Author Megan Stielstra’s forthcoming collection of personal essays, ONCE I WAS COOL, was named one of Time Out Chicago’s Most Anticipated of 2014. In addition to being an incredible storyteller, Megan is one of those people whose no-nonsense approach to writing inspires me. I asked her to share the excuses she has not to write — and how and why she still manages to get the work done. -BKL.
I have a thousand excuses not to write. They are, at best, predictable, and at worst, ridiculous: my house is gross. I have to prep for that work thing. I have to organize my Dropbox files. I have to organize my kitchen cabinets. My kitchen cabinets are gross. I am gross. I should take a shower. I should pluck my eyebrows. Why do I have to pluck my eyebrows? What subliminal societal conditioning is responsible for this desperate need to pluck? I should write about that. I should make a list of things to write about. I should make a list of things to buy at Target. I should make a list of things I have to do: work, home, writing, deadlines, deadlines, deadlines and now I’m freaking out. I need to calm down. I’ll watch an episode of Broad City, that’ll calm me down. Just one episode. Okay, two. After three, I’m done. Then I’ll write. Then. Okay, now I’m too tired to write. I’ll write tomorrow. Yeah, tomorrow.
Luckily, most days aren’t like this. I’ve got an hour before work, an hour after, and dammit, I’ll make them count—but let’s be honest. Sometimes, no matter how great the idea or how looming the deadline, it’s just not happening, and in those moments I could turn anything into an excuse to step away from the page.
Anything except my kid.
Shortly after he was born, I went out to dinner with a friend. Going out—it felt so impossibly rare and decadent! I wore high heels. Mascara. We had reservations. I remember being excited to spend an evening talking about grown-up stuff. Politics, maybe? Books? Films? Anything besides how tired I was; how scared that I wasn’t a good mother; and how, when I looked in the mirror, I no longer recognized the girl who looked back, mostly because I wasn’t writing, and writing is what I did, had always done. It’s how I figured things out that I couldn’t understand, and here I was, afraid of the page, hadn’t started anything in months or finished anything in twice as long—it felt like I was in a fog. This night out was supposed to be a break from all of that, but then my wonderful, caring friend asked, “How are you, really?” and I lost it. I’m not typically a crier, but at that time in my life, it was like my eyeballs were faucets and of course, this was no silent, fragile tear rolling down my cheek; this was the gaspy, gulpy sobs, the kind where your server runs over to see if there’s anything I can get you, Miss? when he actually means you know everyone is looking at you, right?
My friend didn’t skip a beat. “We’re going outside for a cigarette,” he announced (neither of us smoked), grabbing me in one hand and the wine in the other. We wound up in the alley behind the restaurant, me swigging Cabernet out of the bottle and him listening patiently as I cracked: love and fear and exhaustion and confusion and not writing, not writing, not writing.
“It’s okay that you’re not writing,” he said, trying to make me feel better, and I waited for excuse that would make me believe it: you’re still healing, you’re still learning, it’s still so new. What he said instead was, “You’ve got a kid now.”
This happened six years ago, and still, whenever I’m asked how I manage the intricate dance of writing and parenting, I think back to that moment in the alley. Something cut through the fog that night, and I realized what for me is a very great truth: my kid—my perfect, hilarious, sweet, wild little kid—is not an excuse to give up. Not on anything, but especially the thing that makes me who I am. I want him to see me chase this dream. I want him to see me work my ass off. I want him to have the example of a woman—a person, actually, but especially a woman—trying and failing and getting up again, even when it’s impossible; even when she cracks.
I have a thousand excuses not to write.
My kid will never be one of them.
That night, when I got home, I went into his dimly-lit bedroom and picked him up out of his crib. We sat back in the rocking chair, him snuggling into my left side, and with my right, I got out some paper. I still have the mess that I wrote that night, strings of words that made no sense, but the letters spelled out something huge: try.
Not tomorrow. Now.
About Megan Stielstra
Megan Stielstra’s book ONCE I WAS COOL was named one of Time Out Chicago’s Most Anticipated of 2014. It comes out May 13 and is available for pre-order now. Megan is also the author of the story collection, EVERYONE REMAIN CALM, a Chicago Tribune Favorite of 2011.
Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Best American Essays 2013, Poets & Writers, The Rumpus, PANK, Other Voices, f Magazine, Make Magazine, Joyland, Hobart, Pindeldyboz, Swink, and elsewhere. She is the Literary Director of the critically-acclaimed 2nd Story storytelling series.
She teaches writing and performance at Columbia College Chicago and is the Associate Director of The Center For Innovation in Teaching Excellence. She also teaches creative nonfiction at Northwestern University, fiction at the University of Chicago, and is a 3Arts Teaching Artist Award Finalist for her work with 2nd Story, helping people of all ages get their stories on the page.