Craft Capsule: Memory, With Soundtrack

Megan Stielstra

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


I was at the Montrose Dog Beach in Chicago, throwing tennis balls into Lake Michigan for my pit bull. My son, then four, splashed next to us in knee-high water. It was summer, early morning, the sun beginning to rise, and behind us we heard singing. A group of people, all dressed in white, had gathered on the beach. Two of them waded into the lake, passing us to deeper water. The woman’s skirt streamed around her waist; then the man dunked her backwards and she sprang up dripping, joyful, her face turned towards the sun.

I didn’t have much of a religious upbringing. This was my first baptism.

Recently, trying to write about this moment and what it meant for me, I realized my memory was tangled with a scene from Joel and Ethan Coen’s O Brother Where Art Thou (2000). Have you seen that movie? It’s based on Homer’s Odyssey and is set in rural Mississippi during the Great Depression with a terrific bluegrass soundtrack. Three escaped convicts in the woods are engulfed in a wave of bodies dressed in white—what “appears to be a kind of congregation,” one convict says to the other two. Everyone is singing: Oh sisters let’s go down, come on down, down in the river to pray. It’s beautiful; magical, almost. They move as one towards the water in four-part harmony and yes, fine, of course the people on Montrose Beach that day weren’t really singing “Down in the River to Pray.” But still, that’s what I hear. I shut my eyes and I can see them, their clothes swirling white in the water, their voices in my bones.

I’m interested in how art and pop culture influence memory and, subsequently, the choices we make when crafting creative nonfiction. Do I include that song in my retelling? The white clothes, the magic? When I find myself searching for rules of how one can and cannot write, I go back to Francine Prose’s beautiful essay “Learning From Chekov.” “Admit that you understand nothing of life, nothing of what you see,” Prose writes. “Then go out and look at the world.”

The achingly personal connections we’ve built with books and movies and music is as true to our stories as standing in the sun.


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.