This is the eighteenth in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each Tuesday for a new Craft Capsule.
Here is an important plot point to the story of me and the personal essay: I didn’t start off writing them for the page. I wrote them to share out loud. The literary and performance communities in Chicago are tangled together in all sorts of delicious ways, and to this day the bulk of what I publish lived first on a microphone.
A favorite teacher from grad school, John Schultz, would talk about writing as sustained speech, which now seems so profoundly obvious but back then blew my mind. From John I learned what has become my saving grace: Read your work aloud. It’s been twenty years and still, when I’m stuck, when the words aren’t working, when I’m lost inside my sentences, when I want to set my laptop on fire—I stop and read aloud. I will warn you right now that you will get weird looks in coffee shops. That’s okay. Keep going.
I waited tables for a long time after college and eventually started to notice the craft of oral storytelling. The same literary techniques I’d learned from Kafka and Morrison and Didion were used impromptu by my customers after a Bloody Mary or two or five—structure, tension, exaggeration, scene. I signed on with a local storytelling company called 2nd Story and spent the next decade researching the connections between writing and performance. Where do they intersect? How do you translate gesture and pacing and vocal expression into text? When you read my work on the page or screen, can you hear me? How does an immediate audience reaction influence the rewriting process? I geek out on this stuff. There are a hundred ways we can go.
For now, let’s try this: Performance makes me brave.
For those few minutes on the microphone, it’s only this. I don’t have to worry about my dad in Alaska reading it, or my ex in New York, or some troll on the Internet, or my young son ten years into the future. There are a hundred-plus strangers looking for some sort of human connection. Most of them are tipsy. They are right there. I can see them laugh, gasp, lean forward. I know when I have them. The air turns heavy, near-tangible. The words are working and it’s all so desperately worth it.
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.