Craft Capsule: We Get to Make a Mess

Megan Stielstra

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


I went to see a play last night. I loved it. I felt challenged and inspired and connected to something bigger than myself, every profound thing you want in the wake of great art. I wager the play didn’t start out like that. There were rehearsals, ensemble-building, sets, sound, and with every step, discoveries were made. A deeper understanding of the characters and the story and what the piece would communicate to an audience—what the piece would share—was eventually achieved, but at the beginning, that play was probably a mess. Same is true for music; you think the orchestra just bounced on stage and landed Symphony No. 9, first try? The guitar riff from “Black Dog?” Jimmy Page did not pull that out of the clear blue sky. He put the Les Paul through a direct box, then a mic channel, then he used the amp off the board to get distortion and ran it through two compressors and triple-tracked each line, which I know because I looked it up on Wikipedia, but the point is this: Before the work can challenge us or inspire us or connect us to something bigger than ourselves, it gets to be a mess.

We get to make a mess.

For me, there is a difference between the practice of writing and the choice of if/when/how to share that writing. This week I wrote about Casey Kasem, how oil rigs off the Texas Coast look like AT-AT Walkers from The Empire Strikes Back, the South Loop in 1995, and how scared I am about losing the protections of the ACA. The words came fast and messy—all gut, no head—written after dropping my kid off at school and the afternoon classes I teach. At some point, I’ll have more hours in a day to work, but for now the challenge is being disciplined with the time I’ve got. I write every day a la Isak Dinesen, “without hope and without despair.” Every day I drink coffee, every day I hang out with my kid, every day I brush my teeth, every day I write 500 words, minimum, so upwards of 2,500 a week of mess, of WTF, of who knows? Saturday is my day to slow down and read back, to look at those words and consider their potential. Do they fit into the novel I’m working on? The essay with the rapidly forthcoming deadline? A performance piece for the show I booked next month? Did I just start something new that’s so exciting or thrilling or terrifying that I have to put everything else aside and just…drown? Then I copy/paste those sentences and paragraphs into new documents and ask myself how they might matter to someone besides myself.

The rest won’t see the light of day. That’s okay.

We get to make a mess.


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.