Megan Stielstra

Award winning essayist combats fear in all its forms with razor sharp wit.

headshot of Megan Stielstra

Megan Stielstra is a writer, educator, and live storyteller in Chicago. She is the author of three collections of narrative nonfiction: Everyone Remain Calm, Once I Was Cool, and The Wrong Way to Save Your Life from Harper Perennial, winner of the 2017 Nonfiction Book of the Year from the Chicago Review of Books. Hailed by Roxane Gay as a “masterful essayist,” Megan’s work appears in the Best American Essays, New York Times, Chicago Tribune, The Believer, Longreads, Tin House, and elsewhere. A longtime company member with 2nd Story, she tells stories for festivals, performance series, and bars (many bars) across the country including National Public Radio, Poets & Writers Live, the Museum of Contemporary Art, Goodman Theatre, and regularly for the Paper Machete live news magazine at The Green Mill. 

Megan is faculty in the MFA Program in Prose and Poetry at Northwestern University and teaches writing through oral storytelling in community organizations across Chicago. She served for a decade as the Associate Director of the Center for Innovation and Teaching Excellence at Columbia College Chicago, supporting teachers in engaged pedagogy, curriculum development, and building inclusive classroom spaces. She has presented this work at numerous national conferences including Associated Writing Programs, SXSWedu, Imagining America, Theory to Practice, and multiple times for the Association of American Colleges & Universities, including their annual Diversity and Equity in Higher Education session in San Diego. She regularly visits universities across the country as both a visiting writer and a faculty development consultant.

Popular Topics

Storytelling and Mental Health

In 2012 Megan told a story about stalking her neighbor with a wireless video baby monitor to heal from postpartum depression. It was published in The Rumpus, included in the Best American Essays, recorded for radio programs around the world, and is currently being shot for short film. She has since received hundreds of emails from new mothers around the world wanting to know how desperately not alone they are in this beautiful, complicated, terrifying time. While this talk can be focused specifically to postpartum depression and mental health, it also can serve as a general reminder of how telling a story can save a life.

Storytelling as a Political Act: How Do We Make Art When the World is a Shitshow?

In the fall of 2017, Megan started tracking her own anger, marking the political and personal events that made her want to rip down the sky. She also signed up for a weekly membership at an axe-throwing club—picture a bowling alley, but with weapons—in a somewhat desperate attempt to get all the crap out of her body, if not her head. This resulted in an essay for The Believer about accepting anger as both a logical response to the world and a tool of our own survival. It was published in The Believer the day after the Kavanaugh Supreme Court confirmation hearing. This talk engages the idea of personal storytelling as a contribution to a wider cultural and political dialogue, and what we can learn about ourselves and others through telling and listening to stories.

Ethics of Storytelling: Who Owns a Story?

In 1993 there was a shooting at Megan’s high school in Chelsea, Michigan. She watched the news report on the television. One fatality, said the reporter. A local school administrator. Megan’s father was a local school administrator. Hours later, she heard his voice on the phone. Anyone who has been through such waiting knows that planet of relief. But here’s the brutal truth: as she learned that her dad was alive, another girl learned that hers was not. A different administrator was killed that day. And he had a daughter. For years, Megan wouldn’t tell the story. She didn’t think it belonged to her. But after the shooting in Parkland Florida, she looked this woman up online and interviewed her about writing, activism, healing, trauma, and who owns a story.

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