Craft Capsule: Before Craft, or Hug Your Independent Bookseller

Megan Stielstra

This is the fourteenth in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.


I knew something was wrong.

I wasn’t reading.

There are so many metaphors for depression in general, and postpartum specifically. Mountains—climbing over—waves—crashing down—fog—wandering through. I wandered through motherhood and I wandered through my job and I wandered through bookstores; picking up books, skimming first sentences, putting them down because I couldn’t remember how to feel and then one day—I will never forget this, I was at Women and Children First on the north side of Chicago, and the bookseller said, “Megan, look at this,” and with an almost eerie telepathy— like she saw my insides, the fear and the secrets I couldn’t yet understand, let alone articulate—she handed me a book. It had a gray wraparound cover. I opened it to the first page and read, “If you have ever fucked up in your life, or if the great river of sadness that runs through us all has ever touched you, then this book is for you.”

Snap your fingers. That’s how fast I started crying. This was no single poetic tear cascading delicately down my cheek. No, this was full-on ugly-sobbing with dry heaves and the snot and the mascara running all over the place—it was tragic. And surprising. I didn’t know those parts of me still worked. I didn’t know language could still touch me.

The book was The Chronology of Water by Lidia Yuknavitch, named for its narrative structure and central metaphor of memory not as linear, but as water; flowing, fragments, patterns. I’ve since read it a hundred times with an eye for, as Kiese Laymon writes, “How in the fuck did they do that?” and I could now fill a library with what this book has taught me about literary craft. But that first read? Crying my face off on the floor of my local bookstore?—I didn’t see character or structure. I didn’t see pacing or movement or tone or time or any of the tools of our trade.

I saw how I could save myself.


Megan Stielstra is the author of three collections including The Wrong Way to Save Your Life, forthcoming this August from Harper Perennial. Her work appears in Best American Essays, the New York Times, Guernica, the Rumpus, and on National Public Radio.