems like it’s really got it’s own original thing going on, I do feel very conscious of it. I had a student recently, someone doing some super fresh stuff, with whom I had a lengthy discussion about commas and spaces and such and we finally concluded that she needed a very specifically new punctuation mark. Because why not?
FYI: You Take Naps is now a married professor with a new baby + You Take Naps is the same age as Ben = so glad I didn’t meet Ben when he was You Take Naps’ age.
Now that you’ve pointed it out, besides my best friend since seventh grade (who is also a writer and teaches in a low-res MFA), I didn’t have too many people to talk writing with until we met! My dad and I used to talk and write each other about writing all the time. With you I think I remember you saying smart things about Light in August which I still haven’t read. Other than that, I mostly remember talking about boys and what the hell. We were both so very single.
And now I’m going to go back to my second-person novel and see how many of the 3245 ‘you’s I can get rid of.
MS: But after we’d talk about boys and what the hell, we’d go home and write about boys and what the hell. And then we sort of stopped with the boy stuff and kept on with the what the hell. There’s always what the hell.
EC: That is exactly what happened. Today in What the Hell: Hobby Lobby.
Elizabeth Crane is the author of the story collections When the Messenger Is Hot, All This Heavenly Glory, and You Must Be This Happy to Enter. Her work has been featured in McSweeney’s The Future Dictionary of America, The Best Underground Fiction, and elsewhere.
Jennifer Pastiloff is the founder of The Manifest-Station. Her work has been featured on The Rumpus, The Nervous Breakdown, Jezebel, Salon, and more. Jen leads her signature writing/yoga Retreats & Workshops all over the world. The next retreat is to Ojai, Calif over Labor Day. Check out jenniferpastiloff.com for all retreat listings and workshops to attend one in a city near you. Next up: Seattle, Atlanta, South Dakota, NYC, Dallas, Miami, Tucson & The Berkshires (guest speaker Canyon Ranch.) She tweets/instagrams at @jenpastiloff.
Send submissions to The Manifest-Station to melissa at jenniferpastiloff dot com.
*Angela Giles at angela.mg.patel at gmail dot com.