Essayists must get awfully tired of being compared to Sedaris, so I won’t do that with Megan Stielstra’s forthcoming collection of personal essays, Once I Was Cool. Because although Stielstra’s wit and candor often turn the seemingly mundane into the hilarious, her essays are so much more than funny. Once I Was Cool tackles topics ranging from post-partum depression, to recovering from an injury and the psychological block it incurs, to the ridiculous and impossible pressure to “juggle it all.”
Stielstra’s background as a live lit performer is impossible to ignore. Her essays come peppered with footnotes that recreate the feeling of being told a story at a party. As a reader, you feel the author popping in, interjecting, interrupting herself and adding a detail here and a tangent there. Her voice, too, reveals her performance background—confessional and confident in a way that often comes from years of practice on the stage.
Each essay can easily stand alone, and many have appeared or been performed elsewhere; but Stielstra’s work benefits from being read in a collection. The many slices of life she presents here come together to form a stronger whole. In this larger context, the briefest essays in the collection become more than anecdotes, and take on a richer meaning.
When I say these essays are more than funny, I’m referring to the moments when the writing becomes completely sincere. If there was anything more embarrassing than snort-laughing on the CTA while reading about Stielstra’s run-in with an ex-lover while on ecstasy, it was ugly-crying on the CTA at the end of an essay about trying to console a friend when she knows it’s impossible to help her friend stop hurting. In these more sincere moments a lesser essayist would’ve deteriorated into a puddle of dulled sentimentality, Steilstra manages not to cross that line; after all, she is a Chicagoan, and Chicagoans know how to keep their sentimentality in check.