The best books I read weren’t reviewed in the ‘Times’ or on hold at the library or stacked in a TBR pile. They were in my inbox.
Our first meeting was in August 2020, which feels like centuries ago but also, snap your fingers. I’m trying to see us, reaching down the line of my life: There we are in squares on a Zoom grid, ten strangers across four time zones, locked down and shell-shocked, our bedrooms behind us, our dogs and cats and kids wandering across the screen. I was already in love with all of them; I’d chosen their work out of hundreds of applications, a process both painful—I would truly love to work with everyone!—and thrilling. To sift through sentences and feel that gut-punch pull, to see another person through their pages.
Stories help us see each other.
Do you remember August 2020? I still feel the fear of that time in my body, my bones. Back then, we wiped groceries with bleach. We panicked at every sniffle—allergies or virus? We were brain-blurry from back-to-back Zoom meetings and helping our kids with Zoom school and staring at Zoom and Twitter and CNN all goddamn day, trying to understand what was happening in this beautiful mess of a world. We were exhausted. And terrified. And traumatized. And yet.
We showed up. For our writing and for each other.
What survives are the books, what was made.
The writers I worked with made incredible books that, for me, cracked open the world. They wrote about what we live and carry as women and nonbinary folks, what Dorothy Allison calls “hard stories.” They wrote across class and race and faith, complicating gender and family and mental health in ways that are profoundly true and damn overdue. They wrote funny—I can’t believe I’m going to cop to this publicly but I peed myself laughing more than once, don’t tell anyone—and also bone-deep sorrow. They wrote across genre and form, often challenging traditional narrative structures to reimagine and rebuild (skills necessary for revolutionary action as much as literary craft, but I digress). They wrote edge-of-your-seat page-turners. They wrote their way into healing. They wrote me very long emails at all hours of the night asking complicated questions in the hopes of simple answers (i.e. move this paragraph over here and voila everything is now perfect and your dream editor will buy it, bang pow National Book Award). By the end of our time together they—all of them!—had added this very important sentence to the end of those (still very long ☺) emails: “You don’t have to respond because I just figured it out in the writing.”
If you learn anything in a class, let it be this: You’ll figure it out in the writing.
We showed up. For our writing and for each other.
Their work—you can read excerpts below—stands for itself. What I want to make space for here is how we make these books, under what conditions, and at what cost.
Kiese Laymon has a lightning bolt of a piece called “We’re Not Good Enough to Not Practice.” I tack it to the wall wherever I live/teach/write, which this year—this desperate fucking heartbreak of a year—was three different apartments in Chicago, then a nearby suburb, then five months in rural Michigan, four months in Las Vegas, four months in Oakland, Michigan again for a hot second, and, two weeks ago, back to Chicago. Isn’t it weird how a place can look exactly the same and you are entirely different?
I just unpacked (again) and tacked my holy—yes, holy—copy of Laymon’s lightning bolt up on the wall. Someday I will teach a master class breaking down each sentence, but here and now I want to talk about this one: “When you practice, you’re looking forward to inviting folks to your practice sessions with the hopes that they want to practice with you.”
I have been asked how I survived this year, a newly single mom in a pandemic, working and writing on the road with a twelve-year-old kid and two laptops for remote teaching and remote seventh grade.
The truth is this: I didn’t have a choice.
But this is true too: Every Tuesday night for a year, these ten writers practiced together. And that practice saved my life. It saved others too—though their stories aren’t mine to tell, so I’ll leave it at this: I am forever astonished by their discipline and bravery, and I will go to my grave trying to live up to their examples. Can you see us? Our weird and wonderful Zoom grid, our cats and our kids, our coffee and snacks, our fear and exhaustion, our arguments and screen-shattering epiphanies? We made books. We got high on language. We got loopy in the chat box. We read thousands of pages, sentence by sentence, of what a human body can survive, and every week, the mountains they moved showed up in my inbox: addiction, divorce, abuse, death, and—here’s the beating heart of this essay—what comes after.
There are people who made it through, who keep breathing, keep writing, language as survival.
I’m showing up for the practice. I’m showing up for us.
If you’re interested in reading some of the work generated in Megan Stielstra’s 12-Month Memoir Generator, find excerpts from some of the graduates below:
•Erin Branning, excerpt from Wanting: A Memoir of Marriage, Patriarchy, and Privilege
Megan Stielstra is the author of Everyone Remain Calm, Once I Was Cool, and The Wrong Way to Save Your Life, winner of the 2017 Book of the Year in Nonfiction from the Chicago Review of Books. Her work appears in Best American Essays, New York Times, Poets & Writers, The Believer, Tin House, and elsewhere. A longtime company member with 2nd Story, she has told stories for NPR, Museum of Contemporary Art, and theatres, festivals, and classrooms across the country. She teaches creative nonfiction at Northwestern University and is a Senior Media Fellow with the Annenberg Innovation Lab at USC.