Reading Guide: Once I Was Cool

Reading Guide for Once I Was Cool: Personal Essays by Megan Stielstra

  1. Megan’s high school boyfriend tells her, “You can’t get it unless you’re in it” (4). Several essays touch on the slippery space between lived events and a written text; Stielstra discusses the “attempts” inherent to the essay form, the inspiration for the two “Oscar and Veronica” stories, and her research to determine what happens to a body submerged underwater for an extended period of time. What makes a story feel authentic? When is a story done right? Is the criterion different for fiction and essays? Why or why not?
  2. In an interview with the Chicago Review of Books, Stielstra said, “so much of my work on the page is tangled with live storytelling. I’m not writing for some faraway unseen audience; I’m writing for people sitting right in front of me. I can see their faces. I can see them laugh. I can feel the silence lying thick over the room.”* Can you see evidence of this on the page? If so, in which moments, details, and writerly decisions?
  3. There are other audiences at work in these stories, too. Who are the some of the people for whom Stielstra writes?
  4. In “The Domino Effect,” Stielstra writes, “Here’s the power of a story: Someone hands it to me like a gift (I imagine it wrapped in shiny paper with the bow, the handmade letterpress card—the whole nine yards). And in that gift, I find parts of myself that have been missing, parts of our world that I never imagined, and aspects of this life that I’m challenged to further examine. Then—and this is the important part; the money shot, if you will—I take that gift and share it” (51). What is the domino effect that she describes, and where do you find evidence of it throughout the essay collection?
  5. In “How to Say the Right Thing When There’s No Right Thing to Say,” Stielstra advises the reader to pick their friend up in a Jeep. “Don’t worry if you don’t have one,” she writes. “This is your imagination; you get to have cool stuff” (126). What is the effect of this transition into the imaginary, and how does it relate to the situation described in the essay? Why might the speaker be tempted to slip into fantasy?
  6. In “Nice,” Stielstra issues a call to action with regards to this overused word:  “Let’s imagine what might happen—right now, in this very second of reading these words—we reclaim the idea of nice and what it has the potential to achieve” (167). Which essays detail moments that fulfill this imperative to be kind, present, or morally responsible? Which essays detail moments that are murkier?
  7. In “An Essay About Essays,” Stielstra simultaneously mimics, subverts, and critiques the five-paragraph essay. She also discusses other essay structures to describe their creative opportunities. What structural choices did you notice in other essays? What was the effect of these formal decisions?
  8. Many essays touch on the importance of being receptive to new possibilities, whether regarding faith, mental health, or romance; there is always more to the story. In what ways has Stielstra the narrator changed her mind over time?
  9. Northwestern reissued this collection years after Stielstra wrote this book—Stielstra has mentioned that she was tempted to change certain aspects of the essays but decided to stay true to the person she was when she first wrote them. Does this reissue complicate your answer to the eighth question? Why or why not?
  10. Stielstra has said that “Channel B” endeavors to “write about depression in a way that isn’t depressing.” How can personal stories start difficult conversations? What can essay accomplish that other forms of writing cannot?

*By the way—you can listen to Stielstra read several of these essays online! Click the links to hear the author perform: “Channel B” on the NPR program Snap Judgment, “An Essay About Essays” for The Paper Machete (scroll down for the audio), and an excerpt from “Stop Reading and Listen” for Poets & Writers.

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