Once I Was Cool: Personal Essays (Paperback)

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Once I Was Cool: Personal Essays By Megan Stielstra Cover Image

Staff Reviews

In one of the essays in Once I Was Cool, Megan describes going to a Jane's Addiction concert when she was just 16. She describes the moment when the band started playing her song and how she began singing all of the lyrics at the top of her lungs. Then, teenage Megan looks around and sees thousands of people singing the lyrics to her song. The beautiful and powerful humanity of that moment is what I felt rippling through every essay in this incredible collection. READ LOCAL! READ THIS.

— From Sarah's Staff Picks


Once I Was Cool contrasts past aspirations with the mess and magic of the present. In her younger days, essayist Megan Stielstra saw Jane’s Addiction at the Aragon Ballroom and fantasized about living on the same block, right in the thick of music and revelry. As an adult, she lives in a turreted condo across the street, with her husband, a child, and an onerous mortgage. It’s just the home her young, cool self imagined. And it isn’t what she expected, either.
With conversational flourishes and on-the-mark descriptions, Stielstra’s essays evoke the richness of her everyday life and the memories that are never far away. She remembers learning how to shoot a gun, a cancer scare, and—in a piece that was anthologized in The Best American Essays 2013—the time she eavesdropped on another new mother using her son’s baby monitor. “I shouldn’t have listened,” she writes. “But it was the first time since my son was born that I didn’t feel alone.” Combining footnotes, electric sentences, and uproariously funny anecdotes (have you ever run into an ex while rolling on ecstasy?), Stielstra shows us that maturity is demanding, but its rewards are a gift.

About the Author

MEGAN STIELSTRA is the author of The Wrong Way to Save Your Life, winner of the 2017 Book of the Year Award from the Chicago Review of Books, as well as Everyone Remain Calm and Once I Was Cool (both reissued by Northwestern University Press). Her work has appeared in The Best American Essays 2013, the New York Times, The Believer, Poets & Writers, Longreads, Tin House, and elsewhere. A longtime company member with 2nd Story, she has told stories for National Public Radio, the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, the Goodman Theatre, and with The Paper Machete live news magazine at the Green Mill. She teaches creative nonfiction at Northwestern University and is a mentor editor with the OpEd Project supporting women’s voices in public discourse.

Praise For…

“Stielstra’s Once I Was Cool isn't just edgy, funny, surprising, a ricochet of wow. It’s practically actionable. The words reach out from the page. They direct us to look, to think, to ask.” —Beth Kephart, Chicago Tribune

“Stielstra’s prose reads like something your friend needs to tell you RIGHT NOW, before she even takes her coat off.” —Los Angeles Review of Books

"This is Stielstra’s talent: her ability to create experiences. Maybe it’s because I’ve seen her perform her work live before, but every narrative seemed to pick itself up off the page and turn itself into a performance before my eyes. The numerous asides, amendments, and annotations, force the reader to see and hear her work, not just read it. Ekphrasis (visual description) at its best, there is no contemporary author more vivid in description that Megan Stielstra.” —The Chicagoist

“Stielstra’s collection of essays combines the things I love best in writing: humor, smarts, and extraordinary insights about being human. In more specific terms, Once I Was Cool is about adulthood, with essays ranging from running into an old lover while tripping, to managing postpartum depression via a baby monitor. The first essay in it, ‘Stop Reading and Listen,' inspired me to put down the book, go to my computer, and message her a completely embarrassing anecdote about my unladylike behavior at a concert, which only goes to show 1) how she’s able to make such an amazing connection to the reader, and 2) that I’m a dorky fangirl and never had any cool to lose." —The Independent Review of Books

“Stielstra finds the beating heart that hides beneath most moments of quotidian emptiness without sacrificing any bit of the biting reality in growing older, learning how to parent, and weathering the financial hardships of an artist’s life.” —Ploughshares

“If there was anything more embarrassing than snort-laughing on the CTA while reading about Stielstra’s run-in with an ex-lover while on ecstasy, it was ugly-crying on the CTA at the end of an essay about trying to console a friend when she knows it’s impossible to help her friend stop hurting.” —Chicago Literati

“In Once I Was Cool, Megan Stielstra is warm and open and wise. Whether she’s writing about the complex loneliness of early motherhood or failing to rise to the occasion or find the right language while living abroad, Stielstra is a masterful essayist. From the first page to the last, she demonstrates a graceful understanding of the power of storytelling. What she’s truly offering with her words, is the grandest of gifts.” —Roxane Gay, author of Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body

“What an amazing cri de coeur Once I Was Cool is. Megan Stielstra tells us in a witty, sympathetic, confident voice who she is and what and whom she cares about most. Reading these essays, I laughed out loud and also found myself on the verge of tears so many times. This book should be read by anyone who’s been in love, had a child or thought about having a child. So, probably, that’s everyone.” —Christine Sneed, author of Little Known Facts: A Novel

“Megan Stielstra’s wonderful writing and her storytelling bravery is truly a gift for everyone who reads her. Once I Was Cool is refreshing, hilarious, touching, and wise.” —Kevin Sampsell, author of This is Between Us

"Once I Was Cool is forever cool, and full of such heart lungs guts. Brave vulnerable at the same time—cocky questioning. You want this essay collection by your side, with your ear pressed against the wall of the Aragon Ballroom, riding the L, arriving in Prague or waiting for your order at the Bongo Room. Megan Stielstra gets right at the core of who we are—riding along beside us, wild alive. This book is essential reading—a best friend, lifeline, the buoy that keeps us afloat." —Ellen Hagan, author of Blooming Fiascoes: Poems (TriQuarterly, 2021)
Product Details
ISBN: 9780810143920
ISBN-10: 0810143925
Publisher: Northwestern University Press
Publication Date: August 15th, 2021
Pages: 200
Language: English