Early in her warm, funny and occasionally furious new essay collection, “The Wrong Way to Save Your Life,” Megan Stielstra maps essential questions about art and the self: questions about memory, assumption, love and fear.

In 17 essays, the native Michigander explores these themes and her commitment to the practices of teaching and art: connecting and making. If fear is the source of all theologies, longtime 2nd Story member Stielstra is an evangelist for story’s power to transform lives.

Often set in bohemian Chicago, her essays are intimate narratives of personal history, reflections on what and whom she has loved and feared.

A few things she has feared: losing her father to heart disease, not making good art or teaching well or surviving homeownership; fear of losing perspective on the privilege she enjoys as a member of the white middle class.

Four extended essays, one for each decade of Stielstra’s life, form a loose framework for a memoir about finding her voice as a writer, a teacher of writers and a mother.

“Here Is My Heart” traces her intense bond with her father, who taught her to hunt and jump from the high dive, a man awfully serious about the proper way to throw a baseball:

“Can you picture him, still in his suit and tie, slamming a fist in his glove and trying, through sheer force of will, to summon forth some sort of athletic ability from his awkward, acne-ridden, bookwormy dork of a daughter? In my memory, we were out there for hours. We were out there for years. Hell, we’re out there today. ‘Power doesn’t work without aim,’ he told me.”

Later Dad moves to Alaska, where he tracks big game and sends her frozen deer hearts to dissect as part of a writing project.

Stielstra has a gift for compression, for being funny about her pain. “I Am Still Fighting With My Big and Small Fears,” she writes of Pete, artist, metal head and iguana owner, who didn’t love her back:

“He was my friend. He didn’t like me like that. It would have gotten weird. I’d been hurt before. Everything ends badly. Breakups are awful. Divorce requires paperwork. Juliet dies in the end. The iguana smelled. I hated metal.”

Her sentences hum with the humor and asides of oral storytelling. In “Twenty, or Good Lord, It’s Me, Jane,” of first love, she bursts out: “We are young, heartache to heartache we stand … this was the first time I was ever in love. What’s more terrifying than that?”

Actually, Stielstra comes across as pretty gutsy — not afraid to be afraid — and you suspect it has something to do with her dad.


Marian Ryan’s writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Catapult, Granta Online, Slate, the San Francisco Chronicle and other publications. She lives in Berlin.

The Wrong Way to Save Your Life
By: Megan Stielstra.
Publisher: HarperPerennial, 304 pages, $15.99.