about the author

Staff Book Reviewer Spencer Dew is the author of the novel Here Is How It Happens (Ampersand Books, 2013), the short story collection Songs of Insurgency (Vagabond Press, 2008), the chapbook Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres (Another New Calligraphy, 2010), and the critical study Learning for Revolution: The Work of Kathy Acker (San Diego State University Press, 2011). His Web site is spencerdew.com.

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The Wrong Way to Save Your Life
A Review of The Wrong Way to Save Your Life
by Megan Stielstra

Spencer Dew



Why write personal essays, why write in an autobiographical mode? is a question addressed throughout this book.

To parse the question out, let’s split it into two.

First, how can we defend memoir as something other than a kind of capstone commodification of the neoliberal mindset, especially if the memoir is written by someone benefiting from at least some—whiteness, American citizenship, imperial corporate capitalism—of the structures of privilege, predicated on oppression, that dominate—and are on their way to destroying—the globe?

Second, how can we imagine memoir as a weapon directed against precisely those structures? Can memoir be more than solipsistic indulgence, more than bourgeois mea culpa—white tears with a hip, expensively produced soundtrack?

My social media feed is filled with elaborations of these questions—should white people even write, or is this not the age for their collective and too-long-deferred shutting up? Do certain claims of victimization, due to the status of the speaker in terms of race and class—their familiarity, less other than others and therefore less disturbing, truly, to the core of the status quo—eclipse others, such that issues of upper-class cis-hetero workplace sexual harassment get discussed more—and thus matter more, in terms of society and norms and policy—than, to pick a Chicago example, the epidemic of murder of sex workers of color, many of them trans?

The first thing to say about Stielstra’s third volume of essays is that I’m pretty sure these questions keep her awake. She writes not only out of impulse or pleasure—though surely both of those, too—but as a way of throwing her cis shoulder to the wheel. She wants to change the world by changing how we—whoever the “we” who come together as her readers, but certainly also the we of her friends and family, her child, her writing circles, her students—live, meaning how we behave and how we think, both before and after our actions.

There is regret here, attempts at comprehension of the person the author was before—in moments of victimization, in moments of naïveté. One essay here involves a story of Stielstra being in a creative writing class, decades ago, and the class being asked to do a kind of demonstration. Students were told to go stand against one wall if they considered their work to be political, the opposite wall if they thought their writing was not. Steilstra stood on the non-political side. “I write love stories,” she said, in explanation, which, of course, was also what several of her classmates against the other wall—queer, of color—wrote as well. “To this day, I struggle to explain what happened in that moment. All of the clichés apply: lightbulb, lightning, ton of bricks.” Stielstra’s candor in talking about such clichés, her repeated examination of her own often slow ability to get woke, as it were, is one of the real values of this book, one of the ways she answers those questions above. The other strength here, threading throughout each piece, is an insistence on the real stakes involved, the historical material, as it were. Activism is not about abstractions, it’s about how much you tip and what you do to pay rent and how you explain President Trump to your young son, how you imagine that son’s future, how you understand your own past, peppered both with unacknowledged privilege and real moments of threat. This is not a book of white tears; this is a book that resoundingly justifies that rage can come from white-identified folk, too, and that the only way the systems of entwined systems of exploitation and oppression and objectification are going to get changed is by all people, regardless of their status or naïveté, coming together to smash and then build.

This is the stance, ultimately, of an educator, which Steilstra ultimately is, whether formally employed within the educational industrial complex or not. She’s a real teacher, and the answer to the question of why write personal essays comes down, in the end, to trying to teach—to tell her readers that they are not alone, to help her readers come to the realizations and recognitions to which she has already come, and to caution her readers that there is no end to this process of learning and growing and that it will require mourning and listening and humility and work. And moments where the only response is to shut up and stay silent and think, think in the way that requires empathy and imagination and that will hurt: “Let’s sit quietly for a moment and consider what this says about our culture,” she says, once explicitly and many other times in more subtle ways.

That teaching and learning are work, that they are a conjoined and always collective process, done together and in conversation, is a repeated theme here. The work of teaching and learning is here understood as a means of fighting and coping, because forming community is a way of doing both. That schools are not necessarily characterized by such an approach is a concern, though more urgent for Steilstra is that schools are so often linked, in today’s American and today’s world, with violence, from Sandy Hook to Beslan, as children become victims, those most vulnerable and those whom society has the most responsibility to protect ending up abandoned. Places that should be about nurturing are places of threat.

I should note that there is so much in this book that is funny, that is charming, that is Proustian in its handling of the smells of fast food franchises or the tactile memories of certain name-brand astringent anti-blemish creams, the skull-shaped fortress playsets of childhood, the act of wrapping your retainer in a napkin as you sit down to eat. But all of those are also understood as political—as manifestations of our ubiquitous enmeshment in economies of power. And it is that—the awareness of the ubiquity of politics, the responsibility that entails for the writer who wants something other than to merely benefit from such a system, who wants to call attention to and attack it—which shapes every page of this book.

The question Why write personal essays might too often bleed, in criticisms of the form, to the question—to which the answer is a resounding no—of Is writing personal essays ever enough?

Don’t confuse those questions, Stielstra’s work cautions. This book is part of a conversation, contribution and prompt. And, no, conversations are not enough, but, as Steilstra says repeatedly here, these are necessary. And they will be difficult. She writes of the conversations she finds herself forced into by her seven-year-old son’s questions—“Mom, what’s a primary? Who is Laquan McDonald? Where is Syria? Why can’t our friends go [to] the bathroom?”—and about the conversations she will have to have with him one day soon—about sexual assault, for instance, about patriarchy and privilege—and, rather than avoiding the discussion, she begins to work it out, here, for and with us, on the page. Such a book will never be enough, nor does it purport to be. It is part of a conversation, explicitly partial and incomplete.

Official Megan Stielstra Web Site
Official Harper Perennial Web Site





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